I used to direct an internship program at a long-term residential facility for older adolescents, ages 16 to 21. Most all of them had come from traumatic backgrounds of abuse, neglect, etc. On one particular day, one of my interns frustratingly exclaimed to me, “Working with these residents is like working with bunch of junior-highers--it drives me crazy!” The intern had a point. An adolescent who has experienced significant trauma in his or her life may be chronologically 16, have the street smarts of a 25-year-old, but emotionally may be more like a 12-year-old. Most all of us adoptive and foster parents have experienced this dynamic with our kids. It’s the 14-year-old who can—as I like to say—“lie the fleas off of a dog.” It’s the 17-year-old who pitches an award-winning major fit typical of a 11-year-old when things don’t go her way. It’s the 16-year-old who keeps making the same impulsive and poor decisions over and over again. You get the picture.
Our first order of business as parents is understanding. Notice that I did not say acceptance—our children have to learn responsibility for their behavior regardless of their history of trauma. However, understanding their history is step one. You are likely aware that much research has shown that children who have suffered abuse and other types of trauma often stay emotionally “stuck” at the age when they experienced the trauma. And, for most of these children, behaviors like lying and quick/impulsive decision-making were a means of surviving a chaotic and unsafe living environment. Therefore, when a child comes into your home either by adoption or fostering, he or she may often regress to these types of behaviors for a period of time until he/she feels safe in your care.
There is no magic wand approach to getting our child “unstuck” from regressive behaviors. However, there are approaches that with time help our child to progress. Along with understanding their history, we also can model to them what healthy emotional behavior looks like. We must ask ourselves, “How do I operate under stress?” “How do I handle my anger?” “How do I communicate with my spouse?” Our child has a “microscope” on us when it comes to these things.
Dads and mom, there is hope for helping our children when they regress!—I’ve seen many success stories. In next week’s blog I will get more specific with some “tools for our parenting toolbox” on how we can respond to our child when he or she becomes emotionally regressive. I hope you will stay tuned!