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“WILL YOU PLEASE ACT YOUR AGE?!!”—Help for parents . . .Part 1.

“He’s 10 years old, has the ‘street smarts’ of a 25-year-old, but he acts like a 3-year-old when he doesn’t get his way!!” Over the years, I’ve had many exasperated adoptive and foster parents share similar versions of this observation with me. Why does a 10-year-old kid who is now in a stable, loving, and nurturing home setting, still feel like he has to manipulate you (with all the polished skill of a veteran used-car salesman) to get what he wants/needs, but then pitch an award-winning “3-year-old fit” when he doesn’t get what he wants?

Take courage Dads and Moms, there is help for this dilemma! However, we must remember that this help involves a process, not an overnight solution. Take the example of that 10-year- old I mentioned above. Let’s call him Joey—in his family of origin, Joey’s priority was survival. His first 8 years of life prior to his entering foster care--and then being adopted—were years of extreme deprivation. His parents were hustlers—methamphetamine manufacturers, users and sellers. Food was scarce, the trailer they lived in was filthy, and there was not always running water. Life as all about survival and manipulating circumstances in order to survive. And, Joey learned this lesson well. He became very adept at manipulating his circumstances to get his

survival needs met. He became a hustler, just like his parents. It’s all he knew, and he learned quickly, because his parents were good “teachers.” No child should ever have to become a hustler, but you do what you have to do when your life depends on it.

Although his street-smart skills became increasingly polished as time went on, Joey’s e maturity/intelligence did not. Not only did his Mom use drugs when pregnant with him, but chronic malnutrition, lack of nurturance, and a constant, nagging inner-anxiety stunted Joey’s delicate brain development as a young child. He never learned how to express his emotions in a healthy way because he was never given permission to process those emotions in a safe environment. Thus, the only way to get release was to explode. And Joey exploded a lot—mostly at school, because it was safer to do so there than at home. The very people that he should have been able to go to for comfort—his own parents—were a source of terror to Joey. That is a crazy-making situation for a young boy.

How can Joey’s adoptive parents address his behavior meltdowns? Here are some basic first steps. Keep in mind that some of these steps will sound counterintuitive to you!

1. do not take his behavior personally! This behavior is all about him—unless you feed

into it by bringing yourself down to his behavioral level by making threats, yelling and

telling him to “act his age.”

2. Keep in mind that the only thing you can do during Joey’s meltdown is protect him,

other people in the house and inanimate objects from his outburst.

3. This is a hard one, but you must always strive to have a sense of empathy for Joey, even

when you don’t like him (i.e. his behavior). This is a child who is suffering.

4. When his meltdown is over—especially if it is an extended one of 30 minutes or more--offer him water and a healthy snack—doing so can actually help his brain to recover and his blood sugar (which can get depleted during a major meltdown) to regulate.

5. Wait for a “teachable moment” when Joey is calm—which will likely need to happen the day after the meltdown—to talk with Joey about what happened. Kids from traumatic backgrounds have seldom been allowed to process their feelings, which is critical for their healing.

  •  You will notice that I did not mention anything about consequences for Joey’s behavior. There’s an important reason for that, and in Part 2 of this blog, I’ll explain why, along with more helpful information for parents.


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