Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Trash or Treasure?

treasure chest Q: I have an eight-year-old adopted daughter who has difficulties giving away things such as packages, candy wrappers, lollipop sticks, clothes that she's outgrown, etc. What should I do?

A: Often our children do things that are outside of our perceptual understanding, yet from the child's point of view, her actions are quite logical and rational. As a parent, it takes the willingness to stop and think about the behavior and to consider what is actually driving the behavior.

In your daughter's case, we as adults see these things as having no value, yet your daughter sees these things as having value. Thus, the conflict is in the interpretation of perceived value.

So, the first thing to do is to create an understanding of why your daughter perceives these things as valuable. As an adopted child, your daughter has past experiences of abandonment, rejection, and insecurity, even if adopted at birth. These past experiences have become part of her internal subconscious mind and can influence her actions and decisions.

Many times adopted children interpret their adoption experience to mean that they must not have value, especially children with more traumatic adoption experiences. The subconscious mind develops a program that says, "If I were of more value, then my birth family would have kept me."

I have worked with children who, by the age of five years old, have been able to express that they did not deserve to even be on this planet. Now that is at the bottom of the barrel of not having self-worth! It could be that your daughter's resistance to throwing things away is representative of her perception of not feeling valued and worthy. This resistance is perhaps a way to recreate a new experience for herself.

Most importantly, we must see that by keeping these items, she is creating security around her. Surrounding herself with these items is a way of creating a sense of safety, which helps to regulate her internal fear of being rejected or abandoned. Children often use "things" to create a safe world for themselves (and if we are honest, we do this as adults, as well).

This is similar to hoarding, as described in my book Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control, Volume 1. I recommend reading Chapter 8 as it explains how hoarding becomes a way for children to create safety and security in their lives. Your daughter's behavior is quite similar.

At the age of eight, she is still a concrete thinker and identifies with things she can feel or hold. Her abstract thinking is not online at this point, so reassuring her verbally that she is valuable, worthy, and loved may not be completely comprehensible at this point in her development. She needs tangible items that she can touch and see in order to feel safe and secure.

While I believe it is important to start helping her to process her feelings around being adopted and to process any traumatic experiences, I also believe that she needs these items in her life to continue moving forward in her healing process. It is what she has found that works for her in this moment. The irony is that the more you try to remove these items or get her to dispose of them, the more stressed she will become, hence the more resistant and insecure she will be in her relationship with you.

This does not mean you have to allow your house to become a junkyard like Fred Sanford's of "Sanford and Sons." However, your daughter has found a way to create security and respecting that is imperative to strengthening her relationship with you. Perhaps you can celebrate this and acknowledge it by creating a special box or even a trunk into which she can put all her "treasures." It is her "safety-deposit" box.

No matter the size of the box, she will ultimately need to give up some of her treasures. Acknowledge how difficult it is to make a choice of which items to keep and which ones to throw out. Validate her feelings of this process. As you become accepting of her desire to have these things (remember, it isn't about you not being a good enough parent), your daughter will be more willing to explore her feelings around this behavior. As she is able to verbally explore her feelings, you will be helping her to reach the fear that is driving this behavior. When our subconscious fears are brought to the conscious level, they no longer have the ability to drive negative behaviors.

Talk about how the things in this box help her feel safe and work to then help her transition that feeling of safety to her relationship with you. Talk to her about how you want to help her feel safe, also. Invite her to come get you when she is feeling stressed and upset. In joining her in this experience instead of trying to make her get rid of the experience, you have just become a safe place for her.

Here is the shift in all of this: By accepting her desire to have these items and by working with her on this issue, you are giving her the message that she is valuable, that her ideas are worthy, and that she is lovable -- the core issues that are behind this behavior to begin with! By connecting with her fears and understanding her actions, you have the greatest opportunity for healing and relationship available. Ultimately, she will see you as her safety-deposit box instead.

Press on,

Heather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2,
Dare to Love
, and Help for Billy.


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