|Q: My adopted son, 11 years old, was getting very
aggressive in the car. He was hitting his sister and yelling.
We were about five houses away from our home so I told
my son to get out of the car and walk the rest of the way
home. He was not happy about it but got out and walked
home. Once he got home, he kicked the car multiple
times and dented the back of it.
I was so upset that he caused damage that I had him go
with me to get an estimate for the cost of the repairs. I
needed him to understand that this was a big deal and
the importance of working hard to stay in control. I told
|him he needed to do some jobs for me to pay for the damage to the car. Was there a better way to handle this?
A: I do believe in restitution and teaching our children to be responsible but let’s back up. We first want to ask the question, "What was driving his behavior?". We always want to look at what caused the negative behavior and in this case, what brought on the aggressive behavior.
In many cases, it does become an absolute safety issue when a child becomes aggressive in the car. The parent needs to address it because it is never okay for anyone in the family to be put at risk. If a child is becoming upset and aggressive in the car, the parent should pull over and stop the car in a safe place. However, too often, the parent is scared herself and projects this fear onto an already dysregulated child: "You need to stop that right now, Billy!" The parent's fear then adds to the dysregulation and the chances of increasing the safety for the family are almost non-existent.
A child with a trauma history of rejection and abandonment absolutely needs a loving approach over a traditional fear-based approach (like the one you took with your son). When your son was asked to get out of the car (even five blocks away from home), his core pain was triggered. In his view, he was rejected from the family and abandoned to be on his own, not just temporarily but forever. Most children with trauma histories have black and white thinking. They can't comprehend it is only a temporary disconnect.
He did not learn a lesson about being nice to his sister or being safe in the car. The main lesson he learned was that he was not lovable or good enough and he re-learned the lesson of rejection and abandonment. He also learned that his family was not able to handle him and that he was not welcome in his family anymore.
With this kind of perspective, it makes sense why he became so outraged when you got home and he then severely damaged your car. Most traditional parents handle this type of scenario in the way you did, yet their children do not react in such a dramatic way. The difference comes down to one word: TRAUMA. Your son is hard-wired differently and until deep healing has happened, he will continue to react out of fear and be exaggerated in his reactions compared to other children.
Past trauma is stored within the body and it has to be discharged. When children get triggered, as in the case with your son, their behavior can be reflective of their attempt at releasing the trauma that has opened up. When your son was feeling like he was not lovable, a pocket of dormant trauma opened up bigger than he was. He was not given space to discharge it verbally, so he picked the physical route of discharge and hit the family car once he got home. At some level, we can have a new perspective and actually acknowledge that he did not hit you or another family member when he was that angry. This may be a big stretch, but when we understand that your son was overloaded and overwhelmed, he actually had great self-control in only hitting the car.
Breaking the cycle to his reactive patterns and creating healing for him comes with responding differently as a parent each time he becomes dysregulated. Breaking this pattern will not come through logic and consequences. Telling him in the moment that he is not being nice to his sister or telling him to get himself under control will only ignite him and keep him focused on the belief that he is a bad child.
Instead, address your child's emotional state, not his behavioral state. "Billy, you're not in trouble. I pulled over because you're really upset right now and it is always my job to make sure you're okay and to make sure everybody is safe. What's going on, sweetie?" You could invite Billy to come sit up in the front seat next to you and focus on connection and emotional safety with him. Your conversation with him has one goal: to answer the question of "What is driving his behavior?". Expanding on this question further would add sub-questions such as, "What is pushing Billy over his limit? Why is he feeling so insecure that he has to hurt his sister? What can I do, as the parent, to calm the chaos that is churning inside of Billy?".
If you can't figure out what to say to in the moment with your child, simply look him straight in the eyes and say, "I love you. You're going to be okay. We are going to be able to work this out. There's always a way."
As far as what to do with the car, I think it is our responsibility to teach children that their actions do make a difference. However, what typically happens is that the child gets blamed for the incident 100%. "Look what he did! He kicked in the car; he needs to pay for it."
What happened with your son was a result of both your action and his action. This is a two-part system; a parent-child relationship is a dyad. Consider going back to your son and saying, "When I asked you to get out of the car, I was really scared. I didn't know what to do. I wanted you to learn a lesson and I wasn't thinking clearly. I didn't understand how badly that felt for you. It wasn't okay to damage the car but I was a part of it, as well. How about we both work together to find a way to pay for it and create something different between the two of us? I'm sorry."
When you can change your perspective to that which is driving a child's behavior, it all begins to make more sense. This is not so much a new parenting technique as it is a way of looking at our children differently in order to understand their internal worlds. Any child that has such an exaggerated response is simply reacting from a very deep place of pain.
|Heather T. Forbes, LCSW|
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2, and Dare to Love
P.S. Check out my Ask the Expert Interview with Sherrie Eldridge, as she speaks out adoption, adopted children and how their parents are drawn closer. http://www.asktheexpertinterviews.com