Tuesday, August 5, 2014

When Fun Is Too Stressful

Mom and son playing spy Q: My son with trauma history is aggressive towards his friends at home or in the park. He will be playing fine and then any tiny thing that happens (he doesn't get a long enough turn or someone throws the ball "wrong") and he will just start yelling mean things at the other children, throwing things, and freaking out. I've tried removing him from the situation but then he'll start hitting me. Afterwards, he says he can't stop himself.

A: Social experiences are completely overwhelming for your child, especially if he is being aggressive.

When a child is being aggressive towards other children, he is feeling threatened. It is a fight or flight reaction—a basic primal reaction that happens instinctually (hence, he says he can't stop himself).

Your son needs a safe social environment. Try having only one child over for your son to play with while you are in close proximity of the play experience. Maybe he even needs you to be directly in the middle of the play: you, your son, and the friend all on the floor and playing with Hot Wheels. This gives you a chance to teach appropriate social skills and to be a regulatory figure for your son.

You will also want to limit the time your son and his friend play. Social interactions are stressful, even if they are fun. Keep it to 30 minutes, maybe even 20 minutes. This may not seem fair to a child coming over to only spend 20 minutes but we have to start reducing and identifying how large (or small) the window of stress tolerance is for your son.

Some children are so threatened they are not ready for social interactions, yet. Setting such a strong boundary may be what he absolutely needs but that does not mean he will like it. A conversation to set this limitation with him might look like this:

  Mom: Sweetheart, I've had to make a decision that you probably are not going to be happy with. Just for a while, we are not going to have friends over. It is my job to make a safe environment for you and to make sure you are okay...

Son: (Interrupting mom) You don't love me! You don't love me if you won't let me have friends! You hate me! You never wanted me!

Mom: What makes you feel like I never wanted you?

Son: You don't care. 'Cuz nobody wants me. Nobody ever wanted me. I'm a bad kid. I always do bad things so nobody wants me.

Mom: (Pausing to "absorb" the son's pain)......What else?

Son: None of my friends like me.

Mom: Sweetheart that has to be so hard--so hard to feel like nobody wants you.

Son: I hate myself!

Mom: (With compassion and understanding) I know you do.

Son: They're going to take me away. You want them to take me away. And then you're gonna tell them all the bad things I've done and then you're going to tell them to take me away.

Mom: That's what happened before. They took you away right? The minute you acted badly.

Son: Yah.

Mom: Honey that's so scary. Tell me you're scared.

Son: I'm scared. I'm scared. And I want to play with friends and they're saying I did stuff that I didn't do and they are telling lies about me. And you need to go tell them to stop telling lies about me because now they're telling everybody and now nobody wants to be my friend!

Mom: Okay, I'm going to take care of that. But what's really important right now is that you and I get connected. Right now, nothing else matters. You matter so much to me. I have to make sure that you are okay. I need to do that for you. Someone should have done that for you before. Someone should have made you feel okay! That's my job now, okay?

Son: But I'm not okay… I'm not okay.

Mom: I know. That's what I'm here for now. I'm never going to give up on you but it's going to feel like I will. It might feel like I'm going to leave you. It's going to be really, really tough for both of us but we're going to make it, honey. I am here. And I just want to be with you. I want to know you better and to do things with you. I want us to be okay. I just want you to be okay, finally.

Son: I don't want to be home. I don't like to be home. If I'm home, I just have to do boring things and it's boring and Dad doesn't like me to be here and makes me do boring stuff like read. And I want to be playing and you'll just make me do not fun stuff.

Mom: Okay, how about we change that. Because you're right; it hasn't been fun being at home. How about I work to change that so we can still be home and still find a way to have fun? Do you think we can do that? Do you think that's possible?

Son: I don't know.

Mom: How about we give it a try--just a few days to start. Let's see how we can do this differently. And you help by coaching me because you have very good and creative ideas. Will you help me figure out how to make this house fun again? Because that's what you deserve. You deserve to have fun and have a fun home again. What do you like to do at home?

Son: I don't like to play at home. I like to play basketball and run outside and do tricks and do karate and fight people and play spies all the time. I wanna play spies all the time.

Mom: Could we play spies together?

Son: You don't like to play spies. You don't like guns; you always tell me guns are bad.

Mom: I know but how about you and I just play the two of us. We play and we make it safe. Okay? Just the two of us though but you get to be the head spy. What do you think?

Son: You have to dress up.

Mom: Okay, you tell me how to be your partner, your partner in crime. You're in charge as the head spy, just when we're playing, okay?

Son: Okay.

As the parent, notice that I didn't argue that guns or crime games were bad. Instead, I agreed to play in order to get a better sense of how scared (even terrified) my child is. The question has to be asked, "Why does this child gravitate to guns, karate, and violent play?" The answer: these help him feel in control and safe.

Later, after playing with the child and the connection is more intact between the parent and child, the parent can open up the conversation about why it feels good to play fear based games. Let the child know you understand that he doesn't want to ever get hurt again. Talk about how it is your role, as the parent, to protect him and to keep him safe. As he learns to trust you more, the shift into games that are more love-based can be introduced with success.

Shut down the world for your son. Make it a small world. It's not forever; it's simply about helping your son find a way back into trust, safety, and love.

Press on,

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

No comments: