Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Is my child 16 years old or 2 years old?

Q: My seven year old son has a history marked by trauma and while I understand this has set him up to act differently, I still find myself so frustrated with him! On one hand, he is so intelligent and gifted (his teacher describes him as "more gifted than the gifted kids"), yet on the other hand, he can't seem to comprehend what I say to him (or he just plain isn't listening to me!). He seems so mature intellectually yet acts like a two year old when things don't go his way. How do I parent a child who is 16 years old one minute and a two year old the next? It's maddening!

Children who are raised in predictable environments with consistent caretaking experience the world as both safe and good. They learn to trust themselves and to trust their emotions. They trust others and the world at large. They develop confidence in their ability to think and feel, no matter the situation at hand. However, children who are traumatized by abuse, neglect, and/or abandonment, do not develop such a coherent set of coping skills. They may spend all their resources and energy making certain they are safe since the caretakers around them are not. The lack of consistency and unpredictability in their lives interrupts their normal path of development.
To demonstrate this, let's compare two children. First we have "Andy." Andy grew up in a nurturing and structured home. In fact, Andy’s womb experience was ideal. His mother took her prenatal vitamins, she exercised, she modulated her stress level, and she wanted to be pregnant and become a mother. Thus, by the time Andy is seven years old, he has reached his normal developmental milestones and is a high functioning, happy, and lovable child.
Billy, on the other hand, has a history of abandonment, rejection, and unpredictability in his history. His mother didn't even want to be pregnant to begin with, so Billy entered the world feeling rejected and unwanted. At the age of seven years old, Billy is disorganized in his ability to navigate the world. He is capable in some areas yet shows massive deficits in other areas.
Billy's development has been severely impacted by his life experiences. Here's a graph showing the difference between Andy's developmental path and Billy's developmental failures:

Andy and Billy Graph
Here are six areas of development to consider for your child:
  1. Cognitive Development: Children who are limited in their cognitive ability will struggle the most to overcome trauma and will show patterns of quick regression. Other children become advanced in their cognitive thinking and are like the child in this question, labeled "more gifted than the gifted kids." These children will typically be difficult in their behaviors and act out with more intensity.

  2. Language Development: Due to the lack of safe and nurturing one-on-one care, a child's language development is hampered. This is especially true for children adopted internationally whose first language was not English. Language deficits impede understanding (thus it can feel like they aren't listening to you). Acting out becomes a form of expressive communication, as there are no words to simply say, "I'm mad!" or "I'm scared."

  3. Academic Development: Trauma impacts a child's attention span, ability to concentrate, and to organize. This makes it difficult even for a bright child like Billy to succeed in school. He can't keep track of his homework, his backpack is completely disorganized, and he has a difficult time sitting still in class and paying attention. The stress of academics can easily set a child back into feeling helpless (as when they were in the midst of their trauma), so instead of taking on the challenge of school, they simply give up and shut down. (For more information on helping your child in the school environment, click here.)

  4. Social Development: Social interactions have proven to be unsafe and dangerous to many children, so their ability to interact appropriately with peers can be severely compromised. They have lived in "survival" which leaves no room for considering the feelings of others. They need to be taught how to handle the stress of peer relations and may need an adult near them during social play (See Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control, Volume 2 for more direct ways to help children find safety in social interactions).

  5. Physical Development: Deprivation of not only food but of nurturing and sensitive caretaking often compromises a child's physical development. This is especially true for a child who was diagnosed as "Failure to Thrive."

  6. Emotional Development: While a child like Billy has a birth certificate that says he is seven, he will likely be extremely emotionally immature. He needs to experience safe and nurturing emotional interactions in order to rebuild his foundation. He needs emotionally sensitive caretaking to get back on track and regain the experiences his friend, Andy, has been given all along.
Billy is all over the graph in his developmental path. Where is your child? Take the time to consider each of these areas for your child. If your child is more like a three year old emotionally, he needs to be met at this age in order to move forward in his development. Asking a child to respond with the emotional flexibility of a seven year old when he is only three years old in his development will prove to be maddening as a parent and more importantly, is unfair to the child.
Children need to be accepted for who they are and for what their life experiences have created within them. Unconditional love requires us to get out of our own fears of "babying" our child in order to meet our child exactly at his developmental age. Be honest with yourself and objectively determine the actual capabilities of your child.
When you are able to meet your child at his/her level of development, you are opening up the door to healing. Your child will feel more accepted, understood, and validated. This allows love to flow and for the parent/child relationship to be rebuilt. It is in the context of your loving relationship with your child that the graph of Billy can soon look closer to that of Andy. Children are resilient and are neurologically flexible. Healing, and thus behavioral change, takes a willingness to see a child for exactly who he is and to stop expecting him to be like the example of Andy, especially if the child has a traumatic history.
For more information and an in-depth look at developmental trauma, click HERE to access my latest DVD series at a special internet price.

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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