So… If you have spent any time at all with a kiddo from hard places, and witnessed the child at some sort of event, or party or place (think: amusement park, or trampoline park or carnival… Something with lots of excitement and stimulation)…and things are going great. The child is having fun, you’re having fun, things are copasetic. Everything is great.
And then all of the sudden, the situation tanks. The child has turned on a dime, and the situation has gone from really great to really terrible.
And what do I mean (I will explain for those who have not experienced; if you have been witness, it probably needs no explanation). This might mean screaming, yelling, defiance, covering of ears, running away, hiding, displaying over-the-top nastiness, or demonstrating hyperactivity that’s totally off the rails…there’s a veritable assortment of possibilities.
So…have you witnessed this? Have you experienced this? Have you lived this…over and over and over? Well…if you live with trauma, you have more than likely experienced it at some point. And if you are preparing to foster, or even considering it, just know this is probably going to be part of the deal because it often accompanies hard places.
And now the question you’re probably asking is this: why? Why does this happen? And why aren’t the parents or foster parents or adoptive parents or anyone else doing something about it?
Well, the answer is this: we never know if or when it’s going to happen. I, for one, go into most of those types of situations assuming it’s going to happen, and I’m pleasantly surprised if it does not.
And when I say, pleasantly surprised, I mean, I am shocked. Because it almost always does….so much so (for my child specifically) that for a long time, I considered never taking him anywhere super fun.
But then I realized that mindset wasn’t fair to him…or me. One of the things I love about being a mom is reliving and sharing the fun stuff I did as a kid. And additionally, by not going to do fun things, I was not allowing him the opportunity to learn to manage his emotions, experiences, fears, etc. Plus: What a sad and joyless world it would be if we never got to go anywhere and do anything fun, right?
Honestly, I also had to realize that a big part of the issue, and our situation, was my pride…and I’ll be honest: that was a little hard to give up. And I sometimes still struggle.
But in the interest of full transparency, I was more concerned that people were judging me based on what my child was (or was not) doing. I didn’t want people to think I was a bad parent, based on my child’s behaviors.
But now, although I realize they probably are probably still judging me, that’s an issue with them, and not me. My job is to parent my child, give him what he needs, and do for him as I see fit… and at the same time understand that his behaviors are not typical because his experience is not typical.
He’s not necessarily wanting to act this way…who would want to act that way?!? So I need to set aside the judgment of others, and be there for my child while he (and I) learn to navigate these types of situations.
So now we come back to the question: why does this happen? How do the good times suddenly go bad? Well, there are multiple possibilities, but the top three I would say, are these: sensory overload, triggers (both known and unknown), or self sabotage.
And for the most part, these are going to be self-explanatory, but I will go ahead and give a little detail, especially for those who might be new to this idea.
Sensory Overload: Bright lights, sounds, excitement…that’s a lot for someone’s sensory system to take on, especially if the system has been compromised by trauma. We all know that trauma affects kids differently, but too much of anything can cause an overload to the senses. It can cause the child’s system to “short out “ and the child melts down, escalates, falls apart, call it what you will. It ultimately causes their ability to stay regulated to be disrupted.
Triggers: Sometimes these are as “benign” as birthdays or holidays or just getting together with friends or family. Or they can sometimes require a little more detective work, especially when a child has a felt memory. The child might all of a sudden hear something or smell something that reminds there primal brain of an event, or person, that they don’t even have memory of themselves. But it triggers them into a downward spiral in the midst of that situation. It can also be an “active” memory which is something they actually remember…maybe the way the pizza smells or a certain song they heard in the background during a traumatic event. It could literally be anything that causes a child to be triggered.
Self Sabotage: The struggles with this can be caused by a child’s insecure attachment; Sometimes a child will all of a sudden realize in the middle of having fun that he “doesn’t deserve this” or that he is afraid of having “too much fun”, or he believes that somehow maybe the situation would be better off without him in it; that he doesn’t belong here. And the child feels inadequate or guilty about it…so he chooses to make a decision which will ultimately end the fun time he (and probably others) are having. Honestly, there are a host of reasons why a child with self sabotage.
Now just a few quick tips to try to help you in the moment: often removing a child from the situation (through encouragement…hopefully not through physical means), and providing calm, control and comfort…maybe have a weighted blanket on hand, a piece of gum, or a sucker, music the child likes…all of those can be soothing, but you know your child best and so obviously use whatever works for you (these are simply things that work for me). Also, he (eventually…sometimes it take a couple minutes to get there) but he likes to sit right next to me with my arm firmly around him. Now…it’s taken us a while to get to that, but thankfully we are there and it shows me that he has a good connection to me and he looks to me to help him reregulate.
So I don’t know that this post has any real answers for you if you are experiencing this or have experienced it in the past. I think the main thing to know is that you are not alone in it, that it happens often…probably way more often than you realize…and even though it may feel like a storm in the moment, it can be weathered, and weathered well.
At the time it’s happening, you might not know the cause, but in my own experience, the way to “come out of it” is all basically the same, so I hope that in reading this post, you are at the very least encouraged that it’s not necessarily something that you have done or not done…it is yet another result of the trauma of your child has experienced.