Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Recalcitrant Behaviors in foster children

Gawdessness' post yesterday got me thinking. She's doing what I try to do: recognizing something that is driving her crazy is part of a pattern and then trying to figure out what is going on behind the pattern. It got me thinking about all the ways in which my kids have made me crazy, and the reasons why they did it.

We sometimes hear about the big things that some kids do: kids who rage; smear feces on walls; run away; cut themselves; take drugs; steal. I don't think that most of the kids do those sort of things. Most of them though do something else. Something that if they did just once would go unnoticed. If they did it occasionally, it would be interesting. If they do it ALL THE TIME it becomes insane-making.

Like how Evan would continue to try to talk me into things that I already said I would do.

Like how Carl would lie about everything. Nothing in his life was quite shiny or tragic enough. He always had to make the story better.

Kids who hoard food fall into this category. There is nothing especially remarkable about a child who has hidden a box of their favorite cereal in their room so that no one else can eat it, but a child who constantly takes all the food from the pantry, or worse the refrigerator, and hides it under their bed -- well that's another story.

Gawdessness' boy has been refusing choices. Any kid may periodically not like their options. You ask them if they want pb&j or tuna fish for lunch and they ask for a grilled cheese. You either say yes or no. No big deal. But sometimes you get a kid who does it every time you offer a choice.

Another kid can't let you out of their sight without panicking and yet also won't let you get within a few feet of them.

Some kids refuse to be grateful when you do special things for them. One day they fuss and whine because you forgot to buy their special cereal. You make a special trip for it the next day and they tell you that they don't like that sort of cereal anymore.

We could probably go on and on with these sorts of behaviors. It can be frustrating to explain to someone why they make you so insane. When you tell the story, it can sound funny or unremarkable. That you are ready to throw something because it happens constantly is something that sometimes only another foster/adoptive parent can understand.

In my experience, I need to do three things to survive this sort of behavior pattern: understand; accept; and change my response.

With the first couple of kids I thought what I needed to do was understand, help the child understand, create a behavior modification plan with incentives for new behavior, work hard, and eventually enjoy the fact that I had successfully helped a child change.

Yeah...that didn't work.

The problem was that, at least in my case, the chronic behaviors that were making me nuts were deep in the kid. The things that made me crazy were the very things that were most difficult to change. Probably the reason they made me so crazy was that the behaviors were resistant to correction. They weren't just bad habits, they were survival strategies and they weren't going anywhere any time soon.

To explain what I mean, let's take the kid who refuses to be grateful. (I want to use it because it is fictional. I'm not talking about any kid in my experience.)

Why might a child do that? Why might they refuse ever to be happy about something special you have done for them? Here are some possibilities:

  1. They are punishing you for disappointing them.
  2. They know it makes you crazy and are taking a psychotic pleasure in torturing you.
  3. They actually feel safer, or at least more "normal," if there is a certain degree of tension in the house and this is the method they have chosen to maintain that tension.
  4. They maintain a sense of control by control by doing it.
  5. Since they were very little the giving and withholding of favorite things was used in a manipulative way. Parents who beat or starved them one day, showed up with a favorite food the next day and demanded gratitude. Displaying the gratitude was humiliating. And even though that is not happening now, having someone stand in front of them expecting them to show gratitude triggers feelings of shame and anger.

I have a tendency to always think it is one of the first two, that the behavior is about me. What I have learned is that it is probably one of the other three.

So let's say it is one of the last three, or something like them, and we have figured that out, what next?

Well, if it something like 3 or 4, it may go away once the child feels safe, which will take at least months and probably years. If you manage to make them stop this behavior they will probably replace it with something else. If it is #5, that behavior may be a permanent part of your relationship. Displaying gratitude, especially if they feel that gratitude is being demanded of them, may be something that is difficult for them for the rest of their lives.

So the question for me becomes, "What do I have to do so that this doesn't make me (as) crazy?" My impulsive responses, like being angry because he is an ungrateful little brat, or trying to talk endlessly with him about why my feelings are hurt, are probably not going to be helpful. It might be helpful to help the child understand the root of the behavior. Certainly that understanding will be essential for the child's eventual healing, but that is a very long term project and I have to survive the next week, month and year.

Just understanding where the behavior is coming from is a big step. Knowing that it is not about me, but comes from the child's own insecurities can help me not react to it. I can just ignore it. I will also, of course, stop making a production of special things. If I decide to buy the kids favorite cereal, I will just put it away quietly. I will try not to react when the kid first pretends it isn't there and then later enjoys it when I am not looking. When the child does spontaneously express gratitude I will resist saying, "Finally. That wasn't so hard was it? You think you could try to do that a little more often?" I will attempt to be low key and just say, "You're welcome. I appreciate you saying 'thank you.'"

And every time I get frustrated, and react in a way I know was unhelpful, I would probably go blog about it. Because even if I did understand it, and knew it wasn't about me, and knew exactly how I SHOULD respond, I'm human too and I make lots and lots of mistakes.


  1. I guess that means I shouldn't say "would it break your jaw to say thank you?".

    It's always the little things that drive me nuts and I confess my patience is sometimes in short supply.

    I should probably work on that.

  2. We up until recently were doing kinship care for our nephew - he came from a huge background of neglect and abuse - and the food issue was a constant battle. He would hide food underneath his bed, under his blankets and would "sneak" food out of the pantry and eat it in the bathroom....THE BATHROOM?! It took 2 years for us to FINALLY convince him that the food in the house he was welcome too - anytime - as long as he still ate at meals. Unfortunately - he is back in his old situation (against our will - as I'm sure you can imagine)- so I'm not sure what good all of that work really did but I can relate. And no - this was by far not the worse issues we had - but the only one I'm comfortable putting out on the web.....

  3. I should probably add that in the vast majority of cases teaching a child to say "thank you" when someone has done something nice for them is just run-of-the-mill good parenting.

  4. You have been officially tagged, come on over and find out why.


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