Thursday, March 6, 2014

Fear Response- The Great Imposter

Our five year old daughter has been home since June of 2012, and from the moment we met her in China, we felt a huge sense of relief that she was such an enjoyable little girl.
We had heard about children who display what is commonly referred to as “orphanage behavior” and to be honest, we felt like we had dodged a bullet because our daughter was obedient, in control of herself, and kind to others.

Until about five months ago…

It seemed like it came out of the blue, but we started to notice that meal times were more of a struggle with Julia’s behavior than they had ever been.  She started putting her hands into her food, hitting whoever she could reach, making a huge mess, and basically had regressed to the level of a toddler. It was frustrating, and we tried the traditional parenting methods that we had used with our two homegrown children to no avail. She seemed to get worse!

Riding in the car became a nightmare with hitting, yelling loudly, and destroying toys or the occasional takeout cup. Again, time outs and punishments didn’t seem to make a dent in the mountain of misbehavior that we were experiencing, and again, rather than improving, her behavior seemed worse after consequences.

When we stayed home, things were no better. If Julia was ever out of my line of vision, she was more than likely in her brother’s or sister’s rooms getting into their things and leaving a trail. I could locate her by the sound of her out-of-character, high pitched laughter- not a joyous sound, but one of mischief.

School was a major frustration at this point.  She was often in trouble, missing out on activities and being sent to the office.  At bedtime, she started to beg me not to make her go to school the next day. This was so unlike her!

What had happened to our sweet, easy-going daughter? Had life to this point just been a honeymoon of sorts, and was this the real girl beneath the facade?  We were worried, exhausted, and also very sad. We missed the daughter we had brought home fifteen months earlier.

In a bit of desperation, I pulled out my copy of The Connected Child by Karyn Purvis, dusted it off, and began to read it. I had read it months before we even traveled for Julia, but many of the concepts had gotten lost in the realities of jet-lag and life with a new four year old.  Now I read it with fresh eyes searching for answers and solutions.

The Connected Child is an amazing book!  It was written for those who parent children from hard places, but the ideas and methods are equally appropriate for the child who has been nurtured since birth.  As I read, I started to practice the concepts presented.  Each time I used one of the techniques outlined in the book and it would work, I was pleasantly shocked!  We were starting to make some headway with the negative behaviors that we were experiencing, but honestly it was exhausting!  Was this our new normal? I won’t lie to you. We were still discouraged and missing our sweet, fun daughter.

Our epiphany came on Christmas day, which seems rather appropriate because it was almost like a gift to us. We got together with family for the day, and when we entered the house, we were greeted by a large, friendly dog.  Julia scrambled up my arms until she was almost perched on my shoulder. After a bit, the dog was removed from the room, but I noticed a huge change in Julia’s behavior. While I was holding her she started hitting me in the face, pulling at my sweater, repeating nonsense words, and generally acting completely out of control.  As I restrained her hands and tried to calm her, I remembered something that I had read in The Connected Child the week before.

“Youngsters… can be physically safe in their new adoptive home, but past traumas encoded within their brains are easily reactivated.  Hunger, abuse, or abandonment that occurred months or years ago can still trigger terror, which in turns leads to out-of-control behavior. Chronic fear is like a schoolyard bully that scares children into behaving poorly. Parents might easily confuse fear-based outbursts with willful disobedience, but they are not the same thing at all.” (pp. 47-48, The Connected Child, 2007, Purvis, Cross, and Sunshine)

Wondering if this could be a fear-response, and feeling a little desperate, I took her to a bedroom downstairs, closed the door, and sat on the edge of the bed with her. I cradled her like a baby and began to rock her and talk softly to her.  I told her in very simple language that she was safe and that daddy and I would take care of her. I reassured her that we would hold her all day if she needed us to and reminded her that the dog was very friendly with children. Within minutes, she calmed down and was ready to go back upstairs. The dog was kept in another room for the rest of the day, but whenever he was mentioned Julia would begin to unravel.  A little bit of reassurance whispered in her ear brought her back. It was amazing!

Over the next several days I thought about this new-found discovery. I realized that there was a direct correlation between her begging me to keep her home from school and the timeframe of when her negative behavior started at home.  The questions that I asked led me to believe that she was really struggling with fear at school. She was caught in a vicious cycle that began with her noncompliance, resulting in negative consequences, triggering a fear-response of out-of-control behavior, leading to more penalties, and so the cycle went.  Her teachers tried some positive reinforcement strategies at school, but her fear was just transferred to her concern for her friends who were getting negative consequences.  (The “negative consequences” mainly included a check on the behavior chart and lost recess time.) Please don’t misunderstand. My goal is not to speak poorly of her teachers or school.  Her classroom was probably no different than most, and her teachers loved their students. But we finally came to the conclusion that this was not the best situation for Julia.   

Since pulling her out of school and enrolling her in a preschool with a play-based environment, her behavior has changed dramatically.  She is no longer functioning on a high level of anxiety, and while we still deal with behavior issues, they are age-appropriate and much more easily modified. As she has relaxed, her sweet, fun, silly personality has returned. We have our girl back! 

Now that we’ve identified the results of fear on our daughter, we've begun to notice the fear response when we see it creeping into our home.  Sometimes it masquerades as a wild, silly girl who won’t stay in her bed at night. Recently, it appeared in our car as we drove up north for the funeral of a dear family member. It was camouflaged by the repetition of potty words, screaming, hitting, and cackling.  A simple, “Is something scaring you?” and other such leading questions, coupled with the resulting dialogue and lots of reassurance, usually was all it took to diffuse the situation.

Recognizing and having strategies to eradicate the fear response in our daughter has been life-changing for our family.  I felt compelled to share our story, not to expose our daughter or to reflect negatively on those who have worked with her, but to communicate that there might be another option when it comes to poor behavior. Perhaps there is a family who is struggling with behavior issues like we were and is searching for an answer. Perhaps there is a child being punished for behavior that is more of a reflex than willful disobedience.  Maybe fear is involved? As we’ve found, it doesn’t always present itself in typical fashion- trembling, crying, hiding, etc.  Fear is a master of disguises and we’ve come to realize that it’s our responsibility to recognize it in its various forms and replace it with a strong feeling of safety and security.

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