I bet you’ve wondered if the blog (or I) have died, haven’t you? Both are alive and kicking, simply holidays got in the way. This year my vacation meant limited internet access and little alone time. I have started the following post while away, but did not find any time to complete it. But now I’m here and eager to resume my old regular schedule of two posts a week. I have plenty to share in the upcoming weeks.
[…] connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. This is what it’s all about. […] what we know is that connection, the ability to feel connected, is — neurobiologically that’s how we’re wired — it’s why we’re here.
Shortly after this excerpt, she mentions shame, which is a keyword in any book I’ve read on adoptive parenting. Rule number one of adoptive parenting: avoid shame. Do not shame the child. Condemn the behaviour, not the child. So my ears went all up, full alert mode. Brown goes on and reframes shame like this:
[…] shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection.
Then it hits me, like a maths formula. Shame is fear of disconnection. Shame is the worst I can do with my child. Why? Because what he fears the most is being disconnected.
Soon enough, the pieces of the puzzle find their places and it all makes sense.
You see, for the past 18 months, we observed several behaviours in our adopted child we couldn’t understand. They were annoying, often goofy, sometime ridiculous, even pathetic. Some examples, right here.
Talking loud, regularly interrupting our conversations, singing or shouting in empty rooms. Calling someone’s name endlessly, even long after they give him attention. All things that would send any sane person to the nuthouse. It was really hard to understand why he would do all these things. Why is he reminded he wants to say something, punctually when other people start a conversation? Why shouting for half an hour in an empty room? Why would he keep calling “mom” when mom is giving him her undivided attention and waiting for him to formulate his need?
My current interpretation is that he wants other people to acknowledge he exists: “I’m here, hear me, look at me!”. My son was a lucky one. He did get good care in his children’s home, yet he was deprived of the experience of an exclusive carer. In a busy orphanage, he probably was left to cry few minutes before someone could pick him up and comfort him. He maybe believes he exists only if someone is interacting with him. I think he’s regressing to how babies feel when they develop through love and connection. Babies develop a sense of self through a constant interaction with their parents. He missed that stage and I’m not sure if our love will ever fill that hole.
There’s another batch of behaviours that make us go cuckoo. When he joined the family, he would keep on doing the things we had just told him not to. If we’d say “Don’t touch that”, rest assured he would two seconds later. I learned some adopted children do this with the intent to provoke the carer, in an attempt to gain control. It took some time, but we realised that was not the case for E. When scolded, he genuinely acted surprised and hurt. Now, I admit it required a long time for me to learn not to take it personally. I occasionally still struggle with it. After about eight months, we understood many of these incidents were due to his limited understanding of our language. He is a master at imitating language and he had fooled us into thinking he had acquired Italian skills in few weeks. It was truly hard to realise he hadn’t and some of these incidents had happened out of lack of comprehension. While I connect the naughty behaviours with his bottomless need for attention (even negative would do), I feel his “imitation game” originates from a desperate need for belonging. He shows it also by repeating anything his sister does, in an attempt to receive the same bit of attention and feel part of our family. He needs constant reassurance and we are trying our best to highlight his talents at any occasion.
Now, we are often walking on a floor of broken glasses with him. All these annoying behaviours sum up and sometime daily family life becomes intolerable. We are human beings and we may lose our cool, or even hope for a moment. We are still struggling to find the best way to parent this child, but lately there has been a positive development thanks to my shift of perspective with shame and need for connection.
We used to apply the naughty step method. We have always called it the “I-need-a-break mat”, to take away the naughty- feel. Since we started from being annoyed and angry, we would often send him there as a punishment. He would fight it hard. A time-out could easily take over 30 minutes of constant screaming and often resulted in a wrestling match, teaching him no lesson and leaving us utterly floored. Time went by and instead of improving, things got worse. When he was smaller, he would cry hard on the mat and I remember I felt his fear. Fear of not being loved. No matter if I’d stick around during the time-out, careful not to leave his sight, it was there. After one year, he would fight harder and scream at my face with a rage that shouldn’t belong to a child. In the aftermath, when we explain once again why we had sent him there and hugged him, he clearly was repeating the words he felt he needed to say to make it end. This approach was not serving anyone. It wasn’t teaching him anything and it wasn’t improving our relationship with him. If anything, it was creating stressors for anyone involved.
I now believe that such style of time-outs to him sounded like a reminder of “You are a bad boy! You are bad!”, “You are not in control, we will tame you into compliance”, “Go to the mat of shame where you belong, away from this family”. And to be fully honest, in the heat of the moment “bad boy” has even slipped out of my lips sometime. In other words, that approach was making him relive all of his worst fears. Being intrinsically bad, rotten, damaged. Not belonging to our family. Not connected.
After it clicked in my head, I started trying something new and so far it has been promising. The general principle is that the time-out should serve as a containment experience. It’s a tool for the child (and the parent) to release the stress in a safe space and when calm has been restored, talk through together about the stressor and how to deal with strong emotions. It is not a punishment. Let me say it once again: it is not a punishment. I may even start it with the usual words”Let’s get a time-out”, but with a different tone. Not “you did a bad thing, now you’ll get sent to the mat”, but “dude, you are losing it, let’s go to a safe place”. Since we are transitioning, I have to walk to the mat with him, he’s not confident to go by himself. He usually fight it a bit, so then I activate phase two. I hold his hands, get my eyes at his eyes’ level and sweetly talk him into looking at me in my eyes. Again, not a command, but an invitation. I found out gently holding his hands helps a lot, like a reminder of “I’m here with you”. Then I may remind him that it’s okay to be angry or not wanting a break, but I feel he’ll benefit from it. I say things like “Let’s get calm together” or “I’ll help you with this”. Again, alternative versions or “You are not alone“. Doing this prevents the situation from escalating and he may even complete the time-out on his own, quickly, and peacefully.
And he listens. I often ask him to tell me why he had to go on a time-out, to make sure he understands and internalises what has happened. In the past, he would often do something wrong right in the aftermath and I would grow frustrated. How can you behave like this, right after the time-out? I have observed that this new empathetic attitude also results in better behaviour after the episode. When outbursts are dealt with like this, they can become success stories for him. I often remind him of “last time, when you succeeded in calming down, like a big boy”. That bit helps as well.
And then there’s me. With “the old way”, I didn’t gain anything. He wouldn’t learn anything and because we would fight so hard, I ended up feeling exhausted and often guilty. It was a banquet for shame and negative feelings. Now, I have to use all my strength to remain calm (screams will always be triggers for me), but I feel in control and I genuinely believe I’m doing something good for him and our relationship. When it ends, I feel relieved but also… proud. I helped him navigate this difficult moment. I listened to his feelings without judging them, I taught him to live through the emotions while not being prey to them, I showed him you can feel and be in control of your feelings.
My method is not bullet-proof, as no parenting strategy is. We still had an epic tantrum one day (I slipped into one old mistake and that was it) and it was just awful. However, we went from a situation when every outburst was tragedy and they were getting worse in time, to one where most of them are managed with grace and as a shared trust-building experience.
Do you struggle with similar issues? Do you have any advice you’d like to share? Please leave a comment below or feel free to get in touch.