The Great Misunderstanding

I was texting friend Tammy about our upcoming hike:

Tammy: What are you bringing?

Me: Subaru Forester

Tammy: I meant in your backpack.

Me: A car, apparently.

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We got a good laugh out it because we are two peas in a pod and we went on to text another short conversation that got misconstrued. Communication is a confusing thing. Often we don’t say exactly what we mean, nor do we phrase things concisely. We expect the listener, or reader to read our mind.

When raising children who have come from traumatic beginnings or ‘hard places’, we must examine our communication skills and teach them some. Often these children who have come from abusive or neglectful situations don’t have voice, that is, they don’t know how to appropriately express their needs. They may behave violently, steal, hoard or shut down instead of ask for things. Giving a child voice is teaching him that he is valued and he can get needs met without all of the above.

We know from research done in the fifties (Infants in Institutions) that if an infants needs are not met in the first thirty to sixty days, the infant stops crying. This is why you can walk into an orphanage full of infants and it is silent. Crying is a child’s voice. It is the way she communicate her needs. If those needs aren’t met, she then believes her voice doesn’t matter.

When a mother is pregnant, her hearing becomes acute so when baby is born she is able to hear every whimper and sound. When parents adopt an older child, they must renew this acute hearing. A child may be using aggression to get his needs met, he is saying something. He is answering “Subaru forester” when we are asking if he is bringing snacks or water in his backpack. He needs the snacks and water. He doesn’t know how to say so. We need to listen behaviors and link them to needs. Listen to his story when he wants to tell it. I have found my adopted kids needed to download a lot of negative junk that weighed them down before they could get to their real need.

“I never get ice cream. You guys always have it when I am gone.”

“You don’t love me. Why don’t you send me back?”

“I don’t care. That’s stupid.”

These are all Subaru comments. They aren’t answering the right question or voicing their needs properly, because they don’t know how. We parents have to coach them. We must first interpret their needs and then help put them into words.

“Oh, do you want me to take you for ice cream? Are you feeling left out?” Then walk the child through asking for what he wants, “please take me for ice cream”.

If you think this sounds ridiculous or like a lot of work. I understand on both counts. It is different. Think of it like a book and you jumped right into the middle of it. You need to go back and read the first bunch of chapters to fill in what’s going on. That’s what these kids need. They need someone to go over their past and help them make sense of it, then they need help finding their voice, even it is asking for a drink.

When you have to say “no” when a child finally finds their voice, make sure you use empathy, not impatience. It’s important that these kids feel heard. I know. It can get tiring to keep it up, but think of it as a marathon, not a sprint. So, when a child asks for the fiftieth time if you can make cookies, jump on the trampoline, ride bikes, watch a movie, if at all possible say ‘yes’ even if that is cloaked in a ‘no’. “Yes, we can jump on the trampoline, after we clean up the kitchen.”

The great misunderstanding we parents often have is believing that our child’s behavior is directed at us, as if they are trying to best to make our lives difficult. That may sometimes be the case, but more often then not, it is not. They don’t know how to communicate correctly because not only do they not know the answer, they don’t know the question.

  • Am I hungry?
  • Am I tired?
  • What do I need?
  • What do I want?

We parents have to do the job of interpreting their needs (regulating) for them until they can do it themselves. In terms of communication, this looks something like ordering the day for them. I think you need a snack now. Would you like crackers and peanut butter or an apple and peanut butter? The child then begins to notice at ten am every day, hey it’s snack time and I’m hungry! Next, they add voice to this need. Isn’t it snack time? Before you reach this milestone, you may notice your child melting down, being cranking, arguing with others before they can voice their need for a snack. This is dysregulation. We can avoid dysregualtion by giving our child voice.

This is a short article for a deep and time consuming practice. We parents must remember to practice what our kids don’t know how to. Giving a child voice is giving him value.

I will sharing about giving your child voice at Positive Adoption Support group Saturday, November 5th at Trinity Assembly of God (Fairmont, WV) at 10 am. If you are local, join us!

Linking up with Kristin Hill Taylor for Three Word Wednesday:

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