Are You Instilling Healthy or Unhealthy Fears in Your Child? (Capital Letter Syndrome/Foster/Adoption Edition)

No Fear

Is your child the opposite of fear?

Taking dangerous risks because he has no cause-and-effect thinking?

Does he think the laws of nature don’t apply to him?

When raising a child with a capital letter syndrome or one from hard places (a child who has experienced trauma), healthy fear is a little more muddled. While we want our kiddos to have healthy fears, some of them seem to be in a no-fear frame of mind when it comes to outdoor play and all fear when it comes to some other aspects of life. What’s going on here?

1. Lack of Cause-and-Effect Thinking

Kids who come home to us through foster care/adoption have had trauma. One of the five Bs affected by trauma is the brain. Kids who have had trauma have altered neurochemistry. The Hebbian principle states that what fires together, wires together.

Simply put, an infant’s brain is experience-expectant. Experiences wire the brain. This is where the attachment cycle comes in. The infant expresses a need and the parent meets that need, thousands and thousands of times, until eventually the loose “wires” in the brain are connected.

What does attachment have to do with healthy fears? Everything. When those “wires” connect, the child is “wired” for cause-and-effect thinking. If there are breaks in attachment (or the child has a capital letter syndrome), then cause-and-effect thinking is not in place. It’s as if the child has some lose “wires.” This isn’t to say that the child isn’t intelligent — in fact, it’s often the opposite. It’s just that he doesn’t expect B to happen if he does A.

Instilling Healthy Fears

What does this look like?

  • A child decides to catch bees in a jar but didn’t think they would sting him.
  • A child watches a video of a man leaping from limb to limb high in a tree and tries it. (Yes, this actually happened in my family, and yes, he fell.)
  • A child tries to ride his bike under the trampoline.
  • A child starts a forest fire playing with a lighter.
  • A child walks on the pool cover and their foot falls through.

These are all true stories, and I could tell many more, but the point is that in each of these cases, no cause-and-effect thinking was applied. You may say, “Well many kids are adventure seekers and do these sorts of things.” That’s true.

However, neurotypical kids have a learning curve after these types of adventures. Kids with capital letter syndromes and kids with trauma often don’t. They will continue to try to defy the physical laws of nature with intensity and regularity. They don’t think the physical laws of nature apply to them.

Here’s a good test: If you warn your child that the activity he is about to embark upon may cause harm and he says, “I’m not going to get hurt, I’m not that stupid!” then cause-and-effect thinking probably isn’t happening.

Unrealistic or faulty connections

On the other end of the spectrum, these kiddos may have one bad experience and instead of adjusting their approach and trying again, simply declare, “I’m never doing that again!” What does this look like?

  • The child refuses to put sunscreen on (because he won’t get burned), gets burnt, and won’t go to the beach ever again.
  • The child falls off a rock while climbing, scrapes his knee, and won’t climb again.
  • The child doesn’t think he can do something, so he says it’s stupid and refuses to try.

Trying to instill healthy fears in these kiddos can be confusing. They need to be watched more closely and encouraged more than neurotypical kids to keep them safe and get them trying new things.

2. Felt Safety

Another conundrum with kids with capital letter syndromes/foster/adopted kids is they often don’t feel safe when they are safe. To describe this, we use the term “felt safety.”

“Felt safety, as defined by Dr. Purvis, is “when you arrange the environment and adjust your behavior so your children can feel in a profound and basic way that they are truly safe in their home with you. Until your child experiences safety for himself or herself, trust can’t develop, and healing and learning won’t progress” (p.48, The Connected Child).

Fear is crippling. I know. Not only have I watched my own kiddos struggle with feeling safe and talked to countless moms whose kids struggle with it, but I have also experienced it myself. My fears were an oddly shaped gift that, when opened, gave me empathy.

Because of some trauma in my past, I feared riding in the back seat of a car, going through tunnels, riding elevators, and more. My fears helped me understand my kiddos’ fears. Your child’s fears may seem weird or unrealistic to you, but they are super overwhelming to them.

“From research, we know that fear left unaddressed can have pervasive and long-lasting effects on a child, including negative impacts on cognitive ability, sensory processing, brain chemistry, brain development, ability to focus and ability to trust. As a result, it distorts and dictates much of what our children are dealing with.” –

Instilling healthy fears and avoiding unhealthy fears is hit-or-miss with these kiddos. We keep trying, keep asking, and keep being flexible. No one wants their kids to be overwhelmed with fear all the time. No one wants their kiddos to get injured because they don’t think the physical laws of nature apply to them, either. So, I’ll finish with some tips. Feel free to comment and add your own tips!

Tips for Instilling Healthy Fears and Disarming Unhealthy Fears in Kids From Hard Places or Kids With Capital Letter Syndromes:

  • Watch these kiddos more closely.
  • Talk them through their fear even if the solution seems obvious to you.
  • Help them try an activity away from the crowd.
  • Ask them what they need.
  • Remember that they don’t think the physical laws of nature apply to them.
  • These kids have enough fear; don’t instill more.
  • Clap for them if they accomplish an outdoor feat even if you think it is below their ability. Baby steps.

On the one hand, you are instilling healthy fears and calming ones that seem far fetched and unrealistic to you. On the other hand, when you provide fun, S.A.F.E. activities, you are relieving fears, which is healthy!

This week on the podcast, Amerey and Kathleen talked about healthy summer living/eating on a budget. They delved into the topic of healthy fears when discussing some outdoor activities. You can listen here. And don’t forget to check out Part 1 of this article, the Neurotypical Edition, here.

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Cause and Effect

I have one of those coffee makers that dispenses at the base. I simply hold my mug up to the maker and press the mug forward then hot coffee fills my cup. Once, I got distracted while filling my mug, the coffee overflowed all over my hand and the counter. Since that incident I have been more cautious while getting a cup of coffee. Why? I understand cause and effect.
The cause of my coffee accident was my failure to attend to what I was doing, the effect was burnt fingers and a mess to clean up. Seems elementary doesn’t it? To children with attachment issues or FAS, cause and effect doesn’t come this easily, nor does it come with repeated episodes of the the same problem.
Last weekend I woke Rafal up at 7:30 am so we could leave for drama practice at 8:30. I instructed him to get dressed quickly and go eat a bowl of cereal. An hour later, he was still sitting in his room in his pjs. He had to hurriedly dress and go straight to the car. He took every opportunity that day to complain that he was hungry. I reminded him that he had the opportunity to eat and he neglected to take it. His response-anger-towards me.
The next morning, I woke him for church and told him he had forty-five minutes to get dressed quickly and eat breakfast. Thirty minutes later he was still sitting in his pjs in his room. I reminded him of the time.
“You have fifteen minutes.”
“I didn’t get to eat,” he answered.
His response? Anger. He stomped down the stairs, “this is the same thing that happened yesterday.”
Great, he is making progress. He sees the cause. I thought wrong. He thought that I was the cause and he let me know it.
Later that morning I got into a conversation with another adoptive Mom about cause and effect and attachment. Her girls are struggling with logical thinking have been experiencing some of the same issues on a regular basis. This is how I explained it to her:
The early years are when children develop the understanding of cause and effect. It starts with the attachment cycle. It goes like this: Child feels discomfort> Child expresses discomfort (need) >Parent comforts child >Child feels comforted
When this cycle is broken in infancy, the baby is not able to attach to a parent/caregiver and may develop some form of RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder), depending on the severity of the neglect and inability of the parent to respond to the needs of the said infant.

“By mere definition of neglect, it is undeniable that children placed in orphanages at birth or at a young age are, in fact, victims of neglect. This is not because the orphanage staff doesn’t care for and love the children. Instead, it is because a child’s individual needs cannot be met in a group situation.
Out of necessity, children living in orphanages are forced into a routine, without the freedom to respond to physical and emotional cues relating to hunger, discomfort, bathrooming, pain, thirst, or a desire to be nurtured. The result is a pseudo-independence that mirrors the self-parenting label attached to neglected children in America.” Pg. 243 ,Parenting the Hurt Child

A child who has difficulty understanding cause and effect expect different results every time a scenario occurs as in Rafal’s morning patterns. Just because he sat for the better part of the morning on the first day doesn’t mean that if he did the same thing it should/would happen the same way the second morning.

When a baby is being raised in a alcohol/drug driven home, he may get fed one day, the next he may be ignored, the next he may be shaken and then fed. What kind of logic is developed then? The cause is there with varying effects.

The first years of a child’s life are so important to brain development. The attachment cycle ensures that a baby attaches to his parents and develops cause and effect thinking.

When a child does not have cause and effect thinking, he will expect the parent to react differently to the same scenario every time. I cannot tell you how many times I have said to Rafal, “I am not going to change my mind, I am the same person.”
Dr. Karen Purvis refers to attachment as ‘connection’. Connection is a great term to use because unconnected children do not make connections, they don’t GET IT.

How can you tell if a child doesn’t make connections (has cause and effect thinking)?
Check this list for just a few clues:
leaves belongings out in the elements and expects them not to change
blames you (Mom or Dad) for adverse circumstances
poor hygiene even after many lectures from Mom, dentist, doctor
has difficulty grasping time
difficulty grasping subjects that involve concrete concepts such as Math
expects people or circumstances to change because he is angry
when something good is happening, he is uncooperative, rebellious or angry
happy or smiling at socially inappropriate times
thinks he can defy the laws of nature on a regular basis
expects different results for the same cause

The best example that comes to mind in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court when the characters think that a road can go wherever it wants and will change it’s course on any given day. That’s how the mind of a child who doesn’t have logical thinking in place. Every day things will be out of control and different, he does his best to control things and people around him to make himself feel more safe and secure. He becomes locked into patterns of anger because he knows he can control something with it.
I’ll be blogging more about cause and effect thinking and how to help a child who doesn’t have it. I’ll finish with this. Habit must replace logic in this child’s life. There are many habits a parent must develop in order to help the child.