When Teens Who Have Had Trauma Are Judged More Harshly for Their Behavior

This week on the podcast, the topic was “Kids With Capital Letter Syndromes Are People Too.” Lori and I talked a bit about how teens who have had trauma or a capital letter syndrome don’t know how to act differently in front of adults. By that I mean, they don’t put up false fronts while adults are in the room and then go back to misbehaving when they leave.

Judging Teens Who Have Had Trauma

Teens who have had trauma are judged differently for their behavior than kids from traditional two-parent families. When we’re talking about teens from traditional two-parent homes, we tend to say things like “they’re just sowing their wild oats” or “teens will be teens.” We naturally assume they’re exploring, finding their own way, etc. When we’re talking about adopted kids, foster kids, or kids who have had trauma, however, we tend to take a different perspective and jump to the conclusion that they are just bad kids.

If a kid in a two-parent home wrecks a car because he’s buzzed or drunk, it’s kept on the down-low. But if a kid from a traumatic background flips a car because they panic at being near an abuser’s home, then they’re just “crazy” and “wild.” The incident becomes a story TOLD about them as if they’re just messed up and horrible and careless and ungrateful. 

If a kid in a stable, two-parent home is confronted with something they did wrong, they might get a little angry, but they also know the language of remorse (genuine or not). They know how to say sorry and how to stop. Kids from hard places often don’t.

The Social Age Factor

Also, because of the social age difference, trauma kids end up being labeled “bad” for things they do out of immaturity. They are perceived to be willfully acting immaturely because we assume they possess a certain level of maturity based on their physical age and appearance. However, physical maturity does not always correspond to emotional or social maturity.

Kids with trauma issues have a harder time hiding behavior or putting on the brakes. They’re caught more often, and they tend to lean into the destructive behavior when they’re caught and told to stop, whereas non-trauma kids might be better at genuinely stopping, hiding their behavior, or faking obedience.

The Effects of Neglect and Abuse

“Neglect and abuse delay cause-and-effect processing and, specifically, seeing accurately how our actions impact the world. When the infant cried in need (cause), there was no comfort response from the caregiver (effect). Over time, a child learns there is no connection between what they do and how others respond.” – Executive function #6 in Wounded Children, Healing Homes

Kids who have endured trauma end up giving themselves permission to behave badly because they THINK of themselves as trash.
Kids who have endured trauma end up giving themselves permission to behave badly because they THINK of themselves as trash.

Two-parent kids with a stable home life have this underlying perception of themselves as baseline GOOD, no matter WHAT their behavior is. Bad behavior is just something they’re DOING and can stop at any time. It’s not who they are.

Traumatized kids think that even neutral behavior is probably awful because it’s just who they are. They overhear discussions about themselves as the “bad” kid. Traumatized kids tend to blow up more spectacularly, and with only one parent, with foster parents, or with an entire community watching them, it’s not as hush-hush.

“Bad kids” are “bad kids” because when they’re caught, they act angry and “selfish.” They don’t apologize, they internalize self-hatred, they shift the blame, and they sometimes blow up more in retaliation.

An Inability to Self-Check

“Monitoring refers to the ability to self-check work as you go. …It is tempting to jump to the conclusion that the child is willfully unmotivated to self-monitor, and for some kids, that may be true. … for children whose brain development is affected by exposure to complex trauma, the capacity to monitor may be outside of the realm of will power.” – Executive function #3 in Wounded Children, Healing Homes

When a child can’t monitor or self-check, more behaviors are evident as he tries to negotiate needs. His response to transitions or stimuli is over the top. When that child becomes a teen, his body size makes his reactions appear more violent (because they are). When a 16-year-old hits a wall, his fist goes through it, whereas a 4-year-old would just hurt his fist. Remember that the social age factor is in play here.

What Do We Do With This Information?

What do we see first when observing teens? The way they act. I get it. As my mom said when I was a teen, “You only have one chance to make a good first impression.” When ministering to teens from hard places, throw that out the window. Don’t discount the first impression, but learn to look beyond the behavior. Just because the teen isn’t polite or sweet doesn’t mean we should pull out the judgment card.

Look Beyond the Behavior and Love the Person

“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” – Gal. 6:2

A teen who has had trauma in their life has some heavy burdens. Lighten the load by giving them some grace. Don’t be so quick to judge. Look beyond the behavior to the need. What does that teen need? Does he need a listening ear? Does he need you to help him figure out some coping skills? Maybe he just needs an adult to say, “I’ve been through some junk, too. I hear you. You aren’t alone.”

Remember the Social Age of the Teen

Teens and kiddos alike hear this all the time: “Act your age!” Guess what? Kids and teens from hard places are acting their age.

Typically, a child who had trauma is, emotionally, half his physical age (many times, the gap is even greater). You know what’s great about that? You can appeal to their inner child. You can play with them. Teens love to play. They love games with Nerf guns, squirt guns or  _______ (fill in the blank).

Meet the teens where they are at emotionally, not physically. Don’t let their size fool you! They need to play! This disarms a child’s fear, and the result of that is more regulation.

Remember, don’t judge a teen by his behavior. If he has had trauma, he may not be skilled in the area of hiding behavior or putting on the brakes. Look beyond the behavior to the need. What does that teen need? Look through your trauma-informed lens and see the teen. 

 

A Capital Letter Syndrome Doesn’t Make a Child Less Than

Marching to the beat of his own drum.

I knew.  I knew from early on that my son marched to the beat of his own drum.  I tried to to make him march with the other kids.  I didn’t want him to think something was wrong with him.  I tried all the parenting advice and discipline techniques.  Nothing seemed to matter.  I was trying to force a square peg into a round hole.

A Capital Letter Syndrome Doesn't Make a Child Less Than

The school nightmare

School was a nightmare.  He’d burn up all his energy on trying to “be good” only to fail and fall short of the teacher’s expectations.  He never brought home that coveted green smiley on his behavioral chart that said it was a good day.  I could see it in his eyes, he felt less than.  Less than the other kids his age, less than good, less than what people want.  It broke my heart.  I hated that stinking behavioral chart.  I hated that people refused to try and understand my sweet boy.

Soon we realized that traditional public school made things worse.  When he was in third grade, my husband and I made the choice to homeschool all our children.  I will never forget the day early in our journey that he leaned against my shoulder and said “Thank you for homeschooling me, Mommy.  I felt so stupid in school”  I cried that day and still remember it so vividly.  I replay that memory when we’re having a rough day.

Being your Child’s Advocate

I knew that I was going to have to be my son’s biggest advocate.  From the time we got his SPD diagnosis in first grade until just recently, I’ve had to explain everything it means and what it doesn’t.  I’ve had to undo society’s idea of what perfect children should look like.  My son was perfect.  Exactly the way God made him.  Just because he doesn’t do everything like the masses doesn’t make him somehow less than.  I am actually proud that he doesn’t.  And now, even at 14 years old, I will still fight anyone that tries to force that square peg into that round hole….or lovingly point out how mistaken they are.  It’s a toss-up, really.  😉

Want to hear more of what Lori has to say on the subject? Listen to this week’s podcast episode:

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Lori Shaffer

Special Needs (Capital Letter Syndromes) and Homeschooling Director

Lori Shaffer is married to her childhood best friend, Jacob.  She is a stay at home missionary and homeschool mom to their three children.  She is passionate about advocating for teen moms and women and children that have been abused and giving them hope and encouragement.  Most days she can be found drinking coffee, working out with Kathleen, or hanging out with her family.

Follow Lori on Social Media:

Facebook- Lori Shaffer

Instagram –@browneyedmomof3

Instagram joint fitness account (Kathleen and Lori)-

@2girlsnotrunning

When You Want to Skip Christmas!

 Is your schedule out of whack this holiday season?

Are you experiencing some winter or holiday blues?

Is your adopted/foster/special needs kid melting down every time you turn around?

Do you just want to pack up the decorations and skip Christmas altogether?

Then this is for you friend.

The Whole House team had a conversation the other day (on our pm) about kids being dysregulated over the holidays. It’s hard. Constant meltdowns make us want to just skip the whole season.

Here’s a couple of things to remember if you want to skip Christmas:

Expect Meltdowns.

Different things are triggers for different people. I get weepy around Christmas. I hear an Amy Grant song. I put up the Christmas tree. I hear a church bell and I think of my mother. Midnight mass in the choir loft. Pumpkin pie in the oven or cooling on the gas range. Christmas dinners with tables end to end all the way across the length of the living room. Great memories. Mom left this earth almost twenty years ago and yet , a smell, a sound, can make it feel as if it were yesterday. That’s the way with triggers, they transport us to another time, another place and more importantly, another feeling- whatever that was.

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We adoptive parents must remember that our children have a past. Some of it is fresh in their memory. Some of it is buried so deep, they cannot tell the story.

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But, let them smell something in the air, hear a sound, or taste something and they are transported to another time and place. They may not know why or where. They may not be able to vocalize it. Instead, they will act it out. They will meltdown. Be prepared. Be patient. Be prayerful. Be proactive if you have any information that will help you avert those triggers! – 25 Days of Thriving Through Christmas

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This also applies to kids with Capital Letter syndromes. We’re playing Christmas music and decorating the tree and the kid is punching a hole in the wall. We are left scratching our heads and throwing our hands up and saying, “Forget it!”

Lack of schedule, change of routine and the anticipation of the upcoming event(s) create a tornado of emotions. Some of us just want to skip Christmas altogether! These items I just listed make it hard for a neurotypical child to regulate. Just imagine how much more stress is added for a child with a Capital Letter syndrome or a child from hard places.

Your teen may turn into a giant toddler. His eyes may stay dilated, indicating stress. His body may be rigid, shoulders tense, hypervigilant, looking this way and that for danger, supposed or real. It’s common for your kiddos to balk at doing every day tasks during the Christmas season, even if they normally enjoy them. Their bodies are too overwhelmed to enjoy things.

When we adults react with our own triggers and meltdown ourselves, there will be chaos. We need to provide felt-safety for our kiddos. If that means skipping the Christmas party, ordering online instead of going to a crowded mall or not visiting Santa. Skipping anything that stresses your child to the point of meltdown is worth it to enjoy your holiday. Guess what – you are in charge of your Christmas schedule. You don’t have to do something just because Aunt Edna said so. You don’t have to put up a tree if it stresses you or your child.

Think of it this way, Christmas is Jesus’ birthday. How do you prefer celebrating a birthday? What about your child? If you prefer a quiet birthday dinner at home and not tons of people because it stresses you and your child – do that. Do whatever fits your family style. Make the season what you need to make it as peaceful as possible. If you need to participate in events, as much as possible, let your kids know what is happening next. Make sure you rest in between events. Give your child voice. If they can verbalize that opening presents in front of everyone is too much, don’t make them. If people get offended because you are parenting your child, that’s really on their plate. Not yours.

“Remember at the end of the day, you are the parent.  You have the right to say no to some parties, to say no to the extra sugar, to say no to extra church events that bring in loads of people.  And give yourself permission to not feel guilty because it’s your family and your child and your sanity.  And remember that as hard and stressful it is for you, it’s probably 10x more so for that special needs kid.  Grace upon grace upon grace for this Christmas season.”- Lori Shaffer

Watch for Episode 51 of The Whole House Podcast on Monday, December 17th – “Kids from Hard Places and the Holiday Schedule” recorded by Kathleen and Lori. (PS- I think we recorded this to encourage ourselves. Hope it encourages you as well).

An Overview of SPD

In episode 43 of The Whole House podcast, Kathleen and I discuss what exactly is Sensory Processing Disorder.  The book, The Out-of-Sync Child by Carol Stock Kranowitz, M.A. defines SPD this way:

“Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is the inability to use information received through the senses in order to function smoothly in daily life.”

In short, that means a child (or adult since it’s not something that is grown out of), cannot process all his/her sensory input and has the wrong reaction to many things that “regular” people have no problem with.  Sensory issues become a disorder when the person has an inability to function normally in day to day life.

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If you suspect your child (or yourself) might have SPD, the STAR Institute is a great place to start to try and understand this disorder.  It includes great information, including this checklist.  Another great source of information is The Out-of-Sync Child.  It is split into two parts, the first being how to recognize SPD, and the second on how to cope with SPD.  One thing this book suggests is to document your child’s behavior.  This helps to recognize patterns.  Sometimes diet or phases of the moon (I kid you not) can affect the intensity of the symptoms.  The book also makes suggestions on how to better get your child to focus.  Occupational therapy is so helpful.  An occupational therapist can not only properly diagnose your child, but also give you ways to help your child regulate.  I have mentioned many times that my son regularly does his school work in a spinning chair or on the trampoline.  He focuses so much better this way.

Most importantly, we ladies at The Whole House want you to know that we are here for you.  The amount of information out there can be dizzying and overwhelming.  The first step is to get a proper diagnosis.  The second is to connect with someone that can come along beside you and say “I know exactly how you feel”.  If you don’t have anyone like that in your life, contact us.

*Post by Lori Shaffer*

During and After the Diagnosis of a Capital Letter Syndrome

This week on the podcast, Lori and I talk about diagnosing a capital letter syndrome. It’s pretty scary territory. Sometimes there is an invisible stigma attached to stepping out and finding some help. Not sure why, maybe we just feel guilty. Mom guilt is real. Even if you adopted, you know you aren’t immune to Mom guilt. We Moms have some weird knack for feeling guilty that things that we didn’t have anything to do with. Raise your hand if you agree.

Episode 41

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Another issue we parents deal with when searching for answers for our kids’ struggles is the “Just do this…” people. You know what I mean, those people who have all the answers for your child based on spending sixty seconds with them. It’s irritating. Right? Our advice, don’t share with them. Limit your time with those “Just do this..” people as much as possible. Don’t take it personally. Just move on.

During and after the diagnosis

*this portion was written by Rachel Eubanks

Be prepared that it will hurt even if you are expecting it.  You will take it personally and you have to be ready to push back against that.  You can’t effectively advocate for your child if you are too busy attacking yourself.

Act professionally at the appointment, keep it together (especially if your child is with you).  This isn’t a death sentence, it’s just a tool for you to help your child.  It’s okay to fall apart later, but keep it together at first.

Talk about it with a few people you trust.  Yes, your child’s diagnosis is their story and you shouldn’t broadcast it without their permission, but it’s your story too.  You know what friends and family who will keep your confidence and not judge, talk to them.

Your child isn’t sick or weird, they are just missing a piece to their puzzle and as their parent it’s your job to find it.

Do any of your children have a capital letter syndrome? Share your story with us! We’d love to hear it.

Do you suspect that one of your kiddos has a capital letter syndrome? Did this episode help? Let us know!