Hello Faithful Readers!
Today’s post focuses on the different parenting techniques that foster/ adoptive parents may employ when parenting their traumatized child. Most of the time, this type of parenting might seem completely counterintuitive to traditional parents, so that’s why it merits its own discussion.
What you need to remember is that trauma is invisible. It might take on different forms in a child, but it is always invisible to the outsider. The next time you see a struggling parent in the grocery store with a tantrum-throwing child, please don’t be so quick to pass judgement on what you think is the parent’s poor disciplining skills. You might take that child and turn him over your knee for a good spanking, but the foster parent simply can’t do that.
Spanking, or traditional discipline of any sort can actually cause more trouble for those parenting traumatized children. These children have most likely come from a place where adults were untrustworthy in some capacity or another. In the case of our tantrum-throwing tot, from birth, his needs were rarely met by the adults charged with his care and as a consequence, he rarely got fed. He ended up in the foster system because one night, Mom and Dad got into a big fight and the police got involved. Upon arrival, the police found the toddler in a dirty diaper, sick, and underweight. They removed him that night and placed him in an emergency foster home, now in the custody of the department of human services.
Two weeks later he was moved to a long-term foster home after his immediate needs had been taken care of. The new foster dad, due to the addition of a new mouth to feed, had to make a grocery run and needed to take the toddler with him. Little Boy was doing great until he saw a food he was regularly given by his birth parents – Cheetos – and when his foster dad didn’t stop to pick them up, he became extremely upset and started throwing a tantrum. Of course, Foster Dad knows better than to feed a toddler unhealthy snacks like Cheetos, but Little Boy has learned that Cheetos means survival. Suddenly that survival was threatened and on came the tantrum.
Foster Dad is beside himself. Little Boy doesn’t have the words to communicate that Cheetos means survival, so all Foster Dad can see is that Little Boy is unreasonably upset about something. His training has taught him that this tantrum isn’t just a tantrum and that, because Little Boy doesn’t have the words to communicate, is screaming because he doesn’t know any other way to respond to the situation. Little Boy has also not been taught self-soothing and self-regulating tools that he should have begun learning from the time of his birth.
Here’s where the counterintuitive parenting comes into play. Foster Dad, trying to help Little Boy communicate, notices that he keeps screaming something peculiar: “toe-chee”, over and over. Being that they are in the chip aisle, Foster Dad is able to figure out that Little Boy means Cheetos. He points to the Cheetos and Little Boy immediately stops screaming. While Foster Dad isn’t happy about purchasing an unhealthy snack, he now has recognized that this is one of the things that makes Little Boy feel safe. He grabs a bag from the shelf and hands it to Little Boy who hugs it closely to himself for the rest of the shopping trip.
Miss Perfect happened to be standing in the same aisle at the time of Little Boy’s tantrum. She was annoyed by all the screaming and wanted to go over to give that dad a good talking-to. “If that little boy had been my child,” she thought haughtily to herself, “I would have left the cart right there, marched that little brat to the parking lot and given him a good, hard spanking.” She could not believe that the dad gave in to the boy’s tantrum. After the boy stopped his fussing, now clinging to the Cheetos bag like it was life’s bread, Miss Perfect marched herself over to Foster Dad.
“You do realize, that by giving into his tantrum like that, he’ll never learn the word ‘no’, correct?” asked Miss Perfect. She wasn’t so much asking as she was telling.
“Actually, that’s not at all what I think.” Replied Foster Dad calmly, though slightly annoyed with the woman’s attitude and assumptions.
“Giving in to a tantrum like that will only cause more trouble for you down the road. Where’s his mom? Surely she would have marched him right out of the store for that nonsense!”
“That’s really none of your business Ma’am. Now if you don’t mind, I would like to get back to my shopping.”
“None of my business?! It’s not my fault your son is screaming bloody murder. I’m sure everyone in this store could hear him!”
“Thank you Ma’am. Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to get home before midnight.” replied Foster Dad, who then promptly walked away and into another aisle. The other people around also gave him dirty looks as he passed by.
Foster Dad felt extremely judged in that moment. Did he do the right thing? This was definitely a moment that he wanted to disown Little Boy. How much easier would his life be if he could just inform everyone in the store that Little Boy is a foster child. He wasn’t really Little Boy’s father and therefore he couldn’t be held accountable for Little Boy’s crazy behavior. He looked at Little Boy and noticed how calm he seemed clinging to the Cheetos bag. “Poor thing.” He thought to himself.
Yes, disowning Little Boy would be the easy thing, but it wouldn’t be the right thing.
“Now how am I going to get him to let go of the Cheetos so I can pay for it?” Foster Dad asked himself. He thought about what he was going to say to Little Boy in the checkout lane as he finished the rest of his shopping. Foster Dad began getting a little nervous the closer they got to the cashier.
“I’m going to have to take those (pointing to the Cheetos) in a moment so the cashier can ring it up. Do you understand?” Foster Dad asked, to which Little Boy answered by nodding his head. “Okay, good. I’ll give it back to you as soon as the cashier is done with it.” he promised. Fortunately, the cashier was good with kids and played with Little Boy for a moment by pretending to ring him up with the scanner. This distracted Little Boy from his need to cling to the chips so Foster Dad recognized the opportunity and asked Little Boy to hand him the Cheetos. Little Boy was a bit reluctant so Foster Dad reminded him about what he said a few minutes ago and promised to give them back. Finally, Little Boy handed over the Cheetos so they could be paid for. As soon as the cashier scanned them, she handed them right back and Little Boy stayed calm.
“I’m really proud of you for staying calm and being patient.” Foster Dad said to Little Boy on their way out of the store. He felt a little silly using those words with a toddler but knew that the more vocabulary Little Boy was exposed to, the better he’ll become at communicating. “High-Five buddy!” Little Boy smiled and gave Foster Dad the best high-five a three-year-old could give. When they got to the car, Foster Dad started talking to Little Boy about how he’ll have to wait to have some Cheetos until after dinner. “I promise, if you eat most of your dinner, that you can have some Cheetos afterward.” said Foster Dad. He continued to say some version of this all the way home.
When they got home, Foster Mom had gotten dinner ready and as she was helping to put the groceries away, started putting the Cheetos in the cupboard. She gave her husband a look of disapproval and he let her know that it was a necessity today. Little Boy noticed the Cheetos being put away and began throwing a tantrum again. Foster Mom was confused so Foster Dad stepped in to save the day. “Remember how I said you can have some Cheetos after you eat most of your dinner?” asked Foster Dad. Little Boy nodded his head. “Okay, good. We’ll leave the Cheetos out on the counter for now so you can see them.” said Foster Dad. When Foster Mom served Little Boy his dinner, he was a bit skeptical of the green things on his plate, but with some coaxing, tried a little bit of everything. That night, Little Boy’s foster parents found out that he loves green beans, but doesn’t really like fish sticks. True to his word, when dinner was finished, Foster Dad put about five Cheetos in a small bowl for Little Boy and let him have his after dinner treat.
Later, when similar items came home from the store, they would tell each other that it was a “Cheetos thing” which was their code for “means of survival” and knew that there was an underlying issue of meeting a child’s needs in that item.
While it is counterintuitive to most to give in to a child’s tantrum, and in some cases one simply can’t (e.g. in the case of safety such as a small child wanting to cross the street without an adult), parenting traumatized children is anything but typical. Every child that comes into your home will have different needs based on their different histories. Being able to recognize those needs is the first step toward creating a safe, caring environment so that children can heal and become successful, high-functioning adults.
If you’re not a foster parent and never plan to be, please remember that, when you see a parent struggling with a child in public, you have no idea about that child’s background. If the parent is doing something that seems counterintuitive to you, don’t be so quick to judge the situation and recognize that you don’t have all the facts. Of course, if a parent is being abusive to the child, please do something about it by contacting the proper authorities.
If you’d like to be supportive of the parent with that kid, either stay out of their business, don’t give them dirty looks, or encourage them by saying that they’re doing a good job, that most kids act this way at that age and they’ll get through it. That type of encouragement can go a long way.
As always, thanks for reading.