Sometimes a child’s complaint about fairness is just not liking a rule or not understanding what being “fair” actually means. Sometimes, however, the core message of “that’s not fair” is that the child doesn’t think we love him or her. If this is the message, then logical explanations won’t work. We have to find ways to reinforce that we care.
We can’t expect children to just know how much we care about them. Sometimes they don’t see it; other times they won’t accept it. That sense of being unloved often is a default for foster children who have been through a lot of placements. They protect themselves from disappointment by starting out with the thought that we do not love them. Stepchildren can adopt the same attitude with less intensity. Whether they blame themselves or their biological parents for disrupting the family or blame you for being the person who is not supposed to be there, they may prefer to continue seeing themselves as unloved or unappreciated.
We cannot control these reactions, but we have to recognize them. We also need to do what we can to let them know that we love and are committed to them. We have to look for affirmative ways to help the complaining child feel loved and accepted instead of left out. Maybe we need to compliment them more often or find small tangible rewards for school grades and other accomplishments. Each child responds to different incentives, and we need to tap into each child’s individual currency to communicate our care for him or her.
Sometimes, we may need to adjust a rule or find a different chore. Some children have triggers from past trauma, while others will view a rule through a lens that has nothing to do with us. When we listen to the child, we need to be open to the possibility that this child at this time needs a different rule or different consequence. While we can’t let a child’s complaints change rules that keep them safe, we do need to adapt to a child’s history before we entered their lives.
If we can’t adjust the rules, we need to find other ways to communicate our concern. This is one area where overcompensation may not be a bad thing. Children with trauma need more reassurance than children without it, and there is no way around that fact. We have to be proactive about finding times and ways to reassure them. I know that task is not easy, and I haven’t been very good at it sometimes. We all have busy lives and some kids seem to be just black holes of emotional neediness. It’s hard to give them enough reassurance, and for some kids it seems that nothing is enough. It can be exhausting, but we have to keep trying.
There is no perfect way to reassure children that we care about them. It is the most important thing we can do, however, and the foundation that makes everything else we do work.
Check back next week for a discussion about parenting gifted children. In the meantime, check out my new book, Raising Other People's Children: What Foster Parenting Taught Me About Bringing Together a Blended Family.