An incredibly frustrating part of parenting children who have suffered trauma is understanding why they do some of the wrong-headed and counterproductive things they do. We work to provide an emotionally safe environment, and then they lie to us. We try to understand where they are coming from, and then they start avoiding us. Why they do those things and how we should respond can be perpetually challenging questions. Two holidays that converge today can provide some helpful insights.
I have a soft spot for offbeat holidays, and today we have two days that can teach us something about parenting children with trauma. No, not National Artichoke Hearts Day or National Panda Day. (Although pandas are adorable predators with a surprising dark side, I’m not drawing that analogy.) The two overlapping holidays that can teach us important lessons are Everything You Do Is Right Day and Absolutely Incredible Kid Day.
Bad Habits or Character Flaws May Just Be Out of Place Skill Sets
To find the lessons in those holidays, we need to look well below the surface. Both of the days encourage us to look on the bright side of our actions and our interactions with our kids. That’s a nice thought, but there really is no bright side to lying or stealing. However, instead of thinking of these habits as moral flaws and trying to find a silver lining, let’s think of them as skills. More important, think of them as skills that our absolutely incredible kids developed to survive their traumatic situations.
I first realized this truth when one of my foster daughters came home from an outing and told me that she had gotten into a loud argument and almost a fistfight with a stranger at the mall. As I tried to give her alternative ways to handle conflict, such as walking away, she vehemently interrupted me. “No, no, on the street, if you back down you die.”
I realized that my daughter, who had spent several years as homeless runaway before coming back into the system, had learned a skill set that had served her very well in her past life. It literally kept her alive when she was a street kid. Even though she was physically safe now, when she was under stress, she still turned to her old skill sets. Her skills had not changed along with her circumstances.
Help Our Kids Adapt to New Situations
If our kids’ bad behavior is a skill set, then we have to approach it differently than if it’s a moral flaw. First, we have to understand what role the habit served (or still serves) for them. Lying, for example, very often is a way of avoiding conflict. Kids don’t realize that lies often create more conflict later; they just have learned that lying gets them off the hook in the moment. Similarly, kids growing up with food insecurity learn to take things when they can find them. They don’t think of it as stealing, but simply a way of securing resources.
After thinking about what function the habit serves for our kids, we have to help our children adapt the habit to their new circumstances. And that step will require a lot of creativity and patience.
One example of adaptive creativity that I love is the trend of renting goats. (Yes, I avoided comparing our kids to pandas, but I am comparing them to goats. Bear with me.) Goats are adorable animals who will eat almost anything and can clear an area of vegetation in no time at all. They are clever and agile, and definitely do not make good yard pets. However, for people who need an area cleared of brush, goats can be an ideal and ecologically friendly solution. So, farmers have started renting out their goats for specific yard-clearing projects. What can be a very destructive habit is transformed by channeling the impulses into constructive channels.
The same principle can work for our kids. My foster daughter, for example, didn’t need to learn to stop standing up for herself or others. What she needed to learn was how to express that strength in ways appropriate to her new circumstances.
Even habits that we see as morally wrong often can be channeled into appropriate behavior. The impulse behind lying, for example, can be channeled into writing creative fiction or (ahem!) becoming a lawyer who argues the best possible case for a client. Of course, there are limits. Lawyers can’t ethically misstate the facts, and creative fiction is never appropriate for a news report. But what we are trying to teach our kids is where those limits are and what acceptable uses there are for their impulses.
The next important principle is that helping them change their habits will take time. These skills are ingrained, and they worked very well for our kids for a long time. So we can’t expect them to change just because we’ve explained things to them one time. Or several times. Or many times.
They will learn new skills only through lots of practice, trial, and error. There will be many days that we think they are taking one step forward and two steps back. We can’t rush the process. We have to be patient, consistent with structure and consequences, and love them anyway.
Set Them Up for Success
Finally, we have to be careful not to create situations that prompt our kids to use their bad skill sets. For example, it’s a common impulse when our kids come back from visits to biological parents to ask them what happened there. Our motive is usually admirable — we want to know that our kids were safe and happy — but we are putting our kids in a bad situation.
If they answer our questions truthfully, they may inadvertently tell us something that upsets us, and they will feel responsible. Certainly, they will feel responsible if what they tell us causes conflict between the two sets of parents. Many times, they know their biological parent will be unhappy if they give details to us. So they may take refuge in lying to us. At best, they’ll give brief, unsatisfying answers that just increase everyone’s frustration. So, it’s best for us to just not ask the question in the first place. If they have concerns to share with us, they will do it eventually when they feel safer.
Similarly, if we react badly when our kids give us an honest opinion, then our kids will learn to tell us what we want to hear, whether or not it’s the truth. We need to take a long and honest look at our behavior and reactions. We may be inadvertently pushing them into old skill sets at the same time that we are lecturing them for doing exactly that.
Conversely, we need to find ways to set them up to succeed with new skill sets. If kids continually lie that they have done their homework, for example, we should quit asking them. Perhaps we can simply say, “Go get a snack, and then we’ll go through your homework for the day.” If they lie about doing their chores, tell them to get a snack (yes, there is a theme there) and then you’ll take a look together at what help they need with their chores.
Friends who have parented children who hoard food have reported success with leaving out healthy snacks that kids can choose from as they please. Others have reported success with having kids help plan and cook meals. By finding ways to help kids feel safe and channel their impulses into helpful behavior, they have made progress in having kids develop much better habits.
There are no quick ways to change bad habits, either ours or our kids’. But perhaps by thinking of those habits as skill sets that are out of place, maybe we can lower our frustration levels. More important, we can move toward constructive ways of helping our kids develop new habits for their new circumstances.