If your child struggles with anxiety or has been through some tough stuff in their short life, you may have said this to yourself recently.
- “She used to be able to do say the entire alphabet, now she messes up.”
- “He will do it for his teacher, but not for me.”
- “Yesterday he did his job, but today he pretends that he doesn’t know what to do.”
- “She went for months without an accident, now she is wetting her pants every day.”
If these sound familiar to you, you may be assuming that your child is acting this way on purpose. Maybe you assume, as I have, that they are doing it to prove a point, be defiant, maintain control, or just get even. This may be true at times but I believe that there may be several alternative explanations.
1. As anxiety goes up, functioning goes down
This is a truth for every person. A little anxiety can hep us perform well, but when it reaches a certain level, it overwhelms our ability to think and/or act. The lower regions of the brain responsible for our survival gain strength and power when we are threatened at the expense of the cortex which is responsible for higher levels of functioning. One of the major difficulties in raising children who have a complex history of trauma and neglect is that this defense mechanism is activated more quickly and often times for no apparent reason. Sometimes that reason is just that the adoptive or foster mom is present (the child’s brain associates them with the previous mother that caused pain).
2. Fetal Exposure to Substances
Fetal substance exposure (alcohol and other drugs) can cause unpredictable responses from our children. I like to think of their brains function more like a game of plinko and less like the pneumatic tube at the drive through at your bank.You can keep slipping the disc in the same opening, but still can not predict the exit point.
3. I want to stay young
I’ve had many kids both demonstrate and admit that they just don’t want to get older. To progress developmentally is stressful to them. The reasons for this are are varied.
- They could want to stay the developmental age they were when they lost a parent, so that in their fantasy world, when there parent returns they will be the same as when they left.
- They could enjoy the nurture from their current parent. They understand that as they are capable of doing more that the amount of care their parents give will diminish.
- They have a faulty core belief that they are incapable of handling the tasks and skills expected of an older child. This relates to Erickson’s “industry vs. inferiority” stage of development. It is fairly common for children that have lost a parent to have difficulty navigating this phase.
How we respond really depends on the underlying reason. Assuming anxiety is the culprit, remain calm and say something like:
Hey buddy, if you are struggling right now, you need a hug to give you some extra strength. Why don’t we work on this together until you are feeling better.
It must be really frustrating to be struggling with that, would you like some help with that?
If your child has possible fetal exposure, they very best thing a parent can do is just accept that fact and understand that these types of things that don’t make any sense are going to happen. Our frustration will only make the situation worse. A helpful response may be:
I can see that you are struggling with that today. That’s ok, I’m happy to show you again….sometime these things just take a while to learn.
If you suspect that they are feeling the need to stay young I’d advise not forcing it unless it creates significant problems. The best option is to spend a little time on a regular basis engaging with them as if they are the age they would like to be. This usually fulfills whatever desire they may have.