Sometimes I just don’t know what to do. When a child’s behavior is unacceptable… do I allow natural consequences to happen? Do I assign a punishment for the behavior? Do I write it down to address with the counselor because the behavior is based in past trauma? Do I let it pass without comment because in the larger scheme of things it not something I choose to address right now? Do I pull the child in for a long hug because the behavior is based in past hurt and shame and a need for appropriate attention from an adult? Do I do several of those choices?
And it is complicated even further by the sheer number of unacceptable behaviors that sometimes happen one right after the other. Before I have fully recognized the first and decided how to respond to it, there is a second. And a third. And sometimes a fourth. Sometimes they are an escalation of the first one, sometimes they are unrelated behaviors.
For instance, the boys may be eating breakfast cereal. One will spit a mouthful at his brother (or the cat, the dog, or the curtains). Obviously this means he isn’t hungry anymore, right? As I put down the milk and approach the table to calmly enforce the natural consequence of removing the cereal, the preschooler says “it’s YUCKY. Brother, you’re eating POOP cereal!”. Brother starts to cry and says “No, I’m not!” OK, this is no longer a kid spitting out food because he’s not hungry, this is upsetting brother on purpose. But do I comfort brother and ignore the instigator? Or do I remove instigator from the table, and if I remove him do I simply send him to get dressed or do I send him to time-out for saying what he did? In the process of removing the cereal bowl and getting instigator down from his booster seat, brother (still crying) throws his entire bowl of cereal at the instigator, covering him, me, and the wall behind us. So now, do I continue with removing the original instigator, do I switch to comforting the brother who was obviously upset by the idea of eating poop, or do I now address the throwing of the cereal bowl?
You can see how things stack up quickly. What I just described can easily happen start to finish in 10 seconds or less. (And of course it isn’t finished.) And for those who are curious, the day I attended to the crying brother instead of the instigating brother did not help diffuse the situation any faster – it was just the instigating brother who got angry and threw the cereal bowl rather than the crying brother.
This is what foster parenting to children who have experienced WAY TOO MUCH TRAUMA in their lives is like. Every hour is a new crisis. Sometimes every 10 minutes is a new crisis. And sometimes they can go on for hours before I can break through and get a handle on just one little part of the crisis and defuse the situation.
Unfortunately, that handle that is available for me to grab on to might be different on different days. One day a child might hit his brother because he thinks he’s going to be hit first. Another day he might hit his brother because he is angry they are not playing the game he wanted to play. Another day he might hit his brother because he’s tired and grouchy and the brother happened to be the one there. And sometimes the way to grab the handle is laughter. Other times it is a quick reminder that the behavior will not be tolerated here. And still other times extending some grace and ignoring the behavior is the handle.
Preventing every possible reason for unacceptable behavior just isn’t possible. And neither is interrupting all unacceptable behavior. All that is left is finding how to respond to it – and realizing that responding in the exact right way every time isn’t possible either. It takes a mixture of all of these.
No parent is perfect. No parent can prevent everything. No parent can correctly respond to everything. And parenting kids exposed to trauma just makes the job exponentially harder, like a math equation. (Normal child behaviors) times (types and amounts of trauma experienced) times (siblings who feed off each others’ behavior) times (previous experiences where unacceptable behavior got good results for the child) = a crazy complicated time of trying to heal the children.