There's a lot going on right now. I don't think anyone would argue with the statement that the world is in a bit of a mess. Whether you believe coronavirus/ COVID-19 is a big media blow-up, a legit threat to humanity or something in between, you can't deny it's impact on everything. From the availability of tissue paper to the closing of schools, everyone feels it.
Nobody feels changes in the air quite as deeply as our hyper vigilant "children from hard places".
If you're an adoptive parent, a person who serves wounded children directly or the parent of a child who has been through a life-altering event, you understand the effect this recent pandemic is having all too well.
Before I get too deep in here, let me say two things. First, every child responds to trauma differently. This post is not intended to be a "one-size-fits-all". Second, the title of this post is not meant to diminish the role of fathers in healing trauma. You guys are vital. But the vast majority of families I know who cope with kids from hard places would agree that "mommy issues" from early abandonment tend to put the bullseye on mothers in a more obvious way.
Here are some behavioral changes you may be seeing in your children/teens from hard places during the course of the pandemic and some strategies to try:
Withdrawing- some kids simply don't have the words to put to their feelings when life feels like it's spinning out of control. They are afraid of losing you. They are afraid of being sick. They miss the familiar routine and faces that brought them a sense of being anchored. And it overwhelms them to the point of silence. It is tempting to hound that child into opening up. We want to help. We know talking things out can bring peace. Please don't. Make an offer to listen. Ask your withdrawn child if he/she is feeling afraid. Let him know you are always willing to talk. Leave an encouraging note or Bible verse if he is a reader. Fill your home with worship music and joyful conversation (in as much as it's genuine). Some children willingly talk out their feelings while others find the pressure of being expected to know themselves and verbalize what's inside too daunting.
Acting Out - the less-welcome cousin of withdrawing is acting out. Most of us know exactly what this looks and feels like and the instincts we have in addressing it are often exactly the opposite of what will be constructive and helpful. If your child is crying more easily, being more difficult to redirect or just flat our rebelling during this virus event, you have a few choices in how to handle it. And you're tired. You're quarantined. You also need a break and feel like you can't cope with one more behavioral issue. So your response to the acting out may not be something you'd be proud of. Pause and REJECT the desire to put your child in isolation. Sending a traumatized child to his room alone, walking out of the room on him, having him "think it over" in a place where he is alone (unless you are afraid you might physically harm him), shunning him or having others shun him or locking a door and leaving him inside an area are NEVER the best responses. Children from trauma backgrounds already feel unlovable and unwanted at their cores. Isolating them at their worst just reinforces that belief. "I am bad". "I don't have anyone". "I can not be fixed". Those are the mantras of children of trauma. YOU have the power to help them relearn their internal narrative. But it will take loads of patience and coming OUTSIDE of yourself. Instead of pushing away a child who is acting out, draw him in closer. It will feel counter intuitive but, I promise, it will work. It may take months or years, but it will yield the harvest you are hoping for.
For example, if your seven year old can't figure out how to do a jigsaw puzzle, becomes frustrated and pushes the whole puzzle off the table crying, go to him. Hold him if he will let you. Reassure him that he is smart, he is loved and you want to help him handle his anger better. After he is calm, help him pick up the pieces. Calmly tell him he has to use more self control. Talk about ways he can handle the anger next time it comes. If you want to enact a logical consequence like not allowing him to use the puzzles again for a week, do it. But all of that discussion ONLY after he is calm and ready to interact. Dragging him off to his room in the heat of his anger and tears would have only resulted in prolonged crying. And some of our trauma babies can cry for HOURS . . . can I get an "amen"?
If you do give out consequences, make sure they fit the offense and have an end in sight. When a child sees no end to the punishments, he quickly gives up hope.
Fatalistic Thinking - Your traumatized child may quickly jump to "worse-case-scenario" thinking in the light of this crisis. Trying to shield him from the TV news or from hearing about covid-19 deaths will backfire. He will likely imagine the death toll to be much higher than it actually is and will probably hear the news when you think he isn't listening anyway. Be realistic at his level of understanding. If it might comfort him, show him a pie chart online of all the diagnosed cases and what a small sliver of the pie result in death. He should not be lied to or given false promises that "mommy won't let that big, bad virus get you". A little bit of concern is merited so he will observe good hygiene and submit more willingly to staying home. If your child is given to fatalistic thinking, he is only remembering that sometimes the worst things that could happen , have happened. Remind him of times in the past that he thought "the sky was falling" and it didn't. Encourage him that he is not alone and that if you get sick or his grandmother gets sick , there are many trusted adults who will always take care of him. You may think the fear he is having is all about you, Mama. But it's about him. "Who will take care of me?". Maybe the feeling of having no one to really care for him was more than just a "feeling" in the past. Assure him that he is loved and will have his needs met for the rest of his life.
Over Exhuberance - a child from a tough background who takes everything in stride may not be "super tough" or "super resilient" as we would like to believe. There are times that the overly-cheerful, water-off-a-duck's-back kid is just a hair's breath away from panic. And he simply believes projecting joy and cheer will camouflage his true self. You know your child. If you have seen a drastic upturn in his joy level that coincides with the virus lockdown, keep your eyes open. Keep your radar tuned in to teachable moments or "cracks in the armor" when he might give you a glimpse into his heart. When the time is right, just say it. "You're scared, aren't you?". "It's normal to feel worried when a lot of people are getting a strange sickness. If you're upset about it, you can tell me."
Maybe he will, maybe he won't. But you've left that door open that reminds him that he can always be real with you, whether the real him is happy or sad.
I'm sure there are a range of other changes you may be seeing in your kids as we navigate the waters of this virus together. I chose the four I see most frequently in my own boys, who do life with me inside Mercy House all day, every day. If we, as Mamas and Daddies have our own hard histories and we haven't put them in perspective and prayed through them, we might be seeing these reactions in ourselves as well. That complicates the family dynamic a little but if that's you, face reality and do the heart work in yourself as well. Spend time in God's word daily. Talk to Him about your own fears and reactions to them. You can rest assured He won't isolate you, walk away, remind you of your own shortcoming on a regular basis. He will reassure you that you are loved, you belong to Him. Your mistakes can be forgiven and that He is sanctifying you through every high and low you walk through.
For our own children, let's be like Him. Nobody knows parenting better than the Perfect Parent.
Nobody needs patient forgiveness and understand like His children.