It's true. Trauma itself causes the brain to respond in abnormal ways as a means to cope with traumatic situations. As it grows and develops, the brain develops neural pathways- shortcuts, if you will, to function in a prescribed manner most efficiently.
Pavlov demonstrated this with his dog in 1902. When he rang a bell, he immediately fed the dog. Eventually the dog became accustomed to the correlation between the bell ringing and being fed. Even when there was no food presented after ringing the bell, the dog still salivated- there was a neural pathway developed in the brain which told the dog that food immediately followed the ringing of the bell.
My children aren't dogs, and they aren't triggered by a bell ringing, but they came to us with neural pathways established that told their brains things like, "I have to gorge myself now, because I may not get to eat for another whole day!" and "If I don't have a tantrum and throw something against the wall, I'll never be heard or noticed." These are damaged ways of thinking.
Our children have an incredibly deep will to live. This is how they have survived the trauma of hunger, abuse, and neglect. Their brain is just ordering their emotions and behaviors to do what they must to simply survive.
In our home, our children are fed nutritiously and regularly. They are well-cared for, and deeply loved. Yet they often still behave to the contrary. They may have to be reminded that two servings of dinner is plenty, and besides, we'll have a bedtime snack in a couple hours. They still go from 0 to out-of-control in the blink of an eye. They still live with a trauma response.
It's our job as parents of kids from hard places to help our children heal. We help them create new neural pathways in their brain. The two elements of creating these pathways is consistency and time.
Here are some questions to ask when children have chaotic behavior:
1. What is the real reason for this behavior?
It may be obvious, but it may require some creative investigating to figure it out. There is some reason they're behaving like that, and I'll bet it's not that they're just a bad kid.
2. How can I help my child calm down?
The term we use to describe the out-of-control behavior is disregulated. I've never succeeded in out-crazying my triggered child. We want them to be able to regulate their emotions and behaviors. Can we do some deep breathing together? Offer to give a "squeezy hug" or rub aromatherapy oils onto pressure points.
3. Is this actually a hill I need to die on?
Some, yes. Most, probably NO. We live in a world full of fruit-pickers, people who can quickly identify that a specific behavior is undesirable. What our children need most is root-diggers. Disregulated emotions express themselves as erratic behavior, tantrums, and over-eating. That's just fruit. Finding the root cause of the issue and addressing it will help change the neural pathway most effectively.
4. Can I offer a re-do?
Our house is FILLED with re-do's. "Whoa, that was a very disrespectful way to express your frustration. How about we have a re-do and you can try that again, only this time, with respect." Like an old VHS tape, we rewind back to where things went awry and start over- including returning to the same place we were standing when the disrespect happened. I ask the same exact question or give the same instruction as before. We then allow them the opportunity to respond properly. Do you see what we're doing there? We're helping develop new neural pathways in their brain!
5. Is my child HANGRY?
It's real and it's a monster! If your child is hungry or thirsty, they're probably going to struggle to stay regulated. Drops in blood sugar and even mild dehydration directly interfere with the brain's ability to work efficiently and effectively. For more on this, check out the mirage in the desert on any cartoon.
Our family served at an event today for families of children with intellectual and physical disabilities. Some children who had autism were overly direct at the dessert table. "I hate banana pudding! I'm not eating that!" Another little boy returned to the dessert table no less than 13 times to get a cookie or brownie. "Whew! He's not going to sleep for a week with all that sugar!", I thought to myself.
At no point did I get exasperated with them- I understood that their disability caused them to behave in different ways. In fact, I felt compassion and love towards them and their family. You see, when you know a child has a disability, it's easier to extend grace to them and overlook their quirks or poor manners.
Here's the thing, kids from hard places come to us with damaged brains. They have neural pathways that have been created based on fear, lies, abuse, neglect, loss, and survival. They are each healthy, with striking good looks. And I sometimes forget that they are wounded, disregulated, traumatized children who need me to respond to them with grace and love and patience and compassion, just like I did with the children with disabilities at the dessert table.