One of the challenges of parenting children from hard places is the inevitable power struggle. Conventional parenting that most of us were raised with says something like, “I’m the parent, you’re the child; I know what’s best for you, so you do what I say. If you don’t, you’ll have a consequence.” While this may work for children without a trauma history, it just doesn’t work for our kids from hard places.
Perhaps seeing things through the child’s eyes can help us gain perspective. In their family of origin, prior to removal, adults probably did not make good healthy choices for them. Whether it was abuse or neglect, the adults who were tasked with nurturing them, loving them, and keeping them safe were, whether great or small, failing to make good choices on their behalf. So maybe adults can’t always be trusted.
Then comes the removal. In our experience, the vast majority of children never asked to be removed from the only sense of normalcy they’ve ever known. Let’s be clear: they wanted the abuse or neglect to stop, but they didn’t ask to lose the friends they had next door or their teacher at school who would give them a really big hug when they were scared or their favorite toy that accidentally got kicked under the couch. Random adults decided it was best to drive them 50 miles away to a stranger’s house. So maybe adults can’t always be trusted.
The stranger that they met 2 hours ago- the one who made the decision to remove them and drive them far away- dropped them off at the stranger’s house and then just left. So maybe adults can’t always be trusted.
Now there’s a stranger who, although they seem like they’re kind (but how can you tell after only being around them for 20 minutes?), now wants to boss you around. “It’s time to get your pajamas on.” “Now let’s brush your teeth.” “It’s time for bed.” “Good morning, it’s time to get up.” “I made homemade pancakes for breakfast.” “We’re going to visit your new school today.” “This is your new class.” “Mr. Smith is your new teacher.” “Eat all your vegetables.” It’s time to take your bath.”
It’s probably no surprise that our kids from hard places struggle to trust adults. It’s also no surprise that their brain often tells them they have to be in control of even the smallest or most seemingly insignificant things. This is just how you survive.
To avoid these inevitable clashes as much as possible, we try to give choices that our kids can control. When it’s time to get ready for bed, we might ask, “Would you like to get your pajamas on first, or brush your teeth first?” We’re still steering this ship towards bedtime, but the child’s voice is heard and they get to share control. I could draw a line in the sand and dictate that’s it’s teeth first, THEN pajamas, but what I know about my kids from hard places is that I have now entered into a battle of wills. In a battle of wills, there’s seldom a winner. When I look at the bigger picture, the order of bedtime routine really isn’t a hill I’m willing to die on.
We might use the same “choices” approach when addressing correction. Recently, our 5 year old was struggling to keep his hands to himself. Although we tried multiple times to get control of his body, it just wasn’t happening. When the other kids went out to jump on the trampoline, he wasn’t able to join them. I had to place a firm boundary for his safety and the safety of the other kids. Not surprisingly, he was very upset with my exercising control over him and he was careening towards a meltdown as he wailed about wanting to go outside. Instead of focusing on my control, I offered him choices. “I know you’re feeling disappointed and I’m sorry you feel sad. Would you like to play with Legos, or help me with fixing dinner in the kitchen?” He chose Legos and was happy and content with HIS decision. Crisis averted.
To be clear, there are plenty of things that are immovable and not up for discussion at our house. Sometimes the answer is just “no.” The 5 year old using a kitchen knife is not an option, nor is the 3 year taking a spin in the car. THAT is a hill I am willing to die on.
Realizing that the underlying issue is trust, not gleeful defiance, can help us reframe struggles and move everyone forward...one step closer towards bedtime!