Around here, we have plenty of odd behaviors. Calling them "odd" may sound off-putting but the fact is a lot of this stuff is downright lunacy. Crazy- Bizarre would not be too strong and would be accurately descriptive as well. So. Odd. We got odd. These are things that I believe Genea developed as a result of living in an orphanage from the day after she was born until a year and a half later. They served a purpose, absolutely they did. The result has been that these functional behaviors which were learned as successful ways to manage and survive neglect, are now burned into her brain. Seared into a pathway permanently.
Throughout the past three years whenever we see one of these odd behaviors emerge we have confronted it head on. It would be nice to be able to be polite about it. If we could discretely let Genea know that we see what she is doing and quietly cue her as to what might be a problem, we would be all about it. We tried it that way. It was like Genea was standing on the other side of Chuck E Cheese on a Saturday afternoon. She could see our lips moving and hear us shouting without any idea of what we were saying or why. When we started redirecting her it sounded something like this: "Honeysweetiedarling, being first sure is great isn't it! We love that you assert yourself and we can clearly see your emerging leadership skills! Honeysweetiedarling, that other child, the one crying after you knocked him across 3 tables? He was obviously raised by wolves and has terrible manners to be tattling about you to the ambulance driver but mmmmmmm, lets think for a minute, Honeysweetiedarling, ummm, if you could consider the possibility of letting another child go first it might possibly help one of those other children with the ridiculously high expectations of others, it might help one of them to feel more positively towards you. Honeysweetiedarling, it's just that this isn't Darwins island, and there is no survival of the fittest here". Quickly that tone was left in the dust to accommodate the more shrill "knock it off right stinking now!". In the process of refining our approach, we found that confronting Genea directly, clearly and head on was the best way to go.
Take for example Genea's tendancy to choke herself on liquids. She will drink as fast as she can until she begins choking and gagging and turning red. She is spitting liquid out of the corners of her mouth and coughing all the while trying to force more down her throat. My theory is that this is a learned behavior. I can imagine her as an infant in an orphanage. Instead of someone picking her up and rocking her while feeding her a bottle I would guess that a worker probably propped up a bottle in the bars of her crib and she sort of fed herself. I can visualize her there like that, her sadness streaming around her, no one coming to hold her or talk to her or touch her and I imagine that one day she gagged a little, maybe coughed while she was feeding and the worker rushed to her crib to take care of her. Make no mistake Genea is a smart little girl and if that is how it happened she would repeat it as needed. But being also a traumatized and neglected little girl, her miswired brain trapped that bit of survival information and has held on to it to this day. It took me awhile to realize when she was gagging on her drink that she was doing it on purpose, that she had complete control over it. In my defense, who imagines a 4- 5- and now 6 year old child would deliberately do that? I think one day I noticed that at meals, whenever I turned my head or spoke with another person, she started to gag. No parent on the planet can hear a child gagging and not immediately be alarmed so I am sure it was self- reinforcing in that way too. So I began to confront it directly. "Genea, I hear you gagging. I know you are doing it to get my attention. I know that you can stop it. Here is your attention". Then, I would look at her silently which evidentally made her uncomfortable. Yes, that is giving her what she wants. Yes, strangely enough it worked to stop the problem.
We have a night-time ritual that is probably going to sound like a bad idea in the extreme. Once Genea gets in bed, we have a contest to see who can kiss who's nose first and who can do it the most times. It has become this amped up hysterical and chaotic thing we do that involves severe tickling and laughing. When it's done, we have our official "good night" with a real hug and a real kiss then I get up to leave. Without fail, Genea breaks out a desperate request for another hug. She has done this regularly throughout every day since she came to us, mostly when she is in trouble and often when someone needs to leave the room and she wants you to stay. She sits part way up and sticks her arms straight out level with her shoulders. She usually says nothing, occasionally she will say merely "hug". But it is a crushing, begging, last child on the Titanic sort of plea. It has an "if you don't I could die" feel to it, and when you reach out and hug her back she clutches and drags you down, holding on like a snapping turtle until she decides it is enough. Then you get a rapid release and you are dismissed.
I imagine that this is a holdover orphanage behavior as well. A baby in a crib who gets little to no attention will try anything to pull in an adult, another living breathing body. On a regular basis when our bedtime ritual is done, Genea reaches out in this desperate plea for human contact. I began to understand that it had become a habit and I spoke to her about it last week. "Genea, you don't have to pull me back in anymore. When you were a baby you used to not have enough people to love you and so you needed to try to hold on to people. But you have a lot of people that love you now. You have a whole family full of people who love you and want to take care of you. So you don't have to worry that when I leave no one will ever come back. I will be here in the morning and I will see you. I will be here all night across the hall. I am here".
"Okay" she said, "good night". We continued the grand finale of bed time, yelling back and forth as I walk out of the room and down the hallway.
"I love you!"
"I love you more!"
"Have sweet dreams!"
"You have sweet dreams too!"
"Have a fairy princess dream!"
"Have a pumpkin mystery butterfly dream!",
and so forth.
And that's the end of my story because that is all there is. The sinking Titanic hug -for -dear -life is gone. I think I will miss it a bit but it is such a huge step in acceptance and security I can't wish for it back.