Friday, April 30, 2010

Pre-verbal trauma that sticks

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.


  1. I know there is a reason for every behavior and, like you, I strive to figure that out. But, it is always heartbreaking isn't it?

  2. I touched on this deal no-so-directly yesterday: I think neglect actually forges a pathway in the brain that ingrains information more deeply. After four years, Princess still gorges carbs, hides her most special things and never EVER takes them out, is hypervigilent, and remembers EVERYTHING. And she was never in an orphanage. She was "just" neglected for a month at age 3. Scary, scary, scary.

  3. It sounds like you really get her. It's amazing how things at such a young age can affect them so greatly. then again, attachment when they're infants basically informs their entire being. Before I took my toddler development class I had no idea about any of this stuff, but now everything makes SO much more sense.

  4. Poor kid. I see trouble ahead when she's old enough to start dating. Guys react to neediness by running for the hills.

  5. It's great you can really see the growth and then post/document the milestones of her attachment. Sometimes it is hard to see the purpose of crazy behaviors...

  6. It's so amazing that you have such an insight into what she has gone through - it is so wise for you to try to consider life through her eyes - she is very blessed to have you!

    Now, about the one last hug thing - My kids do that all the time. Hmm, does that mean that maybe I damaged my kids somehow? Actually, it does help me to think of what my kids might have gone through as infants. They haven't suffered the kind of neglect or lack of parental presence that your daughter did in the early years of her life, but there were times that I'm sure I pushed them away when I was in the depths of depression. So, this is actually quite helpful - at least to think about what my own children might have experienced when they were very small.

    Your wisdom and persistence in parenting a needy child are so inspiring.

  7. We have dealt, somewhat similarly, with these same issues and others that are similar. I just find it all so sad. What it must have felt like (and still feel like) to be these lost lonely neglected children. It is so unfair.

  8. Have you ever checked into EMDR therapy or Brainspotting .

    I tried this type of therapy for some behavior that my therapist and I thought might be triggered by things that happened when I was a baby. The goal is to try to rewire those pathways.

    I'm not sure how much it helped me, but I really respect my therapist and she has seen it help people a lot.

    It might be worth checking out.

  9. I love the yelling down the hallway, that is super cute. I think that you are right about the behaviours, we have some of those too. I like it when they go even if they were sort of cute.

  10. Our nightly battle cry is:
    "I love you."
    "I love you more"
    "I love you mostest"
    "I love you mostest, mostest, mostest"

    It never gets old.

    I do love the "odd" behaviors...especially when you mention one to someone -- for instance one of my boys hides every toy in the house under the couch so that no one else can play with them...not even him and they say "oh, all kids do that" Really?!?

  11. I saw in videos once that often they don't even feed the babies with bottles, just tip up a bowl of milk and our it in their mouths. They have to gulp as fast as they can and not spit any out to get their meal. They do it because it feeds babies so fast and they don't have time to hold the ones too little to hold their own bottles.

    For us it has been a few 'returning' odd behaviors and many transient ones. I never know what to expect any given day. Thank goodness my one son's obsession with rear ends has passed!

    There has been recent research suggesting that Vision Therapy can help with PTSD. A lot of what we do in therapy is to create new pathways in the brain and this then re-routes away from the old damaged paths. Over 95% of the input our brain gets has a visual component. It makes sense that re-wiring some of those pathways might help. I have been doing therapy with all three of my RAD-light kids and it seems to be helping. It's actually really easy!

  12. "good night"

    "I love you"

    "Have good dreams"

    When Jupiter first came home, she ALWAYS slept with her hands and feet sticking out through the bars of the crib. My assumption was that she was so desperate for human contact that she did that in hopes an adult might walk by and touch her hand, even if accidentally.

  13. This is so well said. If you ever write a book I'll read it. I agree totally and yet could not have ever put things together to say it the way that you did, so good work!

  14. OOOOOOOO! I want a pumpkin mystery butterfly dream! That sounds fabulous! And as far as Chuck E Cheese. It should be called CHUCKIE's like the evil,evil doll. I'm catching up on your blog and lovin' it!

  15. I love the bedtime convo. Im not sure what a pumpkin mystery butterfly dream is but it sounds like fun. I loved the "honeydarling" speeches too. They made me laugh. Im so glad that you and this angel have found each other!

  16. Great post! In fact it should be a meme - What are the odd behaviors are YOUR house? Too bad I have the 30-day thing, well 80 some hours a week of work, plus....

    Anyway, I'm getting my blogging in at 3:30 a.m. and no one can stop me!

    Your instincts are amazing, by the way!

    I think I did the Titanic hug myself and it is well-named. Fear of death. No child of mine (odd behavior here?) should ever have to feel that way, which is why I usually go to bed with Anastasia until she falls asleep....or sometimes Zhen sleeps with "mamapapa", or when Craig was gone it was me in the middle with Z and A on either side. If Sergei was angst-filled....he'd have to sleep on the floor of our room, like Aidan did when he was younger (well - through high school). Odd, yes...but his attic room was either freezing cold or deathly hot for a good portion of the year...and Lydia had my death-fear so she slept in the little bed next to ours.

    So, when Craig asked the kids one night at dinner (after a day of his contemplating never, ever being hired for a paying job again) how they'd like it if we "all lived together in one room?!" (cheery lilt to voice) it wasn't even all that odd a question. I wouldn't say any of us jumped at that opportunity, though.

  17. I have been trying to get in with an emdr clinic, thanks for the reminder!

    I don't know what a pumpkin mystery fairy dream is either, that's the mystery of it LOL.

    It's cool you let all your kids in your bed with you- I would do that too but they don't want to! Just Teena once in a while. Genea will come in and leave after 20 minutes or so.

    I don't know about a lot of the orphanage issues but every time I hear something new it is worse and worse.


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