Many caretakers begin the first session with heartbreaking tales of rage, rejection, betrayal and violence from the child in their care. “She said she wants to hurt the baby!” “She said she is stronger than any of us — and she’s five!” “He can’t be alone for two seconds without trying to destroy the upholstery.” Sometimes understanding the normal thoughts and feelings under those behaviors helps the adults to see things with less discouragement and personalization.
It is easy to forget how ego-centered children can arrive. Knowing nothing about the outside world, they assume that things happen because of them. Good things happen because I am good. Bad things happen because….I must be bad…
From there a child surrounded by neglect, chaos or other maltreatment may logically conclude that they are so bad no sane person would really like them, care for them or want them. Along comes a new caretaker, full of love but ignorant of the child’s ego-centered beliefs… Trouble.
For one thing, being hugged and loved by a new person can feel like that person just doesn’t know who I am. As someone put it, “It’s like having to rub noses with a stranger.” Sorry, nice person, but you don’t know how bad I am or you would not get half this close to me. Maybe I am smarter than you. (Always a scary thought for a child.)
Then if the child is given choices and independence normal for their chronological age, but premature for their emotional age level, they can feel overwhelmed with too much freedom for their thinly-formed social skills and regressed defenses. “What if I can intimidate these nice people?” may be a thought which both terrifies them and which they cannot let go of.
Finally, if they try something intimidating and the parent hesitates and appears to lose confidence, the child can feel compelled to recreate this drama over and over — both trying to resolve the problem of getting the parent to parent them, and exploring the first interpersonal theme over which they seem to have complete control. Their little fight-flight amygdalas (survival brain) are working overtime, triggered by more and more situations to go for control, because it makes the something predictable (intense conflict) happen over and over, on cue.
What helps caretakers is to realize the need of an out-of-control child for the parent to be in charge instead of be intimidated. This may bring up old issues for the adult, and that can become an early focus — how to remove old feelings of intimidation, of being bullied, for instance, in order to be the best parent this suffering, desperate child needs. As Dan Hughes points out, bullying children often have a constant fear of desertion. Acting violent can be their fastest route to forcing us to come to them, to think intensely about them, to feel strongly about them, to say their name and say it with real feeling…..
Inside the child is often an ongoing conversation something like this, “Are you thinking of me now? How about now? Are you looking at me? Don’t leave me! I can make you grab my arm, say my name, show me some feeling,…”
What can help is to find our confidence, move in, be close, say their name and show our deep feeling for them early and often — way, way, way before they become desperate for it.
More on this in a later blog.