This request arrives by email after every presentation when I run out of handouts. The most desired handout is the Refrigerator List.
It is called the Refrigerator List ever since some of the first foster parents to receive a copy — while attending my talk in Indiana — told me later they stuck it up on their frig for quick reference. It helped them in the heat of the moment when they struggled to maintain understanding and empathy for newly arrived foster children.
The Refrigerator List suggests that acting out behaviors are a coded language — the best the child can do to communicate given the insecurity of their inner thoughts and feelings. Sometimes the child is simply testing the waters — as children need to do to find out for themselves where the rule are. But an emotionally struggling child is often saying as best they can, “This is what I was given, and this is the safest way I learned to ask for help — to just dump it on you and hope you can figure me out…..please? PLEASE?! Nobody has gotten it yet, and I’m going crazy trying to regulate my awful thoughts and feelings. Here, have some….show me how to manage them!”
And next thing you know you are feeling frustrated, resentful, even furious and despairing. But it didn’t come from you. You weren’t feeling those feelings before. They came from the child as a desperate gift to you, in hopes of getting help they have been asking for since their development was left behind.
And the catch is — their horrible paradox — they have to reject, refuse and hide from whatever direct help you offer, until you have been tested to the bone for about three months longer than you can possibly stand it. Hang on to your sense of humor, your supports, and your capacity to consult for outside help!!
The Refrigerator List
Suggestions for decoding behaviors — possible explanations
by Robert Spottswood, M.A., LCMHC Norwich, Vermont
- Violence, picking fights
- — (Chronic fear of being deserted. Feeling abandoned usually triggers rage in humans and primates.) The surest way to prevent desertion is to keep you mad and angry at me for fighting.
- — Please stop me! I’m begging to feel contained and safe!
- — I need closeness but I do not deserve it; hitting is the safest way to be close, while disguising both my need and shame.
- — My endless fear, sadness and loneliness only gets a moment of relief when I put it into other people and then laugh at them for feeling it for me. That temporarily numbs my own anguish — when I can laugh at seeing others feel my pain for me, outside of me.
- Bizarre goofiness, endless pestering, whining
- — I have to be in your thoughts all the time or I’m afraid I’ll disappear! (I feel empty inside; don’t yet know who I am.) Are you thinking of me now? How about now? Now? Still? What about now?….
- — I didn’t have much for role models, so I provoke other people to react so I can observe them and try to learn.
- — I’m so under-socialized, this is the best I can do. I’m so used to being called ‘weird’ it feels normal.
- — Closeness, intimacy — terrifies me. This behavior keeps people annoyed and at a safe distance. Not hard at all.
- ‘Hiding’ behaviors
- (sneaking, tricking, lying, stealing, hoarding, cheating, shoplifting,……….all very annoying!)
- — I know I’ll be kicked out of this home, so I have to practice hiding and sneaking for when I must survive on my own.
- — I don’t deserve to have my needs met. You don’t realize that yet, but I realize it. Nobody will give me anything I need after they realize how bad I am. Sneaking will be my only way to survive.
- — Depending on adults is like volunteering for a concentration camp; not possible, not on radar, can’t happen ever again!
- — Since I am a shameful being, but you think I’m good, I’ll try to preserve our doomed relationship as long as possible. I will sneak around and lie to protect you from the horrible reality of who I am; because you are so nice.
- — Lying is my way of trying to tell you about my past; it’s what I had to learn in order to get along in my old life. Can you talk to me about that, or are you just too freaked out by lying to help me integrate my past nightmare life?
- Oppositional defiance
- — I need to feel safe by maintaining control. So whenever you suggest something, I immediately say NO, to create some safe space to think it over. Then maybe I can say Yes. This is me coping. And it starts over every time. Sorry. Help!
- — Saying ‘I’m not coming!’ and then screaming ‘Don’t leave me!!’ recreates an early conflict drama, over and over. I’m trying to work it out, and need help, but can’t accept help. (If that doesn’t make sense, welcome to my world.) All my shame about this I must project onto you: you’re wrong, you’re mean, you’re stupid; I have to make my failure be about you. (It hurts too much that it’s really about me.)
- Letting adults down, disappointing them
- — Positive adults make no sense to me. All I can do is humor them until I run away or fight again, and watch their fragile dreams for me crumble over and over. Are they stupid?
- — The horrors I lived through (including neglect) are not even in the middle class vocabulary of conceivable experiences, so what do I do with these nice people? Let them think their big thoughts and make their big plans for me, until I have to act out my real shame, letting them down over and over. Sorry, nice people.
- — Get over your disappointment and stop caring about me. I did.
- — You’re moving too fast. First I need emotional safety. Second I need you to co-regulate my huge emotions. Lastly I might talk about all your great ideas….. But make me feel safe first.
- — Getting involved with closeness or even with conversation means getting vulnerable. Can’t happen ever again, thanks to my past.
- — I never learned normal conversation, so I feel stupid when you talk to me. Just leave me alone so I don’t feel stupid.
- Blowing up when told No; zero frustration tolerance; big rages when limits are set
- — I’m stuck back in the Toddler’s Dilemma, back when kids normally come to accept that grown-ups who love us can also say No, and may set limits. I never was helped to resolve that back then, and I’m still trying to intimidate and terrify people into always saying Yes. I need help learning this lesson late, sorry. Please help. (But remember that I have to reject your help. Good luck, and don’t give up!)
- — Too much choice, freedom, and independence! And too soon! I can’t handle it, but I can’t refuse it either – just like if you let me drive the car. I’m stuck! Please step up to the plate, take charge, and don’t let me intimidate you out of it, because I’m really stuck. Did I mention that I’m stuck? Need more Momma! Need more Papa!
- — Though I can’t ask for help, I need help – it is scary to be aging with only infant skills to handle frustration. So please be confident, be in charge, figure me out, and set loving yet firm limits I can struggle against without being shamed; early and often until I am done with that struggle and can move on. I don’t need screen time, electronics, or stuff. I need parents and I need them to be in charge. I’m just a kid trying to figure out complicated stuff. (This is so frustrating….)