Every night, our girls get to video chat with their parents, they get 10 minutes each of undivided attention where they can talk about their day. One day our 6 year old “A” was talking to her mom and asked to say hi to daddy. “Daddy is asleep” said mom, to which our 6 year responded “well wake him up, I want to say Hi” … mom then went on to explain that daddy works really hard for them and needed to rest and she didn’t want to wake him up. In a very frustrated voice A said “well what about me? I work really hard to see you guys!”. My initial reaction was to laugh, as what does a 6 year old know about hard work? I glanced over at her with a smirk and she met my eyes with a frown. Mom responded with “aww I know honey, you do” which made me re-evaluate my initial reaction.
6 year olds do work hard every day. They work hard to learn about the world by observing others, initiating their own actions, observing the results; they work hard to learn new concepts at school and to learn about human interaction with new people they meet. If the life of the average 6 year old already involves so much emotional, mental, and intellectual work, how much more does a child with a traumatic background, who has been removed from their home multiple times, do every day just to survive?
Perhaps you have heard of the term “survival/defense mechanisms” but if you haven’t, it refers to methods that people learn to use in order to survive an adverse situation. Many of these methods may be considered to be “bad behaviors” to the untrained eye. Lying, cheating, stealing, violence, and manipulation are some examples of what might become a survival mechanism.
For example, they may have been in a situation were food was unreasonably restricted or unavailable. So every time the child was exposed to food, they would have to steal and hoard it. Once the child is removed from this situation and is placed in a home where food is always available and is unrestricted, the child might still feel the need to sneak and hoard food into their room for later. These defense mechanisms have lasting effects on kids and may take years to unlearn and even then, they may unlearn the behaviors, but the psychological stress that comes with the fear of food scarcity may last a lifetime. Another example can be a child who may have been physically beat for forgetting to do something, or doing it poorly, may resort to extensive lying to protect themselves. Even in a safe home, they may still unconsciously and habitually lie out of fear.
Imagine being taken from the only family you’ve ever known, the only home you are familiar with and placed into a completely foreign house with people you’ve never met. Although the new home and people may be safe, a child doesn’t immediately know this. The reality is, that most kids probably didn’t even realize they were in an unsafe, high stress and toxic environment until much later. Many kids, especially young ones, may miss their old way of life simply because it was all they knew and were used to, their comfort zone was what most of us would consider incredibly uncomfortable. Normal life for a child is whatever they were born into, it’s not until they begin to be exposed to other kids, other families, and other environments that they begin to question if their reality is a positive one.
When a child is placed in a new home they begin the process of learning all the new rules and expectations of the new family. They begin to test their new caretakers, to understand their dynamics and their “normal.” On top of this, many kids need to adapt to new foods, new cultural traditions, new ways of speaking, and sometimes new languages spoken in the home. Some kids need to do this many times if they are moved from household to household. All of this is incredibly exhausting. All of this is indeed, very hard work.
It’s important to acknowledge the work that kids do and not diminish its value. When kids in foster care are being “difficult” or challenging, we must learn to look beyond the behaviors and appreciate what they have learned to do to survive. This is not to say we shouldn’t teach them better coping mechanisms and discourage their old habits, but we must at least acknowledge where they are coming from.
Even the smallest accomplishments are huge for the lives of small children, especially children coming from hard places. Coming to a new place and discovering that all the skills you learned so hard to survive don’t work is incredibly scary. For a kid whose coping mechanisms were the only things they could use to have some control over their lives, it could feel like they’ve lost all sense of safety and control. It will take time for them to realize that they do not need to survive in their new environment, but that they will be taken care of. A child must see that their “work” will be rewarded with the fair “wage” of a stable, loving, and safe home for as long as they need it.