Our youngest had a birthday this week – all three children now in double figures and don’t we know it! I just had to reflect on it all this morning as how my children react to things sometimes fascinates me. The birthday boy woke bouncing around the house saying “it’s my birthday, it’s my birthday” and didn’t stop doing that all day – even at school apparently. However I did notice when the extended family came round for coffee and cake as is the tradition in our house, he resorted to his toddler talk that he does on occasion. Talking in a toddler voice and acting much younger than his 10 years. I remember a fellow adopter telling me once, before we had our children, that if you take the years they were at home before they went into care off their chronological age that is what their emotional age is more like. I didn’t believe her and thought that can’t be right. They also of course regress even further when they are stressed, anxious or frightened. And as I looked at my 10 year old talking and acting like a 3 year old I have to reconsider – he had certainly regressed.
The reactions of the other two were interesting too. The eldest was totally unimpressed with her brothers special day. As it doesn’t really relate to her it comes and goes without impact. Fortunately she was at a friends house for tea, which meant the youngest could enjoy the attention without interruption from his sister.
The middle son was up and down all day – as is the norm, but underlying all his reactions was a jealousy and little empathy for the fact that it was his brothers special day and not his. I know from the reading I’ve done that being able to empathise is a complex skill and emotion. I used to think you either had empathy or you didn’t – like a character trait or part of your personality. However I now know that empathy starts to develop very early in life through the stimulation and repetitive patterned activity with others around you. When you look at a baby and it’s parent the whole world revolves around that baby – all eyes are on him, all love and attention is showered on him (and so it should be). How must that feel for a baby? To know they are the centre of someone’s world must be amazing and is essential for future development.
Our children and those thousands who’ve been through our care systems haven’t had that affection and attention showered on them. As much as we try and do that now the fact that it wasn’t done in those early years makes it very difficult for them to comprehend now. There’s too much underneath the feelings. Why should they trust that our intentions are good? How do they know we won’t be cruel and hurtful towards them if we focus on them fully? What if when we’re giving one of them a special treat for their birthday we forget about the other one and they become invisible? The need to be seen is a strong drive to survive and to be loved. The behaviour they demonstrate is representative of the immense feelings bubbling up underneath – the jealousy shouts out “What about me?” the toddler talks screams out “I don’t want to grow up coz the worlds too scary – I need to be loved like a baby is loved”, the detachment to others happiness says “why should I be happy for others, it doesn’t affect how I feel about myself and I must protect my own feelings at all cost”.
Wow how exhausting must it be for them? It’s relentless for us trying to care for them and show them we do love them and wish we could have given them more when they were younger, but for them struggling with the complex and powerful emotions every day must be overwhelming.
So next time you see their behaviour regressing or being difficult take a closer look – I know there will be more going on underneath. And when we can step back and see the anxiety and fear that propels their behaviour to another level we can at least acknowledge that they need us to be stable and consistent and to just hold them close so that they do know how much they are loved – whether they can accept that or not.