Thursday, September 26, 2013

On restraint and redemption

Vika has had her share of tantrums.  While I don’t always share the specifics of issues my children are dealing with, the tantrums are no secret.  If you have been to our house, or church, or a restaurant, or any public place really, you likely have been party to at least some portion of her tantrums, so I feel they are a safe topic to be open about.  (She certainly has no qualms about being public with them)

So here are some thoughts as we navigate through this behavior.

Ephesians 6:4b
… but bring the up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

Two words stand out to me there.  They are nurture and admonition.

Dictionary definition:
Nurture: The care and attention given to someone or something that is growing or developing. 

Admonition: gentle or friendly reproof.  Council or warning against fault.  

Traci’s definition:
Nurture: loving care and attention

Admonition: teaching the how and the why behavior is important; Actual training about how to behave. 

Those are two extremely important actions in a child’s development.  Neither she nor children like her are receiving any of these two vital actions that every child needs in order to survive and thrive.

For nearly seven years Vika experienced nothing even closely resembling nurture and admonition.  What she experienced, at both most basic and extreme, was containment.  She had been contained.  Her physical self had been contained.  Her emotional self had been contained.  Her behavior had been contained.  At the very least, ignored, at the most, punished, but never given any loving care or teaching about how behave in order to thrive.

So what triggers such wild tantrums in a child who had not been exhibiting behaviors like that while in the orphanage?

At first I believe it was truly terror.  When she fell into a fit, her eyes, while terrified, were vacant.  I would describe it as “Vika has left the building”.  She would scream, thrash, scratch, pinch, bite, pull hair, kick, and flail until her little body was completely contained by mine.  I would wrap her arms across her chest and hold her hands tightly in mine while hugging her tightly and holding her legs clamped tightly between my tightly clenched thighs.  (yes, that tight) My cheek was often pressed against hers as it rested on the mattress of her bed so she could not head-butt me,  always careful that she could breath properly.  (I definitely succeeded as evidenced by the decibel heights of her incessant screaming.)  We would hold this pose for 45 minutes to an hour and a half depending upon how hard she felt compelled to fight.  In those first weeks, we might have 3-5 tantrums a day/week.  Her expression during these episodes was vacant.  She was incapable of behaving any other way.  Her mind had retreated and her reflexive response had taken over.
As time passed, her tantrums’ severity abated, and we were able to talk with her about her behavior.  We both agreed that we DID NOT like to do that.  She did not like being restrained like that, and I did not like doing it.  Neither of us wanted it to happen, and the frequency began to subside.  We began talking to her about making different choices regarding her behavior.  We would calmly ask her to join us in counting to 10, or 20, or 50 to see if we could avoid going down the tantrum/restraint path.  Sometimes we could avoid a tantrum in that moment, but later that day the tantrum would still come out.  Once awakened, that monster would not go away unless slayed.
A curious thing happened.  After her tantrums lessened and some months passed, all of a sudden her tantrums began ramping up again, but they were different.  Her eyes had lost that vacant look.  Even in the face of different, better options of behavior, she would actively choose the tantrum.  Her eyes were angry and hard and she defiantly refused the opportunity to choose a better path.
“I choose tantrum and outside physical restraint.” Her defiant actions said.
I responded with weary but determined actions, crossing her tiny arms and balled fists across her chest, embracing her tightly against my chest, resting my cheek again against hers to avoid impact, and holding on until it was over. 
In this last week we were back up to 3 or 4 in a row in a day.
We would discuss what was happening:
Vika, do you know why I hold you the way I do?
Yes, if you don’t, I will scratch you and pinch you and bite you and pull your hair.
Yes honey, that is what you do to me if I don’t hold you like that.
What is happening that causes us to fight like that?
I am being mean.
Do you want people to treat you mean?
Do I let people be mean to you?
Do I let you be mean to other people?
Is that a good thing?

But still the rage against the rules, until yesterday.

Yesterday she changed.
We went into her room with all the fight elements present: mean behavior, resistance to stopping, reluctance to remove herself, active fighting with me.
I gently murmured to her, “Vika, at the end of my count to ten, you know that I will have to hold you down.  Now would be a really good time to choose to count with me. One, two…”
By the time I got to two, she had stopped fighting, she had gone limp against my arms, and she began counting.  When we got to ten, I lifted her into my lap and told her what a wonderful job she had done making a wise choice. 
Her smile was so wide!  She hugged me so tightly.  We were both so excited at the turn of events and Vika understood that she could control what would happen.
Two more times that evening she started down the old road, and when reminded that she had the power to choose what would happen, she made the wise choice.

It. Was. Awesome.

Why the change?  Why did she ramp up the tantrums first?  I believe it took this long for her to understand the rules, and then to trust us she needed to be able to see that we were consistent.  Because we never deviated from the routine, because we didn’t react to her the way her behavior made us feel (like smashing something), but instead reacted in a way that would create structure, safety, and security, she could believe it.  She had been nurtured into choosing wisely.  She had been admonished enough to understand how to do it wisely and why it was important. 

Do I believe the tantrums are over? 
Not yet, but I believe they are on their way to becoming a distant memory. 


Amy Sedor said...

Great job Vika! And to you too, Traci!

Speechless said...

Yes! Our experience with K was a lot like that...First, the vacant/uncontrollable tantrums. Then, later, the "planned" and calculated tantrums in response to anger. K also had that "ah-ha" moment when he realized that he didn't *have* to rage when he was mad. They aren't gone (21 months later) But, it's SO much better than it was and it's a fairly rare happening these days :)

Deb said...

A-freakin-men. THANK YOU JESUS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Ma Rose said...

May I ask where or how you learned to respond like that?
Faced with that sort of mindless beyond reason tantrum I wouldn't know how to respond... And I might need to know, as we are trying to adopt but no training or anything like that available here where I live.
Is there a book I can read?
sorry to bother you.
I'm really happy for all of you that she is starting to trust you and get over that trying season... :-)

traci said...

Ma Rose, I will be honest, I didn't read this in any book, although you might find something like it in any of Karen Purvis' books. She would be a great resource. I really believe that the Holy Spirit has taught me this over the years of parenting broken children. It certainly isn't something that was inherent. Quite honestly it is not the easiest thing to do. They really do get quite deep under your skin with many of their behaviors. It can be infuriating if you let it. They truly have not received any parenting, even basic instruction. We follow our little ones around with a constant stream of loving advise and admonitions about what to do and not do, and how to be nice and how to chew with our mouths closed and ask nicely and be respectful and receive and give love. They are immersed in it, but not these children who come out of an orphanage. That absence leaves a tremendous void and does damage of its own, in addition to everything else.