If Your Child Starts Acting Out
Your child, may spend his first few days or weeks with you displaying his best behavior, especially if being compliant or “the good child” brought him attention and food in his birth home. The length of this honeymoon varies, but as soon as he's comfortable, he'll probably start testing you to see if you really can be trusted and relied upon to provide consistent, loving rules and a safe, permanent home.
Preschoolers, especially those from emotionally impoverished backgrounds, have limited vocabularies and cognitive abilities with which to make sense of their world. Your child may exhibit rage, depression, and a host of other emotions and reactions that he can't adequately explain or express. Until now, he may have had to rely on himself or have had to take care of the adults in his life. Depending on what his life was like before he joined your family, he may have learned to dig food out of the garbage or to pull a blanket over and tiptoe around a passed-out parent, and thought such behaviors to be normal and expected.
When he is thrown into the new environment of your home, those old behaviors will no longer work for him and he will be scrambling to determine how to behave. Your child may wonder just how bad he can be before you reach your emotional limits. He may soil himself, break things, run away or hide, and other unacceptable behavior. But the worse he acts, the more he needs to be reminded that he's loved and really home. Acting out is a defense mechanism against the pain of being ignored, left behind, or rejected. If your preschoolaged child has an abuse/neglect history, understand that many of his behaviors will be driven by fear; fear of not having enough food, fear of being rejected or punished harshly, fear of losing a nice place to live and a loving family through no comprehensible reason.
In addition to trying your patience, your child may have no understanding of his physical needs. You may have to teach such basics as putting on a sweater when it's chilly, how often to bathe, how to use utensils to eat, and so on. A child who has always been cold, hungry, and untouched will need you to demonstrate that you can and will protect him. When you help him with these needs, talk about them. You could say something like, “Devon, I see you shivering, so I'm going to give you a sweater because it doesn't feel nice when you're cold. I love you and don't want you to feel cold,” as you help him slip his arms into the sleeves. He will learn to trust you, that you know things he doesn't, and that he can rely on you to provide what he needs.
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Adults in your child's life may have disappointed him again and again, as well as hurt him physically and emotionally. Teaching him to trust you may be difficult because he may pull away, indulge in raging tantrums, and other attempts to exert control. He learned these behaviors because they helped him to survive the environment he was in. With patience, you can help him understand that he can trust you and that trust can form the basis of his new life.
If your child developed negative behaviors as a coping mechanism at his previous home, it is up to you to show your child that these don't work and aren't needed in your home. This demonstration will require you to stay in control and react neutrally to rages and tantrums. Your priorities are to keep your child safe and redirect the part of his brain that prompts the behavior. As odd as it may sound, if your child erupts into volcanic anger, he may be feeling safe enough with you to express his fear and conflicting emotions. He may never have been safe enough to express himself in this way.
Children who have been physically or sexually abused should never be forced into a hug or held tightly when they are out of control. Instead, a child like this should be directed to sit in a chair in an open space. Gently sit her down when she jumps up, even if you must do so every ten seconds.
If your child does have angry outbursts, try to figure out what prompted the rage. One possible explanation is overstimulation. Grocery shopping, unexpected visitors, videos, music, and a host of other innocuous things may be too much for a preschooler from a deprived situation to process within the first few months of being in your home. If overstimulation seems to be the trigger, take him into a quiet room where you can dim the lights and sit with him. Depending on what you know about his previous experiences, either hold his hand or gently rock him. This quiet calming behavior will reduce the overstimulation and allow him to become calm and relaxed.
Your preschool child needs to understand, on a basic level, that you are in control and that you can set and enforce boundaries. Small children instinctively know that they are too small and weak to take charge of their lives. When the adults who care for them fail to set up parameters for behavior, children become anxious and afraid. That anxiety and fear will be expressed through tantrums, running away, and defiance.
You, not your child, should decide what and when the family eats, when people go to bed, and other basic lifestyle issues. Set up a regular schedule for daily activities, a schedule that doesn't vary from day to day. Children from chaotic backgrounds need the assurance that things will be the same tomorrow.
Consequences should be immediate and relate directly to the misbehavior. For example, if you have a no-hitting or no name-calling rule in your home and your child hits or screams vile names at you, you must stop the hitting and screaming. Do so in a gentle, calm way and take your child to a specific place you have set up. Put one minute per year of age onto a timer and sit nearby. If your child continues to scream and thrash about, stop the timer and say, “Your time will start when you are calm and in control.” Reiterate why he is in his “mad” place and what you are doing to help him redirect his behavior.
At first, you may have to start and stop the timer several times, but if you persist and stay calm and loving, he will eventually realize that he can't control you with his anger.