Monday, July 6, 2009

Understanding isn't important. Listening is

(This is a graphic post, please use discretion reading)

A door slams shut. A crying child listens to the terrifying screaming between two adults high on meth. Dirty plates crash around the room and glass shatters on a messy floor. This child closes his eyes, screaming holding his hands to his ears, hoping to drown out the sound of hell around him. A scream from his mother opens his eyes and the door to his room is kicked open by his birthfather.

This child knows what's coming. The last time dad came into his room, the child lost 2 teeth. "What are you gonna do about it, boy?" the father screams. His sullen, drunken voice bounces off the dirty walls like the proverbial gunshot. The father pics up his son the scruff of his neck and throws him into an adjoining corner of the room. Blood runs down his now torn open chin. The father kicks him in ribs and a shot of pain leads the child to yelp the helpless cry of a boy in hell itself. The injured child curls up next to a boxed up Christmas tree that was never opened.

His mother comes bursting through the door with a gun, blood running from both of her swollen eyes. " If I cannot have him, you can't either" she musters from her bleeding, mashed mouth. The father turns around leaving his beaten son crumpled on the floor. His father turns around, and stumbles towards his wife of equal inebriation ready to end her life. Before the little boy loses consciousness, he here's a single gunshot and his father's body hitting the floor.

Your son is stomping his feet after he has just urinated all over your brand new carpet. This of course, two weeks after he tried to burn down the Christmas tree in the basement. 1 week ago, he beat up his sister and lied to his teachers about fighting with another child in school.

In your frustration, you want to yell, you want to scream. You WANT to punish. The anger in your adopted child's eyes is almost scary. You sit him down and you TELL him to talk about what is making him angry, and rightfully so. You want answers. You deserve them. You rescued this child from God knows what in his former life. For the life of you, you just cannot wrench a word from him as he continues his ranting and raving. Frustrated with your adopted child's actions, you want to cry, but the tears just seem fruitless and futile. What's the point. Your child is an enigma.

I receive alot of emails from parents shaken up, fed up, looking for help. Not even help, just a sounding board. Something to lessen the frustration from what their children are doing. Some emails I receive talk more about what their child is thinking. After a few minutes (or hours depending on the offenses) I tell the parents one thing:

Understanding isn't important as listening is.

This is something that I always preach. Think about the story that you just read about the reality of too many adopted children. How could you POSSIBLY understand or related to that kind of experience? Even if you could, what would it lead to? For closed adoptions, you may never even know what happened to your adopted child, at the very least, understanding it.
What would have my adoptive parents understood about a topless babysitter I was feeling up in my bedroom for no apparent reason when I was 6 years old? I was too young to have understood what I was doing, how would they understand it?

In my meager opinion, sometimes, it's better just to listen. I know what your going to say, "My kid doesn't talk about his/her experiences". That's fine, we can address that.

When your child is acting out in any way (Self mutilation, sexual acting out, killing, fire starting) instead of yelling, screaming or playing into the R.A.D. itself, try something different. As long as you, your family and your child are safe this procedure may work.


1) Diffuse the situation as best you can. Use a soothing voice, remain calm.
2) Remember the action is based on shock tactics and or the perception of loss
3) Ask the child to remain as calm as possible.
4) Get your child to a quiet, safe place that has been established as his/her "safe place"


A) Ask your child why he/she did what she did (Honey, why did you start the fire?)

B) Answer: "I wanted the Christmas tree dead"
C) Question: "Well honey, why did you want the Christmas tree dead"
D) Question: "Did the tree do something to you that you want to talk about?"
E) Answer: "No, the tree didn't do anything"
F) Question: "Were you angry at the tree honey?"
G) Answer: "No I wasn't angry at the tree, I am angry at my dad"
H) Question: "Your dad now, or the dad you had along time ago"
I) Answer: "Dad along time ago, he threw me into a Christmas tree"
J) Question: "Oh, honey I am so sorry. I can't even begin to understand
what that what that was like." "Would you like to talk about it
with me??"
K) Answer: "It just really hurt alot and I was scared"
L) Statement "I will ALWAYS be here to listen to you honey, even if I don't understand
what has happened. You are safe here"

In essence, you have opened Pandora's box. Instead of trying to force your child, you are simply letting the child vocalize through their own shocking acts. R.A.D. is meant of course to push away and shock. If you don't react to your child's actions with shock the act itself has lost alot of "steam". Reacting shocked is the point, the child wants your attention and then he/she wants you to throw them away.

Sometimes, it's better to let the child initiate communication when they are ready. They are ready when they start acting out. Of course, if the action is life threatening intervention, (Police, therapists, rtc, etc.) must be utilized. If the event itself isn't life threatening and is run of the mill acting out, this passive communication just might work.

When I set fires and killed animals I was relating my anger. The problem was my parents were playing into my hands by acting the way they did and calling me the HORRIBLE things they did. They simply played the part that I assigned them. If I acted out, they became the aggressors and I could act accordingly. Without the hysterics, name calling and physical abuse, I would have been immediately disarmed.

Remember he story above R.A.D. parents. How could you understand that kind of hell? Most likely, you can't understand it because it's beyond rational action and thought. It however, was the life of a child for years.

Listen even when you think you can't. It will pay off.


*Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, these are just my personal opinions based on my life struggling with R.A.D. Use these procedures of course with therapy and if you have questions about the above techniques, please speak with your therapist BEFORE attempting it.


Thandi said...

I wish all parents had access to this advice

SocialWkr24/7 said...

I once had a collegue who used to tell foster/adoptive parents, "Punishment is not the answer, you can never make this child feel worse/more uncomfortable than he has already felt". Essentially - "punishment" isn't going to work, because the child has already been "punished" beyond understanding - you must use something different.

Thank you for sharing this.

Lisa said...

This is so great Michael!!!! Exactly what we were talking about the other night.

I'm working on a post about punishment versus consequences too.

Ryansmom said...

Wonderful advice!! I am so glad Lisa linked your blog. Thank you for sharing your insight and your heart.