Now that we are out of the shock and awe phase of being new adopters and have a bit of clear space in our heads (most days), we can really see some patterns emerging with Jonathan. I’ve been watching and observing and wondering the last few months about the intention behind the things he does and really been able to see common ‘trauma’ patterns in his everyday actions.
On the outside he seems like a pretty typical kid – a happy healthy boy who is learning his way in the world, is active, asks lots of questions, wants to know how things work and loves to play. I see that too, but, there’s also underlying behaviour and patterns that I see. I know when he licks the back of his hand, quickly and almost secretly, or starts scratching at his forearms that he’s feeling worried and insecure. I know when I’m talking to him and he looks at me with one eye scrunched half shut that he’s scared or nervous he’s getting in trouble. And there are other small behaviours that unless you know his past, unless you know trauma, that you probably wouldn’t notice either.
What you see is probably just a typical 6 year old who gets excited over new and novel things. A new toy – best day ever, a new book – score, new game on his ipad – it’s like Christmas day. And in five minutes you may see a boy who appears to care less about his new things, you might even think he’s ungrateful, selfish, spoiled.
But what you may not know is that Jonathan was severely neglected for the first couple years of his life. And so what I see is a boy who moved so much and had a constant supply of ‘new to him’ toys at new foster homes that new wore off very quickly. I see a kid who had a parade of new people coming into his life who gave him new presents for being in his new place (us included), that new and novel sets off some kind of weird signal to his brain and he knows that it’s meaningless.
Very rarely is a new toy or book or game played with after the initial excitement of a few minutes wears off. My dad visited in the fall and brought a little wooden truck that they put together and played with for about an hour. Two weeks later I hadn’t see it at all, until I found it in it’s box, in his suitcase under his bed.
What you probably see is our little rocket boy and think he is very sweet kind boy who loves his mama when he constantly throughout the day tells, shouts, signs, whispers and would send smoke signals if we let him have the matches “mummy, I love you”.
But what you may not know is that our boy had lived in 6 foster homes by the age of four and when he came to us at four and half years old, he didn’t know how to give a kiss (he’d come at you with his mouth wide open if you asked for a kiss which was cute and all but…) and he didn’t know how respond when we told him ‘I love you’. Because I do know this, what I see is a boy who now knows what love and family is and is afraid of loosing it so he needs constant reassurance that it is there. All the time. Every day. 492 times a day. And if he doesn’t get that reassurance then his anxiety increases and then his behaviour escalates and then he says it more and we enter the vicious-cycle-drive-you-crazy-if–I-hear-I-love-you-one-more-time-I-might-loose-it-zone.
What you probably see when you look at Jonathan is an amazing eater. You may see a boy who loves food and is not picky like many 6 year olds. He’ll eat sushi, salad, any fruit or vegetable, fish, meat, home cooked, take out, fast food and his new favorite – oysters. You name it, he’s all over it. You probably think we are so lucky to have such a great eater.
But what you may not know is that Jonathan spent the first couple years of his life with no consistency, no being held or rocked to sleep, no tickles and giggles and ooohs and awwws, no hearing a sound in the world, no communication and some brightly coloured koolaide in his bottle (at least that’s what it looks like from some pictures we have). So, what I see is a boy who didn’t get consistent, nutritious, good food, many times a day. Every day. I see a boy who asks what’s for dinner after breakfast because he needs reassurance that there will indeed be dinner. I see a boy who will eat and eat and eat because somewhere deep in neuroconnection land there is still something telling him that this may be the last so pack it in while you can kid. At any given meal he will eat more than his dad if we don’t control his food. While I am so grateful to have a kid that is not picky and that is adventurous in food, like most adopted families we gots food issues.
You might see a boy who is just being a kid – one who likes to keep all kinds of things that seem meaningless – bits of paper, string, fliers, random objects, garbage, bits and pieces of this and that. You may think he is very clever and imaginative to create stories and be able to play with nothing but a scrap of paper, a domino and a bread tab.
But what you may not know is that all of his worldly belongings fit in one box and one suitcase and one garbage bag when he moved in with us. And so what I see is a boy who had nothing and lost everything in his short life and so he holds onto it all. Every scrap, every bead, random card, receipt, community newsletter, craft from school, tags from new clothes etc. gets stashed away into every nook and cranny of his room.
A few days before Christmas I did a major toy/room clean up to make room for what was about to be unwrapped and threw out a whole garbage bag of paper and bits. And his room isn’t that big or even that messy. It was all stashed away in boxes and drawers and containers and bags.
There are more little trauma quirks and patterns emerging all the time and we are doing our best to calm anxieties, create safety, consistency and make sure he knows he is loved. And maybe over time these little quirks will lessen, his self regulation will increase and his confidence in himself and his place in this family will be stronger.
If you are lucky enough to have met Jonathan though, what you probably do know is that he is a smart, funny, clever, curious, helpful, polite, giving, sharing, sweet and loving, willing to try most anything adventurous boy. And I know that too.