Survival techniques gone wrong
By Jeanne Williams


10 year old Brielle’s foster parents are at their wit’s end. They give her regular snacks and meals, and tell her that she is allowed to come ask for food if she is hungry at any other time of day, but she continues to take food from the pantry without asking, and hoard it in her bedroom. Sometimes the food spoils in there, and her foster parents only find it by following the smell. She also lies on a regular basis. Sometimes to avoid getting in trouble, and sometimes for no reason that anyone can figure out. Brielle’s parents came to me, asking for advice.

As in many behaviours that are seen in abused or neglected children, we can discover a lot by looking at Brielle’s early history. She was the second child in a family of 7 children. They lived in a rural area with their mother, and occasionally their father, who drifted in and out of their lives. Their mother tried to keep a job, leaving the younger children in the care of the older ones, but barely made enough to keep the family alive. Brielle’s mother was also unable to cope with the emotional needs of such a large family, and often responded to the children’s shenanigan’s with anger and violence.

Brielle remembers stealing tomatoes from her neighbour’s garden for her younger siblings to eat. She remembers shoplifting when they were in the grocery store, and even getting leftovers out of the garbage cans at times. She mostly remembers being hungry, and not being able to do anything about it. Brielle also remembers getting whipped when her mother caught her in any of these behaviours. If her mother asked her what she had been doing, the safest response was usually a lie.

When Brielle was 8, she was taken out of her mother’s home, and placed in a foster home with 2 of her siblings. She fit in immediately, and seemed to be happy there, but as time went on, the lying and hoarding behaviours have seemed to get worse instead of better.

Now let’s look at Brielle’s developing brain. In her first few years of life (i.e., when her brain was in its most important stage of developing), Brielle, in her 5-year-old way of thinking, needed to lie, be sneaky, be aggressive, and steal, literally to survive. That created certain neural pathways in her brain that said "this is how you react to certain situations, threats, etc." Now, at the age of 10, those neural pathways are still there.

At this point, an important thing to realize about our brains is that often our actions happen before conscious thought is possible. We are walking down the sidewalk, and we’ve stepped over the crumbling hole in the cement before we even realize that it was there. That is true for all of us – it’s the way our brains are made, and it is true for Brielle. So when she feels a threat (a person saying – what did you just do?, or a feeling of hunger in her stomach, for example), her brain causes her to act in a certain way before she has had a chance to think it through. She lies, “I didn’t do anything!”, or sneaks a package of cookies from the pantry, and then when she is confronted with her actions, she honestly does not know why she did that.

One important response for Brielle at this point is to empathize with her. Help her to understand why her brain is responding like it does, and that she can’t help the fact that her brain was wired that way. This was an important way for Brielle to survive, and she can be praised for being so creative in protecting herself and her siblings. Then help her to discover that although these behaviours used to be important to her self-survival, they are not necessary any more, and in fact, they are not nearly as helpful as they used to be. Brielle will probably need to be reminded lots of times that even though telling the truth is terribly scary, she will not get whipped for it, no matter what she has done, and even though being hungry creates a feeling of panic in her stomach, she will always get plenty of food now when she needs it.

She also needs to be reminded that each time she is able to respond in a different way, and she doesn't get beaten, go hungry, etc., a new neural pathway is being created, and then reinforced, that says "you can also respond to threats this way." The hope is that over time, that pathway becomes the stronger in the brain. But it takes time and lots of repetition.

As this child’s caregiver, your job is first to be calm when she lies or steals. Try hard not to lose your temper, because that is a huge trigger, or reminder, of past abuse. Then you can also be firm and consistent with responses to her actions - there are appropriate and logical consequences to lying, stealing, or hoarding. Through this, you have the opportunity to help Brielle experience those alternative reactions - where the brain begins to say, "oh ... I told the truth about what I did, and I didn't get beaten!"

© 2008 by Jeanne Williams

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