Self Sabotaging Behaviour
by Jeanne Williams
Cedric was eight when he moved into his current foster home. He had lived in another foster home for a little over a year, but his behaviour there became so destructive that they asked to have him removed. His first day in his new home, he was so happy to be with this family that he jumped off a three foot retaining wall onto some rocks below, and fractured his foot. When the family planned a trip to the amusement park, Cedric’s behaviour suddenly became so bad that the whole family had to cancel it and stay home instead. When they went to his favourite foster auntie and uncle’s house for Easter dinner, they ended up having to leave early – why? Because Cedric had become uncontrollable, once again.
Why do foster kids so often engage in self-sabotaging behaviour? It seems as if they cannot stand to let good things happen to them, so they find ways to make sure that the good things don’t last too long – or don’t happen at all.
One way to look at self-sabotaging behaviour is through the lens of attachment and neglect. When Cedric was born, his dad almost immediately took custody of Cedric, moving him to another town. By the time Cedric was two, his dad could no longer handle Cedric’s behaviour, so dad put Cedric in the car with a diaper bag, drove two hours, and then dropped the toddler off at his mother’s house without a good bye. Cedric’s mother did the best she could to take care of this new and unexpected addition to her life, with the help of many friends who would babysit Cedric, sometimes for days, while mom either was at work (on her good days) or off on a drug binge (on her not-so-good days). When Cedric was 5, he moved in with his grandmother, who tried hard to provide for his needs, but found him to be just too energetic for her to handle. At the age of 6, Cedric’s grandmother called social services, and his time in foster care began.
Cedric learned early that when you love someone and depend on them, bad things happen - you may get abused, or you may get abandoned.. This lesson isn't really a verbal, conscious thing – Cedric probably could not tell you that that’s what he knows. But it is there. It is buried in a non-verbal part of the brain. And the result is that when things get to going really good at home, a warning signal goes off in the brain that says [insert Star Trek-style warning bells here] ... "you're about to get abandoned or abused, because that's what happens when you love or depend on someone too much!"
Remember - this is unconscious, and non-verbal - not something that Cedric is or could be aware of. One antidote to this is the fact that for every day that he doesn't get abandoned or abused, a new set of neural pathway is being created, and then reinforced, that gives him a different message. In the meantime, though, it will look like he is doing everything he can to prove the first message right. Which can be hell for you!
Your job here is 1) take care of yourself and your family however you can, and 2) you can try a response like this: (in an exceedingly calm voice) "Cedric, you may be wondering if I will still love you when you do ______. I want you to know that I'm really angry that you did that [even calmer voice here!], and I want to remind you that even when I'm angry with you, I love you very much. And since you did _______, here's what you're going to have to do now [insert restitution, consequences, etc.].
© 2008 by Jeanne Williams