Most children, the second something doesn't feel quite right, are more than ready to complain about every little cough and scratch in the throat. I never have to guess if they are feeling ill. This morning, I was reminded yet again of just how long it can take for a child who has experienced neglect and abuse to feel safe and behave in expected ways.
I often see posts from people who have just come home with their new children, and are deep in the throws of adjusting. It can feel overwhelming, I know, but part of the problem seems to be the lack of appropriate expectations that many of these parents have. They seem to think that after just a few months everything should be sorted out, and life will have settled back to a normal routine. I'm sure it can be a little overwhelming to hear that they are still actually at the very beginning of their adjustment. But appropriate expectations can go a very long towards not becoming frustrated with a situation or with a child. If you think everything should be fine after just a few months, and it is not, then that is actually where the problem lies. The frustration comes from expecting more from the child than the child can possibly manage at that point.
I'm going somewhere with all of this, I promise. When I tell parents what a more reasonable expectation for a child's adjustment is, I tell them to think in years not months. And even I can be surprised when this is the case.
I was sitting down to work with H. this morning. You know, my child who has been here over 5 1/2 years now. We were going to review something that she had some trouble with earlier in the week and I was all set to present it a completely different way with some manipulatives. It was one of those moments where I'm all set to teach something, in a way I believe is going to be engaging and helpful, and instead I receive the stink eye as only an early teen can deliver. While I'm doing some deep breathing, I wonder what on earth happened, because everything went south so gosh darn quickly.
Now, this is not a child who divulges how she feels easily or quickly. It has taken us a very long time to even reach the point where she can express negative emotions, much less discuss what is at the root of them. Often I have to play a bizarre form of one-person 20 questions, watching her body language and interpreting her now non-verbal grunts, to figure out where the problem started. I really didn't want to have to go this route this morning. I pointed out how she often felt better after we had talked about what was really wrong, and made some attempts at guessing.
Finally, H. mutters in her very small (and somewhat infuriating for the parent) tiny voice, "My nose is stuffy." I'm getting better at my non-reaction, so I could ponder this statement for a moment. My first reaction, which I sort of squelched was to suggest she go blow her nose, so we could get on with things. Instead, with the various clues slowly clicking into place... stuffy nose, we've had sick people, H. hasn't complained of being sick, maybe she isn't feeling well... I ask, "Are you not feeling well?" She shrugs, and complains about her nose again. I decide that this is as much as she is currently in touch with, so proceed as if she doesn't feel well. I told her of course she didn't have to do work if she wasn't feeling well. G. had already gone to lie down for a bit, and also wasn't doing work this morning, and I reminded her of that. I suggested that perhaps she wanted to get her blanket and curl up on the couch and look at some books.
H. was still balking a little bit, but I could tell she was coming around. I finally felt the need to remind her that here, in this family, it is OK to be sick. When we are sick in this family, we are taken care of and we don't have to keep work. In this family, no one gets in trouble for being sick. As I was reminding her of this, I could watch her body relax and her eyes fill with tears. Her breathing deepened and I could watch her brain come back online. She agreed that perhaps resting for a bit sounded like a good plan.
I have no idea what she experienced before she joined our family. I have a pretty good idea that much of it was not good. I forget how much she has overcome and progressed over the past 5 1/2 years, so I forget sometimes to speak to her very real and very deep fears. She has come so far, but still has so much farther to go.
Past hurts are not healed in a matter of months. Healing, which really can happen, is the work of years, if not a lifetime.