Behavior Problems or Little Satan
A foster parent's nightmare?
Imagine being unable to sleep at night. You just feel
something is wrong. There is someone in your home. They are sneaking around and you hear them quietly going down the
stairs. They have a butter knife. It may not be the sharpest knife, but for
what they have planned it will do. It’s sharp enough to do the job. That new
sofa you bought will soon be riddled with cuts and slashes. The culprit is
smiling to himself in the dark; he may just get this mission accomplished. Then you turn on the light, he turns and stares at
you. He is only halfway through his mission. He tries to hide the knife and
look innocent but he is not convincing. A part of him is glad he has upset you. He is only six years old.
I once worked with a child who had already had a pretty rough go of it in life. His mother had addiction problems and was a working girl as they say. This six year old boy came into care when he was three but he had already experienced a lot and much of that was not good to say the least. However, he was incredibly loyal to his mother and was pretty much committed to making sure that no one else was ever going to replace her and therefore no one else was ever going to be able to parent him. The more they tried to, the more he would punish them.
The powerful story
Now for someone who has never worked with a severely damaged child, it is impossible to explain the power and intensity these children can muster in their attack on the world around them. This particular boy had gone through foster parents like a knife through butter. And he was only six years old. He was eventually placed in a home with very experienced caregivers. These were two of the most respected professional parents in the system. But alas even they were no match for our little Angel.
You see when a child has a story in his mind and in his being and it dominates his every action and behavior it doesn’t really matter what consequences a parent uses, or how much love they try to show him, he will in all likelihood eventually use all of his incredible child energy to achieve a reality that fits with the very story that dominates his thinking. The less sophisticated the child, the harder it is in many ways to convey any messages of alternate truths. To the child what they are doing is not a behavior problem, in so many ways it is a message to the world about who they believe they are.
Behavior problems and identity
This particular boy, Angel I will call him ( because most of his foster parents referred to him as little Satan) was a master of wreaking havoc on the most committed and professional foster parents the child welfare system could find. He was extremely underground and truly believed that any time spent unsupervised was destruction time. Now without getting into a deep psychological narrative here, the basic personal story this boy lived in accordance with was that he was some kind of a devil child. Where he got the idea is anyone’s guess, however I am fairly sure his story was dominated by a belief that it was his fault he had been taken from his mother. I am quite sure that at some point she had told Angel this and all of his behavior seemed to fit that pattern.
A child who is lead to believe that they are so powerful and so capable of bringing destruction to their own family is often likely to develop a very strong idea that they have incredible abilities to wreak havoc and destruction on the world around them. By acting in accordance with these beliefs, the child is able to use an incredible amount of energy to convince those around him that he cannot be controlled and that attempts to do so will result in the one who is trying to assert their authority being severely punished. I am sure this child had experienced almost every kind of punishment and consequences in his brief life and none of it had been effective.
Angel was the only child I had seen who could really convince his caregivers he was evil. The look of vengeance and hatred he could muster was astounding. Most caregivers I had worked with would almost always discuss a child’s difficult or problem behavior. They would discuss things like triggers and low frustration tolerance, but with Angel it was different. Anyone who cared for him would soon be unable to separate his behavior from the child himself and thus they usually succumbed to the belief that he was somehow evil, even when they truly knew better. Maybe it was because Angel’s distrust and hatred of adults was so strong and his belief in his own determination and power so high that he really did come across as evil. It had in a way become his identity.
When foster parenting isn't enough
Angel needed more serious interventions than foster parenting, but the system I worked in at the time was very reluctant to institutionalize children like Angel as all of the behavioral programs were facing funding cuts. However Angel really needed round the clock supervision to help monitor him and keep him stabilized. He would also require various counseling services to truly get to the underlying issues that fueled his tragic identity. He needed a team around him to surround him and take up the intense challenge of continually confronting his behavior without reinforcing his negative identity. Being in a foster parenting scenario allowed him too many opportunities to wear down well intentioned caregivers and continue to recreate his own destructive reality. He wasn’t evil. He was in fact drowning. He was in the deepest part of the pool, way in over his head, and many of the good intentioned adults around him kept unintentionally throwing him lead weights when he needed a life raft full of lifeguards. This was one of the saddest cases I had ever witnessed.
My contract to work with this boy eventually ended. I tried to convey to his social worker and her supervisors my feelings that he needed much more than a foster home. I believed the longer he was kept in the homes of well meaning people the more his destructive identity would be reinforced and the harder it would be for the system to ever reclaim this child. But I was only one voice. I wasn’t the senior decision maker and my pleas fell on ears that had another agenda.
The cost of not using all our resources.
I tell this story for a few reasons. First, I want people to realize the prisons of our nations are filled with children like Angel. We spend $30 000 to $50 000 a year keeping the Angels of the world in prison as adult. When we avoid the truth about these children and the fact they sometimes need more serious interventions and resources, we all pay the price later when they become adults. I do not believe in placing children in specially staffed homes unless it is absolutely necessary but sometimes we need to recognize this necessity rather than keeping our heads in the sand for either general policy or fiscal reasons.
I also hope that others will understand that a child with a crippling belief system, like the one that seemed to dominate Angel’s every behavior and action, cannot simply be helped by giving him love and good parenting. All of the great things we read in parenting books rarely work for children who are operating with a destructive identity. It takes a team effort to properly monitor and allow those working with children like Angel to recover after every shift spent trying to stabilize and in essence re-wire his thoughts and behavior.
Lastly, I deeply believe and want to reinforce that while some children may indeed act as if they are evil, the truth is they are only doing what fits for them. When we come across children like this their intensity and negative can be overwhelming. The behavior may even dominate our perception of the child but the more it does the more his destructive story becomes a reality. When policy makers start making cuts to services for kids like Angel, we all need to be aware there may be a bigger price to pay down the road. As foster parents, it is important to advocate for children like Angel and it is important for the foster parenting support system to recognize when children need more than a foster home is equipped to give them. If not, good foster parents often end up getting disillusioned or burned out and the system needs all the good people it can get.