Now that Spiderboy is starting to settle into our family and our home, he is starting to feel safe. This is great because he is beginning to trust us and to let his guard down. It also means that he is more afraid of change and loss because as he begins to care about us, he has more to lose. And it also means that he feels comfortable to show us his feelings. We are told that this is great progress. But that doesn’t make it any easier!
The way this presents itself is in violent outbursts and emotional meltdowns. Sometimes triggered by anxieties linked to his early trauma. Sometimes triggered by things that would upset a ‘normal’ four year old like no ice cream, or his brother snatching. But because his emotional development is around the same stage as a six month old, he is unable to regulate himself. Before babies learn to regulate, they cry and thrash their little arms around. As they are cared for and nurtured, they learn to regulate themselves. A baby who isn’t comforted, rocked and cared for won’t learn to regulate. The trouble is, when they are four it looks more like throwing things, biting, swearing, shouting, screaming etc.
When Spiderboy gets to this point, the logic part of his brain is switched off. He goes into survival mode and his whole being will fight. He does not have the ability to rationalise, self soothe or regulate. At this point his brain is flooded with stress hormones and he needs time to literally clear his head again before he is able to talk about what has happened. The only thing we can do is to keep him and ourselves safe, and to try and reassure him that he is safe and loved.
A few days ago during one of these episodes, as he was beginning to calm he noticed a picture on the wall, next to a Quentin Blake and under a portrait of the Queen. It’s a photo I took one holiday of a butterfly sitting on a thistle. “Why is that plant all spiky?” he asked. I explained that some plants have spikes or thorns to protect them. “Why do they need to protect themselves?” I told him that they worry about getting eaten or hurt by other plants or animals. “Is that butterfly getting spiked?” I explained that the butterfly had flown past the thistle’s spiky bits, and had found its beautiful flower. “But is the butterfly hurting it?”
Suddenly, in a stroke of rare genius, I remembered my training! I wondered aloud (!) if Spiderboy was a bit like that thistle. Did he worry that people might hurt him if they got too close? Did he think that if he was ‘spiky’ he could keep people away? I wondered if I was a bit like that butterfly. I had seen past his spiky bits, and fallen in love with a kind, clever, brilliant, brave little boy. I wondered if that made him feel worried. Did he think that if I knew him properly I would stop loving him? Did he think that by hurting me he could keep me from knowing him?
Spiderboy didn’t say much, but I could tell he was taking in what I’d said. I’m beginning to learn that there isn’t going to be a Moment, a Moment when everything clicks and he accepts that he is loved and safe. But there are going to be lots of moments, moments of reassurance and realisation. And the drip drip drip of little moments, will one day make the big difference.
In that moment, we cuddled. I told him I loved him forever – when he hurts me and when he hugs me. He told me he was sorry, and that he loves me too. I knew it would happen again, if not that day, then the next. But we keep going, because everything I said is true.
He is the beautiful, spiky thistle. I am the butterfly that got too close. And I love him still, spikes and all.