Yesterday morning, as usual, I was at a ladies’ Bible study at our church. There is a group for the children in the room next door, Batboy usually stays in it, I’m still working on Spiderboy! That morning he chose to join in and stayed until the end. Then, as we were finishing, he came running in to me in tears. My friend, who was running the group, was with him. She explained that he’d accidentally hit her face during a game, and when he was asked to say sorry he’d gotten very upset. She then said, helpfully, how hard all children find it to say sorry, which is true. And for children who already struggle with shame and self esteem, it can be almost crippling to apologise. And in Spiderboy’s case, it can lead to more and more negative behaviours in an attempt to avoid apologising for the initial offence!
Most children approach life with the opinion that they are important, and the world revolves around them. It is normal for children to feel pretty good about themselves, most of the time. This is important as children explore the world because it gives them the confidence to try things. It’s also important because it allows them to develop relationships and trust. They can believe that people would love them – why wouldn’t they?!
For children who have suffered trauma and loss at an early age, as most adopted children have, it is more normal that they approach life with the idea that they are bad and they are not worth loving. They often feel ashamed of themselves, and blame the neglect/abuse/rejection on themselves, rather than on the adults who should have been caring for them.
Spiderboy has a very low opinion of himself. His first (birth) family did not care for him properly – he hears “you’re not worth it.” His second (foster) family favoured his brother, and so Spiderboy was often left to his own devices in the background – he hears “you’re not good enough.”
He works very hard to try and hold our attention because if he loses it, he might not get it back. He constantly asks for reassurance that he is doing a good job to make sure we are still pleased with him. When he does ‘bad things’, he assumes we no longer love him – his first experiences of love were not the unconditional, selfless, caring love that most infants experience. In fact, often when he misbehaves his first reaction is to hide; then his second reaction is to hit, kick, shout or spit. I think it’s a survival technique. He thinks if we tell him off, then we don’t love him anymore and we are going to send him away. And so he does all he can to prove that he isn’t lovable.
As we get to know our wonderful little man more, we’re changing how we deal with his challenging behaviour. But we still always insist on saying sorry. It’s how we repair relationships, it’s how we show we still love each other. It’s very difficult for Spiderboy because it gives him more evidence that he is a bad person, and he isn’t worth loving. But every time he does something wrong and we love him anyway, every time we make him say sorry but don’t send him away, we’re proving him wrong. We show him he is worth loving, he is special, he is important, he is ours.
And maybe one day, he might start to believe us.