For some vulnerable children who’ve experienced a difficult start in life things being all fair and equal is so very important. In fact it’s like they have an internal spreadsheet that tots up everything; “Billy spent three minutes on the computer and I only had one”, “Sally’s got 20 sweets and I’ve only got 19”, “how come you get to stay up late and we don’t?” – you get the idea. I’m sure that it’s not just vulnerable children who feel like this, but I have come to realise that for one of my children there is a bug in his spreadsheet. Like when you put in a wrong formula and it goes all out of wack.
The problems this internal spreadsheet bring for my child, and many others I’m sure, are great. In school for example the reward systems that most schools seem to use actually hinder him instead of helping him. It certainly doesn’t encourage him to enjoy learning when he is fixated on the prize and the fact that he knows that Dave got three stickers this week and he only got one.
The more time I spend with different children who could be considered vulnerable the more I am convinced that shame is the major underlying emotion for them. Due to the disturbed attachment cycle where their needs weren’t consistently met they develop an intense feeling in the core of their being that THEY are bad. Whatever we try to do to get them to feel good about themselves doesn’t seem to work. This, coupled with the internal spreadsheet, means that all the actions we do are recorded as evidence to confirm that what they feel is right. If I don’t respond in exactly the way my child feels is fair I get a “you don’t care do you?” or “Of course you’ll let my brother but not me” – everything is measured in comparison to someone else.
The bug though is a weird one. It says that everything has to be fair but on my terms. I set the formula. So for us adults trying to input into the spreadsheet we have no chance as the rules change daily sometimes. One of the examples of this with my children is that they have all gone to bed at the same time since we had them 6 years ago. The eldest actually doesn’t seem to mind. She is three tears older than the youngest but it doesn’t bother her to go to bed at the same time. However the youngest (with his internal spreadsheet) get’s very bothered if his three years older sister gets to stay up later because she’s out. “Why can’t I stay up and go to bed at the same time?”. When I try to reason with him that actually most children have staggered bedtimes – “how is it fair that she has to go to bed the same time are you most nights when she’s three years older?” I say – but the harder I try to reason with him the more frustrated he gets at this apparent injustice in his world.
The new craze around the film Frozen gives me a little song I use sometimes with my son. Depending on how chilled he is sometimes he can respond to my singing “Let it go, let it go” but other times he is locked in to the spreadsheet and cannot find a way out. So how can you help children like this?
Firstly recognise when they are in their spreadsheet. Whether at school or home there will be signs and for some children you don’t need to look very hard. They are saying “why is it like this?” “That’s not fair”, “What about me?”. Other times it may be more subtle but I have to say this is one of those symptoms of Attachment that is easier to spot. The child who tells tales on others all the time. Get’s upset when their name isn’t pulled out the pot. Won’t carry on with their work once the winner has been announced. It’s not that they are a bad sport it’s just that their heightened sense of justice makes it difficult for them to ignore it.
Secondly recognise what’s at the root of their feelings – are they anxious about being overlooked and ignored? Are they actually asking to spend more time with you? Remember the unfairness of their lives so far. Is it fair to have had the start in life they have? Sometimes we forget when they are bigger and have been in a safe environment for a number of years – the kind of things they may have seen and experienced are beyond reason – they don’t follow a logical path. Adults are not supposed to neglect and abuse their children. It is unfair and whatever we say cannot change that.
Finally work on the relationship – the more attuned a child is with an adult the easier it is for them to feel safe and not to want to control as much. This can be very hard I know if the child is particularly locked into their spreadsheet but if you don’t work on the relationship they will not bring themselves out. It’s very tempting to give in to what they want in order to balance the spreadsheet but when we do this it’s not really dealing with the root cause. The more we deal with the symptoms and not the root cause the longer the child will stay stuck in that behaviour,
I’m quite conscious as I write this that these tips are much easier to write then to actually do – especially the final one. In my own experience after a long day of work, then having to deal with the constant arguments around the fairness of everything from three children is wearing to say the least. But when I can step back, take a break and really think about my children I know that I must pay more attention to their behaviour and what it’s communicating to me. When we do that, whether as parents or educators, the more chance we have of making a real difference to a child’s life.