Parents report this over a number of issues. For one, their daughter used a request to use the toilet as a means of controlling the situation. She knew that the cry of, “I need a wee!” would result in her being able to leave the room. It wasn't hugely effective on her parents, as they quickly figured out what she was doing, but it worked very well in other situations, such as therapy sessions, where the adults in charge didn't know her so well.
More subtly, another kept “finding” money. He'd obviously worked out that the consequence of telling his parents he'd taken money from their purse or pocket was very different from the one that he'd get if he said that he had found it.
Food is another common area. The number of ways that traumatised children manipulate adults to get the food that they want can be quite extraordinary! “I don't like sausages. Can I have chicken nuggets instead?” “I'm full” [explaining why they won't eat their savoury course] followed by, “I'm starving!” [two minutes later when dessert appears]. “Can I have another biscuit for my brother, please?... My brother didn't want it so I ate it.” They may not be consciously thinking about cause and effect, but they clearly understand how to use it, and sometimes with incredible subtlety and invention.
So if they understand cause and effect and consequences to this degree, why do we parents still struggle to use them to modify behaviour?
One big issue is that many of the consequences in a child's life are imposed, not natural. However much we may try to work with natural consequences, the reality is that most of them are under our control. “If you don't eat your meal, you'll be hungry.” Yes, that is true and it is a natural consequence. But behind it the child sees one that is imposed. “Mum, I know that you have food; you have the ability to give me that food; therefore if I'm hungry it's because YOU haven't given it to me.” At that point, in the child's mind, it is no longer a natural consequence. It has become a punishment or a control battle. To the child, it's not, “I'm hungry because I refused to eat what was given to me”. Instead it is, “I am hungry because YOU refused to give me acceptable food”.
It's similar for things like, “You can go out once you've done your homework”. If they're stuck inside, fuming, it's because they see it that you have imposed a consequence on them. To them, it's punishment.
The are also experts at detecting attempts to control them. If you're using consequences as a means of modifying their behaviour, then you are attempting to control them – or their behaviour, at least. Therefore your child, as control is so desperately important to them, will fight tooth and nail against it.
Not all consequences are immediate, which also doesn't help. The more heightened you are, the less able you are to peer into the dim and distant future and to relate your current actions to future results. Many children who have experienced trauma live with high levels of stress and so are generally operating pretty much in the moment or the immediate future. If children from a more normal background struggle to relate doing homework now to a career in the future, that will be practically impossible for children who have experienced trauma.
They are also likely to look at things from a different perspective from us, their parents. We normally look at consequences from our own viewpoint. “If it were me, the consequence of doing X would be big enough and painful enough (in some sense) that I wouldn't do it.” Your children may well not see it like that. The benefit of gaining some control may, for example, outweigh the small amount of emotional pain that comes with it.
For instance, you're going to walk to Grandma's. Your child loves Grandma, but also needs control. The moment you insisted that they wear their boots because it's raining, things started to ramp up. Finally you snap out, “If you don't put on your boots in the next 20 seconds, we're not going”. At that point (and I've been there!) you've given the child the ability to control the situation. And so they may decide not to put on their boots because that means that they've controlled whether you and they go to Grandma's. Yes, they'll be upset at not seeing her, but the satisfaction of having been able to control the situation far outweighs it!
And if they're experienced huge levels of emotional pain in the past, the small amount that comes as a consequence of not seeing Grandma may be irrelevant by comparison, and it could well be the same with physical pain. The minor pain that comes as a result of not wearing shoes outside, falling off a wall, etc. may be as nothing compared to their previous experiences.
And finally there is the issue of toxic shame. To some extent, to accept a consequence is to accept failure. “This has happened to me as a result of my own actions. I am to blame”. If your child is suffering from toxic shame, that may be way, way too painful to accept. In their world, everything bad and negative has to be someone else's fault. So it's not their fault that they got stung. It's the fault of the nettles, the wasp, the unknown person who put the nettles exactly where they wanted to be in that instant or, somehow, us, the parents, because we did not prevent the pain. It can't possibly be their fault, as that will trigger their shame. And as it wasn't their fault, they don't learn from it.
Contact me if you want to work through the implications of this, come up with your own ideas based on your particular situation, or to give me your own ideas and comments.
Catch the wind in your sails!
It is often said that children who have suffered from early trauma fail to develop cause and effect thinking, and that therefore they do not respond well to consequences, particularly as a means of behavioural modification.
Whilst there is truth in that, I don't believe it to be the whole truth.
Duncan Elliot is a life coach working out of Basingstoke in England. He particularly works with people who feel that there must be more to life and are willing to work at it, so that they can feel happier and more in control of their life. He offers life coaching in person, on the phone or via audio or video across the Internet. Click here to contact him.
Many of these children have a huge need for control. In order to feel safe, they need to control their environment, those around them and the decisions concerning themselves. If you think about it, that actually requires a lot of cause and effect thinking, and a deep understanding of consequences: “They are perpetually thinking, if I do X then the likely outcome is Y”.