Summer 'sabotage'?

We've all dreamed of the perfect family day out but the reality is often not how we imagined

We’ve all dreamed of that perfect family day out, like the ones you see on Instagram; the children are happily laughing, the parents are relaxed, they’re all enjoying the trip and everyone’s clothes are perfectly clean...

OK, most of us know that this is not the reality of a family day out. We know that social media gives filtered snapshots of people's highlight reels. But it’s likely that all of us who have a family, or hope to in the future, look forward to memory making days, taking children out for treats, on adventures, or perhaps reliving some of our own childhood memories – even if they weren’t quite picture perfect!

I remember (or I can’t manage to forget!) a day we had with our boy in the early days. He had chosen how to spend a day during the holidays. He was excited, had planned an itinerary and talked incessantly about it, longing for this day to come and his plans and dreams to come true.

Then the day came, and from the moment he woke up, it felt like he was trying to sabotage the whole thing. From arguments to fighting with siblings, complaining about the food (that he had chosen) to inconsolable tears and meltdowns, what had been planned as a treat for him, for all of us, ended with us exhausted. We felt like we had wasted money, we felt immense sadness for our boy and we couldn’t help but question where we had gone wrong and whether we’d ever be able to have a normal summer holiday?!

This day revealed that we would have to change our expectations for ‘family days out’ and do them very differently.

So, why do some children who have had difficult starts appear to sabotage treats, days out and special occasions? Maybe you’re an adoptive or fostering family and have the same questions, or perhaps you do life with some, and wonder why they do things differently?

Every child, family and experience is different. There’s no one size fits all answer, but here are 3 things that could be happening for these children.

“A nice day out”

If you’re not sure what a ‘nice day out’ really means or looks like, then a day full of unknowns can leave you feeling uncertain and scared. The prospect of a day full of unfamiliar things raises cortisol levels (which for many care experienced children are already heightened) and releases adrenaline, so what is intended to bring joy can, instead, create a physiological response in them as though their life is under threat.

Many care experienced children find safety in routine, in familiar boundaries and places. A day out removes so many of these protective factors; boundaries and expectations are more relaxed, what food will be eaten where and when is different, when or whether screen time can happen – all these things, and so may others, are different. The fight/flight/freeze response in the brain is triggered, and that can lead to the behaviours that look like sabotage. These feelings and behaviours can be difficult to understand if you’ve not experienced it before.

Sensory overload

Think about a day at the beach, the feel of the sand on your feet (or in your shoe), the smell of fish and chips and the sea in the breeze, lots of people playing and calling to one another, balls and frisbees being played with all around you, the noise of squealing children as another wave crashes into them...

Now imagine you have difficulties processing sensory information. What for me is a feast for my senses to enjoy, for some children may cause them to feel completely overwhelmed.

Add to that the memories that may be triggered, consciously perhaps of the last time you were in a similar place but with your birth family, or unconsciously from a smell that connects you to a traumatic moment in your story that you don’t understand or aren’t able to verbalise, but that triggers a profound fear in you. You can see why a ‘normal’ day out might be really challenging.

For some children, this overload may cause them to shut down. It’s as though their body hits ‘sleep’ mode to protect them from the perceived threats around them. You might see a child with their hood over their head, sitting hunched over on the beach, or you might spot a child on a bench staring into the distance for prolonged periods of time. For some children, the sensory overload may cause them to be hyper aroused, unable to settle at all. You might see wild, erratic running around, hear unusual noises (trilling the tongue or high-pitched squeaks), exaggerated efforts to push or pull things. All of these are an attempt to regulate, although they’re done as an unconscious coping mechanism, not a intentional coping strategy.

“I don’t deserve it”

So many care experienced children have poor self-esteem and believe that they do not deserve love or special things, including treats. Toxic shame is not just ‘I’ve done something wrong’, but ‘I AM wrong.’ It’s the internal working model for so many children who have had a difficult start, and the lens through which they see and experience the world. Even when a child has been in a safe, loving family for years, these feelings can remain, even if they’re told daily that they’re loved and worthy.

The internal, unconscious dialogue may go something like this;

“I am worthless.

I don’t deserve treats.

My grown-up(s) will reject me because that’s what’s happened before, so I’m going to take control.

I’m going to wreck this trip / party / treat because then I won’t have to experience the rejection again from grownups because I’m the one in control.”

It’s not deliberate or malicious. It’s incredibly sad for the whole family. It’s so sad for children not to be able to express enjoyment because they are convinced they will feel sad again. It’s sad for the parents and family who long to give treats, show love and make happy memories but can feel as though they have failed and experience grief for the fun and memories that could/should have been. Add to that a lack of understanding from others, so grownups feel increasingly isolated; or well-meaning people who say ‘yes, my son threw a tantrum when he couldn’t have another ice cream, it’s a nightmare isn’t it’, which minimises the intensity of their lived experience and the impact it has on the whole family.

What do I do?

Let me be really clear. This behaviour is not the deliberate act by the child, but an extreme expression of unmet needs caused by trauma. It’s not personal, even though it can feel like it.

Empathy and presence

Empathy and nurture for the child will help them journey through what they’re feeling and validate their emotions. Being present as they experience them, and then helping them learn healthier ways to express big feelings is a powerful way that we can support our children.

Research shows that consistently responding in this way can create new pathways in the brain, reconnecting bits that were damaged by trauma, and helping them to learn new ways to respond instead of reacting. It is not a quick fix, but consistent repetition can lead to gradual lasting change.

What about saying things like:

“I can see this is really hard for you, and I’m here for you”

“I can see you’re feeling angry, that’s OK, you’re allowed to feel angry”

“I will always love you, no matter what”

If you know families raising children who have had a difficult start, pray for them, because saying these things when you've been yelled at for an hour, or after another day hasn’t gone as hoped, is not always easy.

Adjust your expectations

Memory making days may need to look different for your family. After our disastrous day early on, we had several years with much more low-key, partial days out locally. As these places became familiar and therefore our children felt safe in them, we could extend our time there, and venture into the café or build up to a picnic (once we’d practiced at home and learned that our lunch box was full of familiar food!).

We are now able to do some ‘bigger’ days out because of this foundation. The bigger change needed was in me; I had to grieve the days out at theme parks that I wanted to do with my family, take myself off social media sometimes to avoid being triggered or saddened by other people’s highlight reels, and look for what our children would love and find pleasure in that. I also planned days out on fast rides with friends for me as part of caring for myself which fuelled me up ready for yet another trip to the same local woods!

Avoid “If you’re good I’ll get you an ice cream”

It’s a parenting classic, and one that is SO unhelpful for children who have had a tricky start because it sets them up to fail. They may not believe they can ‘be good’ (even if the grownups had given clear parameters on what being ‘good’ meant), so there’s a much greater chance of sabotage so they can at least maintain some control and keep the fear at bay.

It also reinforces the mistaken belief that ‘if I’m good, I get good things’, and therefore ‘bad things have happened to me because I am bad.’

Eat ice cream, buy all the treats you want that will work for your children, but as an expression of your unconditional love, not as a way of trying to help them ‘behave’!

AND, if you know a family raising care experienced children, then ASK them how you can serve and love them this summer. That gesture alone may make more difference than you realise.

Claire at Home for Good

Date published:
August 2021



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