How To Better Communicate With Wounded Children.

*Editor’s note- This is a guest post from our good friend Jennie Owens. She and her husband Lynn, support foster and adoptive families through their nonprofit organization, www.foreverhomes.org. Jennie also speaks to parenting groups and leads retreats for foster and adoptive families. She provides training and one-on-one coaching services to parents through their clinic, Canyon Lakes Family Counseling, in Kennewick, WA. You can also visit her blog here.

When parenting children from hard places, or children who have been wounded emotionally, it’s often hard to communicate with them. This is frustrating for us as parents, but there is a solution.

hand hold loudspeaker to blue sky on mountain peak

“Will you play a game with me?” our son asked.

My blood began to boil. This was the tenth time in 30 minutes he had asked. I was getting tired of redirecting, and I knew from past experience it wouldn’t be the last time he’d ask. It felt like this young boy was trying to control our every moment. Not long afterward he asked again. “Will you play a game with me?”

Before I could give the lecture I was planning, my husband piped up. “If you’re asking me if I love you, the answer is yes,” he said. Neither of us had tried that approach before. I looked curiously over at our son and watched to see how he would react. “Ok,” he replied and went off to play for a little while. He didn’t ask again that day, and what felt like a little mind game had been stopped.

My husband stumbled upon a truth that has helped us parent our kids in a more helpful, healing manner. Wounded kids don’t always know how to communicate their needs, so they often communicate them in unhealthy, unhelpful ways.

Here are a few tips for recognizing and dealing with miscommunication with our children:

1. “Miscued Messages.”

After that night, we recognized our son was sending what I like to call a “miscued message.” He outwardly communicated that he wanted us to play with him, but in reality he just needed constant reassurance of our love. We changed our approach from getting frustrated over the demand for attention to recognizing his need by saying, “If you’re asking if I love you, the answer is yes.” That’s really the question he was asking.

Every time I came back home from being away for any length of time, this same child worked hard to pay me back for my absence. For years, it frustrated and angered me. Finally, I realized he was trying to say, “I missed you.” After that, when he acted out I’d say, “I missed you too, buddy,” and the acting out would lessen considerably.

What comes out as a message of “I hate you” from a child can really just be their way of saying, “I’m feeling really insecure about your love for me right now and I really need to know you love me no matter what.” Misbehavior may be a way of saying, “My feelings are hurt” or “I’m feeling scared.” Many times what our kids were really asking us was, “Do you love me? How about now? What about if I do this? Will this stop you from loving me?” Although still frustrating, it helped when I understood this.

2. Hinting.

Many wounded children didn’t get their needs met when they were younger, so they learned early on the lie that people don’t want to meet their needs. As a result, they will let others know that they want or need something in a much more subtle, sometimes frustrating ways.

In the beginning, my daughter would stand and stare at me any time I was doing something like cooking a meal. It drove me nuts.
“Do you need something?” I would ask.
She would shake her head “no.”

I’d ask. She’d answer. No, she didn’t need a drink. No, she wasn’t hungry.
Exasperated, I’d give up and try to fix dinner while ignoring the 10-year-old standing seven feet away from me, staring holes into my head.

One day, I once again went through the litany of possible needs. I was growing tired of this “guess the need” game.

Finally, I asked her, “Do you need a hug?”

She meekly nodded “yes.” I gave her a big bear hug, and she went off to play. She never played the staring game again because I would ask if she needed a hug as soon as she started. It was usually what she needed.

A more humerous hinting story with her happened on our way to a camping trip. We’d pulled off the highway and started down a smaller road. I looked out the window as we passed several convenience stores, a Taco Bell, Burger King, McDonalds, and a few gas stations. Seconds later, I heard a quiet voice from the back of the van.

“Wow. Look at all those bathrooms. I bet those are some nice bathrooms,” our daughter said, wistfully. My husband and I looked at each other and chuckled under our breath.

“Do you need to go to the bathroom, my dear?” I asked.

After a sheepish, “Yes,” from the back seat, we let out a hearty laugh and stopped at the nearest gas station. “See, that wasn’t so hard,” I told her, “You just have to ask. We are happy to meet your needs.” She had to be reminded of that a lot.

3. Whining.

Because they were emotionally younger than their biological age, my children frequently whined like young children to try to get something.

In order to teach them more healthy ways to ask for me to meet their needs, I’d ignore the whining and only respond when they talked in a normal voice.

Sometimes I’d say, “I’d be happy to answer your question when you’re speaking in a normal voice,” or “I’m sorry, I can’t understand what you’re saying. I don’t hear whining.”

At times, I’d simply say, “I’m so sorry, honey. I don’t speak Whine-ese,” with a playful smile. They eventually learned that to get what they wanted, whining wouldn’t work.

Remembering that wounded children don’t always send messages that line up with what they truly feel or communicate their needs in unusual ways, can at least help us to maintain a bit more of our sanity. It may not make the behaviors less frustrating, but we can learn to respond to their real needs in ways that help them heal.

Check out more tips to helping wounded children through our three-minute video training clips called “Potty Break” at www.foreverhomes.org.

Question: Are you parenting a wounded child? How have you learned to communicate with them? Share your story with us in the comment section below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Stacy K

    I really appreciated this post. One of our adopted children has a struggle to clearly communicate her needs. She is constantly seeking our attention in all the wrong ways, which has the opposite affect on us. One way is she will fire off a ton of questions, one after another (usually when we are held captive in the car) but they are usually ‘made up’ questions, just as an excuse to be heard. She’ll ask the same questions we answered yesterday, totally off the wall “why____?” questions, or the most frustrating ones are “what’s that?” when she knows exactly what ‘that’ is. We know it’s because her need for attention is not being met, but we don’t know how to respond in a way that meets the need without frustrating us to no end. Would love some outsider’s insight.

    • Jennie Owens

      Thanks! I’ve found the “If you’re asking if I love you, the answer is yes” response works best in most of those situations because that’s exactly what they’re asking. It’s hard not to get frustrated, though, when it’s constant. 🙂

      • Allisonm

        We used to have a long car trip home from therapy every week and played a lot of car games to keep everyone engaged and feeling attended to. My kids like the alphabet game (spotting the next letter in the alphabet on any sign, license plate, vehicle, etc.), the animal game (naming animals that start with each letter of the alphabet), and the funny compliments game (mom saying to each of the kids in turn: you’re a beautiful, bubbly bumble bee or you’re a daring, darling daffodil or you’re an amazingly adorable apple-of-my-eye). Because my kids’ inner world was negative and scary, they had little ability to entertain themselves there and struggled with boredom in addition to feeling insecure in our affections.

        • Jennie Owens

          I think that kids not being able to entertain themselves is one of the most challenging issues for most parents. Sounds like you’re doing a good job of engaging them. Our kids’ emotional age doesn’t match their physical age, so when we keep that in mind it makes more sense to have to do those little games with them that we usually have to do with young children.

          • Allisonm

            I have had to find my inner zaniness! I tend to be intense and serious. My kids, now all teens, still need the playful silliness of early childhood. Those car games and silly made-up-as-I-went songs and dances, were some of our best times as a family during the years we lived in virtually constant mental-health crisis. I am still zany a lot with my youngest or if all of us are together. If I don’t get an eye roll, I’m not being silly enough. As much as the light-heartedness helps my children, it helps me more.

          • Jennie Owens

            I’m the same way. I used to be in youth ministry and had to use a lot of things from those years. (I even did Chinese fire drills with them when they were old enough for it to be safe). Even though I was exhausted during much of those early years with my kids, the lightheartedness helped them heal much more than any of the intense times and forced me to not take their behavior so seriously.

          • Allisonm

            My children had no idea how to play and despite being bio siblings, disliked each other intensely. They were physically aggressive with us, too. We had less than a handful of “good” days during the first four years as a family and the next three or four years were very tough. It’s been only in the last year that our youngest has been able to calm down enough that I’ve been able to stop being on constant guard waiting for the other shoe to drop. When it’s laugh or cry, I have to find a way to laugh.

          • Jennie Owens

            I can so relate to your story. We had a terrible first two years and then moved to another home across town and had about two years of sheer hell. Then a few more years of extremely challenging. Those years of hell wore me out to the point where I had a doctor tell me, “If you don’t get rid of your stressors, you’re going to die.” I was so exhausted (went into full-blown adrenal fatigue…probably was almost to adrenal failure during the worst of it). It was hard to deal with the constant hypervigilance of all three kids and their constant need (or at least desire) for attention. I’m with you, though..if you have to pick between laughing or crying, laughing is a better choice.

          • Allisonm

            I got similar advice and have felt exhausted for the last nine years. I used to be so energetic, but not anymore. During our fourth and fifth years, we had in-home mental-health workers six days a week and respite on Sunday evenings (during which my husband and I sat in a restaurant trying to plot new parenting strategies since nothing “worked”), but by that time, I’d been so worn out for so long that it just kept me on my feet, but no more. I keep hoping I’ll get my energy back.

            It’s nice to converse with someone who actually understands what that’s like and doesn’t try to minimize or brush off the level of challenge represented by the commitment to parent children from very hard places.

          • Jennie Owens

            That completely sounds like us. We tried to keep our rule of not talking about the kids on our date night but at times we were desperately trying to figure out what to do.

            I was really bad about focusing on the kids. I hardly took any time for myself in those early years, and I am still paying the price. Anytime I was away from the kids I would read a new book on strategies of how to help them heal or be planning things to do with them, since they needed me to structure their time so much. I’m getting better about taking time for me, though, because I had to. I was getting to the point I wasn’t even able to help the kids because I was too exhausted, both physically and emotionally. I started realizing that the illustration of the oxygen mask was very true of working with these kids. When they say on airline flights that you need to put on your own oxygen mask before helping a child put theirs on, it makes so much sense to me now. You can’t help a child if you’re passed out or dead due to lack of oxygen. I still struggle with that, but I’m getting better.

            I completely agree!!! It is really nice to connect with those who get it. So rare to find people, though. Like you said, so many brush it off (sometimes because they just really don’t understand and sometimes because they are so overwhelmed with what we are going through they don’t know what to do). At times it’s hard to connect with others who do get it because they are busy with their own challenging kids. I love what Mike and Kristen have developed on this website, though, because it helps to know you’re not alone. 🙂

            Actually, I would love to stay in touch with you, because I decided early on that I never wanted another mom to go through what I did alone. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to get back to health and I’d love to pass on a few things I found that have really helped me. I’m not at 100% yet, but my energy levels are getting back to normal now.

            I’ve been working with a naturopathic doctor for the last 6 years and I tell people she saved my life. If you’re interested, let me know and I can give you my email address. I don’t want to give unsolicited advice, but when I hear you say how exhausted you are, I can’t help but want to pass along what I’ve learned. I was right there for a long time and I wish someone would have been able to tell me why and how to help.

          • Allisonm

            Thank you. I’d love that. I do read, grow vegetables and have been quilting for a couple of years now, but with a seventh grader who can only make it through two or three hours of school per day, I’m limited in how much time I can spend on adult pursuits.

            Next week, I’ll be starting a weekly drop-in support/community group for foster and adoptive parents to see whether we can form some non-agency based opportunities for companionship and encouragement among the families in our city. So many support groups meet once a month for an hour or so, but that’s not enough to keep challenged families afloat. It takes the whole meeting just to introduce everyone. By the next month, everyone is pressed to the limit and back in an emergency level of need. And I have to sign up in advance to attend.

            Meetings/activities have to be much more frequent and longer for families to get enough support often enough that they aren’t on fire again before the next meeting and maybe will have something to offer those who are in crisis. And no advance sign-up required–just show up! We also don’t always need professionals to tell us what to do. We need friends who understand and can encourage and share struggles and talk about what helped without a demand that anyone else do the same. We may also need to joke and share some levity, put our feet up and eat some good food–and there has to be chocolate.

  • This may pertain to our 10-year old boy. I’m going to try some of this and see what happens. Thank you for sharing! 🙂

    • Jennie Owens

      Happy to help! Let me know how things go! 🙂

  • Allisonm

    Great post and so practical! This is what I think of as the language of trauma. It used to really get under my skin because it was simply relentless from all of our kids and a lot of the behavior was hurtful or unsafe in some way. I learned to play detective to identify the unmet need, then meet that need before I tried to teach and shape a healthier way of asking. Our kids had a very long history of unmet needs and zero confidence that we would stick with them and provide all they needed. It took a whole lot of meeting needs (years) before we started seeing significant movement on the development of good coping and social skills.

    It’s still a struggle, but so much better than where we started. I find that being proactive about being playful and offering attention and affection, even in subtle ways, now heads off a lot of the frustration for me and keeps our kids more relaxed overall. But that has been nine years in the making and took a lot of setting aside discouragement and trudging through many dark and frustrating days. I have no regrets besides wishing I could have learned faster how to hear and meet my children’s needs. Seeing them heal and grow has been worth every minute of what it’s taken to get this far.

    • Jennie Owens

      I so agree! I wish I’d better understood the reasons behind their behavior early on. It would have saved me so much frustration. I think that the fact that the need for attention and reassurance is so constant is what makes it a struggle. Even sometimes when you know why the behaviors are happening, it gets exhausting to meet those needs. I love what you said about being playful…I think that is so important!!

  • Martha Stanley

    Aaaahhhh, thank you for this post! You’ve put into words what I actually experience. I’ve felt guilty for resenting my child trying to “control our every moment”, & having to ask her not to sit down & stare at me for twenty minutes while I was on the treadmill. I am going to try more reassurance about our love & acceptance of her.