Dear Director

Dear Director,

We are seeking guidance for our adopted daughter, who has these tantrums that can last hours. She will go into a rage, tear up her bedroom and belongings, stomp around the house, yell, hide behind the couch and refuse to come out, and run outside, even in winter, and climb and hide in this big tree we have out back.  It has taken her up to four hours to calm down.  Trouble is, she is fifteen, and taller than either of us, so not much we can do physically to stop all this.  We adopted her at five, after fostering her for two years, and we were her first foster home.  What is going on and what can we do?  She is old enough, technically, to refuse mental health treatment.

Signed, parents of the world’s oldest toddler

Dear Parents,

Although your daughter’s body is fifteen, inside her brain there is this very sad, scared three-year-old who still believes that the world is coming to an end because____(you fill in the blank). In spite of your years of stable nurturing and love, and probably of supportive services, that toddler is still in there, waiting to be triggered. This is a good example of why we train foster parents to “parent to the age you see” and not the age of a child.

Early trauma works in many ways to throw off the expected developmental stages we know exist in most children. Not only that, but it does not impact all types of developmental growth equally. Consider this: Children develop physically (their size, height, strength, coordination), cognitively (how they learn and process information), morally (learning right from wrong and to do things because they feel good when they do right), socially (learning new skills to play and communicate with others, emotionally (from mad, sad, glad, scared, to having a wide variety of emotions and how to express them) and sexually. Trauma can easily impact one KIND of development and not another.

For example, a child who has experienced neglect by not having enough food may be short and thin in stature even after they enter foster care, and their brain may be underdeveloped, causing delays in cognitive growth, but they may have survived by their ability to befriend everyone-their social development may be beyond their chronological years. Or a child who was sexually abused as a pre-teen may be distrustful of all men, delaying sexual development, or they may take their premature knowledge of the value of their body to older men and seek sexual relationships via the internet, even at twelve-years-old. Meanwhile this child may be failing school as she did not learn to read because her trauma impacted her memory and learning. So development in abused and neglected children is not even.

Your daughter sounds like a child who, when under severe stress, reverts back to a child who cannot self-regulate their emotions, something healthy children learn in their birth families by the age of three or four.  So in spite of gains from living in your home, when things feel overwhelming and her ability to express her feelings in an age-appropriate way dissolves, she goes back to being that three-year-old, and uses those coping skills-flight, fight, freeze and fold-in an attempt to self-manage her emotions. My best advice during this time is…parent to the age you see. When she is caught inside a tantrum, respond like you did when she was three, in that soft, sing-songy voice, use your reflective listening skills to tell her how you believe she is feeling, offer empathy and real understanding, and don’t take it personal. Also remember that children learn best through example, show her how you and other family members regulate your own emotions, and encourage her to try with your help. She will get there, but in her timeframe, not yours.