How I research, in one word: audiobooks. Okay, two words: audiobooks and a wireless earbud. A while ago I discovered how to download library ebooks to my phone, enabling me to listen while I classify fingerprints, wait around for the M.E. investigator to arrive, exercise, or scrub floors. Since at those moments I am desperate for distraction I can be pretty omnivorous in my selections and I’ve wound up listening to topics ranging from the 1918 influenza epidemic to a short tract on “Child Maltreatment and High-Risk Families.” They don’t even have to be audiobooks, as my phone is pretty good at reading text to me with only minor Siri quirks like invariably pronouncing ‘lead’ as ‘the lead in a pencil’ instead of ‘we need someone to lead.’
I’ve learned a great deal this way. I’d be downright brilliant if I didn’t have a mind like a sieve so that 97% promptly leaks right back out again after I’ve poured it in. But while researching violent kids for my latest book, Suffer the Children, I’ll never forget a story called Healing Emotional Wounds. A single doctor, Nancy Welch, somewhat abruptly decides to adopt two six-year-olds from the Ukraine. All seems promising until the adoption goes through and she takes the children to the local hosts’ home. There, they immediately flip from sweet, grateful tykes to rampaging hellions, literally trashing the place and finding it ever so fun. You think a crying baby on an airplane is annoying? Crossing the Atlantic with these two would have been the trip from hell as the little girl pelted other passengers with airsick bags, the in-flight magazine, anything she could get her hands on. The adopting doctor and a helpful friend quickly learned this safe restraint technique: hug the child from the back, cross their arms in front of them and sit on the floor, using your own legs to pin the kid’s straight out in front. This leaves no moving parts except the head, which the child may snap back and forth to smash into noses, chins, and cheekbones. As quickly as these storms brewed, they subsided, usually once the child completely exhausted herself and turned into a sweet, needy child again.
It made me wonder if perhaps ancient tales of demonic possession were actually cases of traumatized children acting out, because it really is as if someone flipped a switch. Afterwards they can be dazed by their own violence with no understanding of where it came from.
It is not a surprise that traumatized or extremely neglected young children (and we never learn exactly what the trauma was; the girl herself can’t remember) would have major behavioral issues. What I did find surprising is how these issues do not manifest themselves as you would suppose. It’s impossible to see the world from their incredibly skewed viewpoint, so we have to throw out every expectation we have of, well, life.
Behavior we take for granted, such as eating regular meals, going to the bathroom in the bathroom, not masturbating in public, wearing a coat when it’s cold and not when it’s hot, are not as intrinsic as one would think. We learn those from our parents.
And those are just the physical manifestations.
For instance you would think that such neglected and underprivileged children would be enormously grateful for any scrap of attention, food, or material possessions. Nope. They’re contemptuous and oppositional to their caregivers and the word ‘no’ can throw them into a whirlwind of destruction. They’re fussy eaters, or they eat everything in sight even when they’re not hungry, or steal and horde food no matter how many times they’re told that’s not necessary. They have no respect for other people’s property because possessions had never been a factor in their world. They don’t understand gifts as a sign of affection and might break or disregard them. They can be hypersensitive to any perceived slight—you can have a long, fun day designed entirely for their entertainment and they will focus on the one tiny detail that wasn’t perfect. It’s difficult to instill discipline when the normal carrots and sticks don’t work—take away their toys and they will insist they didn’t like them anyway.
All they want, all they need is someone to care about and never leave them…but they make that so very nearly impossible.
Obviously it takes a great deal of time, determination, strength, and insight—not to mention the patience of a saint—to take on a child under these circumstances and set them on the long, incredibly hard transformation to a content member of the human family. But it can be done, as many brave, strong and loving adults have proven.
Have you ever encountered a child who behaved awfully, but once you knew their story, it made a kind of sense?