Research and troubled children

by | Sep 23, 2018 | Lisa Black, The Writer's Life, On writing | 8 comments

            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?  
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  1. Chris Goff

    Incredibly interesting. I met a woman at a writers' retreat years ago who had adopted a brother and sister from somewhere in Eastern Europe. She and her husband experienced much of what you described, only they never were able to totally stop the violent behavior. When the kids were in their late-teens, the behavior escalated to a point where they ended up in court with these kids. The courts severed their parental rights and took over, and my friend has never seen either of the children since. Not by her choice. She gave over 10 years of her life, her marriage collapsed. All she wanted was a family and she ended up living a nightmare.

    This also got me thinking about kids I've heard my daughter describe, refugee children with PTSD, illegal immigrants, etc., who fill her Michigan classroom. Some of them are acting out in the classroom, on suspension more than they're in school, and have little parental interaction for a variety of reasons. Is this why we're seeing a more and more violent society emerge? And is there something we, as a society, can do to help?

  2. Lisa Black

    Slightly OT, when it comes to schools it seems a lot can vary by state. In Florida schools expel students right and left an they have to go to ‘alternative’ high schools. My sister corrected me about a passage in Suffer the Children, which is set in Ohio where she is a school nurse, pointing out that they are not allowed to expel anyone no matter what—the child has to be provided extra help, tutors, personal counselors, whatever they need.

  3. Robin Burcell

    California sends a lot of kids to alternative high schools. They can't do anything without an expulsion hearing, however. I had to testify at one, once. It was a domestic violence case of sorts. Boyfriend physically abused his girlfriend since middle school. It was finally witnessed in high school by other kids and I got called out on it. I convinced the girl to get an emergency restraining order. Since he couldn't be within 100 yards of her or at her school, this led to the expulsion hearing when all was said and done with the case. His sister was going to law school, and acted as his attorney, grilling me. I found the whole thing fascinating and frustrating. (the good guys won in the end, however.) While slightly off topic, not really, since we have to assume that a boy who started hitting his girlfriend in middle school had to have learned that violence somewhere–and it's usually the home. So imagine not knowing what emotional baggage the child in question suffered from?

  4. Lisa Black

    Middle school??!!?! (“I am so glad I didn’t have children,” she thinks but doesn’t say out loud.)

  5. Gayle Lynds

    What a great post, Lisa. It brings up all of my deep concern for the millions of children who are caught up in today's political diasporas. What does this mean not only for them, but our world.

  6. Karna Bodman

    Very interesting topic, Lisa — which shows the vital role of the parents instilling what we could call "cultural norms" along with loving support from day one! But as you point out, when a couple tries to adopt a child from a different culture – especially one who has been abused, — it can be SO difficult. I recall a story (with a happy ending) I heard from an author friend who went to Russia with her husband many years ago to adopt a baby (before Putin, in a fit of anger at the US, stopped those adoptions). It took my friend over a year to finally get the baby out of a Russian orphanage and bring her back here. Sometime later they invited friends, who happened to be from Russia, to come meet the new child. When that couple started speaking some words in Russian, the little one "freaked out" – screamed and tried to crawl under the bed to hide. Turns out, hearing the Russian language evidently reminded the baby of abuse she had endured at that Russian orphanage. It took a while for my friend and her husband to show constant love and attention — and today that girl is a happy teenager and a wonderful one at that.

  7. Unknown

    If you're interested in this topic, the book The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog is a must-read. It's one thing that has not escaped my brain, which is sieve-like as well. =) It contains several case studies on how early trauma/neglect affects the brain and how there are some things that just can not be erased from the brain. Lessened, perhaps, but not erased. It covers the scientific aspect but in a way that non-scientific people (like me!) can understand it–and I feel it's the scientific proof for those of who feels much of our adult behavior can be traced to childhood experiences.

  8. Lisa Black

    Sounds like an interesting book!