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Sabotaging The Good Times

In my work with families, I frequently hear stories about children who seem driven to spoil the fun that the family is having.  It is so disappointing to the family when this happens and it often leads to the child being left with a sitter while the rest of the family goes out to the fall festivals, the traditional holiday cookie baking with Grandma, the Easter Egg hunts, and even the summer weekend getaways.  I worked with a family a few years ago whose little guy worked so hard at sabotaging the family fun that when it came time to go on the family vacation, he was enrolled in a therapy camp for two weeks to learn “family behaviors” with the camp staff while the family went to the Grand Canyon.  That logic escapes me to this day but I understand the quandary the family was in with their other children.

playingairplaneLet’s look at the why of this strange and frustrating behavior.  Some children with attachment issues find that “family fun” is really quite intimidating and the closeness can be actually experienced as emotionally painful.  Family fun can be playing Monopoly in the family room, a birthday party (even theirs), a festival or fair…pretty much anywhere there is fun to be had.  The child may even express excitement and joy in the planning of the event but may seek to create distance when they feel their feelings too intensely.  Warning: this is not done to ruin YOUR day or fun.  They physically or emotionally cannot handle the closeness.

There are some things you, the parent, can do to help the child create safety for themselves and your other family members.

  1. First of all, keep events like birthday parties, holiday parties, family events as low key as possible.  If your child has sensory issues, the excitement can be over-stimulating for them .   Keep plans as simple as possible.
  2. For your own sakes, keep your own expectations in check.  This child or these children (if you have more than one spoiler) will not live up to your event expectations if they are on survival mode.  This is particularly true of the holidays where we adults try to cram as much as possible into the season.  Pick and choose those holiday parties and gatherings.
  3. For those warm evenings at home with the family, again, keep expectations in check and stay with the simpler games and snacks.  It also helps to keep the family time to under an hour of intense family time and build to longer times.
  4. When playing games, stress that it is just for fun.  I have seen many family events lost to the need to win.  Make it a “no big deal” if the parent wins, stressing fun.  Stop the game immediately if the child starts to lose it. Move to another activity that is less threatening, like a favorite movie where you, the parent can sit and watch with the child.
  5. When you are out as a family, locate a good quiet space to go to when your child gets too excited or upset by the stimulation.  Keep an eye on the child and move to your quiet spot when you see things BEGIN.  It is easier to calm a child down who is not in the full “melt down” mode.
  6. For children who are older and have more control most of the time, prescribe the behavior before the event.  This is a type of dare, where you tell the child how they will behave (based on past behaviors).  This often stops them in their tracks and often, they will behave because they know you are onto them.

Teaching children how to be a part of a family is a major accomplishment, whether the he or she has been adopted or is a child in the foster care system.  Therefore, leaving the child at home with a sitter or in respite or even in a program specializing in behavior disorders may need to happen from time to time but not as a family tradition.  Work at this skill faithfully and your child will be rewarded with a valuable skill and you will be able to share the world with your child.

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