“Daddy, when can we go to a house in the Lake District and, you know, stay in one of those like house places… and take our toys with us?’
“Do you mean a holiday? When can we go on holiday and stay in a holiday cottage? I’m not sure love, I don’t think we will be able to this summer but let’s wait and see.’
This is a quintessential interaction with my youngest son; typified by two things.
The first – a question. The opening gambit for most of our conversations at the moment is usually a question and they can range from any of the following:
- Daddy, would you rather live in a house of spiders or a house of flies?
- Daddy, what would hurt more – being shot by a gun or shot by a missile?
- Daddy, I know Mount Everest is the tallest mountain but would a tornado be higher than Mount Everest?
- Daddy, do you think there is somebody in the world who has eaten a wasp?
- Daddy, what is more expensive, a new car or a new computer?
- Daddy, do ants have a heart?
- Daddy, how do you know if you’ll go to heaven?
- Daddy, does a tree need two buckets of water to stay alive?
Of course, we all ask questions, and this is a perfectly socially acceptable way to begin a conversation. Likewise, the nature of his questions falls perfectly within the remit of a child his age. However, the sheer velocity, volume and repetition of questions can at times feel overwhelming. His responses however are also revealing. Often, I find that the answer I give is seemingly irrelevant as he has already begun pondering his next move in the conversational game in which we are participating.
Reflecting upon this reveals several things; what he is communicating is not always a sense of awe and wonder in the world around him but in fact he is asking, ‘have you remembered I’m here?’ Asking questions makes him feel better as it is a way to expel the bubbling anxiety that threatens, and sometimes succeeds, in consuming him as does the repetitive nature of these questions. The answer is irrelevant. The participation is what counts.
The second thing about this brief conversation is that it illustrates an ongoing challenge with language retrieval.
Adoption unfortunately is so often linked with Adverse Childhood Experiences and all too often this entails an inevitable occurrence of trauma in some shape or form. Trauma experienced in the first five years of life can have a significant negative impact on a child’s development and the results can last a lifetime.
Non-traumatised children learn that the adults in their life are safe, secure, and trustworthy. They learn that when things get scary the significant adults in their life will help them to regulate their feelings. In time this turns into an anticipation of what the trustworthy adults will do and as such they learn to self-regulate. When a child is traumatised, they learn that the adults around them are not safe and secure and far from helping them, they may in fact be the source of their traumatic experience. Their inability to access needed support during a stressful situation can interrupt their ability to process, integrate and categorise what happened to them, leaving them in a long-term state of anticipation, unable to regulate their state of being. They exist in a state of stress response caused by the chemicals released by our fight, flight or freeze response. This overdose of cortisol and adrenaline can mean that young children experience prolonged states of hyperarousal.
When we were faced with a tiger in the woods, our brain needed us to act quickly. Pondering on the tiger’s name, age, favourite food, or holiday destination would not help us to survive the imminent attack. We needed to make a choice; fight, flight or freeze. Consequently, other parts of our brain were effectively ‘turned off’ whilst we dealt with the situation before us. But when the tiger is no longer in front of us yet still occupies the space in our head, our brain won’t make the distinction. We remain ready to fight, flight or freeze because real or imaginary – is not a judgement call our brain wants to make. The consequences of getting that wrong could be catastrophic.
Lots of children remain with the tiger lurking in their heads. The result? The rest of their brain remain ‘switched off’ as they wait for it to pounce or as is often the case, reliving the moment the tiger struck.
What does all this mean for us? The switching off of those other parts of the brain can result in a variety of issues such as impaired language development, difficulty regulating emotions,
ongoing social and relational challenges and impeded capacity for play. The first of these seems to be a resident in our house, for my youngest son at least. Language retrieval is just one area which proves to be challenging and is a conversational red flag that the tiger in his head is on the prowl.
How then do we combat this? How do we abate the tiger in his tracks and eschew him from our presence? We play.
“What shall we play?” has become a phrase of multiple meanings. It offers a diversion to conflicts that raise their head above the parapet, it is an invitation that bridges the emotional gap when an unforeseen distance has emerged between us and perhaps most importantly it is a conversational olive branch unambiguously acknowledging ‘I see you and our time together is important’. Through play we are slowly repositioning those missing bricks which have caused the subsidence in the foundations. It may be that perhaps that structure may never take the shape of what it could have been but over time it is strengthening, expanding and assembling into something just as wonderful and unique.
‘I don’t know if we will get to go on holiday this year but perhaps, we could have a staycation instead?’
‘That’s a good idea daddy. At least we can have lots of time to play. It could be a playcation instead!’
‘What a good idea!’
Written by John Clark, Early Years Lecturer