To be surrounded by broken pieces of your child’s new furniture surely feels bewildering. Or, like a heartrending rejection of the love, kindness, time and energy you have gladly offered them. The furniture, so lovingly chosen, was meant to help them settle in and have a sense of their own things and of belonging.
Purchased, bought home and built together with such excitement and seeming pleasure from your child. Conversations about where to put it in the room. What to put in it. And much more. Then comes the destruction; the annihilation. Splintered wood. Peeled trims. Gutted cushions and pillows. A flushed, seemingly satisfied, unrepentant face. How to feel? How to react? What to think or do?
It’s a sad and complex fact that children who have lived with early trauma come with needs, and behaviours that seem to make no sense. After all, they are safe now. In a beautiful, clean, well-resourced home. They’re with people who are offering them connection, compassion, love and a whole new life – sometimes referred to as a ‘forever family’.
With early childhood trauma, there are layers and layers of experiences stored within a child’s body, brain and emotions. They can’t manage or make any sense of them. Sensory memories are especially relevant as they are life-preserving at a basic, automatic fight/flight/freeze level. The responses to a smell, taste, touch, sight, sound or something sensed through the body’s nervous system are NOT up for discussion, only for instant survival reactions.
In the work I have been fortunate to do with families who are fostering, or are kinship carers or adoptive parents, the broken bedroom scenario is, sadly, all too familiar. It comes with understandable despair, pain, resentment and even anger. The child will have these feelings too but with no way to put them into words.
There are no simple answers. But I will share some possibilities based on what I know about the effects of early trauma, and my experiences as a foster carer.
- It is too much for the child to accept as they hold a deep belief that they are bad, disgusting and unlovable. This act of kindness and mattering is too much for them to cope with. It makes them feel very stressed. They have to restore things, so the outside matches what they are feeling on the inside. Beautiful shiny furniture is NOT what they deserve. They are bad.
- At a sensory level it could be one of two things, or both.
a) The smell of the new furniture, the shape of some of it, the colour or grain of it, the sound or feel of it triggers some inside memory of a threat, danger or unpredictability. It overwhelms them and they flip out.
b) The volume of physical things in the room feels overwhelming. They may have had a bed before but little else. The size and space taken up by a wardrobe, chest of draws or bedside table is alien and oppressive, and sends their stress levels sky high.
- Will they still love me if…? For some children, to be offered love and kindness every day is like being given a whole chocolate cake when they are more used to just a few crumbs. It’s hugely confusing for a child. The unfamiliar feelings they are experiencing are scary and flick them repeatedly into fight/flight/freeze.They wait in fear for the love to turn to anger, rejection, even hate. The tension builds in them as they wait and wait and wait for their version of the inevitable – when the adults lose it and all hell breaks loose on them.The stress becomes too much, so they do something to get it over and done with.
There are other reasons too. Mostly, they don’t in any way seem obvious and, in many ways, they make no sense – unless we see the trauma.
If I had my time as a foster carer again, I would ensure the bedroom for any child I cared for was very bland and had little in it. Certainly no looming wardrobes. Plain bedding, walls, maybe a bedside table and a lamp they couldn’t easily get the bulb out of.
I wouldn’t make a big thing about their bedroom. After all we might see it as their special space, a real sign of them belonging in the household and our love for them. For a child who has been sexually abused or lived with domestic violence, they may have had to try and hide from it all in their bedroom. Or, they were sent to their room and then yelled at and whacked whilst in it. Therefore, a bedroom holds a very different meaning for them, so it’s best to play it down. It is a room where we go to sleep.
Introduce things very slowly. For bedding, cushions, lamps, toys, books or even furniture – where possible – I would have them around in the main living area long before they travel upstairs. I know that sounds bonkers to have new chest of draws in your lounge for a week or two, but that is HONESTLY what I would do now.
After an incident, don’t go near your child (unless they are in danger) until you have grounded yourself to a place of pure compassion. Stand with your feet apart, push down into them, hold your body and breathe slowly in and out several times. Imagine love flowing out of your heart whilst repeating your child’s name. Then, enter the room and proceed with that level of connection and compassion.
For your child, in the aftermath, it will feel like emerging from an accident. They will be in shock, exhausted and shaky. GO SLOWLY. “Are you OK?”
Offer them a drink of water first. Pause. Offer them a blanket for the shock. Ask if it’s OK to sit near them. Pause. If they seem to come down at all, offer to hold their hand or give them a hug. Sit and rock them. Breathe.
When they feel ready to leave the room with you, go outside or for a walk. If they seem calm enough, let them stroke or tend to a pet. Read a book or watch some TV together. Later, when they are ready, you can make a plan. Get them curious about how to make it OK for when they need to go to bed later.
They may believe the furniture can be mended. Be curious about that and suggest that once it’s all out of the room, you could explore that together, or with Dad, Mum or someone else. Try not to dismiss this idea. They feel bad enough already, so this may feel like a glimmer of hope.
Resist saying things like, “I don’t know where we will put your clothes now you have no draws or wardrobe.” See what solutions they naturally come up with. Over time, they may have some amazing ideas and solutions.
Most importantly, once your child is asleep, allow yourself to feel EVERY feeling you have about the loss of the furniture. And, about the dream of your beautiful child in their beautiful bedroom. As a foster carer, I was constantly having to shift from my ‘imagined’ experience, to the real one!
You may well get a version of your dream one day. It may not be what you expected, but it will be what your child creates with your love and support. Bit by bit.