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(This is the second installment of my NACAC inspired blog series running this week)
It was easily two years ago when I first brought this issue up in a parent’s meeting at a school one of my daughters attended. Back then it was common parenting practice to say to a child: “I love you, but I don’t like your behaviour right now.”
They call it ‘parts language’ now, but there was no term for it back then when it was standard practice. I had been guilty of using this phrase more than a few times and yet what I had observed after several months of this was that it simply reinforced black and white thinking in my child’s mind. Good, bad, black, white all or nothing. Harder for children to see there are often shades of grey. Worse than that, it seemed to make my child feel badly about herself and so on my own I stopped using this. Self esteem can be an issue for any child. But for those who are adopted or in foster care, their earliest experiences are often traumatic and lifelong struggles with self image, self esteem, identity, grief and loss are already present. These children and youth are frankly just more sensitive to further insult.
I asked an expert, a well known psychology professor, lecturing one evening to our group of parents. I noted then that I did not feel either of my children could separate the “bad behaviour” from “I am bad.” Furthermore my children, both adopted as infants, coming from a background where trauma and abandonment was one of their earliest preverbal experiences, always took it to mean: “I knew it all along I am a bad kid.” The psychology professor was dismissive and assured me that all children could in fact separate these two ideas. And yet I had seen this in action making children feel worse than they needed to feel.
Last week at the NACAC conference Deena McMahon, a renowned trauma therapist, and remarkable speaker of McMahon Counseling Services and Consultation Services in Minnesota, confirmed my experience and discussed why parts language is not okay for children. It is essentially they same thing as saying to an adult: “I really like your outfit, but what happened to your hair?” McMahon noted the only piece of that phrase anyone is likely to hear is the negative bit about the hair. Much better choices are aimed at building capacity together. Instead choosing phrases like: “We are going to figure out what to do about that nasty language problem. That language problem, it is getting us in trouble. Let’s work on that together.”
So Dear adoptive parents and others who read this blog: “Let’s work on this together. Finger pointing and direct confrontation. You statements. Time outs and grounding. These things are getting us in trouble. These things are making our children feel bad about themselves. They are diminishing them and in turn diminishing our relationships with them, so what are we going to do about this together?”