What I Want You To Understand About The Child Who Struggles

What I Want You To Know About ‘The Girl’ Your Child Talks About

Sarah Burtchell

There is a girl in your daughter’s music class this year who is going to head up a lot of your dinner conversations. Your daughter is going to tell you that this girl is strange or that she’s really mean. She’s going to tell you that this girl can’t sit still and stares at the door and jumps at all of the sounds and can’t stand it when people get too close to her. She’s going to tell you that this girl hit a boy in line the other day and then shrieked frantically, while almost panting, “He is in my space! He is in my space!”

There is a girl in your son’s gym class this year who is going to be brought up just as soon as you pull your car out of the school’s parking lot. Your son is going to tell you that she never listens, and she tries to do whatever she wants to a lot of the time. He’s going to tell you that this girl talks too much and too loudly and she won’t stop when the teachers ask her to, and sometimes she yells, and the second teacher that is always with her has to take her out to walk up and down in the halls. He’s going to tell you that sometimes she growls at people, and that she’s kind of scary, though she’s quite small. He’s going to tell you that after gym she goes away again with that extra teacher, and doesn’t ever go in his actual classroom with his other classmates.

I already wonder what you’re going to think when your son or your daughter, wide-eyed and incredulous, tells you these things.

I wish I could be sitting at your dinner table with your family or in your car with you both as you pull away, and these conversations begin, because maybe I could help explain a little.

This girl, my daughter, didn’t have a typical start in life. She spent a lot of time in and out of many foster homes, and got handed back and forth to lots of strangers for years, and every bit of the uncertainty and worry and fear that comes with that shows, almost all day long. She is stressed and scared and hypervigilant, and while this may look like extreme anxiety and attachment issues and post-traumatic stress disorder to those who are familiar with these, it looks like inexplicable anger and bizarre aggression and terrible behavior to those who aren’t.

It often looks frightening.

I always feel bad when small kids say that, even though I understand, because I’ve been on the receiving end of that explosive stress-induced anger, too, and it truly can be frightening, even to an adult.

Last year she was in a regular classroom as much as she could manage it, but even then she was removed more than 50% of the time. She wasn’t allowed to stay in her neighborhood school after last year. She was moved to your daughter’s school, which houses rooms for kids with behavioral issues. Now she goes on a different bus with other kids who aren’t on regular buses. She spends 100 long minutes each day on that bus.

The reason she’s only in your son’s specials (music, gym, library, art) is because she isn’t permitted to be in general education for any other class time because she is wildly unpredictable.

It’s not that many, many, many people, including her dad and me, don’t tell her every day how she should behave and what she cannot do. We do. We do, her teachers do, some BHPs from a behavioral program do. She hears social stories, works with BHPs, has had counseling. But when maladaptive levels of cortisol rush unnecessarily through a person’s brain at any perceived threat, past instructions are often not considered.

It’ll be scary for all of us if this can’t change.

It is heartbreaking for many reasons, but one is that sometimes she can function. Just not predictably.

She has a sweet, older friend in our neighborhood with whom she can play for an entire hour outside on our yard. She doesn’t ever hurt her.

She goes to swimming lessons, and she goofs around in the shallow side of the pool with four other kids, all of them joyfully doing somersaults in the water while they wait for the instructor to return to them. She doesn’t hurt those kids either, and she usually does what’s asked of her by that instructor.

She went to a whole bunch of freezing cold soccer games this year for her older sister, and successfully interacted with typically developing children for over an hour a few times.

This fall, she hiked Streaked Mountain on a clear, calm day, fully enjoyed herself, was remarkably appropriate with the three other kids and three dogs, happily ate trail snacks, and remarked enthusiastically from the summit that she could “see the whole world!”

Yet school, many public settings, and the chaos of even five extra children, still seems stunningly unmanageable to her.

I was speaking with a supervisor from a behavioral program the other day who told me that kids who can’t control their social behavior by the end of 3rd grade have a statistically higher chance of not making it through high school or becoming truly functional adults. That was hard to hear.

Streaked Mountain is only 1,770 feet high. But you can see the White Mountains from the top. It’s not the whole world, but for a seven-year-old kid, it’s a lot of it.

I don’t know what the future holds for her, but I am hoping hard that her ability to manage her own responses changes soon. Someday, I’d like her to be able to be in more of that “whole world” that those other kids like your daughter are already starting to access.

In the mean time, when your son mentions this girl to you and how she doesn’t go into his classroom ever because she acts so differently, please help him understand that she is still stressed and angry and that her behavior reflects years of being scared, and that we are trying hard to change this.

We are trying so hard to help her so that the whole world, but first a typical classroom, is someday open to her in the same way it is for so many others,