Children who come from early childhood trauma (abuse, neglect, domestic violence, etc.) often do not feel secure in their environment or with adults or peers. It’s like they are always looking for the next shoe to drop or for something else to go wrong. Sometimes they will even test new adults and friends in their life to see what they are made of? They are trying to figure out if you are a safe person, can they trust you, and can you protect them if the abuser comes back? They haven’t been able to rely on others in the past, so why would they be able to rely on them now? Their brain has been wired to survive. Sometimes surviving means testing the adults around them and their friends.
Can they get you to believe their lie? Can they steal from you? What will you do if they constantly interrupt you or break the rules? What will you do if they try to touch you in a way that makes you uncomfortable?
As adults, if we allow this behavior, the child thinks, “Well, if I can do this to them, what will they do if the abuser returns? The abuser took advantage of me, and this adult can’t manage me; they won’t be able to manage the abuser?” As the misbehavior continues, this belief becomes more profoundly entrenched that the world is not safe and they have to take care of themselves. While feeling unsafe, the child is not able to let their guard down and just be a child where they get to play and learn more about their environment. It also hinders their ability to heal from the traumatic situation and develop the wisdom and maturity that can come from healing.
It is essential to understand that this type of testing is typical for children who have suffered from long-term trauma or have attachment concerns. Our job is to recognize when we are being tested and pass the test. This way, the child learns the adult is wise enough to see through the misbehavior, and they know how to respond. This wisdom can help the child feel safe and secure that the adult can handle not only the child’s misbehavior but also has the strength and skills needed to keep the child safe from abusive situations. The child has an opportunity to feel safe and protected. Passing the test means we can develop a relationship with the child based on authenticity and transparency. This relationship and feeling of safety can begin the healing experience for the child who has suffered from early abuse and trauma.
To learn more and how to pass the test, watch our podcast: Are your Students Testing You, are you Passing the Test?. Go to https://healingchildren.teachable.com/courses and watch our online training on “Healing Discipline Finding Joy in Working with Challenging Students” or “How to Set Boundaries and Structure with Students Who have Out of Control Behavior.” You can also find more information in our book “Healing Discipline: Bringing Hope to Shattered Lives, A Guide for Educators.”