Language, Part Three

CINA kids’ vocabulary is different from ours; not just in the words and phrases themselves, but the meaning of some of those words and phrases. Sometimes they have to be taught that certain words they know (profanity, sexual terms, etc.) are not words they can use in school. They may not know this, and even when you explain it to them, they may need to be reminded of this, especially if it’s a word/phrase they have been in the habit of using (often with the “blessing” of their parents).


Sometimes words/phrases have to do with their experiences.


I once represented a child who was accused of “punching” a school staff person (let’s call her Lily) with a closed fist. Lily was understandably upset, especially because, from her perspective the child “lied” when he denied that he did this, and failed to “show any “remorse“ for his behavior. As an initial matter, most kids cannot “express remorse” in the moment. Their “upstairs brains” are working overtime, which means their “downstairs brains” can’t get their attention. After they calm down, the downstairs brain can be “heard,” and they often do express remorse.


Lily filed a police report (which she had a right to do). But here is what happened from the child’s perspective: when he began to escalate, he was given two options, one of which was to go to a different room to calm down. He struggled to make the decision initially, and Lily was called to the room. She was apparently not aware of the “options” given this student, because she wasn’t there when they were given. My client got to the point where he could choose an option and chose to go to the other room.


But Lily wouldn’t let him go, in part because she didn’t know the teacher had said he could. She kept trying to physically prevent him from leaving. He told her to stop touching him (touching a child who has had certain kinds of trauma is really problematic sometimes, even if the touch is not “inappropriate”). Lily ignored that request and kept trying to prevent him from leaving. So, he “blocked” her. This was a technique teachers at his previous school used on him. In the case where my client/student was using it, it meant he raised his arm, bent at the elbow, with fist closed. He then used his horizontal forearm to try to stop Lily from touching him and preventing him from exercising his “option.”


He freely acknowledged that his fist was closed, and even acknowledged that she could have interpreted what he was doing as hitting her with a closed fist. But from his perspective, he had not done that. He had “blocked” her. And in his experience, that was allowed, especially since she was not respecting his request to stop touching him and his request to exercise an option he had been given.


In other words, he wasn’t “lying” or refusing to take responsibility for his actions; he just didn’t see it the way she did.


Another example is a teen I represented who called me in tears because she was having an “issue” with her foster/pre-adoptive parents. When I got there, the foster mom said, “She ran away!” The child said, “No, I didn’t!” The foster mom reminded her that she had left their home without permission.


Before it escalated further (again), I stopped them both and said, “I think we have a problem with definitions (because the teen did not deny leaving the home).  I asked the teen what it meant to her when someone said, “run away.” She promptly responded, “That’s when you leave the home with no intention of coming back.”


The foster mom’s eyes got really big, which made me laugh. I said, “I take it that’s not how you define it.” She said, “No! Running away is when you leave the home without our permission or knowledge!”


And that was the problem. From there we could set some ground rules. If “Susie” needed a break, she could go for a walk around the block, but she had to tell them she was doing that. If she needed to go a second (or third) time, she could, but she had to check in each time.


I never got another call from them about her “running away.”


The third example was a young child (about 1st grade) who asked me if he “had” to see his mom. Initially, that sounds like he doesn’t want to, but is concerned he might be forced to. But I wanted to be sure, because this kid typically wanted to see his mom; I wondered if something had happened. I said to him, “I want to make sure I know what you are asking me, so I give you the right answer. Are you asking me that because you don’t want to see her, or are you asking because you want to see her, but somebody isn’t letting you?”


It turned out to be the latter. His grandfather (his placement at the time) didn’t think mom should get to see the kids, because she wasn’t doing what he thought she should be doing. This child was essentially asking if we could “make” his grandfather let him see his mom.


We could.