Life in the red zone

Volcano - Life in the red zone

Let’s not sugarcoat it, being a foster carer can be tough and about 3 months into our first full-time placement (more details about how this all came about in Suddenly full-time carers) we were faced with some truly challenging situations to deal with. In the therapeutic parenting arousal graph when a child enters the red zone it is defined as an extremely heightened state of intense alertness and emotion, often reacting through instinct (flight/fright/freeze response) and neglecting rational thought. We had seen plenty of anger outbursts up until this point but the first extended severe red zone episode was a little terrifying.

“the red zone it is defined as an extremely heightened state of intense alertness and emotion, often reacting through instinct and neglecting rational thought”

David, the 12 year old boy in our care (fictional names used) had come home from school in a bit of a mood and a little on edge which was not out of the ordinary. We gave him the space he needed to have an easy afternoon as much as possible. Dinner time approached approached and the situation immediately escalated from there. You could tell a physical change had happened and that the adrenalin was pumping, he was tensed up with clenched fists, yelling loudly and would not stop pacing around the house.

We did our best to remain calm and continue to speak in a measured tone of voice to avoid further escalating the situation. Tonight this was just not helping and he was pushing for a reaction as best as he knew how. He switched to verbally abusing both me and wife throwing everything he had at us. At one point he started directing all his abuse to my wife so I instinctively stood between them, things were so heated and unpredictable it was not clear what would eventuate when he was in this state. He picked up on this immediately and stepped up the threats towards my wife as he saw this was getting to me. I directed her to go to the bedroom where we both knew there was a lock on the door where she could be removed from the situation so at least the stress of physical danger to my wife was one less thing to worry about.

He then switched tactics to focusing his abuse on me, getting increasingly frustrated that I was remaining calm and not reacting. We know he has a past history of being physically and verbally abused, it was almost like adults responding with physical or verbal abuse was his normal that he required and he wasn’t going to quit until he got the expected reaction. He literally screamed at me demanding that I punch him “just like all the others”, saying “you know you want to” and “it’s only a matter of time before you do”. His demeanour was incredibly threatening, I am not accustomed to conflict and my own adrenaline was pumping out of fear and stress throughout this situation and I continued to do my best to remain calm and not react.

“it was almost like adults responding with physical or verbal abuse was his normal that he required and he wasn’t going to quit until he got the expected reaction”

Still not getting a reaction he resorted to threatening to get a knife which is something I could not let him get in the state he was in. I was closer to the kitchen them him and positioned myself as to block the entrance of the kitchen and all I had to do was stand there, he didn’t really make any attempts to advance past me but continued the verbal abuse. He threatened that he couldn’t be watched all the time, and that he would get a knife later and stab us in our sleep. Through this I continued to remain calm and offer reassuring words as best as I could such as “I don’t believe that’s what you really want to do”, “you are safe here” and “you are loved” – all these positive things seemed to just enrage him further.

Failing to get into the kitchen to get a knife, he retreated to his bedroom and proceeded to damage his property as violently as he could. He would throw things repeatedly against the hard surfaces of his furniture smashing them into many pieces. I still did not intervene. It was difficult but I just could not see what it would accomplish, to physically stop him or grab him would just play into his fantasy of me being “just like all the others” and attempt to physically control him. I just maintained calm and said it was a shame about all the damage he was doing to his things and would preferred he didn’t but I couldn’t stop him. I also mentioned while I couldn’t stop him there would be consequences if he acts like this (at the time I wasn’t sure what this would be). I tried to remove myself from the situation many times to allow him space to calm down but he would just step up his destruction to get my attention forcing me to return making it a very difficult situation to deescalate. Eventually he gave up on the destruction after creating an awful mess and continued his verbal assault on me.

I was using all my energy to remain calm and racking my brain on what I could do to try and deescalate things. Since things had gone back to just verbal abuse, and I knew removing myself from the situation would escalate things, I just minimised engaging as much as possible and busied myself cleaning the kitchen while his onslaught continued. When he was spewing hate about us not knowing what he was capable of and us not knowing how bad he was and who he truly was I took a chance to interject and say that I did know who he was and this wasn’t him. That the real David is not this angry person but a kind, caring person. Strangely enough I noticed that I had caught his attention and while he was still fuming I sensed that something in what I was saying was getting through. So I continued my line of thought listing out all the wonderful things I could think about him as best I could in that moment. How he loved to share, how we had fun playing video games together, how he had a wonderful sense of humour and loved to laugh with us, how he did such a good job of looking out for the other kids in our care when we did respite. Something in him just cracked and he completely broke down in tears so I moved in for the hug and he went limp in my arms.

“I sensed that something in what I was saying was getting through … something in him just cracked and he completely broke down in tears”

After a good cry and some time for everyone to calm down we had a good talk about what happened. He felt incredibly sad about it all saying he didn’t understand why he got so angry and needed our help with it all and we said that we loved him and that we would work through it together.

It was so heartbreaking to see this. Aside from the anger, abuse, damage and stress of it all what we were seeing was not who David was. The trauma from his past experiences had wired him to react angrily in certain situations and this anger would spiral out of control. He was living in a safe environment with safe people possibly for the first time in his life and this went against everything he knew as normal and pushing against us to get an angry reaction was the only option he thought he had to prove that we were just like all the other adults he had experienced – untrustworthy, angry and violent. Remaining calm and not overreacting did not make him feel comfortable, and it would take many iterations before he could learn that this was a predictable response and he could truly feel safe and loved in our house.

“It was so heartbreaking to see this … the trauma from his past experiences had wired him to react angrily in certain situations and this anger would spiral out of control.”

I wish I could say this incident was a once off, but it wasn’t. In fact similar events started occurring multiple times a week, two such occurrences escalating to a point where we were required to call an ambulance for a mental health assessment ending in a trip to the hospital. As weeks went by it got a little easier in that at least we knew what to expect, we had somewhat of an understanding of his limits, we had fantastic support from our social worker and clinician arming us with strategies and the more time in red zone the better we got at deescalating the situation. Things at home were hard and we knew they were not going to get easier any time soon, but we were prepared to do what we could to get David the help he needed and work through this as best we could.

 

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Image: CanStockPhoto

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