Dysregulation and Clutterfunk
My son is just getting into music really. By that I mean starting to know what he likes, but also appreciate the artistry and skill that goes into something regardless of whether he likes it or not. And he often has some very insightful observations. Wish he’d bloody bother to learn an instrument or composition… but I digress. He’s also into computer games, and was listening to one particular piece of music over and over from a game called Geometry Dash. The music was called Clutterfunk by Waterflame, and I embed it here for you. Why not listen while you read the rest of this?
I asked him why. It is so discordant, so unpredictable, so adrenalising. Not something I’d normally recommend him to listen to, frankly. It makes me feel on edge and before I became an adopter I was so in tune with myself I was positively Zen. But this music, according to him, is as close as he has found to his state of consciousness (well what he said was ‘that sounds like my head, Dad’). He was quite excited about it as it spoke to him like nothing else he’d heard at the time.
The mind of a traumatised and neglected child is almost impossible to understand and very difficult to manage for their parents. And all adopted children in the UK will have experienced severe trauma and neglect. (Yeah, yeah, I know, so why do we bother with adoption at all? Answer: because someone has to care, they have no one else). Their mind simply hasn’t developed in the way it needs to in order to be healthy or operate correctly. A child’s mind isn’t fully formed as they come into the world. The brain, and its connection to the body, is always growing and changing all through life. But it takes 4 or more years from birth for the mind to wrestle the initial control of the body that most adults take for granted, and for the neural pathways to go in the right direction. You can see it happening as children learn how to walk, talk, match shapes, catch a ball, balance on a line, use fine motor skills like writing, play/share with other kids, negotiate, calm themselves when angry or excited, and so on.
As a parent you can help this happen in those first 4 years or so of life by providing a safe, stimulating, nurturing environment in which the child can explore the world and form those neural connections. For the most part an adopted child (at least in the UK) won’t have had that from her previous parents. Quite the opposite.
So what does it look like, when a child’s mind hasn’t been given a chance to develop properly and those neural pathways either go the wrong way or don’t exist at all? Clutterfunk can shine some light on that. Let’s try and split it up into its components. Imagine that insidious periodic melody (starts at 0:42) as being your ‘standing state’, what you experience as your state of mind when everything is OK, no excitement, no activity, no people around you trying to interact. It is a bit more up and down than perhaps you are used to but at least it is repetitive, predictable, manageable.
Can you focus on anything? Yes, just about. Then at 1:12 a sudden silence. Anticipation. Something is going to happen. Is it good? Is it bad? Is it more likely to be bad than good? Probably. What must I do? Can I do it? Should I do it? What will other people think? Am I bad for not knowing? Can I focus now? The answer to that starts at 1:18 and continues for another 30 seconds. An explosion of confusing sound imagery. The brain simply can’t cope with the lack of input and so tries to find it anywhere it can. There needs to be something. Many children with traumatic early years exhibit sensory-seeking behaviour. It is an external validation of their existence. After all, if other people or even inanimate objects react or respond in some way to them then they can be sure they really exist.
After that the music settles into a new equilibrium. It is faster, harsher, more urgent, but it is consistent. In the brain the anxiety is high but things have calmed down and it is not chaotic anymore. For another minute or so there are changes in attention and focus — there is no way the brain is going to be taking anything in and learning anything but it is regulated. Until about 3:26 when there is another sudden sensory input and tings momentarily explode again before gradually becoming more chaotic and fading away.
This is as close as my son can describe dysregulation at this time in his life. How it manifests itself varies from child to child of course, but raging, screaming, throwing things, hitting things, disassociating, self-harm, and scary out-of-control panicking are just some of the things adopted people and their carers have to cope with, often every day. There are plenty of different psychological tools available to therapists and parents to help the children manage this and process their trauma. DDP, CBT, EMDR, PACE, theraplay, all the acronyms you want. But really the common thing about all of these is that they need carers to just accept the child, don’t try to correct (it’s not learnt behaviour), keep talking to them, and provide that safe space that was never available to them in early life. It works, those pathways can be directed to the place they should be, but it takes years. And years. And it is exhausting, both for the parent and child.
It is easy to feel frustrated with the lack of awareness from birth parents about the consequences of their actions. The pointless denial and hypocrisy really grates sometimes — I speak from personal experience of our limited interactions with our own son’s birth parents. We and the children live with the birth parents’ legacy of abuse and neglect: a damaged mind and developmental delay or stagnation. However their lack of awareness is often deliberate, a way of avoiding having to think about what they’ve done (or not done) because of the shame. When framed in this way we can sometimes come to sympathise. But not enough to forgive. At least not yet.