Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Chatty Cathy: Traumatized Kids and Constant Talking

Okay, so the title of this post is probably a good clue that I’m an “older” parent.  No need for old lady jokes in the comments section below!  It is true.  I am old enough to have had a Chatty Cathy doll as a child of the 1960’s.  I had the one with brown hair (like me).  I remember the day the string broke on that doll and it would not shut up until my father took it apart.  You can’t pry open a child with a screw driver to shut her up like you can a doll.

I arrived home with my two youngest children on my 48th birthday, more than four years ago now.  My new son turned 12 a few days before we left his birth country.  His sister was nine.  Back then, we only understood a few words of whatever we said to one another.  I knew little Russian and they knew very little English.  The first three or four weeks home, unless my daughter was talking with her brother in the Russian language, she was relatively quiet.  As she learned more English (and she learned it very quickly), she became more talkative.  She sang more.  (She can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but boy does she sing!)  Now that she is fluent, her talking and singing are constant.  I am not kidding you when I say this child does not shut up even in her sleep!

Constant talking and singing, even asking silly questions or questions to which the child already knows the answer, but asks anyway, are all part of “the package” in children dealing with issues of trauma and attachment.  What I call “Chatty Cathy Syndrome” is quite common in children learning to live with disinhibited RADish behaviors.  (See my post HERE.)  It took me a while to understand my daughter’s Chatty Cathy Syndrome.  Girls talk more than boys.  I’ve parented boys for 24 years.  I’ve only parented a girl for four years.  I thought maybe the talking was just a “girl thing.”  Girls supposedly use twice the number of words per day than guys do.  (A friend recently told me if men listened the first time, we wouldn’t have to use twice as many words.  I thought that was pretty funny.)  I didn’t realize at first that the reason my daughter MUST, absolutely MUST have something to say (or sing), even if she’s only speaking or singing to herself, is because SILENCE TERRIFIES HER.  If it’s too quiet, she may actually have to think.  Thinking can mean having to deal with thoughts and feelings that are just too big to handle.

I’m not saying I’m good at this, because I often just want to yell, “Be QUIET!”  (And I do.)  However, if your child is particularly talkative and is even more particularly talkative than even their usual talkative self and is just UNABLE to shut up, that should be a huge clue she is trying to stop the hard thoughts reeling inside her head.  She is dealing with something she does not want to deal with, even if she cannot bring that thing to the front part of her brain (cerebrum) where cognitive thought happens and where she can begin to rationalize and figure it out.  She is dealing with something even if whatever it is she’s fighting is stuck in the middle part of her brain (amygdala) where it’s all just a jumble of wordless emotions and sense memories.  While the constant talking, and especially the constant ridiculous questions drive me absolutely batty, my job as her therapeutic parent is to help her identify what’s going on, and then hopefully sort through it all.  (Medication also helps!  I’ll post on that topic soon.)

Thankfully, my girl is usually very pleasant even when she’s behaving like a 3 year-old on verbal steroids.  Even when she argues (which is also quite constant if she is dealing with big feelings), she does it in a pleasant voice.  In fact, my husband doesn’t even realize she’s arguing with him sometimes because she’s so NICE about it.  (She’s much more snarky with me.)  The thing is, she doesn’t usually realize it either.  She has no clue she hasn’t taken a breath, or allowed anyone else to get a word in edge wise.  She doesn’t know she just asked a question and isn’t listening to the answer, because she’s busy thinking of another question to ask – and really, that next question is usually just an argument packaged as a pleasant-sounding question (to the untrained ear).  When this happens, before we can even deal with what’s really going on, she needs to be told she’s on system overload.  Sometimes she’s able to stop and breathe.  Other times, like last night, she cannot control herself and will go on and on until one of us (usually me, but last night it was her brother) snaps at her – loudly. 

The thing I often need to remember is that “crazy” feels NORMAL for my kids.  Normal is not normal to them.  Their lives were filled with so much crazy that normal is strange.  It doesn’t feel good.  Only when they are in that constant state of flight or fight do they feel as though they can navigate the world.  Their brains and their bodies don’t know how to relax for any length of time.  And in those times when they do relax, it literally hurts, and it’s too scary to remain there.  When I first realized this, it broke my heart.  Now, I just do what I must do to help us all make it through the crazy.  Sometimes it’s minute to minute.  It is always one day at a time.  Sometimes that means a time out for mom.  Sometimes it means identifying for my girl what’s going on.  (“Honey, you don’t seem to be able to stop talking or asking questions.  I think you must have thought about something scary today – or maybe you had a feeling today you didn’t like.”)

As we talk, I can ask more pointed questions – or even TELL her what I think it is she’s feeling.  Sometimes I don’t know.  Sometimes, I can make an educated guess because of past experience, such as when she is triggered by celebrations or holidays (like now).  Sometimes, telling her what I would feel helps her to sort things out and makes it less frightening to think about what she’s actually feeling.  (“Boy, if I’d gone through some of the things you went through when you were little, and this happened, I’d be feeling like . . .”)  When I tell her what I’d feel, it allows her to ask me why I’d feel that way.  Her asking me “why” is a lot more productive than me trying to ask her “why.”

Something else I’ve tried when it doesn’t seem the words will come, or the feelings are so deep that she cannot begin to bring them to a cognitive level, is do some therapeutic play or activity with her.  We do things we’ve learned in therapy like drawing, or playing with play dough, or making sand pictures (see my post HERE).  Sometimes, we try stretching out on the bed and taking big long breaths and seeing who can let that breath out for the longest time.  We count each other’s exhales.  Other times, we just do “normal” things like prepare a meal together, clean a room, or fold some laundry.  It’s pretty amazing how doing “normal” things can help me feel more normal.  It works sometimes for her, too.

And sometimes, honestly, I wonder if she will always have Chatty Cathy syndrome.  I wonder if she will always sing in the bathroom and talk in her sleep.  I’m glad she’s usually pleasant about it.


Cara said...

Thank you for sharing your experience and some practical advice. My trauma baby has been driving us all crazy with her Chatty Cathy Syndrome as well. Same nonsensical things too. She talks just to talk. This article was very insightful. I will keep in mind the things you wrote first thing in the morning- since that is when it aaalll begins, hahaha!

Beth T said...

Cara, It's been a long time since I read this article. Thanks for your comment. Is be curious to know how it goes for you, identifying feelings for your Chatty Cathy. Mine is 16 now, by the way. She has slowed down in that the chattering is no longer constant but once she gets going it is still hard for her to stop.

Deborah Wilson said...

just smiling nodding my head. Also an adoptive mom of two, My youngest BOY is my chatterbox and I could have written this post. I've been known to utter such phrases as "hey how bout you shut your mouth for the love of all that is good and decent." Thanks for the reminder to remember the motivation for the chatter. I'm pouring through your archives now.