Why some kids act strange

Tonight we were having a deep family discussion; lots of tears and painful memories. We were talking about abuse and its sequelae and my daughter related the following:

She went to a community college class the first night and immediately stiffened when she saw the instructor. He was an older man with greying hair and a small, pointy beard. She pressed her back against her chair as hard as possible and tried to stay in the class. She was terrified.

He began asking students their names and she remembers thinking to herself, “I won’t tell him anything. He’d better not come near me.” She had no idea why she was feeling this intense fear and hatred, but she had noted the reaction in the past to exactly the same sort of figure.

Indeed, she shouted at him that she didn’t have to tell him her name and wouldn’t. He backed off and she fled from the class, running as fast as possible to her car and sitting in it, sobbing, with her back pressed hard against the seat.

I remember when we first adopted her, she was 4, no male, including me, could touch her without a fear reaction. It took her many years to get past that. But this particular figure put her over the edge.

My wife and I remember that she had many symptoms of sexual abuse when we got her and the social workers told us about this. The origin was questionable but we did get to meet her foster parents and the foster father was an older, greying man with a pointy beard. My daughter has no memory of him but the image was imprinted and strongly associated.

So when students engage in bizarre, unreasonable behavior, we can think of it as a symptom. We are not counselors but we should be able to deal with such situations authoritatively and professionally, incl making appropriate referrals and not taking the reaction personally or thinking we can resolve these matters with just a “firm hand”.

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