Tuesday Topic: How do I Deal with Hypervigilance?

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Today’s Tuesday Topic is from Nancy who asks,

Can anyone help me with how to deal with my daughters hypervigilance?  I feel like I’m being watched/stared at all day, and she has a very difficult time paying attention to something she is doing, because she is so busy watching everyone else.  “Watching” also involves interfering in, solving, intruding, etc. into everyone else’s business.  She can relax in her room, but even then, likes to be positioned in a way that she can look out the door to see what everyone else is doing.  She monitors how much food everyone has, if they’re done with their schoolwork, if someone is playing with someone else’s toys, what clothes they’re wearing (if they fit, etc.).  It’s tiring and I often feel “spied on” for lack of a better word.  How do people help their adopted children overcome this?  She’s 10 (ish) and has been home for 7 years.

Hypervigilance is a problem for so many of our children. We’ve had some great discussions on Tuesday Topics lately, and I’m sure many of you have helpful thoughts and encouraging words for Nancy. Please take a moment to leave a comment. I’m going to be away from my computer a lot today, but I’ll approve comments as soon as I can.

Do you have a question for a Tuesday Topic? Email it to me at [email protected]  Please include “tuesday topic” in the subject line.  I would love to hear from you.

Lisa

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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.

33 Comments

  1. Louise Brodecky Hudson
    November 19, 2013

    I'm interested in the advice others give for this. We have this behavior in our home, too.

    Reply
  2. Jennifer Shapiro Isaac
    November 19, 2013

    Ooooooh. This is a good question! Can't wait for responses!!!

    Reply
  3. Emily
    November 19, 2013

    PICTURE OF EBS: <3 <3 <3 <3 <3

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      November 19, 2013

      It's an old one, but I love his sweet face.

      Reply
      1. Emily
        November 19, 2013

        It's like the perennial Eby expression.

        Reply
  4. Melissa
    November 19, 2013

    This is really interesting to me. I don't know if I have any super helpful advice, but I thought I would chime in and say this has always been an issue (for lack of a better word) with my daughter. I didn't even know it was called hypervigilance or that it was apparently somewhat common with adopted kids, but it certainly is with mine. We adopted my daughter when she was a baby (8 months old), and we've always called her The Watcher. From tinyhood on, she has watched us – watched how much affection we gave our other kids, watched how we disciplined them, etc. It used to make me feel really uncomfortable and often guilty – like she was mentally tallying up how much love she was given in comparison to everyone else. I would try to make kisses and snuggles even, but it just doesn't always happen. As she got older I would feel particularly guilty when I gave kisses to my babies, and through her watching I realized how instinctive it is to give tons of physical affection to babies and toddlers, and that I really have to make an effort to do so with my older kids. And they love it when I kiss their cheeks and foreheads and pepper them with kisses like I would a baby.

    Fast forward eight years and she is almost nine. My adopted son is nine, and he didn't come home to us till he was six. He watches too, and I've noticed an increase in this as of late. With him being older, I've begun to address "eavesdropping" and teaching him that it's rude. I don't know if this is the perfect approach, but he's old enough to recognize and articulate that he is watching or listening in to see if/how we discipline a sibling, etc, in a way that's nosy and likely comparing. For example, he's a really diligent tidier, and so he often picks up slack that his sisters leave behind. He's also started tattling in roundabout ways and then walking off, but still watching from a distance to see what happens; to see if someone gets in some trouble for it. I kind of think it's the same drive as my daughter even when she was tiny – they are newcomers to our family, they know they're from somewhere different, and they want to see if they will be treated the same way, and if things will be even. Maybe that's just my take on it, but it's how I've read it. But it's probably also in part our human nature of comparing ourselves to others – I think we all struggle with that; I'm just able to see it visibly here.

    This has often been an accountability to me, reminding me to seek to be consistent and faithful in how I correct and show affection to all my kids. But I've also tried to use it as a teaching platform for my kids (in particular these two Watchers) that life is simply not always even or fair. But that God tells a different story in each of our lives, and we really have to learn not to fret about how His story is playing out in someone else's life, but to trust that He loves us and is playing out a good story in our life. Likewise, I remind my son to trust his mom and dad, trust that we love him, and to trust that even if we don't always catch siblings' misbehavior, or even if he does more work than them and doesn't get a reward for that or I miss correcting them for that. I remind him that it's not his job to "police" everyone, and that he can trust his parents to do so, even though we do it imperfectly and he won't always see it.

    And to reiterate something that Lisa has touched on a number of times, a rocking chair can cover a multitude of troubles. I finally got a great, comfy, puffy rocking chair that's a perfect fit for me and a kid. While I had great aspirations of making sure to rock one kid in it each day (I have seven kids, one per day of the week), I rarely manage to get that into the daily routine. However, it works wonders to grab a kid (grab a Watcher) and give them some time to rock and snuggle with mom. I like to hope that helps cover the inadequacies I have in "keeping things even", and reminds them of how much they are loved even while all of our stories play out differently each day.

    Reply
    1. Amy D
      November 20, 2013

      Love your humility (seeing it as a way to be held accountable) and respect for your child in this! Thanks for sharing, Melissa!

      Reply
  5. Luann Yarrow Doman
    November 19, 2013

    I've never heard of this before. Looking forward to reading the comments!

    Reply
  6. Melissa
    November 19, 2013

    I feel like I should clarify that we never told our daughter we've called her the Watcher- just something between my husband and I 🙂

    Reply
  7. angela
    November 19, 2013

    oh my. YES. You describe my child. It frustrates me and I feel claustrophobic… My child is not quite ten but delayed… and I don't think I can do anything about this behavior at all. I often remind her of her place, that she's not the adult in charge, that she can't take over, that she needs to mind her own business, that she needs to give people room to have individuality, etc…. but I don't think it's going to away any time soon. I think that until her anxiety is fully addressed we will have a hyper-vigilant child. We are doing NR. I hope it has an impact on the core of her internal stress and anxiety.

    Reply
  8. Rebecca
    November 19, 2013

    I have a great friend who is also a counselor who encourages me to ramp up the individual attention at any sign of anxiety from my son. She always says five minutes of undivided attention engaged in the child's world (not TV or engaging the child in what you're doing) makes a huge behavior difference in most kids and helps curb the attention-seeking. Now committing to that time daily even when behaviors have settled is hard. It might not be a magic fix for hypervigilence, but it's worth a try. I know how hard it is to have a hypervigilent child!

    Reply
  9. Karen
    November 19, 2013

    I really like what Melissa said. I have one home 10 months and although she's not Hyper vigilant she is vigilant when it comes to her older sister. We have 4 bio kids 3 boys and a girl – all older and our daughter 11 is 5 years older than our adopted daughter, Elli. Elli has adjusted so well but I have noticed how picky she is about everything that Kate says and does. She either wants to be just like Kate or she wants to tell on Kate. she wants to know why Kate does everything, Why she wears what she does. She is very honest about telling us all how ugly or pretty or scruffy or beautiful we look or sound or smell or feel (some of that I know is her culture – Chinese). But this response from Melissa speaks so clearly to me and I love, love, love what she says to her kids. Thanks for this. It's helped me peg Elli a little better and be a better mommy.

    Reply
  10. Marissa
    November 19, 2013

    My eyes nearly popped out of my head when I read this post — my children do this too, and I didn't even know it was a "thing"! Although I've heard of hypervigilance in adopted children, I assumed that the term referred to the child being highly attuned to danger; I didn't know that staring/assessing was part of it. My children exhibit exactly the same behaviors that Nancy's do, and I admit that it is intensely irritating to the whole family. I'm definitely looking forward to reading the comments!

    Reply
  11. Kaaren
    November 19, 2013

    Excellent question/topic! I would love to hear from others on this, as our family is trying to crack this nut right now, as well.

    Reply
  12. Jessica P.
    November 19, 2013

    So…I don't know if any of this will be helpful, but here is a bit of what I experienced while fostered a 12 year old girl and her 4 year old brother (at the time we had a 4 year old son and 1 year old daughter through open adoption at birth).

    T would follow me everywhere when she first came to live with us. Literally 14 inches behind me. I move fast and would turn around and bump into her a lot. She would peer around doorways to watch me in another room, listen in on conversations between my husband and I, just LURK. Ugh. I got so tired of being watched and breathed on. When I did spend time one-on-one with her trying to talk about life, she got this crazed look in her eye and often started acting like a hyper toddler – putting things in her mouth, sliding off the furniture, rolling back on the couch so that her feet were in the air, her bottom facing me. Not 12 year old behavior.

    Obviously this was related to her insecure, unstable previous life and her attachment issues. I started by creating a hub in our house with a public family calendar (as opposed to just the Google calendar that my husband and I shared), a daily schedule (we got them at the beginning of summer, so we had to create routines and dependable eating/snack times), and a place to post a Bible verse or value we were talking about as a family, a bulletin board for hanging the kids' art, and a chore chart…that sort of thing.

    Then I started giving her jobs. If she wanted to be in the kitchen with me, she could chop carrots. If she was lurking, she could go fold laundry or clean her room. She actually stood in front of the hub a lot looking at things – it was in the center of the house and had a great view of everywhere, so maybe that was part of it. We also got her a library card – she was required to read some of the time.

    I had the tough conversation with her about eavesdropping – I even got upset at her a couple of times after I had been very clear about my expectations (SO MANY calls with social workers and others where I needed to be able to talk freely…she had a knack for knowing when I was on a call like that and finding me wherever I was hiding out.) I wouldn't recommend getting upset…but we're human.

    I talked with her about how it is good for moms and dads to have time together alone to talk without kids. And how she could trust us – how she would have to practice trusting us until she felt like she really could trust us.

    When the crazed look came into her eyes, I started addressing it – no more chewing on the couch pillows. No more butt in the air. Being a young woman has some responsibility, some dignity with it. Lots of coaching in social areas. I also explained that some people LOVE being around people all the time. We call them extroverts. Others need time to themselves to get recharged. I am an introvert, you appear to be an extrovert. When I need time alone I will tell you. It doesn't mean I don't like you – it means I just need time alone to feel better. And I am going to be clear about when I need these times.

    I don't know how much of this is helpful for those of you who have this issue with kiddos you adopted years back. But I know that in this foster situation, the clear and accepting communication (I never shamed her, only used a gentle honesty accompanied by firmness – I often used "some people need/like to" etc. to talk about difficult issues) accompanied by clear and dependable structure, and then the passage of time to prove that we really were who we said we were, made a difference. She eventually calmed down. School started. I provided her with lots of opportunities and support in making friends her age (with more clear and firm expectations), and she settled in.

    She lived with us a year and made significant growth. In the end she went back to her family a much more mature kiddo. If any of this is helpful…I will be so happy!

    Reply
  13. Emily
    November 19, 2013

    I have a son who is hypervigilant, and I have found that rather than telling him to NOT be that way (just STOP it!), it is more helpful to help him contextualize it. I like to do this in two ways–the first is to help him understand how it is perceived by others (when you hide behind the door and listen to a private conversation, other people think that's rude and sneaky because they were trying to be private) and how he's feeling when he does it (was he anxious about someone else? Eager to see them in trouble?) and brainstorm ways to communicate positively about those feelings.

    The second way is to kind of co-opt the hyper vigilance and give it value in a correct context. I like to talk about how all the members of our family are involved in building or tearing down our family each day (I got this idea for myself from proverbs–a wise woman builds her house, but a foolish one tears it down with her own hands). Then, when he is being hypervigilant in a way that tears down, I try to gently point it out and get him to assess whether it was building or tearing down the family. I like to validate the fact that he IS a watcher and see if there's a way to use that to build up the family (maybe there's a young child at home and you need to watch the floor for crumbs, you're expecting a repairman, or a family member is in need of encouragement about a particular struggle). In line with this, I like to watch for ways that his vigilance is helpful–he has saved te carpet on numerous occasions by pointing out juice in the living room!–and help him communicate this in helpful ways. (Not in a tattletale way but in a 'urging others to love an good deeds' kind of way.)

    This is a rambling answer, but I think for us, the key has been not to shame the hyper vigilance by being constantly exasperated with it (because it is so annoying), but to recognize it and help him see it as something he can control his response to. He may legitimately not be able to control his hyper vigilance, but he CAN struggle to learn to respect others in the midst of it. Hope that makes sense. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Amy d
      November 20, 2013

      Love this, Emily, for so many reasons! The respect, finding the positive side of this attribute (because so many attributes have positive/negatives sides to them!). Thank you for sharing!

      Reply
  14. Sue
    November 20, 2013

    My son is 7. Came home from Kazakhstan at 1. I used to wake up in the middle of the night to find his face right next to mine, staring at me while I slept. Now that was unnerving. That disappeared and now, after he goes to bed, about five minutes later he comes out and says he has to go to the bathroom but it's so he can check on everyone. This is ok with us all. He is getting slowly better but I have no idea how it is happening.

    Reply
    1. Lori
      November 20, 2013

      My daughter came home from Ethiopia when she was 7 and did that very same thing. It truly was very unnerving. She doesn't do that anymore either but does 'check on' us after bedtime quite often. Some things we've just learned to accept.

      Reply
    2. Gwen
      November 20, 2013

      Sue, I know it's not funny but this just made me laugh and laugh! I would jump right out of my skin if I woke up to that! Oh, the stories we will have to tell when our kids are older! 🙂

      We have this same issue, although (as others have said) I didn't realize that the lurking and watching were part of hypervigilance. I'm finding these responses really helpful!

      Reply
      1. angela
        November 21, 2013

        My mother-in-law started doing this when dementia started to affect her. Oh. MY!!

        Nothing like waking up to a face two inches from yours. Makes for good stories later 🙂

        Reply
  15. Luann Yarrow Doman
    November 20, 2013

    You have the wisest readers, Lisa! I wish there was a way to compile all this great info into a reference book.

    Reply
  16. Lori
    November 20, 2013

    I love these responses! I have a hyper-vigilant 12 year old who has been with our family for 5 years. We adopted her with her sister who is now 8. We have 3 biological children who are much older than her and one biological child who is 8. Oh boy does she ever watch how each one of them is treated! I've had conversations with her on what is appropriate and what is not, so she knows my expectations. However, she doesn't necessarily respect my expectations, so her knowing my expectations is not necessarily helpful.
    Nonetheless, I must keep trying. I often remind her that her dad and I are the ones in charge so that she doesn't have to worry about keeping everybody else in line.
    I also try to give silly answers to her never-ending questions. For instance, she feels the need to know where every person is at all times. If she asks, "Where's E?" I'll simply reply, "I think she went to Mars. Probably to get candy bars."
    I'm also notorious for keeping her busy someplace else in the house. It has helped her to get comfortable not always being around and knowing what everybody else is doing.
    She is still hyper-vigilant, but these are some of the ways that I cope with her behavior and maintain a little sanity in my life.

    Reply
  17. Jessica P.
    November 20, 2013

    I just thought of something else – and I may be off base, but this might also be helpful…I don't know. My son (now nearly 6, adopted at birth, open adoption) does not show hypervigilance the way our foster daughter (described above) did. (He has other mild issues that I believe are adoption related.) BUT…he is going through a total tattle-telling stage. He is all up in my daughter's grill (she's nearly 3, same adoptive story) – bossing, tattling, freaking out about her mistakes, hanging out to see her get in trouble…that sort of thing.

    My friend has a nine year old son, only child, who is CA-RAZY concerned about perceived injustices with other kiddos. Another friends two biological children whine a lot about each other and also spy on each other when getting in trouble, tattle, and so on. (ages 4 and 7)

    I want to suggest (humbly…as I do not know your children) that perhaps the sibling/tattling stuff is not the same as the staring/hypervigilance/lurking stuff. It might just be one of the many ways kids deal with siblings, working out their sense of justice, learning to trust that their parents are really capable, etc.

    We are having lots of conversations in our house about who is allowed to tell who what to do, about obedience and respecting others' requests (Sadie must obey Mama, but not Benjamin…he's not in charge of her. He can ask her to do something, they can work together, but he is not "the boss" of her.) I have heard that sometimes kids feel insecure about the parents really doling out justice in the family – hence they take it upon themselves to do it. So I am working hard on hearing both kids' sides of the story and reminding him that he can trust me to make decisions with his concerns in mind. That we are on the same team – all of us. We are family and we are "for" each other. I also have him leave the room when I have to work with Sadie regarding her misbehavior.

    Most of the time, both kids play a part in an altercation. We do a lot of getting down to the root of an issue and while one overreacted and hit, the other did some sort of knowing provoking. Both kiddos get to apologize.

    When he freaks out over her age-appropriate mistakes and failures (spilling, breaking…), I get to take it down a notch, reminding everyone that mistakes are OK, it's no big deal, we just clean up the messes we make. He will calm down if I talk him through it – and I think it helps her recuperate from him hollering. But I also allow him to close his door and declare his room off limits to her, or to have "quiet time" if he needs a break from the interaction – and she has to leave him and his stuff alone at that time. He's so worried about what she might do to his stuff (and rightfully so…she can be a whirlwind).

    Anyway, just something to observe for a while and see if it is the same issue, or perhaps just a developmental one. And I really like how Melissa mentioned how she put things in context for her kiddos (see her third paragraph). Good stuff.

    Reply
  18. Nancy
    November 20, 2013

    Thanks for the input ladies. It helps greatly to know I'm not alone! She has a very stable, routine oriented life, (we homeschool and have a good rhythm). Even today, she looks up from what she's doing every time I walk into the room, walk by the room, watches me eat my breakfast, watches everything everyone else is doing, and can't seem to find her own thing to do. I confess I'm weak on the individual attention, she's one of 11 children with the youngest being 10 weeks old. I guess I'm wondering if talking about it with her would help. I've "joked" in the past about wearing blinders to keep her from being distracted by things going on around her, but that's as far as I've gone, I don't want it to become an "issue" between us ( sometimes she'll do things more if she knows it bothers me). But, I do think its worth bringing up with her and pointing out the social element of it. Thanks for the help…any more suggestions, I'd love to hear them!

    Reply
  19. Rebekah
    November 21, 2013

    I could not figure out what this was and now it has a name! Thank you! I seriously feel watched all the time. It really is a weird feeling.

    Reply
  20. catully
    November 22, 2013

    This is a very interesting post, and I am always pleased that issues such as these are discussed so openly. Hypervigilance is not that unusual at all with children (adopted or not) who have experienced trauma. They either pay extreme attention to what is going on around them, or pay no attention to the point of giving the impression of being slightly "spaced out." I learned about this when I was in my late forties and entered therapy (I was adopted as a young child, into a singularly loving and caring family). My therapist specialized in "early childhood trauma." I was shocked beyond words when I realized (after a significant time in therapy) that the separation from my birthmother had left an enormous burden on me. I learned that children who deal with difficult issues become (with no blame on the parents) either don't miss a detail of what is going on around them, or pay no attention – to the point of distraction. My lack of attention to detail became a burden while pursuing a doctoral degree. However, recognizing the situation and learning to focus helped in the end. Those "traumatized" who I met in therapy groups and who were super vigilant, obviously had no problems with attention to detail in their research.

    Reply
  21. mikeandkatie1
    December 1, 2013

    Interesting stuff. I have a daughter who is four, was placed with us at two days, and who we suspect had fetal alcohol damage. Some of the behaviors described as hypervigilance, I have thought were related to attention and focusing problems, and lack of creativity. She cannot play independently and doesn't not think of her own activities. She needs to have direction or be able to mimic some one. She also has difficulty focusing on tasks like cleaning up, eating, teeth brushing. When I practice writing with her, I will draw a letter and have her trace over it or write her own. She often looks up before she even completes writing the letter.

    We are addressing the issue by teaching her patterns of play. Repeating activities so they become automatic. We are also doing the therapy program called iLs, Integrated Listening Systems, in the hopes of building new neuropathways. Listening to classical music on headphones might provide similar benefit and help them "tune out" what other people in the house are doing.

    I have actually taught my daughter to stay close by me in order to stay out of trouble. From what I've learned about fetal alcohol damage, she will always need help making good decisions and I felt like teaching her to stay close to me and expect guidance is the best way for her to be successful.

    So many pieces of the puzzle.

    Reply
  22. charity
    December 6, 2013

    I echo Catully's post above, which has the one comment I wanted to add, that hypervigilance is common after trauma…adoption or not…I have a bio 12 year old who has had a lifetime of health challenges…mostly she rolls with the punches, and we try to adapt to her needs while still maintaining the rhythm of our large family. but some years, when she is having a rougher time, health-wise, it is always followed by a LONG season of working through that stress, on every level…and the first reaction is hypervigilance…I keep her close all day long, on my lap, in my arms, next to me on the couch, draining as a mom, but just like a newborn, they draw energy from our physical presence,

    Reply
  23. charity
    December 6, 2013

    our touch, they use OUR heartbeat to regulate theirs, our temperature to regulate by, our stress levels. it is the same for a child after trauma, I find the longer and closer and I keep her near me, the faster she seems to sort herself out and self regulate again.(faster is relative, I think it took about 6 months last time) I am sure this need is equally present in a child who may not have had a person helping them learn to regulate as a little. She is overly anxious and involved in everyone else's situation, and for her at least, it is not so much for equality or receiving her share…but part of her personality which is very nurturing, she feels a level of responsibility to care for those around her, and it still takes gentle reminders that she does not have to worry or fix things for everyone else…that she can just rest and enjoy her siblings, and heal…but I believe she feels her lack of contribution when she is simply healing, and it weighs on her. just some thoughts…I know each child's life is different, and how they process trauma…but I think it is helpful too to recall how our personalities and life skills and talents also play into the way we perceive our lives and our responses.

    Reply
  24. mom of 4
    December 13, 2013

    Wow….the initial post describes my 4 yr old to a T. She does not miss ANYTHING. Our other children will not eat around her because of the staring, it is SO unnerving. We also call her the watcher….or the plate checker. You cannot walk into a room with her in it without being stared at, and followed by her eyes, and usually asked some silly nonsense question, or tattle about something that happened yesterday. In public she will stare at people so intently that she will walk into things because staring at them is more important than watching where she is walking. When we go out to eat, we have to place her in a spot where she cannot see other tables or she will ruin other families dinners with the staring.
    The watcher is the perfect title. It is very unnerving and creepy sometimes, it goes WAYYYY beyond the normal kid staring. Im just glad someone else is dealing with it too! I though I was alone on this one!

    Reply
  25. Jeri
    February 11, 2014

    Debbie, I say the same thing…”take care of yourself” or “the only person you need to be concerned about is yourself”. He’s 8, home at 2.5yrs. It’s an ongoing issue and makes us all crazy.

    Reply
  26. ysabet
    August 20, 2015

    You may need to build a knowledge of what "safe" is like from the ground up. What is happening right now? Is the place warm and dry? Is anyone yelling or bleeding? Are there nice things to look at or touch? Make a conscious effort to distinguish between what is safe and what is unsafe. Someone might still *feel* unsafe, but at least they're paying attention to practicalities.

    Sometimes it helps to check out scary things. You hear a scary sound. Is it a burglar or a branch? It is a branch scraping against the window, and that will not do any harm. We can trim it so it will not do that again. The refrigerator makes that funny sound sometimes and it is okay.

    Emphasize that some things are real warnings of danger, and some things are false alarms. Go over that again and again. With someone who's been traumatized, the improvement may be very slow, but at least this helps acknowledge the issue and encourage the brain to learn that the current environment is safer and more supportive than the remembered trauma.

    Ask what things help them feel safer. A fuzzy blanket. A place to hide. Having people respect when they don't want to be touched. It varies. But these are ways to address feeling unsafe when the alarm just won't shut off. Many traumatized children adore stuffed animals or hidey tents.

    If you feel spied on, talk about that. Everyone needs privacy sometimes. Most hypervigilant people totally understand that it sucks to feel like everyone is watching and judging you all the time. Just as you respect their need for privacy, they need to respect yours so that you have some time away from that. Right now it might only be 5 minutes in the bathroom or an hour when you hire a babysitter. But talk about it.

    Reply

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