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Kids Who Need Their External World to Match Their Internal Chaos

Sometimes I find myself wondering why my kids make messes in every room they enter? Why do they drag every single toy/paper/pencil/art supply out of its drawer and leave it scattered around my house?

The comfort I have is that I know my children are only making messes because they’re playing, learning, and developing in healthy ways. For a lot of parents, the chaos extends far beyond the everyday messes that come with being a kid. For many families, raising a child who needs their external world to match their internal chaos is a constant reality.

Kids who come from trauma (or who have behavioral/mental health disorders) often feel complete chaos inside their minds. They might not know how to say it out loud, but it definitely shows in their actions. When the world around them becomes too calm, too controlled, or too predictable, there’s something inside them that NEEDS to get back to what feels comfortable for them.

And what feels comfortable for them is chaos.

Because kids from trauma aren’t used to peaceful environments where rules are put into place and emotions make sense. They’re from places where lies and truth look the same, and where “love” looks the same as pain. Even when these kids are removed from their chaotic environments, their brains are still stuck in it. Chaos becomes their forever home, where their physical homes are an afterthought.

We think we can take these kids from hard places, where they’ve been severely neglected or mistreated, and give them the perfect environment to fix them. The reality is that you’re changing everything they know, and they might not like it. Some kids can find an immense amount of healing in this new environment, but some kids have been damaged in such a big way that it has almost the opposite affect.

Kids who have mental and physical brain damage from their trauma create their own rules to live by. That need for chaos may never go away for them. Particularly, children who have Reactive Attachment Disorder experience this. Some kids who have mental disorders who’ve never been through trauma also experience it, but opinions on that are varied. MOST forms of mental illness in children stems from some form of trauma or neglect, whether big or small, whether intentional or unintentional.

One little girl in my life, who just turned five, has R.A.D. and feels angry whenever her environment isn’t chaotic. If her family tries to make things too structured, she creates the chaos on her own. When her bed sheets are clean, she pees on them. When her siblings are kind, she pokes them. When her room is tidy, she drags everything out. When her parents refuse to be emotionally affected by her behavior, she screams for three straight hours until her voice disappears. When she’s had a good week at school, she rushes home to make a bad choice before she is forced to suffer through receiving a reward.

Because, often, rewards feel bad to them, too. Even if it’s something they’ve been working hard for and actually LIKE.

This little girl I love is so uncomfortable with not living in chaos that she creates it however she can. When she feels anger, confusion, bitterness, or rage in her heart and mind, she wants everyone else to feel it, too. She doesn’t want to be alone, but the only way she knows how to invite people into her life is to make them miserable with her.

The hardest part about this for her is that she may never been able to squash that habit. She may never get out of that mental tornado she’s in because of the damage that’s been done to her mind. She will grow and change, but the desire for chaos may never leave.

Another boy I know, who is twelve, has the same diagnosis as her, and he experiences the same type of thing. He also creates chaos when there is none. Recently, his brain was “mapped” by a group of people who could look at how old his brain was in certain areas. They learned that his brain was stuck at the developmental level of a three-year-old in the areas that control behavior and emotion, which makes him unable to respond to many of the treatments they’ve tried with him.

For years, they’ve wondered why he wasn’t responding to certain behavior modifications, medications, and environmental changes, but it was because his brain physically stopped growing at the time of his trauma.

He may never leave that developmental level. On the outside, he looks “normal” so people expect him to be, but on the inside, he’s still going through tantrums. And no, this boy wasn’t physically abused in a way that caused him brain damage. The damage done to kids’ brains who have RAD is from the inside out.

(Yes, trauma causes actual physical damage. It changes the chemical makeup of the brain, causing differences in the grey matter and the ability of the brain to grow normally.)

So the next time you think you understand what’s happening in a child who is causing chaos, realize that you might not have any idea. They might just be trying to make their outsides match their insides, and all you can do is sit with them through it.

Kids Who Need Their External World to Match Their Internal Chaos

W. R. Cummings

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APA Reference
Cummings, W. (2019). Kids Who Need Their External World to Match Their Internal Chaos. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2020, from


Last updated: 21 Jul 2019
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