First and foremost, let me get something out of the way -
PARENTING TRAUMATIZED CHILDREN IS PROBABLY ONE OF THE MOST DIFFICULT THINGS ANY HUMAN CAN BE REQUIRED TO DO - EVER.
It is hard. It is hard. It is hard, and every single day you will discover that it is quite HARD!
Okay, having said all of that, let me reprint some recent things I've said in my comments (with some added thoughts, now that I have the time to do so). We were having a discussion on how I can remain calm when my kids are acting as though I am running my own little psych ward. These are things I have learned ... am still learning.
Have you read "Beyond Consequences?" It's not one of my favorite books (not necessarily because I don't like the approach, but I don't like the incessant marketing approach of Bryan Post). Anywho, it makes you stop and ask yourself, "WHY do have I have this response when my kid does X-Y-Z?" Why is it that some behaviors are just a minor bump in the road, while others turn me into a pile of goo?
One of my kids can scream that I'm a horrible mom, and I can keep my cool easily. I know I'm a great mom. I know their history. I know that is a fear response. Yet, if someone steals something as tiny as a cracker, my insides start to WIG OUT! My emotional response is off the charts.
I had to dig very deep into that. It was easy to say, "Well, of course I would freak out - I don't want my kids to become criminals!" Maybe. But for me, the deeper reason was because I was the one who felt out of control. If I cannot trust my kids to walk through a room without taking something of MINE, then I start to get palpitations. I start to overreact. So many of our kids' responses are based in fear ... ours too. I know many people who read books similar to "Beyond Consequences" and find themselves thoroughly ticked off. They immediately chunk it and say it is blaming the parents - that THEY are the problem. But see, that's not it at all.
While some parents have to hold the blame for the trauma their children experienced (I have a friend in this situation, and it is a tough road), that is not the point of those resources and this discussion. It's done. The trauma, no matter whose fault, is done. It happened. But today, at this moment, we are the parents. It is our job to provide an environment of perceived safety to our children so they can move forward and begin to heal. How I talk, how I sit or even how I breathe can help or hurt my children in those moments.
That kind of thinking and internal work has helped my calm to be genuine. However, most of my calm was NOT genuine for a very long time. The best advice I ever heard was, "When your kids are acting nuts-o, do the opposite of what you feel like doing."
That tiny little sentence has made a massive impact on me. I have never, ever FELT like being calm when I have a child describing how they want to bash my teeth in with a hammer, or asking nonsense questions for 12-hours straight.
I WANT to scream and make a devil face, and perhaps roar a little bit. So, I go CRAZY opposite. I get very quiet. I immediately think about lifting those eyebrows and brightening my face. I move or sit so that I am in a much more vulnerable spot in comparison to them (never stand over them with arms crossed, etc.)
I truly believe that my feelings during those times are nothing compared to the severity of what our children are feeling. And if I can't make the choice and do it, I can never expect them to. By practicing and deciding and DOING it, I have been better able to teach THEM how to do it.
My reactions are based in fear, just the same as my traumatized children. I fear being looked at as a bad mom. I fear being seen as too lenient. I fear being seen as too strict. I fear losing all my social contacts because my life has had a season of major funkiness. I fear having enough room in my home to parent grandchildren who may need me one day. I fear criminal acts being committed at the hands of my children. Even with all the healing, I fear puberty and all it can do to a traumatized child (heck, even an emotionally healthy child!). I fear waking up one day to see our family on Dateline!
And I fear those things because they are things over which, ultimately, I have no control. I just don't. Don't you dare think the things I just listed are a good picture of the dark thoughts I have. Parenting trauma causes some macabre and painful thinking. For those of you who allow yourself to admit to those things, you understand. I don't keep it together a lot (notice I didn't say "always"), because I have no fears. I keep it together most of the time despite those horribly dark thoughts.
That's what I'm asking my kids to do, so why should it not apply to me, as well?
And, yes, THAT SUCKS!
I tell my kids all the time: you cannot help how you feel. Feelings just happen. But you can help what you do when you are having those feelings. And what you do tends to be based on what you believe to be true.
When my child has threatened my life, it was because they truly believed, in that moment, their life was at risk. They did not believe I could be trusted. They do now.
Sometimes we can make it worse. We are not re-traumatizing them, no. But in that moment, in that situation, we can create more chaos. More reactions and less thoughtful responding for everyone. We are the grown-ups. We have to acknowledge that and work just as hard on changing it as we ask our kids to work. Sit and think through how certain things really get your blood boiling and what situations cause an immediate emotional reaction from you.
It's then, that we can get just a tiny crumb of a taste what it must be like for our traumatized children. If we refuse to acknowledge this, or if we flat-out deny it ... well, then the grown-ups have left the building.
(photo by Ann- Kathrin Rehse)