Winter break always gets me to thinking, and this time it has me pondering the implications of raising a child diagnosed with RAD. I don’t know if all the things I have done to help my child will bear long-term fruit for him, but I am increasingly aware of just how much they have done for me. I have become a better parent, co-worker, supervisor, and overall human thanks to raising children affected by early trauma. This road often feels exhausting, heartbreaking, grueling, yet at the same time, I can say, without sarcasm or irony, that it has given me far more than it has taken. And it could give me more…if only I would let it. Here are five resolutions to help make that happen.
Use your words
How many hours have you spent in therapy for your child? Your family? Yourself? I, for one, cannot even begin to count. One major goal of therapy for my son was to help him break his cycles of reactivity and violence. And one way to do that was to teach him to use his words, both to give him ownership of his story and to help him learn to voice his needs.
I am a language and literature professor in my “real” job, a writer on the side. Using my words should be a no-brainer. And yet. How often have I buried hurts and problems rather than engage them? How many times have I sat silently and stewed? How often does that work?
Answer to the first two questions: Lots.
Answer to the last one: Never.
We can’t avoid our problems…if we don’t address them, they will attack us instead.
Less is more
One of the major tenets of therapeutic parenting is that we must shrink our traumatized children’s world to avoid the overwhelm of too many events, too many tasks, too much everything. With help from respite care and my committed village of family and friends, I eventually got a handle on that.
When it came to my son, that is.
For me, let’s call it a work in progress. Things really have gotten better. But for the longest time, I felt I could not say no. As a chronic over-achiever, I had to prove I could do it all and do it well, a feeling that expanded a hundred-fold when I found myself a single mom. I consistently bit off more than I could chew. Panic often quavered just on the periphery of my vision. Eventually, it would invade, reducing me to a tangle of frayed nerves drenched in tears.
Which brings me to the next resolution.
It begins in the body
By the time we found a trauma-informed child psychiatrist, I hadn’t slept through the night in years. Neither had my son. And his eating habits? Don’t get me started. The doctor was clear–until my son could regulate his body, no true healing would take place. Our treatment plan therefore started with food and sleep. Only then could we address the rest.
You don’t have to know anything about childhood trauma to know our society as a whole suffers from severe deficits in nutrition and sleep. We’ve read the studies, heard our doctors’ admonitions. A traumatized child just throws the severity of these issues into sharp relief. It goes without saying that the psychiatrist was right. Once we handled nutrition and sleep, we got to work on the rest. The gains were sometimes small and slow, but in ten years, small gains add up. If you saw my child now, you’d never know how far he’s come.
I have not always done so well for myself. Overachievers willingly sacrifice sleep. Packing healthy lunches for the kids was one thing, but we had to get out the door…I didn’t always have time to pack my own. And when I did, I didn’t always have time to eat it. I actually love exercise but didn’t always make the time. My mental state followed the yo-yo of my weight and sleep.
Those things have gotten better. What has not is the physical pain. Debilitating headaches. Backaches. Injuries that refuse to heal. My body still wants to tell me something…it’s time for me to listen.
Let it go
My kids, all of whom have trauma histories, find themselves to varying degrees haunted by certain aspects of their pasts. It doesn’t help that a new wound can bind itself to an old one, making even ordinary situations potentially fraught. Working through all that has been crucial to their well-being or lack thereof. My youngest, especially, still struggles.
He’s not the only one. I’ve spent the better part of the last year or two learning to forgive and move on. The list is long. Clueless schools. Callous family members. Ill-informed service providers. Cruel strangers. Fair-weather friends. My children (knowing that their worst behaviors are the products of their traumas doesn’t always make them any easier to take). Myself.
No one can do this alone
One particularly tenacious and durable effect of my youngest’s early childhood trauma is that he absolutely refuses to ask for or accept any help. Heck, he doesn’t even acknowledge he needs help…unless maybe it’s trying to get someone else to do his homework. This makes sense, of course. In his first two and a half years, his needs weren’t met. He stopped believing they ever would be. And that early childhood wiring is incredibly difficult to undo.
What, though, is my excuse? Let’s face it–I didn’t experience early childhood trauma, yet I’m not always much better than him. Make that wasn’t. When he was first diagnosed, I was charging around like a deranged animal, trying to do everything on my own. This was partly my independent, overachieving nature, and partly the fact that our family was so badly hurt by others that I’d stopped believing anyone could or would help. It wasn’t until the first good therapist basically forced me to accept respite care that I understood. From there, I built my village–loved ones I can trust, other parents walking this road, incredible friends, editors and writers, the wonderful community at ATN.
Am I going to adopt all five resolutions? In all honesty, probably not. New Year’s resolutions aren’t exactly my thing, plus five is kind of a lot. But I know where I have grown and where I still have left to grow. For me, that is resolution enough.