“When will she stop behaving like this?”
“When will he start following the rules?”
“Will things ever be normal in our home?”
“Do I have what it takes to help get him to adulthood?
“Will she become a successful adult?”
“I wonder if anyone else feels this alone, isolated, and broken down?”
If you have ever asked yourself any of those questions, or many other perhaps more colorful, laced with expletives questions, you are definitely not alone. Parenting trauma throws nearly every strategy, tactic, and tool that we and society at large often use with much success, out the window. And then mockingly laughs at us while metaphorically lighting those strategies on fire on our front lawn.
And all we can really do is watch it all go up in smoke. What we used to know. How we used to do things. The plans we had. The life we thought we were going to live.
This can leave us feeling exhausted, confused, inadequate, and sometimes, even, like a failure. The smoke and ashes can have us questioning everything from our sanity to our ability to meet the challenges.
For kids who have experienced trauma, it is important to remember that their world is not your world or my world. The eyes through which they look at the world have seen things no human being should ever see. The body that now appears healed and whole, may have been malnourished, abused, neglected, or worse. Even if our children consciously forget the trauma they have endured, their bodies and brains remember. Even if they look perfectly healthy on the outside, there are scars on the inside.
The safety and security many of us have been privileged to enjoy, from nutritious meals, to a warm home, to a safe neighborhood, to attentive caregivers, to routine and predictability, were robbed from them. The impact of these experiences becomes written into their biology, and it is out of their rewired biology, not usually intentional malice, that we witness behaviors that baffle and hurt us.
In his amazing book, The Body Keeps the Score, Beseel A van der Kolk, M.D., states:
“CHILDREN WHO DON’T FEEL SAFE IN INFANCY HAVE TROUBLE REGULATING THEIR MOODS AND EMOTIONAL RESPONSES AS THEY GROW OLDER. BY KINDERGARTEN, MANY DISORGANIZED INFANTS ARE EITHER AGGRESSIVE OR SPACED OUT AND DISENGAGED, AND THEY GO ON TO DEVELOP A RANGE OF PSYCHIATRIC PROBLEMS. THEY ALSO SHOW MORE PHYSIOLOGICAL STRESS, AS EXPRESSED IN HEART RATE, HEART RATE VARIABILITY, STRESS HORMONE RESPONSES, AND LOWERED IMMUNE FACTORS. DOES THIS KIND OF BIOLOGICAL DYSREGULATION AUTOMATICALLY RESET TO NORMAL AS A CHILD MATURES OR IS MOVED TO A SAFE ENVIRONMENT? SO FAR AS WE KNOW, IT DOES NOT.”
So, let’s all just take a deep breath, reread that last paragraph ten times, and accept that we are not failing as our children’s parents. Rather that we are often playing the wrong game. We’ve been sent out to the Rugby League World Cup armed only with a chess board and its pieces.
So, what do we do?
Well, I would suggest that while the smoke is rising on the charred ashes of how we thought this all should go down, we need to dig deep, grieve the loss of old dreams, and begin to rise up. Rise up to our new normal. Rise up to what our reality is and not what we would like it to be. Rise up to the challenge in front of us, look it in the eye, and commit to learning everything we possibly can about how trauma has changed our child or children, and why and how parenting children with trauma WILL BE different.
Be honest with yourself in the process too. Acknowledge your needs, your strengths and limitations. Find a reputable therapist who is trauma informed and understands your family’s unique challenges. If married, have regular connecting conversations with your spouse. Talk openly with other children in the house and what they are experiencing. Listen to them. Hear what is not being said. Find a trusting village to support and sustain you. Plan for regular respite and time away from the stress. Know that if you are going to care for your children, you must make time and space to care for yourself.
And let go of those old expectations. The ones you may still hold for other children in your care, but ones that will set you and your trauma child up for failure. Because as you let go of those old expectations, you will also be letting go of a huge burden. One that you may not have known that you didn’t need to carry, and one that neither you nor your child could carry anyway.
Let the expectations go.
But this doesn’t mean we don’t have any expectations, rules, boundaries, or guidelines. Rather, it just means that some rules may need to be rewritten for the time being and that we may need to answer different types of questions.
Our children will likely have to make peace with the terror that resides within their skin before they will ever care about non-survival oriented rules or standards. They often don’t know their feelings, why they do the things that the do, and have been rewired to live in a state of hypervigilance, even though their current home and environment is safe and secure.
And right there, in that hypervigilant fear state, is often where our children need us to meet them. And sadly, it is a place where we are the most ill-equipped, because so little is known and understood about trauma. But, there is hope. There is always hope.
In his same book that was referenced above, Dr. van der Kolk reminds us that our relationship with our child is extremely important and that we are part of their healing, and their ability to claim their own agency, by declaring these four fundamental truths about all human beings:
(1) OUR CAPACITY TO DESTROY ONE ANOTHER IS MATCHED BY OUR CAPACITY TO HEAL ONE ANOTHER. RESTORING RELATIONSHIPS AND COMMUNITY IS CENTRAL TO RESTORING WELL-BEING;
(2) LANGUAGE GIVES US THE POWER TO CHANGE OURSELVES AND OTHERS BY COMMUNICATING OUR EXPERIENCES, HELPING US TO DEFINE WHAT WE KNOW, AND FINDING A COMMON SENSE OF MEANING;
(3) WE HAVE THE ABILITY TO REGULATE OUR OWN PHYSIOLOGY, INCLUDING SOME OF THE SO-CALLED INVOLUNTARY FUNCTIONS OF THE BODY AND BRAIN, THROUGH SUCH BASIC ACTIVITIES AS BREATHING, MOVING, AND TOUCHING; AND (4) WE CAN CHANGE SOCIAL CONDITIONS TO CREATE ENVIRONMENTS IN WHICH CHILDREN AND ADULTS CAN FEEL SAFE AND WHERE THEY CAN THRIVE.”
So, to circle back to the top. I may now answer those very first questions asked in this post like this:
When will she stop behaving like this?”
I honestly don’t know. Maybe next month. Maybe never. It can be so hard, but right now, she might just need to know she is safe. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live in her skin, so let me just reassure her for a second, help her regulate, and then we can talk about behavior. We will address behavior, but first we all need to be regulated and calm.
“When will he start following the rules?”
Rules are important and our actions have consequences, so I want my child to understand this. At the same time, I know that my child becomes dysregulated very easily and often switches into survival mode. Let me see if I can figure out what is going on, get him to talk about his feelings, and then discuss how we can do things better. I should also be in regular communication with teachers, coaches, and other adults in my child’s life so that we can all be on the same page.
“Will things ever be normal in our home?”
This is our new normal. This is what we signed up for. This is our reality. We need to make sure we are taking care of ourselves, getting respite, and nurturing other relationships, but normal looks like this now. Cheers!
“Do I have what it takes to make it until he becomes an adult?”
There are many other people who have walked or are walking similar roads. Have I connected with them lately? Maybe I should reach out to another mom, dad, or family who is also parenting trauma. Maybe we can share resources and support one another better? What supports do we need? How can find them?
“Will she becoming a successful adult?”
Your parents asked that same question about you, theirs did about them, and all parents all over the world are asking that same question. Yes, there are unique circumstances, and yes, the road may look differently than you imagined, but there are many paths toward success. Start thinking more broadly and exploring all possible options.
Because expectations need to change when we welcome trauma into our hearts and homes. And the first expectations that need to change are often our very own expectations about what parenting ought to look like. And this not-to-simple shift in perspective can often provide some relief to both our children and ourselves.
What expectations have you had to change? What have you learned?