by:  D. Craig Peterson

torn family pic


Six words.

For many vulnerable children, they give context to a complicated history.  For many parents who’ve opened their hearts, they cut to the bone.

The words unfortunately rear their ugly head, especially during the holidays – when family gatherings are the norm.

I know too well. After years of fathering six children – all of whom experienced early trauma, I thought we’d turned the final corner. As a therapeutic parent, I’d even given it name – the intersection of “connectedness” and “emotional regulation.”


My children trust our relationship,
Let down their guard,
Feel safe,
Accept the past,
Believe in the future,
And allow me be their father –
Without too many conditions.

But the devastating effects of trauma can periodically reappear – even in the best of situations. Without the ability to self-regulate in the moment, a child, teen or young adult can quickly become lost. The “us” versus “them” mentality resurfaces.

At recent holiday gathering,
One of my sons truly wanted to have a good time.
So did everyone else.

Although the events were predictable
With minimal uncertainty –
After years of trial and error,
He looked for the negative
Once again.

Instead of enjoying the moment,
He wondered about his birth father
On this particular day
For no apparent reason.

Like many others
My son is easily triggered –
When his routine changes slightly,
When events become unpredictable,
When fear overwhelms him.

In spite of my reassuring words,
He isolated,
Then later complained of being ignored.

A no-win situation.
Every time.

“You’ll never be my real family,” he said with frustration – which quickly turned to anger amid his twisted perceptions.

But I was prepared.

Since he wanted me to react in an equally negative way, I remained calm. Reacting proves to be a nasty trap, with me – not my son – being the person caught. To free myself, I must then expend energy that’s needed elsewhere.

After a hard lesson years ago, I refuse to go there.

Sometimes I can passively immerse him into a family activity and deflect his anxiety. Other times the behavior escalates – with symptoms that I know too well. At that point I simply do my best to keep him and others safe.

Most importantly,
I never shame.
I give space – but not too much –
That would allow him to put on a show.

I choose my words carefully
While asking for the support of others –
Like I’ve done before,
To reduce the chance of triangulation.

When his negativity begins to wane –
As it always does
With both time and patience,
I show empathy
And give him a chance to start again,
Without any threat of punishment.

Rather than my son ruining the family gathering,
That day he saved himself –
Eventually returning to the fun
Where he needed to be.

Quicker than the time before
And quicker than the time before that.

“You’ll always be my family.”