Monday, January 1, 2018

When Trauma Derails Your Parenting

When you have a child with trauma, especially complex trauma, you need to be the stable, unshakable adult. When your child is sad he needs you to comfort him, when he is excited he needs you to help him restore calm, when he is overwhelmed he needs you to make his world smaller and assure him you are in control.

That sounds easy and uncomplicated, it is what every mom does, right? It is, but when your child has trauma, there isn't anything easy about it. Your child has to "give" his pain to someone and that someone is usually mom. That means that all the anger he has at his birth parents, all the anger and sorrow he feels about his situation and all the "it's my fault" pain which is usually portrayed as anger is directed at the one person who is also responsible for meeting his needs. Needing mom, while also blaming her for his troubles creates a confusing scenario for the child. 

What we don't often talk about is how confusing this can be for the parents, especially the mom who, as I said before typically bears the brunt of the negative behaviors. 

Mom is usually the one who spends the most time with the child so she is the one who attends therapy appointments, psych consults and specialist appointments. She is the one who needs to build a bond with her child...the one who needs to teach her child how to build relationships so he can go on to have healthy social/emotional relationships with his peers. 

Mom is the one who analyzes each behavior, each response to any given situation. She constantly takes her child's emotional temperature. Is he becoming overstimulated, is he afraid, is he acting in such a manner to manipulate people, is he safe, are the people around him safe? After you parent a traumatized child for a while you become adept at unconsciously taking this temperature and adjusting your child's world accordingly. 

All this is necessary for your child to achieve optimum emotional health but there is a pit that mom can easily fall into, one into which I fell headlong and floundered until my dear friend came to my rescue.

Years of analyzing my children's every act and word so that we can jump on the necessary help, made me see a lion behind every bush. My children subconsciously picked up on my anxiety over what may be hiding behind their actions. This brought about exactly the opposite effect from what we were trying to do...create felt safety.

I sent my friend, who is my mentor in all things trauma, an email detailing what is going on with my child, what I think is the cause and where I fear we are headed. "What do you think is going on?" I asked and as I expected she came through with just what I needed. 

"You need to back off and stop being so invested in your child's emotions," she counseled. Now that may sound counter intuitive to what you know about attachment parenting but I well remember when we had to do just that with Braden. There is a a quote floating around in the trauma world that advises, "You cannot try harder than your child." Meaning that the parents cannot do all the work in building a relationship with their child while he sits by and does nothing. Relationships are a two way street and both parties have to put forth effort.

I knew I was taking my child's actions personally, when she had a bad day, I agonized over why. I tried to figure out what I had done wrong, what I could have done differently and most of all, where would we find the help we needed? Was there help for us, for her? On her good days, I analyzed every action again, trying to figure out what had made the day a success. Deep down though, I was anxious because I knew it wouldn't last so I was waiting for the inevitable fall out.

"You need to step back and give one line responses to the negative behavior, don't invest so much of yourself. See if that doesn't lower your anxiety which in turn will lower her's." Coming from anyone else I would have questioned how this could possibly work but this friend has walked the trauma journey far longer and further than I have and her advice has always been what we needed to hear. So beginning today, we are going to love our child/ren but try to stay out of the crazy trauma cycle so we can be the strong, stable parents they need.

*I refer to mom in this post as the one who bears the brunt of the child's trauma response to make my post less wordy but "primary caregiver" could be used in place of "mom." 

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