Friday, December 21, 2018

Compassion Fatigue In Special Needs Parenting

This afternoon I came across this Ted Talk: Drowning In Empathy: The Cost Of Vicarious Trauma and a light bulb went on in my brain. See, I have really been struggling here of late. Life just isn't much fun when you haven't felt well for months, you have traumatized children with health issue's for which there don't seem to be answer's and it's December, the month in which our family has one too many trauma triggers.

In her talk, Amy Cunningham explained it this way, "Compassion fatigue is the post traumatic stress disorder related symptoms that you receive vicariously as a secondary target to trauma." Does that ring a bell with any of you who are parenting children with trauma or brain injuries due to substance abuse? It sure did with me! Much of my trauma comes from being the target when my children's trauma overwhelms them and they lash out at the safest thing in their world, mom.

Amy goes on to say that being an empath -having the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes, and really get it- puts you at an even greater risk for compassion fatigue. Personally, empathy is one of the things that helps me look beyond my child's behavior. 

When my child self sabotage's every fun family activity, putting my self in his shoes and feeling the internal pain he has due to circumstances beyond his control, gives me the ability to view him as a hurting child who is afraid or doesn't believe he is good enough to have a good time...and I can feel empathy versus frustration.

When my child ruins a sibling's birthday gift, empathy allows me to look at why he ruined the gift versus giving consequences.

When my child screams abuse at me for no reason, empathy allows me to remember it is a traumaversary and not to internalize the words. Empathy allows me to hold my child and remember that he lost his first family and he still yearns for the approval of his birth mom. The words he is screaming come from a wound deep inside and while they are directed at me, I must not take them personally.

When my child pours on the charm for anyone outside the family but dishes out rages and put downs the remainder of the time, empathy reminds me that we are her safe place.

As the parent of a child with trauma or brain injuries, you are always on call. You can't say, "I am "compassioned out", I have nothing left to give, no rages today!" Quite honestly, on the days when you feel that way, your child is going to be extra challenging because he senses that his strong rock is wavering. His anxiety is going to skyrocket which will trigger the behavior's, which will mean you have to intervene. Again, and again, and again and as the years pass you will find yourself changing. Things that you were once able to overcome with only a small struggle, will loom larger and larger. 

As you walk through trauma with your children, you may find yourself triggered by their trauma, but as a good parent you will tell yourself that you have to remain strong for your child. If you don't who will? You will see your child going into trauma mode and your stomach will clench, you feel weak and panicked because you know what is coming and you know that even though your heart feels drained of empathy, you are going to need to fake it because without empathy on your part, things are going to go down fast and hard. 

Amy Cunningham shared how burn out and compassion fatigue were once confused. Here is her explanation of how they differ, " Burn out is being worn out and tired, and just flat out not liking your job. Compassion fatigue has to do with being afraid. Compassion fatigue begins to change your hard wiring, change who you are. We see this in Child Protection Workers. They become over vigilant, believing that everyone is out to hurt them and their family." Sound familiar? It sure does to me! The memories of a child sharing their story, a child sobbing until they are breathless because of the pain in their hearts, a child begging you to help them and knowing you are helpless...these memories don't go away. When you love a child, you hurt when they hurt, and our children hurt a lot.

We like to think we will be fine, and can take years of this trauma but as I am finding out, it catches up to us. My doctor told me recently that I got in trouble health wise because, "You were too busy being a mom for too many years." I didn't tell her, but she only knows a fraction of our story. My brain and body had been shouting for years trying to get my attention but I didn't see any alternative. If I am honest, I still don't. Amy says that what many of us do is buckle down and work a little harder. We have this mindset that if I work just a little harder, I can make this trauma go away. That isn't rational thinking, especially in the area of parenting traumatized, brain damaged children. I mean really, we know we can't make the damage go away, but sometimes in our panic we act as though we think by doing more therapy, finding another doctor, finding another RTC, putting up more alarms and camera's...then things will get better.

Another sypmtom of compassion fatigue that Amy mentions is not having enough; not enough resources, not enough thanks. "At the beginning, when you agreed to do ___________ did you know you were going to be under appreciated etc, but did you say, it's okay, I love you enough that I am willing? Then somewhere along the way it was no longer okay. It is no longer okay that I am not thanked, that I don't have what I need to succeed? What that tells me is that your circumstances didn't change, you did." WOW! 

Amy makes mention of the oxygen mask metaphor. Say you are flying with your children and the need to use the masks arises. In order for you to help your children, you need to first put on your own mask. As any parent knows, your instinct is to protect your children before yourself. I remember the other month when Kiana and I were both sick and I needed to see the doctor asap. He said I can take Kiana's appointment and bump her's back a week. I felt so guilty doing so and he reminded me of the oxygen mask metaphor. "If you don't take care of yourself, you won't be here to take care of your children." We like to think that we are super parents and can care for our children before caring for ourselves, because that is what we do, right? But we forget that without putting on our own oxygen mask's, we will be unable to help our children. 

Having said all that, I KNOW I cannot give from an empty vessel, I KNOW I cannot give what I don't have but the fact remains that if I stop, my children will crash and what is life without ones children? So, like so many of you, I find myself giving, struggling a little more each day, but still giving because what is the alternative?

 However, for me, knowing the why behind my struggles gives me a little hope, just enough to get up and try again in the morning. Amy suggest's ten minute's of self care daily to help alleviate compassion fatigue, but personally, once one has gone into full blown compassion fatigue, ten minute's is woefully inadequate. Since we have begun homeschooling, the children go to their rooms to read for at least 1.5 hours every afternoon. I need that quiet time to regroup. Sometimes I feel guilty because what mom needs a break from her children, then I remind myself of the oxygen mask metaphor and use that time time to regain my equilibrium. 

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