One of the comments left on yesterday's post asked a question that I felt really needed to be answered in a post. It's an important question and one that I have certainly asked myself. The gist of the question is, "Does parenting a child in the way I described yesterday, cause them to learn it is OK to misbehave?" That is, if I ignore some of the behaviors I see in TM, does that somehow communicate to him that it is OK to act that way? And once again, had you asked me 7 years ago, my answer would be very different from what it is now. It is all part of that humbling experience.
I think the authors of the book, The Explosive Child, explain it best. Pretty much, a child does the best that he can. Due to the way his brain has been wired, being flexible, changing plans, making transitions are things that are VERY difficult for that child to do. His brain is literally unable to cope and that is when we see behaviors we would rather not. We would not expect a child who is dyslexic to learn to read faster than they are able; the ability to change, transition, and be flexible are tasks that are difficult for this child's brain to accomplish. And then when you add a layer of trauma over the whole thing it makes it that much more difficult. Children who have experienced and internalized trauma spend much of their existence trying to avoid, at all costs, feeling that pain associated with that trauma. Anything is better than feeling that pain. Raging, disassociating, talking, talking, talking are all things used to block out any thoughts of the pain. I have watched my son allow himself to feel grief and then purposefully bring himself to raging because it is just too painful to go there. He would rather rage than hurt. And allowing himself to let people get close is scary because he knows that hurt that follows must be just around the corner. Even if it won't.
Now imagine a time in your life when you were really worried and concerned about something. The type of thing that really overshadows all of your thoughts and colors your days. It is difficult not to think about the thing you are worried about. It is difficult to enjoy the things you usually enjoy because you find yourself constantly thinking about the thing you are worried about. And perhaps it is just me (but I hope it's not), but if I am extremely worried about something, I am not necessarily the nicest person in the world. I can find myself saying things and acting ways that are a little self-centered and not very nice. I have not done it purposefully, but because my brain is filled with worry, it happens. I believe that this is how a child affected by trauma feels all the time. Except that they don't even know what they are worried about. They feel the emotion, but have no name for it. And for some, it has been with them for so long it is how they think life is. They can't remember feeling any differently.
Go back to you when you are extremely worried and perhaps said something in a rude or brusque manner to your spouse. Does it help in that moment for your spouse to lose his or her temper and shout at you for not behaving kindly? Or does it help if your spouse ignores the comment and instead looks you in the eye, gives you a hug, and expresses sorrow over your worry? I'm sure you play out each scenario in your head without my help and find it very simple to figure out which you would choose. Later, if the second scenario is chosen, your spouse could even mention that it felt a little hurtful when you said the unkind words because emotional support was provided before based on what was really going on.
This is exactly what we are doing when we parent our children from hard places. We are dealing with the problem at the root and not what is presenting itself. A friend of mine who has a daughter with similar issues as TM told a story that made me laugh. (OK, it wasn't real laughter, but more along the lines of "at least I'm not the only one and this time I'm glad it was you" sort of laughter.) A sibling said, "Cock-a Doodle-Doo" which prompted a major meltdown for the daughter. While trying to discover what went on, all the daughter could say was, "He said, 'Cock-a-Doodle-Doo!'" as if that explained everything. Now we all know what was going on was not about the rooster noise; there was something else happening that probably she wasn't even sure of. The phrase, "Cock-a-Doodle-Doo" has become a useful family code word for remembering that what we are seeing really isn't the whole story.
Every time we respond with love and grace to our children, they learn millimeter by millimeter that we can be trusted. Trusted to understand them and love them. Trusted not to react and fly off the handle. Trusted to be the solid ground that they so desperately need, even if they don't know it. This is not to say we let our son get away with whatever he pleases. We do talk about using kind words, being careful with our own and other's possessions, thinking before acting. We do ask that words be repeated respectfully. But we do this in calm moments or if the situation seems like a normal child-rearing situation. It is no use at all to try to instruct an already disregulated child on respect and obedience. You just end up sounding like the adults on the old Charlie Brown cartoons... wah-wah-wah-wah-wah. I've learned to save my breath. Usually.