Positive interactions

A while back, when it became clear exactly how far south things had gone with my traumatized boy, I made a conscious decision. My goal for my interactions with him was to have as many positive ones as possible. Because of the way trauma affects children, it was very simple for him to take any situation and make it negative. People suffering from trauma want to make others feel as yucky as they do. It doesn't help them feel any better, but misery does love company. And unless you, as a parent, are consciously working against it, it is so easy to join in the negativity.

Obviously this is not good, because no one wants to live with constant negativity, but there is another reason as well. Brain science has shown that the things we do repeatedly make paths in our brains. The more we do something, the bigger and stronger the path. (Obviously this is not a technical description of the process.) This is why habits are so difficult to break; the brain must be rewired to make it happen. Thus, every time the traumatized child responds negatively to a person and the person responds negatively in return, a path is reinforced... even for the parent. I knew this and decided I needed to change my part of the equation. I had to address my part in our little negativity dance.

I will be the first to say this is a work in progress, but I have seen progress. The non-reacting-thing is really difficult. It means that the parent needs to set aside what they really, really want to do and act very differently. It means feeling as though you are setting aside your needs and feelings (those would be the not-so-terribly grown-up ones of 'getting what you deserve' and 'everything should be easy for me') and doing the hard thing of offering love where it doesn't seem to be returned.

In practical terms, this means doing a lot of translating in my head. The boy said this, but deep down he really means something else. I will respond to the something else. It means that if I am truly incapable of responding in a positive way, I will leave the scene before I say anything to escalate the situation. Needing to refill my coffee cup provides a handy excuse. (I could never give up coffee at this point in my parenting, or I would need to find another reasons to excuse myself.) It means being sure I am smiling at my child, even though habit and experience have prepped me to be angry. It means I offer physical touch as much as possible, but keeping it to levels he can tolerate... a brush on the arm, a pat on the head, a quick and passing hug, and sometimes I can even sneak in a kiss on the cheek. It means making jokes and trying to get him to laugh. This last one surprised me. Not surprised that it is something I should be doing, but at his reaction to my doing it. Evidently laughing with someone indicates a deeper, thus frightening, relationship. When I do joke around, sometimes he will join in, but sometimes I will see him purposefully pull away. A shared joke can feel too intimate. And at that point I have another chance to have a positive interaction, because it can feel hurtful for someone to pull away when you were reaching out. I can choose to continue to smile and leave it instead of acting hurt. In better moments, we can then (briefly) talk about why that behavior might make someone feel badly. It's all about timing and finding the right moment to address things. Rarely is that moment at the moment of hurt.

This way of parenting is tiring. Instead of reacting on auto-pilot, as we do so much of the time, I have to make conscious decisions. And often these decisions require great effort to make happen. There is a reason we have quiet time around here.

Not only do I need to be concerned about my own interactions with the boy, but since his tendency is to burn any bridge he happens upon, I have been working to facilitate positive interactions between siblings as well. Sometimes I am able to create them, sometimes I can help something along that has already started, and sometimes I can just enjoy the scene of positive interactions that appear before me. Such as this little game playing scenario that happened yesterday afternoon.

TM had created his own game (which involved a lot of voluntary writing!) and asked K. to play it with him. And they managed to play it together without unkind words on one boy's part or horrible whining on the other's. Sometimes I think I am so focused on the negative that I don't pay close enough attention to the good stuff. So I took some pictures.

Here's the game board with dice, markers, and cards to turn over.

It was one heaping dose of good brain connections being formed right here.


jan said…
so needed this.... it is exhausting and much easier to be on auto pilot :). got home from china two weeks ago and trying to make everything work and keep peace has left me ummmm... numb? tired? thanks for the reminder to get back on track with my troubled/trauma Vietnam girl. love ya even though I don't know ya :)
Rusulica said…
Hi, I really enjoy reading your blog, and hearing about your family, and I am glad this method is starting to give some positive results with K. The story of paths in our brains has sense, but I am confused (I am not an expert, mind you), because I thought if you reward bad behavior, the child would see it as as sign to keep up with it. I know K.'s bad behavior isn't of the same kind as that of a child who did not experience any trauma and is simply rude/disobedient/etc, that he is not doing it on purpose and that it is much harder for him to change his behavior, but I would still enjoy hearing your thoughts on this.
Sorry if made any mistakes, English isn't my native language.
Anonymous said…
Thanks again for your thoughtful post. re-wiring my brain seems to be the hardest, it is constant for me when he is home and as you said tiring. My VN boy has his good days and then he seems to decided that since we got along well, he should then sabotage the next day, though I don't think it is a conscious decision on his part, at least not at this point. I still think we are his biggest trauma since he spent his first 5 years with the same foster family and was really integrated into the family. I am not sure how well he will ever bond with me he does better with my husband. He does have have some cognative issues and socially is younger than his 9 biological years, which is where I often get frustrated. I cannot always tell what things he can't remember and what things he chooses not to remember because it came from me. He is much better at controlling himself in school and at karate, so I often think it is a choice he is making to do something or not do something. People of course do not understand my frustration since most of them only see the public person, not the one we live with, who is a little harder to deal with. I have 2 friends who have spent enough time with him to understand my frustration. So I hope for the best and eal with it as best I can though some days are not as good as others.
sandwichinwi said…
triplets, separated at birth. You, me and our four. Oh, my word. The game. Same scenario here with the same players.

Exhausting yes. Must work on more positive interactions. I'm so bad at this.

Keep posting. You are such an encouragement to the rest of us.

And to the poster who asked about reinforcing bad behavior: I choose the battles I fight. Some things I won't tolerate. The rest is an opportunity to show grace and mercy.

sandwichinwi said…
Ok. That triplet thing made no sense. Three sets of twins is what I meant! It's late.

thecurryseven said…
Anonymous -- I'm not a trained professional, so take this with a grain of salt. It is actually not unusual for a child to be able to do well at school and other places and then fall apart at home. I've seen this with normally developing biological children and it is magnified with children from hard places. They can do it when necessary, but it takes all their resources. When they get home, in a setting that feels relatively 'safe', they relax a bit and that's when things fall apart. On the plus side, he sees you as a safe person, but I know from experience that it is very little comfort sometimes. If it were me, I would try to make the transitions as easy as possible. Discuss with him about ways that could help... a certain routine, what helps him relax, does he need food, quiet time, exercise... sometimes a child in a calm moment can think of things that will help. Also, I find that when I am faced with a situation that routinely goes south, I, myself, become anxious about it as well. I know for a fact that my anxiety will cue my son's. So I try to find ways to lower that so I am not triggering him needlessly. It's a hard road, this parenting, sometimes.


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