The two things common in traumatized children…always there…are high anxiety and a negative view of the world.
That means the brain is pumping out the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, day and night, which means it’s only a matter of time before we see the volcano erupt, not to mention trouble sleeping, eating, learning, along with the very serious long term health effects like heart disease and stroke. This we have to tackle head on. It’s not enough to say “calm down”. We’re not going to wait for our engine to explode to fix the radiator. Daily we have to let off some steam and lower the temperature.
1. Breath and Move
Now start by sitting in a comfortable relaxed position and let’s breath. Focus on the breath as we take in that healing oxygen deep into the diaphragm, a belly breath, sending the good stuff to every cell of our bodies, then without holding it, exhale and send that stress right out of the body. Repeat.
Next, if you are able please stand, let’s raise our arms in the air and reach for the sky. Now out to the side and reach for the walls. The reason we move is that stress and trauma are held in the body. Next assume the superhero position, hands on hips, chest out, head up. Don’t be small, show your power. Now touch your knees and take a bow. How do you feel?
2. Re-write the ending.
We can’t get through life without grief and loss, everybody’s got it. Perhaps the benefit of maturity is that we’ve made it through a few losses and we’re getting better at it. But sometimes there’s a pile-up of loss. Sadness and anger about what happened to our children. Guilt and shame about what happened to their parents. Regret and resentment at losing that deposit at Case de Mucho Dinero where we had planned to spend our Golden Years by the sea. So much seems out of our control. We can’t change what happened. But we can change the ending. We are the authors of our own lives and we can re-write the last chapters. There’s a new movie out now starring Shirley McLaine called The Last Word in which she plays a not-so-nice older woman who wants to make sure her obituary is positive. So she hires a writer who has a hard time finding anybody to say anything nice about her. I challenge you to do the same: write your obituary, write your eulogy, or if you’re not ready for that, write the speech your friends will give to celebrate your 80th birthday…or the next birthday ending in zero. The story can’t help but highlight the ways you’ve overcome your challenges and made lemons into lemonade. Ask your friends for quotes. Give it a title. Like an epitaph. “She went kicking and screaming, just like her kids.” “He left a fortune, working taxpayers.”
3. Play every day.
Attachment is hard to do with a child or teenager who doesn’t much trust you or anyone for that matter. This is like dating in old age, after divorce. It’s going to take some time. You’ve both been around the block and you’ve both been hurt. Neither of you is willing to put up with much funny business. But you are going to have to lead this dance. So, take it slow and keep it simple. Date your child. Create meaningful moments. Stop talking, except for those funny stories about the old days. And do…hair, nails, drawing, gardening, reading. Have your child teach you how to program your smart phone or to download music. Teach them how to make your favorite family recipe passed down to you. Cheap and simple. Silly is the pathway to solid relationship. Play is a child’s main job, the way they learn. It is more important than discipline. Playing with them will allow you to gain the influence you need to direct and teach them later.
4. Run a tight ship.
As we said, trust is in short supply. So many people have let our kids down. And, if we expect to trust our children, we have to be trustworthy. Do what we say. Don’t make promises we can’t keep. We need to run our homes like facilities, predictable, consistency, structure, beyond anything you think is necessary. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the clock, playtime and bedtime scheduled. Also, give children choices, but from a limited number of options. Red shirt or blue shirt. Shower or bath. Eggs or cereal. Keep it routine, simple, no changes, no surprises. We often feel so bad about what happened to our children we want to make it up to them by providing all of these enriching experiences, like the Sea World and Disneyland. They don’t need it and they can’t handle it. What brought them into care was the lack of basic needs, everyday care. Food, clothes, shelter, doctor, school, play. Done! If that’s all you do for 18 years, you have done your job. Now if a play or musical or a road trip to see the desert flowers is important to you, then get a babysitter, call a friend, and go yourself. You and your kids will be happier when you return. They can buy their own ticket when they’re adults. No harm, no foul, no guilt!
5. Communicate care then concern.
Certainly, there are going to be some big challenges, like family conflict, complicated diagnoses, and financial concerns. For the rest of the family who are not parenting your children, including your children who lost their children, be firm. You are not responsible for what happened. The only choice you made was to say yes to the social worker. This is where you turn on the broken record or just shut the door or hang up the phone.
You might get really caught up in the alphabet soup of ADHD, PTSD, ODD, but stay focused on the most important letters… K. I. D. A child is not a diagnosis. Your boy is creative. Your girl is energetic. Your teenager, soulful. Stand back and admire just how unique they are. Find out who that strange kid is, and celebrate the weirdness. Defend the child against those who would label and limit them. Don’t be in a rush to have the child be self-sufficient. Let them be dependent, parent from their developmental not their chronological age. And when they make one or more of their big mistakes, engage don’t enrage. Stop the temptation to lecture. Lead with love not fear. Don’t react, respond. Regulate then reflect. Practice these one-liners.
1. She wants to watch television. You say, “Sure, as soon as your room is clean.”
2. He walks in at two in the morning not sober. You say, “I’m so glad your home. I was worried about you. See you in the morning.”
3. She climbs into the car after school angry with friends. You say, “It looks like you’ve had a rough day. I’m here if you need to talk.”
4. He hands you a report card full of low grades. You say, “I have confidence that you will figure it out. Let me know how I can help.”
5. She threatens to run away from home. You say, “I would be sad if you did that. What would be best for you?”
Finally, you would never think of fixing your own car, taking out your own gallbladder, or roofing your own house. We have people. This is your community. And this is not your typical situation. This is Red Cross parenting. Nobody expects you to be experts. No one can do it alone. That’s not to say that you send the kids off to the therapist like dry cleaning. Or throw up your hands and let others decide. You’re the anchor of this family, you’re the captain of this team. Your kids need you to lead. They’re not renters or roommates. You’re not going to be able to contract out this job. You will need some friends, some babysitters, a back-up plan, some good teachers, a understanding doctor, a good therapy, a skilled psychiatrist, a support group, and some classes. Look up the county’s Foster, Adoptive, Kinship Care Education Program and attend the free classes. Old dogs can learn new tricks. Learning keeps us young. We’re in for a rollercoaster ride instead of rocking chair, time to enjoy the ride.