Thursday, December 26, 2013

TIES THAT BIND: Parenting Traumatized Children

In a perfect world every child would be wanted, no child would be hurt, and there would be no need for government or other adults to step into another family’s life.  In a perfect world families could parent the children they choose, feel competent in raising successful children, and there would be no need for the hundreds of books and experts to tell us how to do what humans have been doing naturally for millennia.  But the real world is filled with parents who pass pain on from generation to generation and children caught up in drugs, violence, and family strife.  In this real world there is a parallel universe populated by children living separate from their parents and substitute caregivers working to help these traumatized children heal and find happiness.  This world of child welfare is also populated by case workers, attorneys, advocates, judges, therapists, doctors, nurses, teachers, and others joining in this difficult but noble work.
            We generally parent the way we have been parented.  And for most people it works just fine.  Of course, there are times when we vow either to do or not do what our parents did with us. But even when we slip up and those old patterns come into play, our children survive and thrive just fine.  Parenting traumatized children, however, for those doing it or supporting them is a wholly different and unique experience.  It is why perfectly capable parents and people come away from the situation scratching their heads, or worse, pulling their hair, wondering what is happening, why it is not working, and whether either they or the children are failing each other.  It is important to realize that parenting hurt children is not traditional parenting, it is Red Cross parenting.  We are parenting trauma victims.  None of us without very serious and specific training would know exactly what to do if we came upon a severely injured person in a car crash.  Yet, the children we care for have often been severely hurt even if their injuries are not readily apparent or visible.  Parents can “take themselves off the hook” for being experts at this work.  Even so, most adults have the basic tools to help children heal if given guidance and support.
            First, we know a lot about parents and children, relationships, child development, and childhood trauma.  To names like John Bowlby, Erik Erikson, and Jean Piaget, we can add the names of Daniel Hughes, Daniel Siegel, Bruce Perry, and Brian Post.  The synthesis of theories of human development, psychology, neurology, and sociology inform our interventions with children and families from parenting to education and therapy.  Newer interventions go beyond traditional behavioral and medical models of individual psychopathology which locates the source of the problem in the hurting child to more holistic interventions that target healing in the relationship between parent and child.  This is attachment-based parenting which incorporates developmental parenting and therapeutic parenting.  While attachment parenting focuses on the relationship between parent and child, developmental parenting focuses on guiding children through stages of growth.  Therapeutic parenting, which puts it all together, is the clinical, purposeful application of these non-traditional methods inside and outside the home.  You can see, then, that if we generally parent the way we were parented, this fundamental switch will require an “unlearning curve”, developing an awareness and understanding of the background and principles of attachment parenting before application of techniques that are often counterintuitive.  My intention is to provide very practical information with examples from my own practice that can be applied with traumatized children as well as healthy children.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Holiday Blues...and I don't mean Buble'

The holidays can be challenging for many people and families.  The excitement of the season can also lead to a level of stress that can be overwhelming.  So much to do: the long list of gifts to buy; the parties and events to attend; the family, friends, and colleagues with whom to connect at least once a year.  Throw in some Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzza/Solstice cheer and heavy food, and you have a recipe for a serious holiday hangover that seems to start faster and last longer each year.
The time of year is especially difficult for anyone who has experienced difficult circumstances like serious trauma and loss.  Abuse, conflict, injury, death, divorce, poverty, or separation in the past or present sort of front load our brains to experience the inevitable stimulation and disappointment of the season as quite triggering with reactions and responses that seem unexpected or out of character.  This is especially true for foster and adopted children who are not living with their biological families and may demonstrate stress by acting out or withdrawing.  Adults who have suffered loss may lash out or isolate.  Some simple steps may help prevent the pain and create peace on earth and within.
1. Lower your expectations for the holidays.  Your house does not have to look like a Target commercial.  Keep the same routines, like meal and bed times, you have for every other day of the year, perhaps a Saturday schedule.  Structure reduces stress particularly if you plan a few days ahead.
2. If you have engagements and events to attend with family and friends, call ahead to discuss your escape plan with them should the holiday spirit become overwhelming to you or your children.  Let your children and partner know.  You have the choice to retreat to car, hotel or home without guilt.
3. Set aside time during the holiday season, probably not on the big day, to feel and remember your losses.  Create a ritual, like lighting candles or writing little notes, to honor the relationships with the people who are no longer with us because of choice or conflict, death or distance.  Sad is acceptable.
4. Continue a tradition that recalls the best of the past or create a new one that predicts a fresh future.  Pull out one of Grandma's grease-stained cookie recipes and recreate it with the kids.  Take a hike or walk the block with a loved one or even alone.  Either generates happy brain chemicals that are free.
If the anticipation of the holidays, the reality of the situation, or the aftermath of the season become overwhelming, give yourself the gift of self care by calling a friend or making an appointment with a professional who can help you navigate the ups and downs of the holiday season now and next year.