I wish I could say that we have this all figured out and have solved all the difficulties of parenting emotionally healthy children side-by-side with children who have a trauma background, but I can’t. We are still very much a work in progress, though this is probably true of any family. Children and parents change and grow, and figuring what it means to be a family and live together has to happen over and over again. While we haven’t perfected a family life that includes a child from a hard place, we have learned some things along the way. Here are some important things that we have discovered.
1) Prepare your children at home. This is not a one-time conversation, but one that will need to happen over and over again. Because a child with a trauma background doesn’t operate with the same assumptions that healthy children have, they also don’t respond to things in the same way. Cause and effect have little bearing on their decisions and emotions, and feelings are not always processed in an expected way. This means that parenting these children looks different from traditional parenting methods, and healthy children can perceive this new parenting method as unfair. Your children will need to understand why the new brother or sister is acting as they are. We have had a lot of conversations about trauma and brain development and fear with our children. It is not a panacea, but it is certainly a good place to start.
2) Prepare your home. The sad and scary truth is that children with a trauma history can be prone to rages, and that these rages can be scary and destructive. In order for you to be able to focus on your child, you will need to feel more compassion for your child (who is powerless in the grip of these huge emotions) than fear for your possessions. If there is something in your home that will devastate you if it is ruined, put it away in a safe place right now. All the rest? Just keep telling yourself it is just stuff. Stuff that can be replaced or repaired. Parenting a child from a hard place has taught me to hold onto my possessions lightly. This is not always an easy or comfortable lesson to learn.
3) Safeguard your children’s possessions. While the decision to sacrifice your possessions for the greater good of your hurt child’s healing is yours to make, you also need to be respectful of your other children. They may not want to, or be able to, make such a choice. Provide ways for your children to protect what is most important to them. Sometimes providing each child with a small combination safe is what is necessary for them to feel safe, as well as keeping the hurt child from making poor choices.
4) Organize your home. I wish I could say I was perfect at this, but it is a continuing battle. Disregulated children do better in uncluttered, organized environments. There is enough chaos going on inside their heads that it doesn’t help them to live in chaotic environments as well. Plus, in a clean and ordered home, it is far more evident when hiding, hoarding, or stealing is happening. It is easy to stash things when there is too much stuff around; it is far more difficult when things each have a place and it is evident when something is missing or something has been added. Once again, this is an ideal to aim for, but we need to allow ourselves grace when we inevitably fall short of the mark.
5) Make family routines. Just as an ordered home is helpful to disordered behavior, a predictable routine is as well, and both are also good for the healthy children in the home. For a child who has experienced trauma, everything is chaotic and unpredictable, which leads to fear and anxiousness, which leads to all sorts of unpleasant behavior. The more that can be predictable, the less the child has to be anxious and fearful of. Some of the things we structure each day: how breakfast works, when schoolwork starts and what that includes, how lunch works, when playtime happens, what time dinner is and that we eat together every night, what the bedtime routine is. Of course, life can get in the way and schedules get altered, but more often than not, family life is the same and can be counted on.
6) Make family traditions. Just like the daily routine helps with predictability, so do family traditions. It is something that can be counted on and doesn’t have to be guessed at. It helps to create a shared family culture that includes everyone. These can be small weekly or even daily traditions, or they can be annual, holiday, or seasonal traditions.
7) Remember you have other children. One of the most difficult aspects of parenting a hurt child for me is the sheer amount of time and mental energy they take up. These children are so wounded by the people who should have cared for them that they can be emotional black holes absorbing incredible amounts of parental energy and always hungering for more. When you are being sucked dry by one child, it can be difficult to remember there are other children who need you just as much. As parents we must be very intentional in being sure we see and interact with our other children. This can be made doubly difficult if the hurt child tries to undermine your efforts. We must be alert to this and have plans for how to deal with it.
8) Develop respite plans for your family. It is grueling work to live with a hurt child and help them to heal, both for you and for your other children. Plan for how you are going to provide breaks for everyone. We have tried to make sure our older children all have activities which do not include the hurt child. For the younger ones, we also make sure that the hurt child has activities which take him out of the house to give those at home some breathing room. As parents, we also need to make sure that we have some time alone together.
9) Make self-care a priority. Before I was a parent of children from hard places, I could get by with whatever self-care I managed to carve out. This didn’t work when I became a therapeutic parent; I needed to be much more proactive in giving myself the emotional breathing room I needed to be a good parent. I always said I would never take up running, but in the face of hard parenting, I discovered that running helped to keep me sane. I have also taken up horseback riding for the same reason. Physical exercise really does help. Find friends who understand what your life is like and can be supportive. You need at least one person who you can share with and who won’t judge or be shocked at what you tell them.
10) Listen to your children and don’t dismiss their feelings. Be available to your children and create an environment in which it is safe for them to share their negative feelings. It is OK if a sibling sometimes feels negative feelings towards their difficult brother or sister, and they need to be able to share this with you. You don’t need to leave them in this negative place, but don’t discount their feelings, either. Work out ways that you can help make family life easier and more enjoyable for them. It may even be that this healthy child needs to talk to a therapist as much as your hurt child does. Do not discount the effects of secondary trauma. We do not want to help our hurt child heal while sacrificing our healthy children.
Families are imperfect entities comprised of imperfect people. We will never “do family” perfectly. The best families accept and love each other unconditionally, support each other as they grow and heal, and forgive one other when they make inevitable mistakes.