Dear Struggling Mother,
In the first part of my letter, I described how the effects of trauma on a child’s brain can cause thinking and behavior that makes the parent/child relationship into a combative one. It is a method of interacting that I know all too well and I imagine many of you do, as well.
When we shifted our parenting method from one of control and obedience to one of connection, support, and healing, there were a couple of questions we needed to ask ourselves. The first question was: what is really our end goal? Was it to have a perfectly behaved child at whatever cost, or was it to have an emotionally healthy child who wasn’t perfect? We decided that emotional health was most important. What was it going to take to get there? We went all out in creating a sense of trust in our son. Trust that we wouldn’t over-react, trust that he was safe, trust, that we really did understand what was going on inside of him. And it wasn’t easy because to gain and build his trust, we had to stop seeing ourselves as adversaries and become his cheerleaders instead.
We need to realize that as much as it may feel like it, our children are not behaving in the way they do merely to make us miserable or to manipulate us or to push our buttons. They are behaving in the way do they do because it is the only thing they are capable of. In The Explosive Child, Ross Greene writes, “Kids do well if they can.” Our children living with the consequences of trauma are doing the best they can. They just don’t have a lot to work with. Imagine what you feel like when you are extremely worried or upset or anxious or angry about something. If you are like me, it is difficult to focus; you are short-tempered; everything takes on a negative hue. In short, you are not pleasant to be around. Or have you ever experienced extreme anxiety? It colors everything and makes it difficult to function. This is what our children experience every single day. They have few resources to work with and life constantly looks scary.
Now imagine you are in that unpleasant place of fear and worry and do the humbling experiment of being on the receiving end of traditional parenting practices. Here is where we had to ask the second hard question of ourselves. Were we the kind of parents that a child would want to fall in love with? Trust? Feel understood by? I have done this self-assessment and I did not show up in a very flattering light. Parenting in a new mind-set, one of trust and connection, takes a humility of spirit on the part of the parent that can be difficult. It feels wrong. It feels like you are losing the fight. But remember you are not losing the fight; you are winning your child.
Let me illustrate more of what I mean by sharing a small example. Our children all have household jobs which are assigned to them. One of these jobs is to pour the milk for dinner. You wouldn’t think this was a particularly onerous job, but it had become one of those battlegrounds that I dreaded every single night. The scene often played out like this:
Me: Hey _____, it’s time to pour milk for dinner.
Son: I don’t want to! [Assuming defiant tone right from the start.]
Me: Please watch your tone and I need to you pour the milk. We are almost ready to eat. [Trying to keep myself from matching his tone, but only marginally successfully.]
Son: [No reply, but stands there with an attitude.]
Me: You don’t need to act like that. It’s not a hard job. Please pour the milk now. [Not trying any longer to hide the annoyance from my tone.]
Son: [Still not answering, but now making grunting noises and perhaps starting to bang a chair on the floor.]
The rest of the scene descends from there. I’ll spare you the details.
We needed to rethink this interaction, which played out night after night. No matter how many times we forced the issue and demanded obedience, it didn’t get any better. Instead, it got worse. We were practically to the point where the tension would escalate before the dreaded request to pour milk had even happened. Obviously something had to change and we had to be the ones to do it. We never did figure out why the job of pouring milk was challenging, but it was. We were just going to have to accept that and go from there. Here is how it played out the first time with our new game plan.
Me: Hey ___________, it’s time to pour milk for dinner.
Son: [No response, but dark mutterings under his breath.]
Me: It sounds as though this is really hard for you. Would you like some help?
Son: [Taken aback for a moment at the change of script. No response, but the dark mutterings stopped.]
Me: Or if that’s too hard as well, I could just do it for you.
Son: [Tension leaves his face.] Yeah. [Spoken very quietly.]
The next night, we went through the same thing and I poured the milk again. The night after that, he was able to accept help and did part of it. After a few nights of that plan, he poured the milk by himself and pouring milk has never been an issue again.
Two thoughts as I share this story. The first is that I will say up front that this went against every single parenting instinct I had. It felt wrong. It felt as though I was giving into bad behavior. It didn’t make any sense. But the act of humbling oneself for another person is powerful. My willingness to give up what I wanted in order to reach out to my son, to be on his team for once, spoke more strongly to him than any words I could have said. I wanted him to succeed and was willing to do just about anything to make sure he did. I had become his cheerleader and supporter instead of his adversary. And I needed to recognize that success in this scenario would not be compliance with my wishes. Success was helping my son learn that another response was possible.
The second thought is that I know this is a very small example and one that had positive results in a very short time. I am not so naïve to suggest that all poor behavior can be solved quickly and easily. Some behavior is so ingrained and comes from such a deep place of hurt and fear that it will take years for my son to be able to change. I want to be the one who is helping him reach this state of healing, though, and not the one continually pushing him back into that scary place of hurt.
As you struggle with your child, hang in there. Enlist a trained therapist. Find support from friends. Take some respite breaks for your own mental health. And most importantly, begin to cultivate compassion and focus on connecting with your child on a level where they can feel it.