While lying tops the charts of the most difficult aspects of parenting a child who has experienced trauma, because let’s face it, no one likes to be lied to again and again, there is another extremely difficult aspect of parenting trauma that deserves some attention.
Can you imagine parenting a child who fails to respond with consistency and regularity to any and all system of consequences? Natural consequences, positive rewards, negative consequences. Charts, colors, stars, prizes, etc. etc. None, and I’ll say it again, none, of these traditional parenting methods make any lasting difference in altering undesirable behavior in a child who has experienced trauma, loss or anything else that would place them on the attachment disorder spectrum.
Because for this child, it’s all about fear and control: keeping control, losing control, maintaining control, refusing to hand over control. Always operating under the assumption that the very worst thing that has ever happened to her or him could happen again at any moment, this child refuses to give up control. It’s life or death, at all times, in their mind. And because of this, traditional consequence systems will only work if the child still perceives that he or she is in control.
Sound like fun?
This is a daily, often minute to minute reality in homes that have welcomed trauma. It’s no walk in the park, I assure you. In fact, it’s more like a T11 tornado blowing through said park. More accurately, it’s like a T11 tornado blowing through said park and you are almost praying it picks you up and carries you off to the Land of Oz.
Can you imagine? Are you drinking a glass of wine for me right now? I hope so!
Think about this. A healthy child may climb to the top of a piece of playground equipment and fall off. Upon impact, the child gets hurts and also probably has a memory burned into her or his brain linking the behavior to the consequence. The memory link will serve to remind her or him that climbing to the top is dangerous and could result in bodily harm. This child probably would at least think twice before doing it again.
Now, I am mother of three boys and I know what some of you are thinking. My kids would be right back to climbing up that piece of equipment in no time at all. Perhaps. But somewhere…somewhere in their brain lives the memory of getting hurt. This memory thereby helps that child to alter their strategy going forward. Why? Because they don’t want to get hurt again.
For a child with attachment disorder, there isn’t much, if any, thought given to previous consequences before engaging in risky behavior. Again and again and again…
Now, think about systems such as behavioral modification systems that reward a desirable behavior. In my child’s classroom, a color system is used to encourage good behavior and prevent poor behavior. Even my two rambunctious, into everything, boys respond favorably to this system. They know that green is good and desirable and red is bad and to be avoided. At the end of each day, they are so happy to report when they are green or above. Why? Because they know it is the right thing to do.
Again, this system fails miserably at correcting undesirable behavior in a child with attachment disorder. Our youngest has been on yellow and red more times than I care to count. While she can verbally tell you that yellow or red is not desirable, there is no lasting link to her heart or brain that helps her correct her behavior as things are unfolding. Why? Because it’s all about control for her.
My attachment challenged child will usually never risk giving up control. Not for green, blue or purple. She may appear to cooperate from time to time, but if you dig deeper there will be a reason beyond it simply being the right thing to do. Sadly, the reason that most often motivates her is food. Why is this sad? Because it is linked to another early childhood trauma: malnutrition.
You see, trauma has shaped her in such as way that forfeiting any control is simply another loss in her life. Because she has lost so much already and because her early childhood trauma was such that she had absolutely no control over her life-threatening circumstances, she digs in deep and holds tight to anything and everything that she chooses.
Remembering that truth, that he or she did not choose this and does not choose this, is the only thing that keeps me keeping on most days.
And I’m not even going to talk about negative consequences. Attachment challenged children would spend their entire childhood in timeout or without dessert if there were a snowball’s chance in hell that this type of system would ever produce fruit.
I can count on a fingerless hand how many times negative consequences have worked.
Just today, my daughter was sent home with a think sheet:
Think sheets are filled out and sent home after a child has received several warning to correct undesirable behavior. These are NOT good. None of our other children have ever received one of these, so when our youngest first brought one home, I was at a loss. Parents of children who have experienced trauma are often at a loss.
I met my child’s teacher after school to discuss what happened. Thankfully, my daughter appeared somewhat remorseful about the events that led to her think sheet. She is not malicious. She very often has no idea why she does what she does. Her teachers agreed and affirmed that nothing seems to produce lasting behavior changes. We are all at a loss.
Loss produces more loss. Ironic.
The think sheet began the unraveling that resulted in a near-miss, full-blown rage this afternoon. Our daughter, upset by her think sheet and me talking to her teacher, proceeded to go into her bedroom and engage in other destructive behavior: lying, stealing food, hiding things.
This resulted, of course, in additional stress and disagreement among the adults in my house about how this situation should be handled. Because it’s all a vicious cycle. One thing triggers another, triggers another…and frankly, it SUCKS!
Things weren’t meant to be this way; my child should not have been malnourished and orphaned. She was only 2 years old. She didn’t ask for anything that life handed her. There is enough food in our world to meet this basic need.
Loss produces more loss and so on and so forth until we all decide to do things differently and stop the loss from happening in the first place. That is truly the only way.
I hold tight daily to the hope found in Christ and the solidarity found in Christ. I know God called us to enter the mess, and it’s in the mess where we received new vision. And as shitty as some days can be, I also know my life’s purpose and redemption is found, daily, in this heap of seemingly crappy circumstances that must be navigated ever so carefully. I wouldn’t trade my pile of crap, because as stinky as it is, I have come to know it, love it and adore it.
Just before bed tonight, as I always do after episodes, I popped my head into our daughter’s room and asked, “M, is there anything you could ever do that would make me stop loving you?” She said, “No mama.” I asked, “Will Mama ever leave you?” “No, mommy,” she replied. “Love you, Missy,” I said. “Love you, Mama!” she replied, “Tomorrow will be better.”
And it may. Or, it may not. That’s what we signed up for.
And while I would love to be able to offer some practical advice on how to handle a child who exhibits the aforementioned behaviors, I am simply in this boat with you, paddling along. I’ve got little to nothing to offer except solidarity, and prayers, and hope that in our joining together as a village of parents who are living through this and trying our best, we will figure out a better way forward, together. Please, Jesus!