Monday, August 7, 2017

Trauma-Informed Parenting...

As I settled into a rhythm of sewing the stuffed chicken in my lap, I subconsciously mulled over the situation before me.  My mind swept through thoughts and memories that, having been left untouched for a long time, had begun to collect dust.

This spring we brought home a small box of 8 fuzzy, cheeping chicks.  We explained clearly to the kids that we didn't know yet which of these fluff balls were chickens and which were roosters.  We live in the city where crowing roosters are against the ordinances.  We are also required to keep our flock to a limited number based on the size of our yard.  The kids, Sennika in particular, nurtured these chicks.  We were told to buy twice as many baby chicks as we wanted to end up with chickens because usually not all of them make it into chicken-hood.  But all eight of ours did.  I directly attribute that to Sennika's attentive care. She was overly vigilant to feed them, make sure they had fresh water, and she smothered them in lots and lots of love.  She spent just about every moment of her free time since April caring for, and loving on her chicks, which soon became chickens.

So after months, we could easily tell which were chickens and which were roosters.  We can have a flock of four, and ironically, that is how many hens we ended up with.  Now what to do with the roosters?  This weighed on her tender heart.  She worried and agonized.  She would go from freaking out in anticipation to calm as she would read her scriptures and pray.  Finally, she started praying for God to "raise up friends" for her feathered babies, just like He did for her dog 2 years ago who needed a new home (we got a pup that wasn't a good fit for our family.  Finally she kept jumping the fence in our sloped backyard, so we had to keep her tied up until we found a 120+ acre cattle farm where she could herd cows instead of children to her doggy-heart's content!).

So Sennika prayed.  We went to the local tractor supply store and asked around.  We were lucky to find an employee who lives on a farm who was looking for roosters.  She promised not to eat them :) because she needed them to eat the grasshoppers.  She even let us come bring them as a family and make sure they were all settled before we left.  She listened patiently and with real interest as Sennika explained their names, temperaments, and needs.

As we came home she cried and cried.  It was hard.  Just like other times when she has had big feelings of grief, we talked about it.  We asked her what would help her get the grief out. She decided she needed a stuffed animal chicken.  So as a girls' night, we went to the store and found just the right material and supplies.  And there I sat sewing chickens because now her brothers needed one too.

Without meaning to on my own, God helped me see a little bit more clearly into this little girl's heart. As I sewed, my I thought about the day the kids and I came home from church to find Mark with some family members loading up everything that belonged to him in the house.  He announced to us that he was leaving and this time he didn't want any contact.  As he got ready to pull away, this 4-year-old Sennika asked her daddy, "When will I see you again?"

"When you are older," was the open-ended response.  She cried for about 45 minutes after he left.  I held her shaking, tiny body as she sobbed and sobbed...too young to understand, but old enough to absorb more that day than Mark & I initially realized.

This heart-broken girl announced a few days later that she had a pretend mom and a pretend dad.  She smiled broadly as I came into her bedroom as she proudly held out two Barbie dolls.  I don't remember what I said to her that day.  I don't know if I even asked questions or acknowledged her, but that little girl hurt deeply.

It took about a year for her to finally stop going through this frantic ritual of what she would do and say whenever we announced one of us was leaving the house to go to the store or some other simple errand.  Again, did I really see what she was trying to tell us?  That she had been hurt...that she had been wounded...that she had been traumatized by that frightful experience...?  I can't recall those details or my awareness of her clearly.

But as I began to fill up the cuddly chicken in my lap with stuffing, I could see it all clearly.  Sennika bounded in the room shortly after that and I was thankful that her excitement about her "replacement" chicken meant she easily overlooked the lopsided effect of my meager attempts at sewing.  As she hugged her new stuffed animal I asked her if she remembered those distant memories.  She had some memories and others she relied on my telling of the stories.  I helped her string it all together and she was just about as surprised as I was to finally connect it all.  "Senn, I wonder if maybe all of this has something to do with why telling your roosters goodbye was so hard. I wonder if these past experiences are why goodbyes or changes can be so challenging for you."  She resolutely agreed it was.  I validated her trauma (that "no little girl should ever have to go through her parents fighting, her daddy leaving, and not knowing when she would see him again.  No child should ever have to go through his/her parents' separation or divorce.  It isn't okay. And it hurt.  It was scary.").  We talked about how stable our family is now and the brave ways Dad has chosen our family and recovery.  She left with a light heart and so did I.

I have alluded on several occasions to the hurt I caused one of our sons, Leland.  It's mind-blowing today that I was so shameful about it!  But it truly was shrouded in layers and layers of shame.  I hurt him twice early on in his little life.  First, during his pregnancy.  We were given such grim expectations for the outcome of a healthy baby because of complications early on in his pregnancy. I sewed a burial outfit for him.  That rainy night and my heavy-heart at my sewing machine are still etched perfectly in my memory.  In my control-freak-back-then mind I wanted to be prepared as possible.  I even had two bags packed: one if we gave birth to him locally and one if we had to be life-flighted or transported.  I typed up a list and kept it up-to-date for whoever would be caring for our older two children at the time of his birth.  In my pain, I detached from him.  I didn't want to have to go through the hurt of losing him, so subconsciously I decided not to get attached to him.  I tried not to love him.  I tried to ignore him from 16 weeks when the placenta pulled away.  I now know things that I didn't know back then...that a person's beliefs begin while in the womb...that baby's are aware of their environments and especially their mother...they are sensitive to her thoughts, feelings, and experiences.  This tender, tender kid is the most loving person I know.  His heart is so big and opens wide and to all.  He drops what he is doing throughout his day just to come hug and kiss me.  Although I pulled away from him for months, he has nothing but adoration for me.

This little baby was only four months old when his Daddy went through the immense stresses of the first round of unemployment.  It was the same unemployment that knocked over the first domino in a series of events that lead to the next few hellish years for our family.  In the first year of his life, we had moved multiple times.  The day we celebrated Leland's first birthday, we would have been homeless had it not been for the generosity of friends and family.  Mark went through urges/withdrawls, followed by relapse in addiction, more moves, Mark's major mood swings including being suicidal, and more instability than stability.  This baby was our best baby...easy-going...never cried...always happy...slept well.  And because he was so easy, I was a less attentive mother than I had been for the older two.  I fed him, dressed him, and changed him.  But the first few years of his life I was a shell of a person.  Although physically nourished, he was once again starved of my love. I can see now that I did the best that I could.  We were in full-blown survival mode, but until I realized the ways my choices effected this tender child, I could not make the necessarily changes.

I get now that what I offered Leland was my very best! However, Satan used the surfacing of this child's crying out for the validation of his trauma as an entire slew of powerfully crippling ammunition targeted at my mind and my heart.  He raged at me for 12-18 months.  I was truly harrowed up.  I felt without hope---despairing for this child's future and broken-hearted on how to reach him.  I felt nauseated at what I had done to this child.  He, who has nothing but love, was not only neglected, but turned away and rejected by his own mother.  I had withheld my love from him.  And as the lies became more and more entangled and I was dragged deeper and deeper into darkness, I could not find Truth in it.  I had hurt my child and I couldn't see how to navigate through it.

Just like with Sennika, Leland was crying out.  He had triggers too.  Even though he was a baby at the time of these traumas, he still had a record of the events in his memory.  He was just as unconscious of his triggers as she was.  Last year I wrote about how God saved me from drowning by reaching me through two loving friends. Their inspired words penetrated deeply into my heart at this fragile and critical time.  In that instant, it changed everything and I could stand up tall and know that all was well.  Living on this earth, especially in families, things can get really messy really quickly.  I had allowed the Savior to shine his brilliant light of pure love into the other areas of my life.  Why was I holding parenthood off to the side in a secret compartment?  I could allow this beautiful light to enter and to cover the mess I had made in this aspect of my life as well.

And now that I could see more into Leland's heart, I could help this precious child!  I have prayerfully tried my hardest to acknowledge to him the ways I have hurt him, hire professional help for him, pray for him (and myself), and do all I can to educate myself and practice harder than ever before to be a different mom to him as well as my other children.  Little by little I have inched forward in progress.  This child who would go from completely calm, but the next second screaming unconsolably as a preschooler is now usually aware of himself (or at least aware enough of himself) that he can tell when big feelings are coming and usually can stop it right there.  If it escalates, it is usually shorter in duration and lessened in intensity than before (taking into account factors such as tiredness, hunger, or other unusual variables, he does pretty amazingly well now).  A big moment was hearing him say out loud what I had tried to gently and repeatedly offer to him as a lifeline in these crazy moments of big feelings, "There is always a way to fix it."  YES!  This has become his little mantra when he catches himself about to flip his lid.  And it is wonderful!

Now, I don't write this to sound like from that moment on I have been a perfect parent and have it all figured out now.  It has been a struggle.  Most days I still blow it, but the difference between before and now is that I know what to do about it and I can quickly take positive actions to make it right and be changed for next time. I now know that the Atonement covers my mistakes in parenting too. It has been a gradual and rigorous process for this Mama with 4 kids usually at my side all day, every day (I'm lucky to get to have extra practice!).

I write this so you can be aware 1. as many of you who read this blog have or are weathering through addiction.  Your child/children MAY be more likely to have ensued more or deeper trauma than a child in a stable home.  No regrets, but I wonder what it would have been like for each of my children if I had been a more awake and sensitive parent sooner.  I didn't mention Gavin, but he also had his trauma come out in different ways from the other kids too.  I believe being alerted to this can be helpful for our children's futures.  2.  So you can be aware now.  Start where you are.  Don't live in the past!  I don't care if you child is grown and has long ago left the house.  If you are aware of ways you have hurt him/her, it's never too late to acknowledge, apologize, and to be a different parent now.  It's never too late.  Can you see that is Satan speaking?  God speaks hope.  And as we are aware, we can be more sensitive to our child's trauma---the known and unknown.

When we see our child doing something that is different than what we would have expected, especially the really "weird" or "unwarranted" for the situation, we can learn to ask ourselves, "Why am I seeing this?"  I walked you through what my children had been through previously.  What happened in the past to your child to create those actions/behaviors you are seeing right now today? We can ask questions.  We can become the world's best detective (and asking questions gives an added bonus because it keeps us in the higher thinking portion of our brain...we can't go into fight/flight/freeze mode if we stay in our top brain. Asking ourselves questions keeps that portion of our brain engaged).  If we don't know at the moment the answer to these questions, we can take the time to figure it out.  We can do whatever we need to do in the moment and come back to searching for the roots later and/or over time. If we blow it, there is always a second chance...and a third...and a fourth...and an infinite number for however long it takes for us to figure it out!  We can make it right without having to throw the towel in.  We can start again from where we are.

Because of Jesus Christ, there is always hope...and parenting is no excepting.

Last week Leland and I were out on a Mommy's club, as we call it (or a 1:1 "date").  He wanted to get ice-cream and picked out his favorite flavor, "grasshopper."  I chuckled to myself and asked him if he remembered how last year him and Grandpa R had gotten in a huge blow up while we were on the cruise over grasshopper ice-cream.  "Yes," he responded.  "I was so mad because he said that there was mint chocolate chip, but not grasshopper.  And I yelled at him and I cried and I hit him.  Then we found out it was the same kind."

"You remember all of those big feelings, don't you?  You were so frustrated and you didn't know how to get out all of those big feelings in safe ways. How do you feel today?" I asked.

"Happy, Mom!" He joyfully exclaimed.

"Do you feel big feelings like that day with the ice-cream any more?"  I asked him.

"No.  I usually feel good, Mom," He said as he grinned with ice-cream dripping down his chin.

And I genuinely grinned right back at him.  I had every reason in the world to smile because I know there is always hope for the choices we make that knowingly and unknowingly hurt those we love.  Just like the other details of our time here on this earth---God has this one covered too.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Katy I needed that today! I love you and your family very much!


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