Wednesday, May 5, 2010


One of the things I find somewhat difficult about parenting an older traumatized kid is identifying and subsuming my own emotional agenda. Which isn't to say that I'm not emotionally invested in parenting him. But I find myself expending a fair amount of energy tucking my own (sometimes frayed) emotional edges out of the way before I dig in to do the hard stuff with him.

He needs intense parenting, which is to say, he needs focused exclusive unconditional attention. I can ask him for compliance, cooperation, and communication. But I can't ask him for love or gratitude - I have no claim on how he feels. What we do as his parents needs to be done regardless of whether he seems to appreciate it. It's like being a pair of headlights. I think our job is to be a strong, steady beam of light shining brightly on his path to help him see. We can't just flicker our lights at him and then disappear into darkness to see if he responds. We basically have to follow him around and light him up wherever he is. Tim did that yesterday - T. had gone awol, and Tim actually tracked him right up to the street corner where he was hanging out, and hit him with that spotlight of parental supervision and guided him home. Had he done it in anger, T. would have freaked. But he did it with the detached bemusement and calm of a sports refereee and T. didn't even really object - I think he was more surprised than anything else. Nobody has bothered to keep track of him for most of his childhood.

The second reason for keeping a lid on personal emotional needs is that he simply is not capable of a mature reciprocal relationship right now. He didn't get that early childhood experience of being the object of someone else's exclusive devoted attention, and that has to come first. He is quick to think that he must be "good" in order to be loved, and since he can't be "good", he must be unlovable. I don't think a person can give until they believe they have something to give. This must be common with abused and abandoned children. I see him reaching for an explanation for why nobody "kept" him during his early childhood, and the most readily available conclusion for his child-mind is that he must have been a bad person. So the pressure of reciprocity is too much for him - he isn't sure anybody wants what he has to give back.

And my third thought about why raising a traumatized kid isn't an emotional two way street has to do with the need for total consistency. My partner is a musician, and he always says that without the rigid structure of musical scales and notes, there would be no framework within which to create music. I think T.'s life is like that. Without a tight, predictable structure, he experiences anxiety and chaos, not freedom or creativity. Providing adequate structure means saying and doing the same things over and over again regardless of how tired or frustrated or excited or angry we might feel. It means writing down the rules, explaining them, then enforcing them over and over and over in the same exact way, in the same quiet voice, in the same few words, with the same warm facial expression. The difference to me between discipline and punishment has a lot to do with the emotional state of the person doing the disciplining or punishing; I try to feel the difference between asserting consequences in order to relieve my own frustration versus asserting consequences in order to provide predictability for T.

It's freaking hard! I've gotten incredibly attuned to the physical symptoms of my own feelings. When I feel adrenalin in my stomach, I know I'm getting angry and I need to calm down before I speak to T. When I feel my heart beat rising, I know I'm feeling frightened or out of control and I need to mellow out so I can project confidence and authority. When T. looks at me, I have to soften my eyes, even if he's driving me absolutely nuts, because he's looking to see if I've finally decided he's "bad" enough to give him back.

I don't know how you build this kind of emotional fitness and self-control. I find reading really helpful. When I'm about to pull my hair out, I often go to the computer and google crazy combinations of words until I find something apt. I google crazy things, like "foster kids fear of abandonment" and "at risk teens discipline consistency". So to all of you who write about parenting traumatized kids, thank you so much. I feel like we're a small virtual community that helps to train each other in the rules of an odd and important game.


SocialWrkr24/7 said...

You write such amazingly insightful posts! I just love the way you describe things - the headlights is a perfect analogy!

Anonymous said...

I think you learn it over time. Time teaches you how to respond and what works best. You are far ahead of where I was when my kids were new to me. You have a lot more insight then I did. In fact, I have to go chat with Older Kid later today and now I can tell myself, "I have no claim on his feelings". Thank YOU, Lulu.


Gab said...

So interesting. In our house we find that humor works wonders to express what we're feeling without making it seem mean. ("You're making me crazy" with a smile.) I do wonder how we'll navigate this consistency, when we have an older kid who can be wildly inconsistent. If the 6 year old is yelling about something, will it traumatize the younger child who may be somewhat fragile?
I love the image of Tim casually fetching T. from the street corner.
I'm also moved again by your generosity. I would find it hard to not ask my child to meet me halfway emotionally, I would feel that it was him taking responsibility for his relationships. But I don't think that would be nearly so productive as what you're doing.

marythemom said...

Deep breaths! It is so hard for me to stay calm, but you're doing a great job. I read the Love and Logic or Beyond Consequences books when I need help staying calm. Still doesn't always work.

You're doing a great job - and caught on a lot faster than I did!

Keep hanging in there!

Mary in TX

Lulu McCabe said...

Thanks guys! Gab, your point about humor is so apt. I gotta work that angle more. And MaryTheMom: Yes! You turned me on to Beyond Consequences, and I pick that one up like a bible.

Please keep writing. You guys are great.

{Staci} said...

What an amazing post. Thank you for sharing these insights. I appreciate it!

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