Tuesday, January 3, 2012

When Things Heat Up

While states around the Great Lakes are getting hammered with snow this week, it is unseasonably warm in the Plains.  We’ve warmed up to the 50’s and 60’s for several days in a row now.  Tomorrow, the temperature may even each 70 degrees Fahrenheit.  We have to make some adjustments when things heat up.  Some of the nice warm clothing we received as Christmas presents has not been worn yet.  I’ve only worn the new coat I got for Christmas once and even then, I ended up taking it off.  It was too warm.

Sometimes things “heat up” for my hurt kids.  I haven’t written for several days because we’ve been in the midst of that heat.  Still, the holidays were mostly okay around here.  My hurt son did better this year than ever before, but it was a different story for my daughter.  She has been triggered in many ways, and her reactions to those triggers have been stronger than ever.  Some of them have also been very public.  We made some adjustments over the holidays because things got so hot for her.  But quite honestly, we didn’t always get it right.  Sometimes, we were reactive and parented her with traditional methods which just do not work for traumatized kids.  Sometimes, we got caught up in the heat of the moment. It happens.  No therapeutic parent gets it right 100% of the time.  Besides, we’re often suddenly caught in new situations with our kids, even if we’ve been home with them for a few years.  It’s hard to think of all the tools you might use from your toolbox when that happens.  Sometimes, you just grab the hammer.  (Yeah, I know.  That doesn’t work when a pipe bursts, either.)

My princess had several things going on over the past two weeks that attributed to her melt downs.  The biggest – the one we expected, and the one we “girded our loins” for, was Christmas.  As I’ve written in past posts, the holidays and celebrations of any kind are HARD on traumatized kids.  They always react somehow, some way.  We were ready for that.  (Sort of.)  Another thing that contributed to my daughter’s stress was “losing” her bedroom to her married brother and sister-in-law for 10 days while they visited.  While we tried to prepare for their visit by setting up some rules, so she would still feel she had some control over her space, it didn't quite work the way we planned.  Our preparations went by the wayside when my daughter-in-law became ill the day after Christmas.  Consequently, my older kids were not out of her room by 10 a.m. (Rule #1), the room did not stay picked up (Rule #2) and in fact, became quite messy, and the older kids did not stay clear of her room for a few hours each afternoon so she could have some privacy (Rule #3).  She felt encroached upon and, while she was pleasant toward them, she was also very angry.  (Who wouldn’t be?)  Guess who she took that anger out on every stinkin’ day?

Even before all this, however, we discovered our princess was sneaking around behind our backs.  She was “borrowing” her brother’s cell phone to send inappropriate text messages (she is not allowed to have a cell phone because she cannot handle the responsibility).  She was contacting a girl she’s supposed to have very limited contact with and she was engaging in an inappropriate boy/girl relationship, for which she is nowhere near ready.  She is friends with a hurt girl from school/church.  That friendship has not been good for either girl.  Neither girl is “bad.”  It’s just that the two of them together are bad news.  I’ve spoken with this girl’s mom (she is not her biological mom), and she agrees that the two of them do not do well together.  They are over-the-top boy crazy together and they also behave much younger than their chronological ages when they are together.  They simply cannot behave appropriately.  The boy/girl relationship is another story, but closely tied to her friendship with the girl.  Because of our princess’ background, we are working hard to train her for appropriate relationships with boys – and to wait.  She wants to be pure and to follow our faith.  She wants to believe God’s best for us, but she also does not feel worthy.  Her behaviors with boys lately are getting scary.  Because of this, over the holidays, I also very seriously considered homeschooling her.  That is still an option if her behavior continues to escalate in this direction.  Afterall, making her world smaller has worked well in the past.  Yet, I hesitate as she gets older for fear that making her world smaller will blow up in my face.  I can’t hold the reigns tight forever, but she’s only 13 and I don’t have to let them go completely slack either.  Sometimes, I think none of the decisions we make are 100% “right.”  We just do the best we can.  We do what we see is best for her for (and for us) at that time.  For now, she’ll return to public school.  (My husband is afraid I’d wind up in the hospital if I tried to homeschool her right now.)

The hardest times to manage are when things heat up without warning.  My princess is usually predictable,  but there are times when something will trigger that middle part of her brain, where those big feelings and sense memories live without words or cognitive memory that helps her make sense of her past, and she will explode!  It doesn’t happen often with her, but when it does happen, it is always a very heated explosion.  This happened publicly a few days ago.  It’s why I have a sore arm now.  It’s also a time my husband and I grabbed a psychological hammer instead of some tools that would probably have worked a lot better.  I want to share that experience with you and tell you what I think we SHOULD have done – what we WILL do in the future should this particular reaction happen again with our princess.

Last Friday was a beautiful day.  Our family – all nine of us – decided to go to the zoo that morning and then go for burgers at a fun, 50’s themed restaurant.  It was warm for this time of year, as I wrote above.  Still, it wasn’t summer.  We still needed jackets or hoodies.  We took two cars.  My husband, oldest son and daughter-in-law, and the princess rode in one car.  The other boys rode in another.  When we got to the zoo, everyone jumped out of the cars and headed toward the entrance of the zoo.  Everyone except the princess, that is.  She lagged behind.  My husband turned around to hurry her up and saw that she’d taken her jacket off and locked it in the car.  All she had on was a t-shirt.  It was too windy and cold for just a t-shirt, so he told her to put her jacket back on.  She went into a rage.

Our usually pleasant and sweet princess looked as though her body was taken over by something frightening.  Her face was full of fear, defiance and hate.  She planted herself and would not move.  She said, “I don’t need it.”  She refused to put the jacket back on.

Okay, so here’s what my husband SHOULD have done:  He should have said, “Okay, if you say so.  I think you’ll change your mind very quickly.  But if that’s your choice, we’ll leave the jacket here.  Just know you won’t be able to come back to the parking lot later to get it.”  And we should have let her freeze her little arms off.  Natural consequences.

Instead, my husband used traditional parenting methods – the thing we would have done with our older bio boys – and said, “PUT the jacket ON!”  She was, of course, completely disrespectful from then on.  As any good wife would do, I backed up my husband.  Besides, I was MAD at her!  I got her to get the jacket on, but then she would not move away from the car.  The family was waiting.  The other kids were embarrassed by their sister’s very public behavior.  They just wanted to go.  We’d driven 30 miles to get there and we were looking forward to having some fun.  Now, the youngest, smallest member of the family had everyone’s negative attention and it was getting worse.

Again, what I SHOULD have done:  I should have walked away.  She’s not nine anymore.  I could have left a 13 year old standing in the parking lot at this zoo.  While it’s true that kids “disappear” even in “safe” towns, I believe she would have been safe to leave.  (Besides, I am also quite sure she would have followed – even if she followed from 10-15 feet behind). 

I did not walk away, however.  I grabbed her arm and said, “Let’s GO!”  She jerked away violently, hurting both of us.  She raged.  I stood there.  People looked – gawked actually.  Heck, my own kids gawked.  I told the rest of the family to go ahead.  I should have gone ahead, too.  Instead, I escalated and shamed her.  I said, “All this over having to wear a jacket?  What is wrong with you?!”  (Absolutely not a good thing to do/say.)  She cried.  Eventually, she followed along.  It was only then that I remembered what we SHOULD be doing – ignoring the attitude and recognizing the pain – whatever pain it was.  I told the older kids to ignore her nasty attitude and respond to whatever she said in a normal tone of voice, or not respond at all if they felt they could not do so without reacting to her.  They did great.  By lunch time, she was behaving appropriately, though still clearly angry with me (and I with her).  We should validate her feelings, even as we parent her and explain to her that we’re only trying to take care of her.  It doesn’t mean we have to accept her behavior.  However, it may mean we have to deal with the behavior much later when we both are calm.

We were able to do just that later.  She didn’t want to talk about specifics though.  She never does.  She wants to forget about the times things don’t go well. 

We know a lot.  But we have so much more to learn.

"The fight for survival can become ingrained in a child's thinking.  Even when the environment changes and relationships become safe, the fight continues.  It's like carrying an umbrella to shield from the rain, but never putting it away once the sun is shining."  -- Heather Forbes


Diana said...

This is a stellar post, my friend. It's real and yes, it's what we've ALL done and ALL do, even when we know better. Writing about it, though, not only shares good tools with everyone else, it reinforces them for us and makes them more accessible next time we need them. It was a good reminder for me that I've been defaulting to that hammer myself and I need to dig deeper and find better tools, even when I am tired and sick of the games.

just me said...

I've been reading your blog for a while and I find it very inspiring. It sounds like you are doing an amazing job with the kids they are lucky to have you as a mom!

Trauma Mama T said...

Diana - Funny, but the old, "If I Had a Hammer" song just keeps going through my head! ;o)

just me - Thank you for your kind words. I'm pretty lucky to have the kids I have.