When we took in our nine-year-old daughter almost a year ago, her care generally consisted of crisis management with sprinklings of her fun-loving self. She was shut down in a lot of ways, over-reactive in others, and scared to step out of line. The trauma she had experienced prior to coming under our care was too much to process for a child whose last home not only didn’t allow her a safe space to do so, but contributed to her hurt. As a result, whenever she felt a negative emotion, she would shut in until eventually she boiled over. She thought expressing her feelings when she was upset was not okay, but she couldn’t hold those feeling in forever.
I won’t talk about all the horrors she has faced. That’s not my place. What I will say is that sometimes kids hold a lot in that pours out in strange, and often hard to deal with ways.
It’s not easy. There are times I really struggle to meet her with compassion because, well, getting yelled at or having a door slam in your face is a lot. Sometimes we have to walk away so we can process, and that is okay too! It’s healthy to acknowledge where your limits are and when you need a moment to digest.
I am by no means a parenting expert or a therapist. I only know what has helped me with this traumatized child and what, looking back on my childhood, would have helped me.
Here are five tips that have helped us build stronger, healthier bonds in our home.
-Express, don’t escalate.
-Boundaries are important.
-Routine, routine, routine.
-Be honest, kindly.
-It’s okay to be upset.
1. Express, Don’t Escalate.
This child and I both come from chaotic homes where raised voices and tempers were the norm. We came to understand that we would not know what to expect from moment to moment. Living in this kind of uncertainty comes with a lot of confusing feelings about how to express yourself in a healthy way.
Knowing this didn’t mean we chose to never be firm with her. We often have to tell her no, or reinforce boundaries, or ask her to speak her truth kindly, but screaming is not on the agenda. Yelling at a kid who’s used to being yelled at is like striking a Zippo while soaked in gasoline.
What helps us de-escalate, or avoid escalation all together, is usually ‘taking five’. We tell her we are taking five minutes to process, that we love her, and will be back to speak after. This doesn’t only give her time to cool down, but us too!
Sometimes she just wants to pick and argue, but also doesn’t want to be alone. These are times when we practice ‘being together, being silent.’ We sit together in the same room, doing our own things, but don’t speak until she gets to the other side of her funk. Then we reaffirm, give hugs and usually, get active! The dog gets lots of walks from moments like these.
2. Boundaries are Important.
Enforcing consistent, healthy boundaries can make a world of difference for any child, especially a traumatized one. Boundaries can be talks of good touch/bad touch, the child being in control of who hugs or touches them, or supporting an older child showering unsupervised.
It can also be discussing that we are only in control of our own words and feelings. This child in particular seems to soak up the stress we show and put that weight on her shoulders. Teaching her that she is not responsible for making us feel better seems to have eased some of that pressure. The other side of this point is that understanding this helps them learn to be accountable for their own words and actions when they react out of anger.
Of course, boundaries are important for Mom too! Like I said earlier, sometimes it’s good to ‘take five.’ You don’t need to have the answer immediately, or even at all. It’s the same idea as how you need to put your oxygen mask on before you put on theirs. If you don’t take care of yourself first, you cannot take care of them.
We all know self-care rarely comes in the form of an uninterrupted bubble bath with scented candles, so take those couple minutes to breathe and ground yourself throughout the day. I personally do my daily Bible devotionals, which usually turn out to be strangely relevant to what I’m feeling. Thank you, Lord!
3. Routine, Routine, Routine.
Truth is, this kid craves routine. I’m not talking about having an itinerary for every hour block of the day. Who has the time for that? It’s simply her knowing that her life is predictable that helps. She wakes up at the same time, plays on her electronics at the same time, eats supper at the same time, etc. Going from such chaos at her old home to the predictability we have created here was no doubt strange, but she took to it quickly.
We also found that visual charts helped her. She would check her chart every morning to see what chores she would be doing that day and what extracurricular activities were planned. We eased up on this for the at-home learning and summer months but we will be returning to this ASAP now that school is back in.
COVID-19 has been hard for her. She is a social butterfly who has felt caged up for months. My partner created a craft corner for her to get artsy in, which she loves. We also do our best to limit screen time and encourage cuddle time as much as possible because we don’t want her to become reliant on her electronics for connection. Instead of turning to her DS, I want her to turn to us if she feels lonely.
4. Be Honest, Kindly.
Kids tell it how it is, and she is no exception. She’s said a few off-the-cuff remarks that have stung deeply. It sometimes feels like a tightrope act, but we do our best to encourage that she can be honest without sacrificing tact.
We have struggled a lot with catching her in lies from the get go. At first we were pulling our hair out. What were we doing wrong? If we were too forceful, she would blow up. If we were too lenient, she would do more. What was the answer here?
It took a close confidant, far more versed in the needs of traumatized children than either of us, to offer a needed perspective check to help us feel at peace. When she lied where she was before, she would be punished. When she told the truth, she would be punished. She was put in an impossible situation where she lost no matter what. That opened our eyes, and softened our tense, frustrated hearts. From then on we have focused on encouraging honesty by assuring her that we still love her, no matter what, and that we are proud of her when she tells the truth – even if she lied about it previously.
Don’t get me wrong, we still struggle with lies, but we have noticed that she is more willing to fess up now that she knows she is no longer stuck in a catch-22.
5. It’s Okay To Be Upset
For a long while, this child was in an environment where she was not allowed to be anything but content. And she was not content. Because ‘bad’ feelings like anger and fear weren’t honoured, she didn’t feel comfortable letting her whole self be loved. We still deal with the fallout of this, although she has grown leaps and bounds.
My proud moment came tonight while she was having her evening snack. A bug ran across the floor and she panicked. I, stuck in my head about a problem entirely unrelated, squashed the bug with a borderline rude flair. She looked me square in the eye and said, “I feel like you were giving sass there, and that’s frustrating! I was scared!”
Woah. Who is this kid? A year ago she would have cowered and held it all in. Now she’s standing here, telling me how it is. Of course she was right. We had a talk about how she was feeling because of my action, and how she was feeling in general. I apologized. After I ‘took five’, I told her that what she did was really good. She said, “How was it good? I made you frustrated.” I said, “No honey, you used your words to tell me how you were feeling and I am so proud of you.” In the past when we have said we were proud, she would insist we shouldn’t be and that she was a bad kid. Tonight she just looked at me and smiled brightly. She believed it. It was magical in a way I don’t think she will ever know. It might be a small triumph to others, but it is definitely progress for this kiddo.
There is still work to do, and every one of us is in a constant state of learning. My partner and I have never been parents to a nine-year-old before, much less crash land into it with little preparation. There are outbursts that almost bring me to my knees in defeat. I sometimes wonder if we are doing enough. Times like tonight remind me that it is slow and steady that wins the race, that time and patience pay off even when it feels hopeless in that moment, and that connection trumps trauma. Every time.