When a child comes into our lives who doesn’t see the world or ‘do’ relationships in the way we do, the resulting cognitive disruption can blow our minds.
“What do you mean you don’t trust me to give you tea, trust that this is a safe place to sleep, that I’m not going to hurt you and why do you fight me over EVERYTHING?” we may find ourselves exasperating.
I can’t tell you how hard I tried to make the traditional parenting fixes of rewards, warnings and consequences work. I tried until our home was a battlefield littered with casualties. The sheer discordance between what to me was entirely obvious and appeared to work for everyone else and the reality of raising care and trauma-experienced children has been the cause of much mental anguish.
For those of us fortunate enough to have been healthily-raised by people who enjoyed us, held us in their minds and arms and knew our needs before we even knew them ourselves, it’s easy to overlook that these first experiences formed the strong foundation on which all our future relationships are built. And it’s bigger even than that: our early lives gave us the working model our brain uses as a shortcut to understand the world. Enter a child, an adopted or fostered child, or a child in a residential home whose view of the world is built on entirely different foundations: they don’t bounce into our homes and our lives like little Orphan Annies thrilled at the prospect of having their relational and other deficits redressed.
Once almost everything we thought we knew about being loving parents and carers has been dashed on the rocks, once the dissonance is unavoidable, we resolve, or at least I did, to try and understand where the dissonance is coming from and to make some sense of it. From there we learn how to be the parents our children need us to be. It’s not just learning something new, it’s a profound and painful shift in perception and action. It’s necessary if we are to stand any chance of convincing our children that the world can be a safe, interesting and engaging place to be part of, that it is possible to have rewarding relationships and ambitions and a future to look forward to. We have to meet them much more than half way, peer into their working model of the world and appreciate it’s value in having helped them survive thus far whilst understanding it’s limitation for their onwards journey. At the same time we have to be more certain than we ever have been of who we are at our core. You can’t set sail on the open seas, psychologically speaking, without a sturdy and well-maintained vessel to sail in.
Over these years there have been many occasions when forces have been exerted upon my remoulded, child trauma-aware ways of ‘doing things’ back in the opposite direction and threatened my sturdy vessel (mental health). Hard-won knowledge and experience is called into question from outside and opinions are strongly and emotionally expressed. It takes great mental strength to stand and argue that, for example, your child isn’t choosing to behave like a nightmare, he’s traumatised and trying his best to survive in the only way he currently knows how, or conversely, that structure and routine is in place to create safety, and without that, utter chaos breaks out. As our family unit learned what works and adjusted our lives, so that created challenge and dissonance in those around us. I see it happening in the lives of my adopting, fostering and caring compatriots too. ‘You need to take away his treats/don’t give him attention/ teach him right from wrong.’ Or ‘why don’t you just <insert really simplistic suggestion>’. If this Billy-Basic type of parenting worked, don’t you think we’d all be doing it? Of course we would, we’re not self-flagellating fools. Perhaps, it’s your world view that doesn’t stand up? No? Too painful to contemplate? Tell us about it.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how much easier our epic family life would have been if we’d been bathed by the warm waters of a more trauma-aware society, if schools, departments, surgeries, waiting rooms, shops and those who populate them were blessed with at least a basic understanding that children born into trauma learn traumatised ways of doing things. The answer is MUCH EASIER. We wouldn’t have had to fight on all fronts, to justify, to practice the most supreme patience, to experience the most profound isolation and self-doubt. Doing all that drains time and energy away from the job at hand. That’s not to say we haven’t had the most remarkable supporters on side, because we have, and they have made all the difference. Without particular social workers, educators and others we most surely would not have been able to continue.
The evidence to support the impact of childhood trauma and the ways in which attuned relationships in particular can help is now plentiful, but has not in the main dribbled down to all the places it needs to. The dribbling takes ages and even where it reaches it has a job to overturn strong and cognitively attractive narratives around naughty, out-of-control, offending children and young people – that they have a choice and are unwisely taking the wrong path, something we with our superior … superior something or other, would not do if we were to find ourselves in the same situation. The problem, in sticking to this cognitively comfortable but ultimately doomed narrative, is that the only logical response to the wayward behaviour of our children is blame. Blame is the sloppy response that protects us from facing the painful realisation that our experience of the world may not be the only experience there is and that perhaps we are not as innately and wonderfully ‘good’ as we think we are. Blame also acts as a barrier to helping trauma-experienced children and young people realise that they in turn are not innately ‘bad’ and given the right support could access a future as bright as that which the rest of us are raised to believe we deserve.