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When I work with traumatized people, I always keep in mind that they have one of three reactions: Fight, Flight and Freeze. These are primal brain mechanisms that manage threats to the self. Each type of reaction has its intervention but at the core of these interventions is the fourth “F”: Fusion.
Trauma disrupts relationships and self/other organization. At extreme levels it can cause dissociative disorders (what we used to call Multiple Personality Disorders) splitting off internal parts of the self in an effort to survive and function. At milder levels it can cause us to build defenses or social masks that allow us to get through our days despite feelings of pain or loss. Either we are not acting out of our true self. We also have difficulties with others manifesting by poor intimacy, commitment fears, unmanageable anger, feelings of anxiety and depression.
What we want to achieve is fusion. A fusion of self and personality and a fusion of relationships (self with other). This is easy said than done but it is possible. It is not hopeless as we once thought. The real challenge is trying to help others who are in a state of fight, flight or freeze without ourselves going into a similar state. Staying “fused” in our emotions, in the face trauma, is hard!
How do we discipline our 8-year old (adopted) son? He is extremely angry, at times violent and aggressive and has been since about 4 years old. We have seen therapists, psychiatrists, medical doctors, etc. We have tried it all, from medicine to discipline (time out, spanking, withdraw privileges, positive reinforcement, redirection, isolation (in his room), writing sentences, physical activities) and none of it makes any difference to him.
Up until recently, all his anger has been directed only at us, his parents. However, this week he hit a boy with his hat, on the school bus. The consequence is a warning from the principal. Next time he’ll be removed from the bus and no longer allowed to ride it. He is extremely smart, socially immature, and very much likes to be in control - of everything, even us. We need help.
Adopted and angry
Dear Adopted and Angry,
I find that it is helpful to break things down into manageable chunks when overwhelmed by parenting problems. You have very complex case here that involves multiple issues, some of which are workable and others that may not be. Here are the various issues I read in your question: Adoption, child development, aggressive behavior, professional help, behavioral modification, parenting hurts, peer relationships, control issues, and desperation.
I threw that last one in there as semi-jest, semi-truth. You are obviously very frustrated and at the end of your proverbial rope. This permeates everything else you have said and everything you will try to do with your son. This frustration may sabotage your efforts and shorten your ability to fully modify his behavior. You are using some great behavior modification techniques (time out, withdraw privileges, reinforcement, etc.) and I would urge you to continue to use them. But, behavior modification has limitations, especially if you are already experiencing your limitations with your son. In fact, it is possible you are reinforcing him negatively to continue.
The biggest issue you have listed, in my opinion, is adoption. Adopted children come into our families wounded on a spiritual or deeply psychological level. Some people call this the “Mother Wound.” The feeling of being “given up” for adoption, even in the best of circumstances, to the best of families, is a difficult issue for children to cope with. This can be even more difficult if there are other biological children in the home and if there is a dramatic physical difference between children. It is also affected by how adoptive parents handle the whole adoption issue with their adoptive children.
Another related issue with adoptive children is genetics. Parents often don’t know a lot about an adoptive child’s family history and genetic make-up. Mental illness in your child’s family tree may be a big, unknown factor here, and this may not be about behavior, per se, but a genetic problem. If you haven’t already investigated this, I would encourage you to do so. It will help you and the professionals you are working with you to deal with this problem.
Given that you already have a host of professional helpers on your side and you have a good knowledge of behavioral techniques, I would suggest that you focus more on helping your child heal from the spiritual or psychological wounds of adoption. Anger is rarely the real issue in children. What’s under all that rage? What fuels his aggression? How can you answer the main issue of hurt and loss that makes him resistant to change?
What we are really talking about is love. True, unconditional love. The fact that he targets you, his parents, with his rage demonstrates his sense of safety. I know this is confusing but angry/aggressive children usually vent at those they know will not abandon them. And adoptive children are highly sensitive to abandonment. You must reassure, love, and embrace him every time he attacks. This is the only way you can answer his violent test (“Will you give me up, too, or will you keep me no matter how ‘unlovable’ I am?”). Let your behavior modification set the limits on his behavior and let the embrace of your arms be the limits on his spirit).
My wife and I have a joke that we tell each other and family members: It takes a minimum of 17 hugs a day to feel normal. I will confess that there is no scientific research that supports 17 hugs per day therapy…at least not yet. Nevertheless, we have come to recognize that need for touch and have adopted the idea that hugs, at least 17 is what gets us through the daily life hassles. At a recent conference on Attachment Theory, where there was some real scientific data, a presenter on PTSD- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that stated that data suggests that the little stressors of everyday living can add up to the same effects of someone who has undergone a single, major life trauma, like a robbery or death of a loved one or car accident.
We let these little incidents of life go by without any real concern. Perhaps we feel embarrassed to admit how much a poor marriage or teenager defiance or even workplace stress really does affect us. Can parents acts as prevention specialists for our children. As adults, we need 17 hugs just to maintain normal living? Our children need them to counter the cumulative effects of stress on their lives to avoid PTCS - Post Traumatic Childhood Stress.
If you don’t believe there is a such a thing, just observe children interacting on a play ground. There are some mean things thrown back and forth on the jungle gym, let me tell you! Add to that some homework pressures and the constant media bombardment of negative words and images and what child wouldn’t feel slightly traumatized? As parents, the least we can do is give some touch therapy with a few hugs a day.
John Bowlby, the great attachment theorist, stated that attachment is essential to normal development. Guardians are supposed to be our safe haven from life. Home should be a place of refuge from the constant stress of school and work. Granted, there are chores and homework to be done but how can you carve our 30 minutes a day for some connection. Parents are quick to use Time-Out, how about some Time-In? It might be good for mom and dad too. Starting today, give a few more hugs than usual. It is OK to start slow and work your way up. And yes, teenagers love them too. You just have to be a little more crafty in your approach.
Core Values are what drive our best practices in life. These values are at the heart of healing for Ron Huxley and are evident in his work with families:
Healing occurs in “family”. The family is the primary healing agent for change. Children cannot be “fixed” but must be treated as powerful, creative people that must learn to live with other powerful, creative people called “family.” Family can look like many positive things.
Healing is Wholeness. Healing isn’t just about coping with problems, it is about being whole in mind, body, and spirit. It involves and impacts all three areas.
Healing looks like something. It should be noticeable, practical, and agreeable. It involves a change of heart as well as behavior. It is a measurable process.
Healing focuses on our strength’s. Healing builds on what is already working… It focuses on doing more of what works and less of what doesn’t.
Healing is multi-sensory and experiential. It uses all the senses and can involve storytelling, drama, movement, and art.
Healing occurs when a “false belief” is replaced with a “true belief”. A false belief is the real root of the problem, not the behavior. Behaviors are the fruit of your beliefs. Once the false belief is discovered, a true belief must take its place.
Healing is inherent in identity. You can choose what you belief about yourself and not what your situation suggests or others say about you. Once you know your identity you will know your needs and your boundaries.
Healing always involves truth. It comes form understanding “all there is to know” about the story of you. Even young children can handle truth when shared in a developmentally appropriate and caring way. Truth brings freedom from pain.
Lent is just a day away and while I don’t always observe this Holy Day, I do find it a powerful discipline. I wonder what would happen if instead of fasting from food or drink, parents gave up some unnecessary guilt? Recently, I was looking at the beautiful clouds and had this thought:
It was one of those lazy Sunday afternoons and the sky was beautiful blue. White, billowy clouds were floating by as I sat and watched them on my front porch. The only problem with this day was I felt guilty about not being more productive. I felt like I “should” be doing something. Pulling weeds, reading some important journal paper or updating my blog. I remember this feeling as a parent too. There always seem like there is so much to do and I was always so far behind on something. Shouldn’t I be doing laundry instead of playing catch in the backyard with my kids or working on some craft?
There were many times my guilt drove me to try and do household chores and play with the kids at the same time. Let’s just say, it wasn’t very effective in either area. Many of us NEED to listen to that inner voice. That bathroom really does need some more attention but for the majority of parents, guilt is a constant critic. It is driven by the need for perfection. It fears what others will think of us. It causes us to forget that our children are more important than a clean dish put away into the dishwasher. As a grandparent, you realize that the moments slip away into days into years into decades and then there are gone. When you realize all the magical moments missed with your child because you just had to prune the rose bush or scrub the shower (or for you working parents, work an extra hour or two in your home office), that is when the real guilt settles in. It is for what you could have done with your child if I wasn’t just so tightly wound up over the little things.
Here’s my parenting (and grandfatherly) advice: Spend an entire weekend just interacting with your children and let guilt go for two entire days! Just two days mind you. That means the beds don’t get made, the dishes may stay in the sink (OK, you can put them away after they go to bed) and the home office door stays shut. Oh yeah, and the electronic devices are off.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that being a parent today is tougher than ever before. Blame it on the moral decay of society, the impersonal nature of technology or the breakup of the home. Either way, contemporary parents feel out of touch with themselves and their children.
The solution is not to turn back time but to open our selves up to our children. As stress bombards today’s families, parents retreat farther into their private self leaving a fully functioning but completely unsatisfactory public self to go through the daily routines of work and family life. This deprives both parent and child of the intimacy and closeness they both want and desire. Ironically, strength comes through vulnerability. Letting children see our frustrations, pain, and failure can be a valuable lesson to them.
Many parents can’t see the wisdom in being transparent to their children. Already debilitated, they can’t understand why they should give away their power. This notion of power comes from a false parenting authority of “Do it because I said so” or “I am the parent therefore you must obey!” This is not true strength. This is force. Strangely enough, giving up this false strength will lead parents to the true power of intimacy in their family relationships.
Children are naturally curious. They love to explore and learn. Parents can use this drive to increase intimacy with their children. The first step is to make/take time out of busy schedules to really be with children. TransPARENTcy is achieved in those unstructured but regular moments with children. It can be in the car on the way to or from school. It can be at a regularly scheduled playtime at home. It can be during the last few minutes of the day tucking your child into bed. The actual arrangement is not as important as simply making the most of everyday interactions with children.
To do this parents need to get comfortable being in the here-and-now with children. Children are naturally present focused. They are not worried about their future or their past. Get into that present moment with your child. Be aware of the environment you find yourself in and talk about those things with your child. This is how a child learn about the world. Encourage questions. Eliminate judgment about right and wrong and instead let your child explore ideas about the world to help them find ethical answers. Talk about your child’s thoughts and feelings in as objective a manner as possible and then share your own thoughts and feelings without lecture or sermonizing.
Honesty is still the best policy when it comes to our emotions. If parents feel one of the primary emotions: mad, sad or glad, share them honestly. Hiding these emotions lead to negative behaviors on the parts of both parent and child. Of course if parents are going through a major depression or anxiety children should not take the place of a good therapist or become the emotional dumping ground for a parent’s stressful life. Instead, parents can model how to manage difficult feelings so that children can learn how to regulate theirs. The truth is that parents can’t hide their emotions even if they want to. Most likely children already know when their parents are mad or sad even if they try to hide them.
Children were nonverbal long before they were verbal making them experts of the unspoken expression. If mom or dad find their own emotions so horrible that they can’t be honest about them, maybe children shouldn’t trust their emotions either. Many parents believe that by covering their own emotions they are protecting their children. Consequently, parents put on an act to only show positive feelings. This gives children a one-sided view of life making them unprepared to cope with others in the real world. This form of protection is really for the parent not the child. Children are harmed not helped by this belief.
Many parents who want greater connection with their children never experienced it as a child themselves. It is frightening to be transparent with anyone, especially one’s children. The greatest risk of vulnerability will come when parents must admit a mistake. To avoid this risk parents try not to reveal their inadequacies to their children causing children to mistrust what parents say and do. This is not the way build stronger bonds. If parents want to be an appropriate role model and achieve greater intimacy with their children they will need to admit their humanness.
Even more frightening for parents is the idea that they might need to ask forgiveness of their child for a word or action acted out in anger. Forgiveness has a spiritual quality that transcends emotional hurts and repairs relationships. It opens doors of intimacy that would otherwise remain locked shut by hurts and resentments. Taking this type of risks can be particularly difficult for fathers. There is an old notion that fathers must be proud, strong and therefore invulnerable. The rationale is that this behavior teaches boys how to be a man. Unfortunately, it teaches all the wrong things and ill prepares boys for future relationships. Today’s sons need dads who understand the importance of learning from one’s failures as well as successes.
Create a Family Team:
Some parents complain that the reason they cannot be transparent with their child is due to conflicts in personality. When children and parents have drastically different moods, reactions and motivations, it can make connecting quite a chore. To overcome this problem, parents try and focus on similarities versus differences. While this is helpful, it is also important to concentrate on those differences that divide parent and child. Talking about personality differences can actually be a way to connect to a child. Discuss how you and your child are different and why that makes each of you unique. Explore the various ways to process or react to life. Never define the differences as deviant, just different. Learn from the other person’s viewpoint and discover compromises that fit you both.
Parents can use personality differences to build a powerful “family team.” Match individual interests, skills and desires so that each person compliments the others. The role of the parents, in these family teams, is to cheer lead each personality. Make the motto: “one for all and all for one” your new slogan for family transparency.
The surest path to transparency is empathy. Empathy is the act of communicating our understanding of a child’s feelings, thoughts and needs without being overwhelmed or taking responsibility for them. This will be tough for parents who believe that parenting is simply about taking care of their child physically and not emotionally. Children with the best self-image have parents who validate their emotions. Consequently, these same children report feeling more connected and open with their parents. Some of the most effective parenting classes have at there root the concept of empathy. The philosophy is simple: You can’t harm a child if you are being empathic with a child. And the reverse is true as well: Your child will be more cooperative because he or she feels more connected.
Intimacy is rarely looked on as discipline. While it doesn’t negate the need for consistency and rules, homes without empathy get very little true cooperation. Oh, there is compliance, in the short term, but there is little cooperation. And there is little connection. Fortunately, empathy is a learned skill. It requires parents to do three things: give full attention, paraphrase a child’s words and reflect a child’s underlying feelings. With practice parents can use empathy to create a healthy, intimate relationship with their children.
Facing the Future Now:
If it is true that families today are experiencing greater stress than families of the past. This makes intimacy more challenging. More conscious effort on the part of parents to counteract this imbalance. While our technology might continue to progress, our relationships can continue to become more impersonal. True intimacy in families require parents to use the skills discussed here to be real with their children. This will require risk from both mom and dads. A change in attitude may be required that is different from how parents grew up. Traditional roles may need to be revised. TransPARENTcy is a skill that parents can practice to enhance family teamwork and connection.