Has your child ever had a complete meltdown in the middle of the crowded grocery store, or at the air port, or in the school or any other place in which all eyes focused on you, your child, and every single choice you made became fodder for the judgment of others? Of course they have. Every kid does this at least once during toddlerhood. Every parent experiences the particular mortification of a child who is poorly behaved at the worst possible moment. Now imagine that tantrum or meltdown being the rule, while a calm and successful foray into public is the exception. Stressful much? Absolutely!
For parents of children who have survived trauma or have special needs, there are very few easy days. There are rarely quietly successful trips to the grocery store. There is no such thing as a low stress vacation. Any change in the routine is met with resistance from a child for whom the tasks of daily living are already pushing them to their emotional limits. Imagine, if you will, a frantic pounding on your front door at two o’clock in the morning. You wake from sleep and stumble to the door, already alarmed. You open the door to your accountant who yells that you are being audited by the IRS and you have to review the last five years of your tax returns immediately! Your heart is pounding, you feel anxious and a little afraid. In addition, you’re feeling extremely annoyed at having to focus on something you neither expected nor are you prepared to face. This is how our little survivors and our kids with autism and sensory processing or other daily struggles feel when we just spring it on them that we are going to run to the store, or swing by grandmas, or stay for an extra meeting at church. Suddenly they are entirely out of control and thrust into situations that are extremely stressful for them. As the parents of these remarkable little ones, it is up to us to help them navigate these treacherous situations and, more importantly, learn to manage the emotions and memories that trigger the problems in the first place. But where do we start?
Love. First, last and always we act with love. What that love looks likes depends on both the child and the situation. As you come to recognize the emotional triggers in your child, you will be better able to anticipate, prepare, and avoid them when possible. My survivor lived through years of near starvation. As such, it was vital to his emotional well being to know that there was always going to be enough for him to eat. We have a rather large extended family, and our gatherings often include potluck meals. I began to notice that he was acting out at these gatherings in ways that didn’t really make sense to me at the time. I finally realized he was so consumed with worry over not getting enough to eat that he wasn’t able to relax and enjoy the time with family. For many years I would bring an additional bag of food that he knew was in the car just in case he didn’t get full at the buffet. The bag had to stay in the car lest others unknowingly consumed his emergency food. This routine became our normal for nearly a decade.
While packing extra food helped to calm him, I knew it wasn’t a solution that would work for the remainder of his life. Thus, while implementing a strategy to remove his stress, we also talked a lot about why he was stressed, how to recognize the trigger, and how to behave appropriately when feeling this stress. Eventually he reached the point where he could say, “I’m worried about getting enough to eat, so I’m going to line up now.” He also learned to ask me to get my portion of foods I didn’t care for (I really don’t like bread), so that he could have two servings available to him. By noticing his trigger, implementing a plan that relieved the stress, and teaching him how to recognize and appropriately react to his trigger he was able to overcome the behaviors that were inappropriate and ineffective.
Unfortunately for parents, not every trauma induced behavior can be parented privately. Some behaviors must be dealt with in public. Kids who have never received consistent attention, may scream rather than speak when they need you. Kids who have never been allowed a treat may meltdown rather than ask. Kids who have been neglected or come from an orphanage may not know how to handle the stimulation of the grocery store or the disappointment of not being allowed to purchase everything that appeals to them. These behaviors must be parented in real time and often in ways that don’t make sense to those around you.
When your survivor is melting down about not getting the cereal in the bright blue box, she isn’t being a bratty entitled little twit who needs swift punishment. She certainly looks like a bratty little twit. She’s behaving like a poorly parented and spoiled child, but that isn’t where the behavior is coming from. You know it and that has to be enough. As her parent, you have to be able to parent the problem while you sometimes choose to ignore the behavior. You know that what is really happening in your child’s mind is a fear that she may not ever get the chance to see this bright blue box again, that she may not get to eat at all or, that she may not have enough and, ultimately, that she may not be loved and secure in her new environment. The behavior is secondary to the real problem. When you choose to stop, hold your child, reassure her and calmly explain why we don’t choose our food based on how pretty the box is it may seem odd to other parents.
When your child is melting down over not getting his way and just doesn’t understand why that behavior isn’t OK, you may need to have your own meltdown in public in order for him to really get it. This behavior seems odd to other parents. When you ignore the toy throwing and focus on the fear that triggered it, this may seem odd to other parents. In short, many of the best parenting choices and strategies employed in the parenting of children who have survived trauma may seem odd to other parents and, to be frank, you’ve just gotta not care about that. Unfortunately, people are going to be staring at you when your child behaves inappropriately in public, so you may as well just go with it and parent in the way that will bring the best results for your child.
Parenting the survivors of trauma is often very conspicuous and the best strategies may feel counter intuitive. Unfortunately, we live in a world wherein seemingly everyone has an opinion on how
you should be parenting your child. This is especially true in situations where your very public parenting of your child’s very public behavior problems doesn’t make sense to the average bystander. I found that having a reply prepared for those who were ready to criticize my parenting choices and offer advice regarding what I should try instead was key to being able to extricate myself from those conversations without becoming upset or embroiled in debate. My response of choice was to say, “That sounds like a great idea for a child who hasn’t had to survive trauma.” It’s vague enough to protect the private details of your child’s story, while simultaneously providing enough information to allow an understanding of your child’s situation. This statement is easily modified to “That sounds like a great idea for a neuro-typical child”, or “That sounds like a great idea for a child with a traditional learning style.”
Finally, when you see another parent struggling through those moments you have lived with your little ones, offer love and support. An understanding smile goes a long way with the parent of a special needs child. A “You’re doing a great job” can brighten the darkest day of an overwhelmed mother. Let’s be there for one another. Let’s be more vocal in our support of one another than those who so freely offer criticism. From one conspicuous parent to another, please remember: You’ve got this. It is possible. It gets easier. You can do it. You are not alone. And it is absolutely worth it.