By: Julie Beem
“I’m so strong that I could destroy this whole house.” His declaration was matter-of-fact, not launched as a threat but to gauge my response. “Really?” I responded, “why would you want to destroy my house?” “Because I’m powerful enough.”
Knowing that I was conversing with a child who has experienced trauma cued me to say what I thought he was fishing for (a safe, in-charge response). “Well, I’m strong enough not to let anyone destroy my house, because we have a safe home here.” I watched that message sink into his brain and saw his whole body relax. It was then that he was able to follow through on the request I had made of him “Sit down and eat your lunch.”
We actually had a smooth day, one that confirmed for me that therapeutic parenting works. I remained curious, accepting and present with him as he told me all kinds of things about his fears through his declarations of being “strong enough to____________.” (insert a negative action here.) And I remained structured by responding that my house was a safe home and that I didn’t let anyone destroy, burn down, choke or kill anyone or anything here. By late afternoon our conversations relaxed into what letter made the “s” sound in Salem and Sizzle (our cats’ names).
Then mom came to pick him up. Mom, a victim of trauma herself, understands what he’s going through but struggles to provide what he needs, especially maintaining a structured environment that feels safe for him. His behaviors trigger and overwhelm her. I’ve done my best coaching, and she’s got him in therapy. They’re trying, but….
He greeted her by throwing a rock at me and punching her in the stomach. So she was skeptical when I reported that we’d actually had a good day. There have been other days that I’ve watched him that haven’t been so good. I was able to pour in positive most of the afternoon. But on her return, the escalation had begun either sparked by transition, by fear of going home to a place of less structure or by an internal conflict of having let down his guard with me. His mom struggled to put his car seat in her car as he continued to hit and scratch her, so I reached for him. Mom, embarrassed by his behavior and concerned about me being scratched or bitten, protested as I pulled him off of her. I had forgotten how strong a dysregulated 4-year-old could be. I was finally able to scoop him up in my arms the way you’d hold an infant, even though he is a long, lanky preschooler. This move (because his mom was a great, nurturing mom to him as an infant) thankfully calmed him, and I began spinning around and changing the focus from his misbehaviors, by saying “Hey, friend, I loved watching Sesame Street with you today and talking about the letter “s” like in silly.” At this point his eyes sparked and he began to giggle. I continued to spin and match his smiling eyes.
This day confirmed for me, once again, that therapeutic parenting is the key. Curious, accepting, safe and structured, intentional and present, with dashes of sensory and movement – all worked for this little guy. But I am at a decided advantage over his mom not only because I’m more experienced at this type of parenting, but less emotionally involved or exhausted by the behaviors. As their car pulled away, I felt both hopeful at his responses and worried at whether he’ll get enough of what he needs to overcome the trauma. The same hope/worry we have for all our traumatized kiddos.