In the world of adoption, we hear a lot about grief, loss, trauma, and emotional triggers. As parents how do we deal with this complicated emotional stew? How do we support our kids, help move them through to the other side, back to a place of calm and security? How do we manage our own emotion during and after raw emotional exchanges?
This anecdote from my own life may be a useful metaphor and might offer a bit of insight. My loud yelping puzzled my mini schnauzer the other night. Leg cramps jerked me awake with excruciating, unrelenting intensity. It felt as if the muscle might tear completely away from the bone. The pain left me breathless and momentarily paralyzed.
I knew that standing offered the only way to release the cramp. A tangle of sheets held me in place. I struggled to activate my ability to move by intention instead of reaction. But the pain held me in its grip. Intellectually I knew how to end the cramp. Yet in that moment I was completely out of my logical, executive-functioning brain locked ticht in the GRIP of the primitive response of my reptilian brain.
We've all been in similar situations where we had pertinent knowledge and a viable option but instead chose a different, response because that resonated with our emotions at that moment. Perhaps we picked a fight with our spouse or piled consequence on top of consequence, on top of consequence to a defiant, unrepentant teenager. All of us can remember an example of such emotional upheaval. Truth is toddlers aren't the only ones who fall prisoner to the meltdown.
Tune in to an example of your own personal meltdown. (Doesn't have to be recent, just memorable.) Not your proudest moment, right? Dive into the memory and recall how you felt, what you said and the emotional fallout that ensued. Clearly, it left a mark because you can still recall it. Imagine how this same event might be stored in the memories of the people with whom you shared the moment.
My point is this: in the throes of an emotional hijacking, self-control is not easily accessed. Children like ours who have experienced trauma can find themselves caught in one of these emotional maelstroms. Begun not by intent, but by something that rockets out of the periphery and then slams like a foul ball into their guts. Like the unexpected and unwelcome cramp that jerked me awake, our kids can be caught unaware, yanked from the present moment by triggers they never saw coming. Paralyzed. Haunted. Panicked. Perhaps it is a smell, a song, a gesture, a traumaversary recognized only by their subconscious memory.
They don't see it coming. We don't see it coming. But like when a comet strikes the earth, the devastation spreads deep and wide. Nothing nearby survives unscathed.
Now that we have some insight about meltdowns, we can see that often it is not a matter of their unwillingness to comply and more a matter of their inability to comply at that moment. How do we help them in the moment?
We must bring our calm to the fore. Avoid responding with matching emotional intensity. (That simply adds fuel to an already overwrought situation.) Resist the temptation to debate or rationalize. Their thinking brain is off-line. We must keep ours engaged. Save the discussion until calm has been restored. Hold off on deciding consequences too. Take the time to decide what is appropriate, proportionate, and effective. Remember the goal of discipline is to teach not to punish. Delay the conversation, but do definitely have it.
To come full circle, I did manage to claw my way out of bed and onto my feet. The cramp released. I was deeply grateful. We all know how good it feels to walk through pain and get through it. As parents, we have a chance to help our children master the process.