Weaving family relationships with a child who has experienced trauma requires a well-stocked parenting toolbox. Unlike Dominoes which always fall in predictable directions when nudged, children sometimes respond to a technique and sometimes they do not. A successful strategy may be effective for a while or only intermittently, and may lose effectiveness over time. Thus, variety is desirable.
This blog continues the thread of simple strategies to address trauma-related responses. For a child who has received unwanted or inappropriate touch, it may be challenging to distinguish and respond to safe, appropriate and loving touch.
Dr. Karen Purvis suggests in The Connected Child, that parents initially limit their hugs to a one-armed embrace. Avoid the full-on bear hug which can trigger feelings of being overwhelmed or under another’s control. Instead, limit your hug to a one-armed side-by-side snuggle. This provides a clear and easy exit-point for a child who feels over-whelmed with body-to-body closeness. For some traumatized children, a hug can conjure painful memories of uninvited and inappropriate touch.
As parents, we must convey to our children that physical touch should always feel appropriate and optional. The choice is the child’s. He gets to decide if and when he is open to being touched—on his timeline and on his level of intensity. Intimacy must be welcome and requires a level of trust that invites and supports the child’s ability to be vulnerable.
Shape other kinds of touch with similar consideration for your child’s readiness to trust and ability to be open to it. Dr. Purvis suggests that parents initially limit touching by using only one hand; this reduces the likelihood that the touch will trigger a feeling of threat or overwhelm and lessens the chance your child would feel boxed in and threatened. (Remember, in the face of “threat”, the body’s natural response is fight, flight or freeze—an intense interaction that is unpleasant for your child and you.
Another ingredient can be added to your recipe for creating safe touch. Consider bending down to be on eye level instead of looming over your child like a judge in the courtroom. Many children find it difficult, even overwhelming to have eye contact with others. Allow your child to choose. Insisting on eye contact can set up an adversarial relationship. Since relationship is the route to attachment, it is important to maximize the positive interactions and limit the negatives.
Emotional Bonfires—Water Daily
Many of us who parent children who have experienced trauma, neglect, abuse or abandonment have experienced their hair-trigger emotions. Reasoning is futile; parent and child are caught in a tornado of emotions. (In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goldman calls this an emotional high-jacking.) Once the storm is launched, it must run its course as adrenalin, the chemical that is fueling this fight-or-flight surge must burn itself out. Neither child nor parent enjoys this fury; it leaves drained, discouraged and a bit disconnected. Reducing or avoiding these painful interactions benefits the entire family.
Dr. Karen Purvis, in her book The Connected Child, asserts there is a direct connection between fight or flight and intense emotional outbursts. For kids who have experienced trauma, neglect or abuse, their systems are constantly vigilant. In the past, it was essential to keep their guard up. Their survival depended on it. Retraining them to trust others to provide safe relationships and safe environments will be a lengthy process. In the meantime, Dr. Purvis suggests several strategies.
Avoid thirst and hunger. These two basic needs activate the body’s defense mechanism flashing the message: danger is afoot. Traumatized kids have super-sensitive survival settings, so it takes very little to activate a dramatic response. Adrenalin, designed to power physical flight, surges. If not expressed in physical action, a tidal wave of emotion explodes until the chemical energy is consumed.
Keep your child well hydrated and provide healthy snacks and meals at predictable intervals. By avoiding hunger and thirst, the emergency message never gets broadcast in the first place. Even one less outburst avoided is a huge benefit for the child, the parent and for their mutual relationship.
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