An important component in helping children regulate their emotions is to be able to feel, recognize and name their feelings. The first thing I suggest is a feelings chart:
Check in often, multiple times a day, with your child and help them understand that a feeling like anger can also be disappointment, frustration, jealousy and even hurt. Ask them what it feels like and where they feel it in their bodies. The more aware they are of feelings and sensations, the more alert they can be to use skills to help them maintain control or ask for help.
Anger can become an overwhelming feeling for children that struggle with anxiety because it’s based in fear. The following is one example of how to help children gauge the intensity of their feelings and associated behaviors. You can write on the lines what externalizing behaviors the child has and what is happening inside of their bodies. This helps the child and the parent to be able to intervene before an explosion occurs.
And finally, a book that provides a great lead in to discussing different levels of intensity and how to cope with anger. Another idea is to work with the child to come up with a coping skill they can use at each stage of the volcano scale.
It’s been six months since I’ve blogged last. There are so many reasons why I have procrastinated but I’m letting all those excuses go now. V has been home almost a year. We have transitioned her back into “real” life very slowly. She was home-schooled this past year, attends church youth activities, went to Girls camp for five days with the church, walks the dog, rides her bike around the neighborhood, spent a week at her Grandparent’s house. Those are just a few of the things that I can think of that she has never done. There is more trust although there is still a lot of work ahead. She is very regulated. No more rages or out of control behavior. If anything, she has gone the opposite direction and holds it all in. However, even in those cases, she is more willing to talk through her feelings.
She is more cooperative and willing. And yet, feeling connected in the relationship still struggles. I think we are both to blame for that. I’ve spent much of the past few months beating myself up about my resistance and then I realized, if I am willing to patient with her progress, I need to be patient with mine. There were many years of destructive behaviors on both sides of the relationship…it will take time to heal.
She will begin public school in fall in a self contained special ed classroom that works to slowly transition the kids into regular ed classrooms. She will be in 7th grade. I don’t know why this time around I am getting so much support from every school administrator I have spoken with. They have been so willing to understand me and set V up for success. I don’t know if seeing she has done 2 years in residential treatment suddenly gives me credibility…if so, it was a high price to pay.
I look forward to what the future brings, in whatever form it looks like. I just continue to pray for guidance, seek for strength, accept support and am constantly letting go and trying to be patient with the process.
“Limit setting has much to do with normal development conceived in terms of ego skills including frustration tolerance, delay of gratification, and impulse control” (A Freud). Awesome, right? That’s exactly what we want for our children that struggle with intense emotional dysregulation. So, especially for our older children, let’s add more limits. The problem is that normal development was derailed.
“Moral development depends on a sufficient amount of early attachment experiences that provide an enduring sense of safety” (Sandler)
Normal healthy development takes a predictable pattern where early childhood experiences find the child’s need for love and care being met. When this consistent pattern is in place, a sense of safety is provided. It is in this context of safety that a parent’s need for limit setting can be accommodated by the child and even sought after as child pursues their natural wish to explore their environment with a wish to be safe (Burlingham and Freud).
When children have experiences early in life where their need for love and care were not being met consistently, safety is jeopardized. Traumatized kids don’t look like they have wish to be safe. They often engage in high risk behaviors that are fueled by the fact that they don’t think someone else can provide them safety. And yet, often when we are looking to improve a child’s behaviors or help their moral development we are thinking in terms of limits instead of safety. However, when a child that has missed out on the crucial developmental milestone of trusting their needs to be met, will find it difficult, if not impossible to use those limits to improve their ego skills. I believe a sense of safety must be securely in place before a child will see those limits as a way to tolerate frustration, learn to delay gratification or help them with their impulse control. Again, these are all the things we need them to acquire to help them regulate their emotions.I think it’s intuitive with an older child to set limits, have rules, expectations, incorporate rewards and consequences but those that have raised children that suffer from early childhood trauma knows how frustrating this part of parenting can be, as the children don’t respond in a developmentally typical pattern. Just because a child, or even an adult, missed important developmental milestones, doesn’t mean they can be skipped or suddenly expected to work backwards. Certainly raising an older child, one is confronted with a more difficult task of creating a safe environment while recognizing appropriate limits.
My caution is simply this: it is often easier to just want to take care of the behavior rather than provide a enduring sense of safety. A feeling of security and safety must be established before we can expect a child to respond developmentally appropriately to limits and strengthen their moral development. This can take years. It’s also why early intervention is key and why we often make our children’s world so small (think infancy). Each time we put them in a situation they can’t handle, it compromises their feelings of safety. Once again, I am not saying limits are not needed, I am just suggesting that next time in a moment of frustration you want to impose more limits consider their need to feel safe. This is more than physical, it’s a psychological sense of safety that builds trust.
Sometimes it’s hard to ask for what we need or explain what we are feeling~it would be so nice if we walked around with signs instead of communicating through confusing behaviors. Sometimes things are not what they seem.
It would be so nice if we were more gentle with each other, recognizing that we are doing our best. But, I get impatient. I get hurt. I get demanding. I get frustrated. I suppose my best can look different every day but your’s can’t. I can see how I am at times unfair and terribly judgmental. It’s given me some things to focus and work on.
For one month I am going to try to look at each person I interact with as if they have this sign hanging around their neck. I’m going to see how it changes me.
In October 2011 we dropped off this very scared little girl who sought no comfort from the adults around her….
while my heart was breaking.
In October 2013, I picked up this young woman to bring her home. For Good.
Our hearts were tentative but vulnerable and brave and loving. Miracle for both of us.
wore size 6 jeans. When I brought her home at 13, she is wearing 14/16. Miracle.
V is more regulated, focused, motivated and sensitive than I have ever experienced. And so
am I. Miracle.
And without much practice, I can nearly do a perfect braid. Miracle.
So although I don’t know what tomorrow will bring and neither does she, we are
both learning to live in the present and enjoy the journey.
The transition home, while only a week, has been remarkable. Miracle.
The last Skype therapy session I had w/V focused mostly on her coming home and what that would look like in reality and not her fantasy expectations. It was a hard conversation but necessary in understanding how we were going to work together to make this successful. As we were wrapping up V’s final thought was, “Well, I will be leaving for college in a few years.”
I was shocked into silence. I thought, “Here we are talking about coming home and she’s already thinking about leaving again. In six years.” I was a little angry. And then a few days later I was talking to Jay about how we were going to manage having V back home and the conversation went to sending her to summer school and considering boarding schools. I was doing the exact same thing, just not in her face.
I think it’s a testament to how hard this transition feels for all of us already. We haven’t even been together, the plane for this journey hasn’t taken off and we are all thinking about the emergency exits. And I think that’s fair. We were all in a situation where we didn’t feel safe for a lot of years. I just hope my perspective can focus more on the horizon and less on the illuminated lights leading to the nearest emergency exit.
“Seven years ago I took my daughter out of an institution but the institution didn’t leave her. I am racked with torment visiting facilities that will once again put her in a place where no family exist.”
I wrote this two years ago while V sat in a psychiatric hospital. It was a very lonely and painful endeavor.
V will be coming home for good in 7 days.
I’m not very excited.
I am scared.
I am worried about how this will impact the boys.
I still am still sad and hurt by what I lived through with V.
I am not paralyzed by the uncertainty~I just know it’s not going to be easy.
Victoria didn’t “graduate” from her program. I honestly think she would need to be there for 5 years to address all of her issues. The facility didn’t recommend bringing her home ( they aren’t paying for it) but I knew it was time. I don’t know if it’s going to work but I do know she needs the opportunity to make relationships in her family work, grow spiritually and develop morally. These are three things that can really only be accomplished best in the walls of our home. The same walls that witnessed things no family should have to endure. What no little girl should ever have to experience.
But underneath all of this trepidation is a hope that has never ever left me. Not even on the nights when I sobbed in my bed as I hung on for the light to come, whether it was the sunrise or God’s presence. The things is, as I have walked this road, I can’t deny the presence of a Heavenly Father who has never forsaken me. I wish everyone could know of and experience Heavenly Father’s guidance, love and comfort. And a continuous hope from His Son.
V wasn’t the only one learning and changing over the past two years.
I have learned that inducing shame cannot ever provide lasting change and only brings momentary compliance.
I know that building relationships is not about perfection but forgiveness.
I know that we all have an innate need to feel connected and we often struggle to feel it, ask for it to be met or trust it.
I know not to get caught up in the content and focus on the emotions.
I know I will need a lot of support and have been blessed with family and friends who have been devoted and unfailing in their service.
I know that support will allow me nurture my other relationships in my family and not get sacrificed by V.
This isn’t all that I’ve learned but it’s all I can come up with tonight.
I am as excited to share the rest of this journey with you as I have been the last five or six years.
I’ve hired her former aide to home school V for as long as she needs. I am in no hurry to transition her into public school. While she is better regulated emotionally, she still struggles with relationships, especially peers. It is still hard work to get her to feel connected but she can get there. Her lack of trust in relationships still makes it hard to ask for her needs but she is working hard on that. She doesn’t rage, pee in random places, or destroy things. She still struggles with lying and feeling remorse. But she is more willing to work through her struggles and accept help from caregivers. So really in spite of my fear, trepidation, worry and sad~there is a part of me that is so hopeful for what is possible. And I know V and I are feeling the exact same things. It isn’t the first time we’ve been mirrors of each other.
I’ve decided to invite V to start blogging here with me and carefully and sensitively let her tell her story. Emotionally she is still very young but she is very smart and insightful. And she wants to tell her story. I’m hoping we will start this weekend.
Welcome to another chapter.
I feel like this will be my mantra this school year as I have one starting college, high school, middle school, my second year of graduate school and mostly, bringing Victoria home.
There is so much uncertainty in bringing her home…the unknown and the traumatic history want to freeze me in fear.
I feel like I dropped off a two year old and am picking up a five year old that scores in eighth grade math and tenth grade reading. Her high intellect and low emotional maturity continue to cause her to be challenging and perplexing.
The emotional support she will continue to need will be challenging for me. I will not be able to replicate the facility she is in. I don’t want to.
There has been tremendous growth in her and I since she has been gone. That isn’t to say that she doesn’t still have big struggles, she does. However, her ability (and mine) to manage them is so much better. It is this faith, that allows me to hope on.
I’m working on my next blog post which tries to capture what I’ve learned in the past two years. It has far more to do with connection than consequences. And everything to do with relationship, repair and empathy.
Sometimes, I am as scared as Victoria is when it comes to connection. I have good reason. And so does she.
It isn’t super helpful for her therapist to remind me that I am the adult and I’ve got to take the high road. I would rather she say, “You are the one that has to facilitate repair and connection. How can I help you get there?”
I sometimes get frustrated with myself that I still get annoyed and resentful. I am proud of myself that I don’t stay there. It really is about letting go of expectations, inviting acceptance and practicing empathy. And I’ll just keep going back there until I find myself never leaving.
V was home for almost 2 weeks. It reminded me of how much support she still needs and how I carry most of the burden.
And that scares me.
So what do I do with this fear?
This isn’t me but I’ve just recently learned the art of sculling. And I have found that it makes me very, very happy. It doesn’t take away V’s struggles but it clears my head. There is something so satisfying doing something for myself, using my body to navigate, feeling peaceful and serene and I can’t help but find God in the details. And those details remind me of his unrelenting grace so that it’s impossible for me not to feel empowered by Him. I can’t explain it but I feel it. I didn’t set out to learn to row as a spiritual experience but it’s become a beautiful benefit. I’m not that great with only five lessons under my bow but that’s not a prerequisite for satisfaction. And it’s on the Great Salt Lake, hardly the Charles River. And still the salt and brine flies are no deterrent.
So there are so many ways I’ve learned to overcome my fears of disconnection with V which include reducing my shame and finding things that make me genuinely happy. I have no idea how I happened upon this unlikely rowing club on the Great Salt Lake. I just know I need to keep looking for things to help me chase away the fear.
I’ve been reading a lot about grace, repentance, forgiveness, justice and mercy. It reminds me of the time in my life where I was reflecting on my need to forgive Victoria. I write about it my book, “Love Lessons”. How could it be that I needed to forgive a five year old? I have since learned and continue to learn that forgiveness has far more to do with me and my ability to love rather than the contingency of an apology that may or may not ever be given. When we refuse to forgive or accept forgiveness, we are choosing to withhold our love. When we fail to love, pride steps in and requires them to earn back our love. That is a steep price for a five year old. That’s a steep price for a fifty-five year old. And a what point do we finally consider them deserving? That is a dangerous judgment to be made by someone that is holding a lot of hurt and resentment. Because what happens, is that to protect ourselves we make it nearly impossible for mercy to be given because justice can never be served. And relationships stay broken.
For me, this has been the most difficult and thus the most rewarding lesson I have learned in my journey with V. It started with her and has been extended to others. The process is still hard because it hurts. But this is what I keep in mind. We are all here wired for connection. Despite our faults, defense mechanisms, fear, anger, and imperfections we want to love and feel loved. Our existence is refining us in relationships. So I know when I begin to feel disconnection in any of my relationships, I have got to figure out a way to maintain closeness. (I am certainly not talking about abusive or dangerous relationships. I’m talking about people that are stuck in a fear of vulnerability). And I can tell you that each time I have risked closeness, there in lies the opportunities for healing. And the possibility of getting hurt. But the hurt doesn’t disable me in anger or fear. I find a way to keep coming back because I trust in her potential, and I need our relationship and want her to be successful. I love her, deeply.
The problem is when their fear scares us, we become paralyzed and the relationship suffers. But I believe that what was broken in a relationship, must be repaired in a relationship. So I have got to be the one that models patience, grace, and empathy and in doing so, V begins to learn, patience, grace and empathy. It is not easy nor quick. I had to find out how to disarm my fear. This was a psychological process that was transforming when I worked with V’s therapist, Max. But it was also an intensely spiritual process where I really began to learn how having a very personal relationship with Christ could transform me in ways I never thought possible. I could see V as He does and know that He could take away my hurt. Not just for an occasional injustice in typical relationships but even for the chronic injustices with V. And I honestly believe, no matter how intentional it looks, V’s deepest desire is to feel love and have connection. It is not to intentionally make my life a living hell and for her misery to keep me company. Something is keeping her stuck there and I have been placed in her life to help her out. It is often a taxing burden and a heavy cost. And yet, how else would change and improvement take place in her or I if it were easy?
I have often said even if V never gets better, I am better because of her. And yet, she is getting better. Happiness has given way to anger. She isn’t destructive or out of control. She is more calm and focused. But she still struggles with relationships and needs a lot of support. And we have decided to bring her home in a few months. I have many worries I’m sure will show up over the next few weeks and months but I also have a lot of faith in my own growth and maintain hope for what is possible. And I know, without a doubt, she will continue to require from me grace, mercy, forgiveness and empathy which allow me to provide her the closeness that she needs to heal.