Trauma Doesn't Tell Time

Many frustrated parents regretfully feel as though all of the years that their child has spent in their safe, loving home has not made much of a positive impact on the child. This can leave parents feeling bewildered and incompetent. When I talk with parents about how their child’s behaviors are being driven by their earliest life experiences, many are overwhelmed by that idea that everything they have done to provide a safe and loving family has not helped their child let go of those earliest traumas. Despite years of “safe mom” behaviors, the child’s brain still believes “moms aren’t safe” or “moms leave.” Despite years of never going hungry, a full pantry, and never being told “no” to food, the child’s brain still believes “I’ll never get food again” or “Hungry = Starving”. Parents start to feel hopeless and helpless. When will the child FINALLY believe they are safe? Not going to go hungry? Parents feel justifiably skeptical when I attempt to convince them that their 9 year-old child’s meltdown over being told “no” to a snack right before dinner triggers the part in their brain that believes “I’ll never get food again.” How can this be possibly true when the child has not gone without food for seven years AND mom is in the middle of cooking dinner- an obvious sign that food will be plentifully available very shortly.

Traumatic experiences, even the earliest and preverbal traumatic experiences, remain stored in our children’s brains. The normal information processing system that stores memories in the appropriate places in our brain is thwarted by the cascade of hormones and neurochemicals that are released during a traumatic or frightening experience. The memory- along with the images, feelings, and body sensations, remain literally frozen in their nervous system.

We have two types of memories

Simply because things cannot be RECALLED doesn’t mean they are not REMEMBERED by your child’s brain and body. Implicit memory describes how all your child’s memories were stored before 18 months, and most of the memories before 3. Implicit memory includes emotions and body sensations. Your nine-year-old may not recall being left all alone as a small infant but his body REMEMBERS the fear, terror and lonliness when he was all alone, believing no one would ever come back. For experiences that happen past age 3, explicit and implicit memory is BOTH involved with experiences and events. Explicit memory is what we are usually talking about when we talk about memories. Explicit memories are recalled. It’s the image we bring into our head when we think about last Christmas or what we ate for lunch yesterday. When implicit and explicit memory work together, we smile slightly at the positive feelings the memory brings to our body, and we can create a visual image of the memory. Implicit data is stored in our limbic brain (emotion brain)- the same part of our brain responsible for fight/flight/freeze. Our body holds implicit memories even before explicit memory is working. Newborns and even fetuses have experiences encoded into implicit memories. They can’t recall those experiences but they remember them.

Explicit memory is autobiographical. This is the part of our memory that helps us be oriented to time and place. If explicit and implicit information is appropriately connected, then when you recall your favorite family Christmas at Grandma Smith’s home because you smell homemade cinnamon rolls, your brain instantly knows that Christmas is a memory- it isn’t happening RIGHT NOW. If Christmas at Grandma Smith’s house had not been fully integrated and appropriately stored in your memory processing system, you may be triggered by the sweet smell of cinnamon rolls and your body may feel as though Christmas is happening NOW.

During traumatic experiences, implicit and explicit information may not be linked appropriately. The implicit data does not connect to the explicit data. And (here’s the REALLY important part) this implicit data that isn’t connected IS NOT ALTERED BY LATER LIFE EXPERIENCES. This means that all those years in your safe home does not impact implicit information that isn’t connected to the explicit information. When an implicit memory is triggered and there is no explicit memory to help it understand time and place, your child’s body literally feels like the experience is happening RIGHT NOW.

Trauma doesn’t tell time.  When it gets triggered, it doesn’t have access to information that tells your child “Hey! That happened a long time ago! You are safe now!” Trauma seizes your child’s body in the moment and thrusts them back into those terrifying times when the trauma was happening. This happens in milliseconds.

So, trauma momma, cut yourself some slack! You are not responsible for the disconnect in your child’s implicit and explicit memories. It isn’t fair that your child’s years in your family have not impacted their implicit memories, but it’s also not your fault, or your child’s fault. The silver lining here is that it is very possible, with the right help and support, for implicit and explicit memories to get linked up and for those earliest memories to be stored in the right spot in their brain.

~Robyn Gobbel, LCSW

www.GobbelCounseling.com/blog

Dear Trauma Momma,

Dear Trauma Momma,

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You didn’t sign up for this.  When you chose to parent a child who experienced trauma, you didn’t know it would result in you experiencing your OWN version of trauma.  You didn’t know that when your child survived a horrific trauma and his physical body healed that his mind would be forever scarred by the impact of trauma. 

You didn’t know how isolating this journey would be.  Or that you’d have to relearn how to parent.  That all your parenting instincts would be almost worthless.  You didn’t know that no one would believe you.  That your child would be loved by everyone else, and you’d get emails and school reports, and even THERAPIST reports that exclaimed about how wonderful your child is, how charming, and resilient- how much that person just enjoyed being with your child.  You didn’t know that instead of beaming with pride that you would feel a frustrated, invalidated, alone, and even crazy.  “Maybe my child IS wonderful and I’M the one with the big problem.”                        

You didn’t know how hard it would be to go out in public.  Or have a date with your partner because your child cannot be left with a baby-sitter.  You didn’t know how much money you’d spend on therapy, OT, books, medications, and trainings. 

You didn’t know that when the flight attendants spoke to the passengers, and no one is even listening, that who they are REALLY speaking to is YOU, trauma momma.  You, who really does need to “put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting others.”  You didn’t know that parenting trauma is an invitation- no a DEMAND- to focus inward, love yourself, and heal yourself- because only after you put on your OWN oxygen mask can you assist others.

~Robyn Gobbel, LCSW

 www.GobbelCounseling.com/Blog

Helping Kids through Traumatic or Hard Moments

Difficult events are a part of childhood. We can’t – and shouldn’t try – to protect our kids from everything! Sometimes kids experience BIG hard moments, like a death, divorce, surgery, or major car accident. Sometimes kids experience hard moments that don’t seem traumatic to the adults but are overwhelming for the child. But not every single hard moment needs a trip to the therapists office! There are a lot of things you can do at home to help you child after he’s experienced a traumatic or hard moment.

I’ve created a four part video series on helping our kids through the hard moments. Today’s short video will give you five reasons why it’s important to help you child develop a narrative or story about the hard moment. I’ll release three additional videos this week.  Video 2 will help you out with what you need to include in the story for your child. Video 3 will give an example of creating a short story with stuffed animals- a great way to help a young child make sense of a hard moment. Video 4 will give you an example of creating a longer narrative or story of a hard moment- appropriate for a young school age child.

As a reminder- these videos are suggestions only! If you child has experienced a significant trauma or ongoing trauma, such as abuse, neglect, or domestic violence, then consulting with a therapist is probably your best bet. Some therapists will want to see your child. Some may be able to consult with you about the trauma and empower you to help your child without your child coming into the office. I do both types of work with clients!

~Robyn Gobbel, LCSW

Is Adoption Trauma?

I met a man today and we struck up a casual conversation. He asked about the types of clients I see. I responded that I mostly work with kids who need help with attachment and trauma, as well as adoption. He responded, “Is adoption trauma?”

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To be honest, that’s a difficult question to answer when engaged in a conversation with a stranger. The situation was such that I would continue to encounter this man on a regular basis and I wanted to remain friendly.

But, is adoption trauma?

Trauma: An overwhelming experience that has potential negative impacts on an individual in the moment and in the future. {From: Siegel, Daniel J. (2012-04-02). Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) (p. 506). Norton. Kindle Edition.}

Babies can hear noises outside the womb by around 20 weeks gestation. They learn about the flavor of breast milk through the amniotic fluid. Their brains are neurochemically prepped to enter into the world that they were expecting. Newborn infants are completely helpless, 100% dependent on the care of their mother for survival. When their mother is absent- the mother they had heard for 20 weeks, the mother who they were expecting to taste- does that child experience a trauma?

Trauma is subjective. Two people can experience the same event and for one it will be traumatic and for the other it will not. We could both endure the same earthquake and I could be left with symptoms of PTSD while you could integrate that experience without difficulty. So, for me the earthquake was trauma and for you the earthquake wasn’t.

So, is adoption trauma?

For many adopted children and adults, it is. I have worked with children as young as four who are reeling from the traumatic grief of being separated from their mother. I have seen third graders sob uncontrollably, missing the mother she never knew. I have heard 11-year-old children adopted at birth describe a visceral feeling of being given away and second best. And I have worked with, and been friends with, adults adopted a birth who absolutely identify with having experienced a deep trauma at the moment they lost their biological mother. Luckily, my experiences with children grieving for their mothers is that they are brought to my office by attuned and loving adoptive parents who seek out a therapist who deeply understands the wounds in adoption. These children have had their wounds honored; their trauma is not minimized. There are many children whose loving and well-meaning parents are unaware of the trauma of adoption. There are too many therapists who are unaware of the trauma of adoption. And there are too many adopted children and adults whose difficulties are minimized, marginalized, labeled as “the angry adoptee.”

I am not anti-adoption. I hope this is obvious to my readers. My entire career is devoted to understanding adoption and helping those who are touched by adoption (over 60% of the population, by the way). We can support ethical adoptions and still acknowledge that adoption is trauma. Simply because it is not trauma to all doesn’t mean that it is not trauma.

I told the man I met that yes, adoption can be trauma. He then told me that he has two adopted children! We talked for a bit about their struggles. He was open to new thoughts and ideas, and acknowledged that one of his children seemed to have some difficulties related to adoption, despite the fact that he and his wife were present for his birth. He gladly accepted an invitation to attend Adoption Knowledge Affiliates and I equipped him with a booklist so he could begin exploring the thoughts of adoptees. He was grateful.

~Robyn Gobbel, LCSW

You must jump out of the trauma tornado

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If you live with a child who has experienced trauma, you know exactly what I mean by the Trauma Tornado. The trauma tornado starts with the traumatized child- with a child who is overwhelmed, scared, confused, and fearful of death. And the child quickly sucks in everyone in his path. The trauma tornado might have started before your child was born. The trauma tornado may have started WHEN your child was born, if her birth was traumatic or overwhelming. The trauma tornado may have started before your child came to live with you. It may have been set on its course when your child lost her mother in an infant adoption. Or when your child spent months in an orphanage in another country. Or when your child spent the first three years of her life with a mother or father who simply just could not take care of her- due to domestic violence, substance abuse, or any other myriad of reasons. Something set the trauma tornado on its path…and you were in the way!

It is impossible not to get sucked into the trauma tornado. When you live with a child whose entire inner world is chaos due to the impact of trauma, that child will create chaos on his outer world. You see, our inner and outer world’s like to match. Some parents and children spend years and years in this horrific cycle of the trauma tornado. My mentors at the Attachment & Trauma Center of Nebraska came up with a brilliant and succinct way to describe this cycle: scared child looks scary to the parents, who feel scared and act in a way that scares the child.

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What on earth does that even mean? I said it was brilliant and succinct right?

When children act-out, there is fear driving the behavior. Lying child? “It’s not safe to tell the truth.” Stealing child? “I cannot trust others to meet my needs.” Physically Aggressive Child? “My life is in danger.” These behaviors are scary to parents who start to feel their own scared. “I’m raising a pathological liar.” “My child is a juvenile delinquent destined to a life of crime.” “My child is going to hurt me.”

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Just like when scared children don’t act very nicely, scared parents don’t act very nicely, either.

Believe me, I’ve been there. And I don’t even have a child who has experienced severe trauma. But I have had the “I am raising an ax-murderer!” feeling and I can promise you, my behavior that followed was not pretty.

This is the trauma tornado. And like all negative cycles, it MUST be broken in order for healing and change to begin. Unfortunately, it’s simply impossible to ask the traumatized child to hop out of this tornado. As parents, we must jump out first.

What does jumping out look like? We have to identify our fears and replace them with true thoughts.

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I wish I could tell you that you will only have to do this once and the cycle will magically be over! Unfortunately, the trauma tornado is strong and will need you to jump out over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and well…..you get it. You already know that this tornado is exhausting. Jumping out of it is no different.

~Robyn Gobbel, LCSW

Review from Beyond Consequences Live- Austin

I sat down with the intention of writing a coherent article based on my notes from the AM session of Beyond Consequences LIVE last Friday with Heather Forbes. BUT I think I like this blog post better with just the random bullet points of notes I took in the morning (unfortunately I had to leave in the afternoon to present at a conference down in San Marcos).

We are asking the WRONG question. It isn’t about HOW DO I GET THIS BEHAVIOR TO STOP in needs to be about:

  • What is driving my child’s behavior?
  • What Can I do at this VERY moment to improve my relationship with my child.

    • This creates connection, safety, regulation, and relationship
    • Sends the message to the child that “I’m still going to be connected to you no matter how you act.”

The behavior your child is exhibiting today is a reflection of what has happened in the past.

Even though you can move the child out of the trauma, you cannot move the trauma out of the child.

How does trauma come out? Bad behavior!

There is no such thing as a good orphanage! Some are better than others, but an orphanage is not the family.

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The family is the change agent, not the medicine, not the therapy. The FAMILY.

There is a difference between healing and behavioral change. Patterned, rhythmic, and repetitive experiences with a loving and regulated caretaker will calm the brain.

Children should be in FAMILY therapy. If anyone goes into INDIVIDUAL therapy it should be the parent. Very few of us were raised with good emotional attuned so WE HAVE TO LEARN!!

When we are dysregulated we seek sugar, fat, and salt.

Trauma is unpredictable. So if something happens that they are not planning, to that kid that means DANGER! Something bad is going to happen.

Be present with your dysregulated child and just offer your presence. SIT DOWN. Be at their level. Being above a child’s level can increase the fear. Slow down your voice. When you get stressed out the hard-drive doesn’t work as well and you need to slow down the processing.

Stop looking for the outcome. Even if the outcome doesn’t change, at least you aren’t yelling and that’s better, right?

Pretty good stuff, huh?

~Robyn Gobbel, LCSW

When it is HARD to like your Child of Trauma

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This someecard is funny and cute. And if you are parenting trauma you WISH that all your child did ‘wrong’ was draw on the walls and shave the dogs. But there is an important take-away message here.

Did you know that you can release calming and loving chemicals in your brain simply by conjuring up a memory? Take a moment to go back in time to when a romantic relationship was just beginning. Your brain was flooded with lots of happy, loving, feel-good chemicals during those early days and weeks of a new romantic relationship. If you really put yourself back into that time…bring up a vivid picture, remember the feelings inside your body, the sounds, the smells…and your brain will actually start releasing those SAME chemicals that it did way back when.

When it’s hard to love your kid (and be rest assured- when you are a trauma mama it is sometimes HARD to love your kid) you can actually conjure up some of those early feelings just by thinking about early, loving memories.

Some ideas:

  • Remember the moment you first ‘met’ your child. For adoptive parents, this might be the moment you received a photo. Or it may be the moment you physically met. For biological parents, this might be the moment you learned you were pregnant. Or it might be the moment your child was born.
  • Remember an experience of sweet, loving, connection.

The trick here is to really remember. Spend some time having a full body memory. Use all of your senses. Bring up a picture. Remember what you could see, hear, smell, and what your body felt like. Remember smiling at your child. What that felt like in your face. The warm and tingly feelings in your chest, your cheeks, and your eyes.

ENJOY THIS FEELING.

This feeling will not clean up the walls (or the window that was broken, because our kids don’t just write on walls…) but it will calm your body down, release chemicals in your brain that are GOOD for you and your health, and provide a small safety net for the relationship with your child that may be deteriorating….slowly or quickly.

****After thought**** As I was proofreading this article, I received an email with jpeg attachments that I needed to download and view. Viewing the jpegs required that I go to the gallery on my tablet that I haven’t looked at in a LONG time. Looking for my attachments, I found some photographs of my now seven-year-old when he was about 14-months-old. I literally stopped what I was doing, my entire body and brain slowed down, and I smiled ear to ear as I slowly looked through photos I haven’t seen in a long time. Then I remembered that I was supposed to be looking for my attachments. And then I realized that I just had the experience that I described above. Just looking at those photos, really feeling the memory and enjoying my smiling baby with my whole body, opened my heart, slowed me down, and lifted my mood.

4 Quick Ways to Calm your Overwhelmed Child

I humbly admitted to my class the amazing mommas in my Facilitating Attachment in Children Training class that sometimes I’m a little slow to catch on.  How long do I have to teach tools to kids and families before I finally bring them home to my 6-year-old?

Two things commonly stress out my son.  Homework and practicing piano.  Thankfully, homework battles are few and far between.  He attends a school that shares my philosophy on the amount and type of homework appropriate for young children.  However, we do still have the occasional resistance to homework.  More commonly, we have tantrums over the piano.  In the last week, I have taken my own advice and implemented four very easy solutions to bring down the overwhelming feelings that start to creep up (or sometimes they explode up!) during stressful situations, like homework or piano.

1.        Take a seat.  With him.  Often times, if I will just stop sorting laundry or put down the email and simply sit next to him, the overwhelm factor decreases.  He doesn’t need my input, and actually doesn’t really want me to say anything.   But simply sitting next to him gives him the sense that he’s not alone. 

2.       Bubble gum!  My son loves minty gum, but I keep double-bubble in my office for kids because it’s SO dense and hard to chew- it takes effort!  The chewing and deep pressure that comes along with this tough bubble gum is instantly regulating for the anxious or overwhelmed child.

3.       Lollipops! Sucking can be just as calming as chewing!  Yummy Earth makes great organic lollipops.  Imagine!  Homework time is already 1000 times for appealing!  There is gum and lollipops involved!

4.       Get those legs moving!  Taking gross motor breaks can be lifesaving.  I have started encouraging my kiddo to hop off the bar stool and hop onto his scooter in the front yard.  Since we live in Texas, we can take outside gross motor breaks even in February!  Taking a bike break or running laps around the house are equally as effective.  Have a trampoline?  Great idea!

I don’t mean to give you the impression that we now have grumble-free piano practicing and smooth-sailing homework time.  Not the case!  But, when I remember to use these ideas, overwhelming situations are easier to get through.  Eventually, your child will remember and ask for these calming tactics themselves.

~ Robyn Gobbel, LCSW

The RELATIONSHIP is my client

I’ve been writing this article in my head for about a week now, but all of that derailed today after I had a discussion (on Facebook nonetheless!) with another therapist about the counseling profession’s reluctance to bring parents into the therapy room. Carol Lozier is crafting her own article about this very topic so I don’t want to stray too far down that path (I’ll definitely share the link to her article once it gets published!) but I do have some thoughts that I wanted to put onto paper.

It isn’t uncommon for a family to seek therapy with me after they have already received counseling from another therapist. For most parents, this means that they sat outside in the waiting room while their child was in the therapy room. Some parents get a quick five or ten minute check-in with the therapist. They are the lucky ones. Other parents tell me they went months without talking to the therapist alone. For so many families, seeking therapy is a scary and daunting experience. Even when a parent’s gut tells them they should be more involved with the therapy, they oftentimes just ‘do what the therapist says…she’s the expert.’ I make it very clear on the initial phone call I have with a parent that working with me means that I work with the whole family. In fact, except in a few very select, specific, special circumstances, I almost never see a child alone in my office. Certainly there are instances when the therapeutic goals are best achieved doing individual therapy with a kiddo, but in general I expect to be doing the majority of our work together with the child and parents. Every single parent I have ever talked to is relieved by this. Parents WANT to be more involved!

Regardless of the symptoms (explosive behavior, big worries, sensory processing disorder, defiance, etc. etc. etc.) most of the kiddos in my office have experienced some sort of early childhood trauma. This could be a BIG trauma, like abuse, neglect, foster care, or orphanage care. Or, this could be a little trauma, like moving, entering daycare, or losing a favorite babysitter. Sometimes the “trauma” is something the family never considered, such as a traumatic birth or medical procedure. Big, little, or overlooked…sometimes trauma gets stuck and comes out looking like the symptoms I described (explosive behavior, big worries, defiance, etc.). Childhood trauma is best processed with a safe, secure attachment figure. This is YOU, the parent, not ME the therapist!! So there’s reason number one I keep parents in the room.

The second, very important reason? Childhood trauma disrupts attachment! Even if the trauma had nothing to do with the attachment relationship, it can still disrupt attachment as oftentimes children perceive the trauma as a loss of safety and security in the world. And a loss of safety and security is usually erroneously blamed on the parent/attachment figure, as they are the ones (in the child’s eye) who are supposed to provide for the child’s safety and security! Of course, most of my clients have experienced attachment trauma, such as abuse or neglect. In those circumstances it is absolutely crucial that their attachment trauma be processed within the context of a safe, secure attachment figure.

So, when I work with a family, the RELATIONSHIP is my client. Not the child, not the parent. The RELATIONSHIP. Attachment and trauma work is a dance. Heal trauma, heal attachment, heal trauma, heal attachment…back and forth, back and forth. I have yet to figure out how I can heal attachment and facilitate this important dance if the parent sits in the waiting room J

I want to emphasize again that certainly there are times when it is appropriate to see a child without their parent in the room. But when parents and other therapists ask why I almost never, ever see a child without their parent in the room, my primary answer is “The RELATIONSHIP is my client.”

~Robyn Gobbel, LCSW

Attunement for Attachment

Attunement (noun): being or bringing into harmony; a feeling of being "at one" with another being. 

Think about the strongest relationships in your life.  The person you call when you really need someone who gets it.  How do you know they “get it?”  What is special about those relationships?  How does that relationship make you feel?  Chances are, that person doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to fix anything.  Or arguing.  Or convincing you that it “really isn’t that big of a deal.”  That person just listens.  Says “Oh, you must be really hurting.”  Provides a safe space for you to fully experience your feelings, and allows for those feelings to just be experienced and held.  Attunement validates our inner world, providing a solid foundation for the development of a positive identity and sense of self. 

Attunement supports attachment. 

Imagine your child is upset because you are out of his favorite lunch.  “I want macaroni and cheese!”  he wails.  You don’t have macaroni and cheese and there’s not much you can do about it.  It’s easy to respond with “We’re out, I’m sorry.  What would you like instead?”  But as you’ve noticed, this may lead to your child kicking and screaming on the ground, in despair over the missing blue box.  How about responding with “I know- I know you want macaroni and cheese.  It’s so disappointing.”  Or remember a time when your child came running in the front door with muddy shoes, carrying a bunch of weeds plucked from your hasn’t-been-mowed-in-several-months front yard.  It’s natural to respond with “HEY!  Your muddy shoes!!  Don’t come one step further!  Look at the mess you are making!”  But what if you said “Oh Johnny!  You picked those just for me!  Thank you!  That was so thoughtful!  And oh my!!  Your shoes are so muddy!  Let’s head back outside with those muddy shoes!” 

Attunement.  To join our child on their inner journey.  Your child isn’t thinking about your freshly mopped floors.  He just picked you a beautiful plant from your yard and wants to share it with you.  This doesn’t mean we gracefully accept muddy footprints all over our freshly mopped tile.  It simply means that before tending to your dirty tile, you take a moment to join in with your child’s wonderment and excitement.  To tell our child “I get it!  You’re so excited and I understand.   Your feelings are worth it and they are more important than my tile.”  And then maybe you can both fill a bucket with water and have some fun with the suds. 

Sometimes our adopted children have big feelings.  Big feelings that are a little scary- scary for your child and scary for you when you hear your child express them.  Feelings like “I hate it here!  I look different and don’t fit in with any of you!”  Or feelings like “She gave me away!  She didn’t love me!”  As parents, we want to reassure our children, to fix their feelings.  We say something like “We love you!  We don’t care that you look different!  I love your dark hair and your beautiful skin!  You fit in here with us because we love you.”  Or “She did love you!  She loved you enough to know she couldn’t parent you and wanted to find you a family who could take good care of you.”   When we meet our children’s feelings with contradiction, they feel misunderstood and invalidated.  Instead, we should mirror our children’s feelings and join in their journey and validate their feelings.  The next time your child expresses grief over her adoption, try responding with “You look different than us and feel like you don’t fit in.”  Or “You are so mad that your first mom gave you away and think that she didn’t love you.”   By hearing you reflect back what she has expressed, your child feels heard and understood. She can then begin to process and work through those feelings, and your relationship strengthens because she is learning that you “get it.” 

Attunement Decreases Difficult Behaviors

Attunement also means taking a close look at our children’s “misbehaviors.”  Is your toddler tantrumming because she is hungry, tired, or overwhelmed?  Is your preschooler whining because she misses feeling connected to you?  Is your teenager being sassy because she’s having a fight with her BFF and is overwhelmed with feelings about losing her friendship?  Attunement doesn’t mean we tolerate negative behaviors; attunement means that first we consider the source of the behavior and then tend to that pain. 

Attunement Lays the Foundation for Attachment

Why bother?  Why is attunement important?  Think about how a newborn baby develops a healthy attachment with her caregiver.  Baby sleeps.  Baby cries.  Caregiver tends to cry and fixes problem.  Baby is consoled.  Baby is happy and enjoys quiet, playful time with caregiver.  Repeat.  Again and again.  This cycle of attunement- where the caregiver recognizes, understands, and then consoles- is the very foundation of attachment.  Our older kids certainly have more complex needs than infants, and attunement can be much more difficult.   However, true attunement with our older children will encourage the same healthy foundation of secure attachment.

  ~Robyn Gobbel, LCSW

Common Symptoms of Trauma in Children

Parents always have their radar up after their child goes through something like 9-11, moving due to a hurricane, or a death or divorce in the family.  But oftentimes we forget about the smaller hard moments that may impact our children more than we expected.  Things like dog bites, stitches, tonsillectomies, bullies, fender-benders, falling off the monkey bars, changing schools or losing their favorite baby-sitter. Most kids get through these hard moments with a little extra TLC from their parents. 

But how do we know if a child needs extra help?

Play- Themes of the trauma in your child’s play and it seems frantic, driven, and does not reach a resolution or appear to bring your child any relief.

Sleeping and Eating- Dramatic changes in your child’s sleeping and eating patterns.

Emotions- Bigger than usual emotional responses, like becoming angry or scared very quickly or having longer and more intense temper tantrums.

Changes in personality- Outgoing children may become shy and withdrawn.  Easy going children may become agitated and hard to please.  

Somatic complaints- Complaints of tummy aches or headaches. 

ADHD symptoms- Being very active, having an excess of body energy, and having difficulty concentrating. 

Excessive talking- Children talk ‘a mile a minute’ and may ask what seems like a million nonsense questions that they already know the answer to. 

Checking out- Staring off into space or having a blank look in her eyes.  Increase in reading a book or playing video games.

Regressing- Behaviors you thought they left behind in their toddler-years.  Thumb sucking, bedwetting, or baby-talk.

Becoming preoccupied or obsessed- Constantly talking about the event and not appearing to achieve any relief. 

School symptoms- Difficulty concentrating, harder time finishing a task, being off task, excess energy and moving around the classroom, difficulty feeling ‘settled.’

Exaggerated startle reflex- A cupboard closing or a toilet flushing may cause your child to startle. 

Fatigue, daydreaming, and isolation

Nightmares

If you notice any of the above symptoms and behaviors, your child may have gone through a ‘hard moment’ and need some support returning to a state of calm and confidence.
 

~Robyn Gobbel, LCSW

Hard Holidays with your Child of Trauma

Christmas is over, but for most families Winter Break from school has only just begun. December is oftentimes a month of ‘unpredictable’ and ‘out-of-the-ordinary’ as we attend church and school pageants and parties, hire extra baby-sitters to go shopping and to our work Christmas party, veer off our routine to watch Christmas movies and stay up late, and have extra guests come in and out of our home. With Christmas out of the way, many families are now feeling the fall-out from the hustle and bustle of the holiday season and may find themselves wondering “WHY?!” Why do things that are special get ruined? Why does my child sulk and act entitled when we stress giving and graciousness in our family? Why is my kid in time-out before 7:30am on Christmas morning?

I read a comment on a popular ‘trauma parenting’ blog today that stated that the WHY of behavior isn’t important- it’s only important what we do in the moment to respond to the maladaptive behavior. I vehemently disagree that the WHY isn’t important and have already started writing another article that addresses this statement. For today, I want to offer you a few different suggestions that may be related to your child’s WHY.

Lack of routine- The holiday season inevitability contributes to a lack of routine, but this is only magnified once school lets out for winter break. Children with a trauma history thrive on structure and routine. The predictability helps them feel safe and lowers a bit of the activation in their nervous system. When life becomes unpredictable, little nervous systems go on high-alert, priming itself to be ready for any danger that may arise. Being on high-alert also causes kiddos to see “DANGER DANGER!!!!” when there isn’t any. “High Alert State” is not known for reading danger accurately.

Sensory Overload- Many of our kids from trauma have a sensitive sensory processing system. This may make excess noise, crowds of people, and bright lights very difficult to manage. This extra sensory input leaves children right at the edge of their “window of tolerance,” meaning that your child may be more easily triggered into dysregulated and maladaptive behavior.

Negative Sense of Self- One of the most debilitating impacts of early childhood trauma is how it decimates a child’s beliefs about themselves. Children who experience abuse, neglect, or other trauma without a strong support system in place start to believe things like “I am a bad kid,” “I only deserve bad things” and “I cannot trust adults.” Being offered good things- like holiday gifts or fun family experiences- puts kids in conflict with their inner world. Our body and brain likes to stay in equilibrium- even if the equilibrium is negative. Kids may unconsciously solicit experiences or relationships that validate their negative beliefs. Unfortunately, these negative beliefs are their normal, safe, and comfortable.

Trigger Past Memories- The holiday season can trigger both implicit and explicit memories in our kiddos. I think most adults can empathize with this. How many of us navigate through the holidays without ever feeling a glimmer of sadness or regret, either remembering happy memories that are no longer present at the holidays, or sad memories of holiday experiences you’d rather forget? Our children may be having similar holiday experiences. The holidays may heighten feelings of sadness and missing their first family. The holidays can also trigger negative memories through some of the distinct sounds and smells that December brings about.

The holidays are hard for many of us- but they can be extra challenging for your child who has a history of trauma. Slow down, limit sensory input, and stay in a routine as much as possible.

Here’s to a calm and blessed 2013!