“Mommy, I just really want to take my locket into camp today.”
“I know, love. That’s so disappointing that you can’t bring toys in. I’m glad you are getting to hold it in the car and play with it now.”
Silence. I look in the rearview mirror and see a single tear fall from her left eye. Her right eye is covered by a mermaid eye patch so the scene is particularly heart-wrenching. She drops her head and I can see the wave of grief coming on. Having to leave something she loves behind is an enormous trigger for a girl who lost her family, her neighborhood, her toys, and all of life as she knew it before coming to live with us. I take a deep breath, like I’ve learned to do, and focus on my own heartbeat to stay calm.
“I see you are so sad. I understand. As soon as we park the car, I can hold you.”
And I do. We sit in the backseat rocking while I kiss her teary face and hold her tight. She lets me. After a few short moments, I see her take a deep breath.
“Are you ready?” I ask. She nods and we stand up. I offer to hold the locket and key in my pocket so she knows it’s safe. I reassure her that she’ll get to hold it again when I pick her up after camp. She nods again and we walk hand in hand into Art Yowza Camp where a dozen kids are running happily and playing tag. She drops my hand immediately and joins the game.
Let me break down exactly why this scenario is a HUGE FREAKING MIRACLE. Just three months ago, the drive would have been very different. My daughter’s grief would have been mixed with rage and fear so enormous that her tears would escalate into screaming, taking her seat belt off, kicking the driver’s seat with full force and on the worst days, pounding the glass window with her fists. And it would have lasted anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. And on one terrible day, four hours. Literally. But the difference in her behavior now is not the miracle I even want to focus on. The real magic is in how differently I behaved.
Her rage and PTSD used to trigger my own rage and PTSD before I could stop it. If I was alone with her in the car during an epic tantrum, I had no way to access all my skills as a compassionate girl advocate and educator. I became a frightened child and my logical brain shut down completely. More often than I’d like to admit, I responded by yelling, shaming, and on the worst days, grabbing her arm or leg roughly to try and make her stop. I felt so ashamed of myself. Why couldn’t I be compassionate? I knew that meeting a child’s trauma response with a calm voice and reassuring presence was the only thing that could help. Why couldn’t I stay calm when I knew I was “supposed to?” I was afraid it meant I was a bad mom. Luckily, just a few months later, I know it means I was a triggered mom. And I knew enough to get help managing my PTSD symptoms so I could do better. Here’s the best of what I’ve learned to be the compassionate Mama I want to be… most of the time
- Try to notice when I’m triggered and say to myself, “Oh, I’m triggered.”
- Keep my mouth shut (Kidpower says, “Mouth closed power!) and breathe. Focus on my own breath. Notice my heartbeat. Breathe to help it slow down. Did I mention, DO NOT TALK?
- Accept that her tantrum is not my fault. I did not cause it. I cannot stop it. It’s just what is happening.
- Help keep her physically safe—like putting a pillow under the head of someone having a seizure (move tables out of the way, pull the car over, move out any objects she’s throwing or hitting).
- Hug her and tell her I love her when it’s over. Wait until everyone feels better before talking about anything logical like what she can do to feel her big feelings without hurting herself or anyone else.
- Forgive myself immediately if I cannot do any of the first five things.
My therapist is a PTSD specialist. She works with war vets and now…foster parents to stay in the moment and help our brains rewire to feel safe. She recommends mindfulness practice as the number one tool to deal with fight, flight or freeze symptoms. Pema Chodron’s Unconditional Confidence, Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach and John Kabat-Zinn are the resources she shared with me.
For any of you parents who need a miracle to shift the way trauma plays out in your homes, I hope this helps!