On a mild Monday evening, around 6 pm, I wait expectedly in our kitchen, repeating a series of words over and over to myself. Today is the first day I’ve allowed my son to ride his bike home from football practice. On the stove is a pan of spaghetti and meatballs. In the oven, Texas Toast (our favorite). Dinner is ready. When he gets home, we’ll all sit down and eat. But I know what’s coming. I can hear his words in my head before he even walks through the door… “What’s for dinner?”
In any average household across the country, this question would be commonplace. It’s been asked a trillion times by a trillion teenagers since the beginning of time. Most parents wouldn’t bat an eye at it. But I do. In my household, with my children, “What’s for dinner” has a very deep significance. For my son, it’s a fight. He’s fighting a battle that originates from a memory that is fuzzy and distant, but real. Before he came to live with us, more than a decade ago, he was malnourished and living in a homeless shelter. “What’s for dinner,” is a statement uttered from deep trauma, and perpetual fear. Fear that he is going to starve…fear that he won’t be filled up…fear that he’ll be forced to dwell without a common need.
Often, the fight escalates into a real fight. If one of his siblings takes a portion of spaghetti he deems too big, he begins to yell at us, and blame us, claiming there won’t be enough for everyone else. This happens with more than just food. It happens with clothing, school supplies, deodorant, the blankets on his bed. Deep inside of him there’s a voice telling him, “You’re not going to have enough. Everyone is going to take everything. You need more. Fight, fight, fight.” It’s trauma speaking. It’s his past life whispering thoughts that fill him with fear.
Navigating The Difficult Road.
It’s exhausting isn’t it? If you’re in this trench, you’re probably nodding furiously right now. If you’re like us, you often throw your hands up and wonder… How do I parent a child who’s in a constant fight for survival even if I’ve given them everything they need?
We’ve asked this question over the years of many smart people with lots of great insight into parenting children from trauma. Here’s what we’ve learned to do…
- Acknowledge the origin. Remember where your child has come from. Remind yourself, even if it’s a whisper to yourself, that he or she began their life in a dark and desperate place. That’s why they fight. Often, they don’t even know they’re doing it. Once upon a time, they were starving. They saw their birth parents abuse drugs and neglect their child’s needs. They witnessed domestic violence. Maybe sexual assault. They were left in a crack house with nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep, and a dirty diaper sagging past their knees. Our children’s past is real and it is haunting. Remembering this can help us remain calm but also live with a sense of compassion when our child is fighting us over everything.
- Calm and firm. One of the most powerful tools in your parenting arsenal is the ability to remain calm and stay firm with your boundaries. When your child is melting down, freaking out, or locked in a hardcore fight with you, calm and firm wins. The times we’ve lost our cool, and battled back with our children, have only escalated the situation and made things worse (Honestly, this is a battle for us personally). But, we’ve learned that calm is a natural de-escalator. Partnering that with remaining firm on your expectations helps to create an environment of peace. It may take some time, and consistency, to arrive at this place, but you will over time.
- Repeat, repeat, repeat. One of our favorite medical experts, Dr. Ira Chasnoff, from NTI Upstream, coaches parents raising children from trauma, specifically FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder), to repeat, repeat, repeat when it comes to routine, schedule, and navigating the tricky waters of trauma. Dinner is at this time every day… wake up time for school is at this time every day… after school we do the same thing. Over and over and over. Creating this type of routine and sticking to it will vastly change circumstances with your children. For all accounts, routine is a game-changer when you’re parenting children from trauma.
Routine is a game-changer when you’re parenting children from trauma.
- Let it go. Sometimes you have to ignore the fight, especially if you’ve already calmly explained when dinner will be, or what’s next on the schedule. “I’ve already told you, dinner is in 30 minutes. We are having spaghetti and meatballs with frozen veggies.” If your child persists, let it go. If you’ve already given a clear answer to something they want, and they keep fighting you on it, let it go. Say nothing in response. Silence is golden.
For Your Own Sake.
This is hard. There’s no doubt about it. We often feel so frustrated and overwhelmed, we can hardly think straight. Sometimes, we feel like quitting altogether. Our child has pushed us to the brink of losing it. In those times, we seek out the voice and influence of others on this journey. In my post, earlier this week, I mentioned how I use the front porch of my home to vent, or listen to friends in need. Often, I’m calling my friend, who’s in the same trench, and pouring my frustration and weariness out to him.
We need this. Do the steps I just mentioned above work? Yes. But, let’s be real…sometimes the days of fighting with your child get the best of you and you need a voice of truth to speak into your life. You need an escape. As you and I work hard to love and lead children from traumatic places, we must ask ourselves this: Who am I leaning on to give me strength and encouragement on this difficult journey? We understand the struggle. It’s the very reason we created this blog.
Are you parenting children from traumatic places? Have you experienced the fight? Share your story with us in the comment section below.