If there is nothing else I can teach my daughters before I leave this world, it’s how to emotionally self-regulate. I have to admit, it’s been hard.
I have complex-PTSD from childhood emotional neglect and abuse (I was ignored until I acted up, then I got abused) and some relationship trauma.
My husband and I had both witnessed domestic violence between our parents and tried to intervene as teenagers.
There are some who say that domestic violence between spouses witnessed by children IS child abuse. And, well, I can see how that is. The trauma is still marked in memory when witnessed by the child even if the child was never touched physically.
A while back I read a research paper about Adverse Childhood Experiences and the link between them and adult problems. They have a website now too.
From their About page:
You can see the effects of trauma on a brain scan. The result: These adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) cause kids to have a hard time learning, making friends and trusting adults. They can’t keep up in school, so they shut down or get in fights. They’re the “problem” kids. Schools suspend them. There’s lots of ways for kids to cope with their trauma. Alcohol. Drugs. Smoking. Food. Kids become daredevils and break their bones. Sleep around and get STDs. Grow up too fast and become workaholics.
All this helps numb painful memories: Years of beatings by dad, who also walloped a kid’s siblings and mom. Enduring forced sex by an uncle who visited regularly. Being rousted out of bed at 2 a.m. by a drunk mother to be yelled at for hours. These kids’ coping “drug of choice” – smoking, drinking, food, sex, work – helps them escape from the misery of feeling like failures or that, somehow, they were responsible for the trauma they experienced. It also helps them take the edge off their feelings of isolation and abandonment when our institutions further traumatize them by suspending them from school, by putting them in dysfunctional foster homes, by restraining them or putting them in isolation. Asking them: “What’s wrong with you?” instead of “What happened to you?”
Those are pretty extreme examples, I admit. But there are other more subtler forms of neglect and abuse – like ignoring emotional needs, letting a child to cope alone with their sadness and anger, parental over-control and expecting them to take care of their parents needs, rather than the other way around.
And from one of their most recent posts:
One of the most interesting studies to appear recently comes from two researchers: Dr. Stephen Scott, a child psychiatrist at King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry and director of the National Academy for Parenting Research in London, England; and Thomas O’Connor, director of the Wynne Center for Family Research, Department of Psychiatry, University of Rochester Medical Center in New York City.
They divided 112 five- and six-year-olds with emotional problems and their parents into two groups: one control group that had no intervention, and the other in which parents participated in a 12-week Incredible Years program and were given additional resources and assistance.
The results: A year later, the kids who had been identified with “emotional dysregulation” — and whose parents had changed their own behaviors as a result of participating in the Incredible Years program – had fewer angry outbursts and irascible behavior problems. The researchers wrote: “Parent interviews revealed that compared with controls, intervention parents were warmer, less critical, used more play, praise, and less harsh discipline (spanking and prolonged exclusion) at follow up.”
Note that there’s no labeling of “good” parents and “bad” parents here. More often than not, parents with children who are angry, depressed, anxious or moody aren’t “bad” parents. They’re modeling behavior that they learned from their own parents, and if they don’t make a conscious effort to change or aren’t taught skills that help them alter their interactions with their children, they pass on their own childhood adversities, especially if they’re under stress.
My husband never got treatment for his childhood issues (his father beat on his mother) until recently. He grew up to binge drink whenever life handed him stressful challenges, and those challenges had increased a lot over the past few years (getting laid off twice from mechanical engineering). Mr. RSG and I had a great deal of problems with each other that had gotten worse over the past couple of years. No, I haven’t posted the problems here, or anywhere…until recently on another of my blogs. It was time to come out a little because the last time was just too much.
I’m still trying to recover from everything…and study…and learn all I can about the relationship between adult maladaptive coping strategies and being a child who lacked the emotional training needed to manage intense emotions.
Children will have problems with emotions (either by exploding or by stuffing them) if parents were never taught about the full range of human emotion and how to cope with conflict, disappointment, and losses. Come to think of it, my parents didn’t know how to cope with intense joy and excitement either.
I know for as much as I intellectually understand the importance of modelling good behavior, I’m challenged in the practice of it. And sadly, I keep looking for good role emotional models among the parents of young children I know (and I know a LOT of parents), but I can’t find any that I want to learn from.
I’ve always been Highly Sensitive and intense, even as a very young child, long before the instances of childhood trauma and relationship trauma accumulated. I realize now I’ve always been gifted, too, though it’s only been in recent years that I had any idea of that my giftedness impacted my life more so when I had left my job than when I was in it. I worked in the biotech field and I could blend in with other science geeks. I wasn’t any more weird than my colleagues were.
But I’ve been able to know that something has been quite ‘wrong’ where I live for a long time. I thought it was me, but only recently began to find out that it wasn’t me as much as it has been the myriad ways we are set up to fail here in the U.S. Because we lack the tools to meet kids where they are at, understand they have needs, respect that fact, and teach them how to accept and manage their intense emotions.
I recently read this in Thomas D’Ansembourg’s Being Genuine: Stop Being Nice, Start Being Real (based on Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication process). Even in ordinary (not abusive) families, often we grow up alienated from ourselves:
I have no words to describe my loneliness, my sadness, or my anger.
I have no words to speak my need for exchange, understanding, recognition.
So I criticize, I insult, or I strike.
Or have my fix, abuse alcohol, or get depressed.
Violence, expressed within or without, results from a lack of vocabulary; it is the expression of a frustration that has no words to express it.
And there are good reasons for that; most of us have not acquired a vocabulary for our inner life. We never learned to describe accurately what we are feeling and what needs we had. Since childhood, however, we have learned a host of words. We can talk about history, geography, mathematics, science, or literature; we can describe computer technology or sporting technique and hold forth on the economy or the law. But the words for life within…when did we learn them? As we grew up, we became alienated from our feelings and needs in an attempt to listen to those of our mother or father, brothers and sisters, schoolteachers, et al. “Do what mommy says…Do what is expected of you”
I am becoming more and more convinced that we grow up to be unnecessarily depressed, anxious and having emotional problems because of this lack of language to describe the inner life and get needs met. It’s even tougher for our gifted kids too, who are so much more aware of things and yet really unable to really understand and articulate what to do about the problems they see.
My own daughter was diagnosed with selective mutism, a severe social anxiety disorder, sensory processing issues, and ADD.
She had extreme emotional lability, screaming meltdowns that would last 20 minutes, oppositional/defiant behavior, and in social situations like school, she’d become totally mute. I worried about both bipolar and autism. I’m less concerned about bipolar, and am not yet throwing out Asperger’s syndrome (with me being obsessively focused on intellectual pursuits and my husband being a mechanical engineer, one of us could quite possibly be on the spectrum ourselves).
I took her to a pediatric neuropsych at 4.5 that evaluated her over 5 sessions and diagnosed her with SM, SPD, and ADD – all of which we’ve been able to reverse (the SM), or at least manage (the sensory issues and ADD) without medications, but through an extensive plan of action that I designed myself after researching a great deal.
She STILL has emotional difficulties though, but it has nothing to do with her original diagnosis and everything to do with the fact that she is really intelligent, perfectionistic and has trouble with disappointment and probably has reactive hypoglycemia. There are times when her difficult behavior is really taxing. She wasn’t officially diagnosed with reactive hypoglycemia (and she failed a fasting hypoglycemia test), but I still suspect she has that because her moods can be quite awful if her blood sugar is off. She needs to eat more frequently than other kids her age do and she’s thin as a rail. She simply metabolizes foods quickly.
We still have times when she has screaming meltdowns (she’s 9.5). And as hard as it is for me to deal with (I have sensory sensitivities too), when I can, I hold her in my lap through these awful times until she self-regulates on her own. Usually 15-20 minutes after the onset. And usually she passively resists or actively pushes back if we’d been arguing just prior to the meltdown.
But getting back to modeling emotional self-restraint. Sometimes I can’t. Sometimes I screw up so much that I make things worse. When I’m sick, or feeling physically drained or achy, I have low distress tolerance. Plus, when husband and I had some really bad problems, I was extremely tense. I have PTSD triggered responses. It sucks.
I spent a small chunk of change to participate in a series of brain science teleseminars and transcripts on learning how to re-wire my brain after a very, very long period of making mistakes that led to more trauma.
More than anything I have ever learned in my entire life, I believe we have more powerful ways of changing ourselves for the better by understanding how our brains work. We can move from reactivity to responsiveness.
I’m taking a holistic approach and healing from my childhood and relationship trauma. If anyone wants to read up more about that, I’ll be writing about that on my other blog, under Holistic Healing and Complex-PTSD (Complex-PTSD simply means PTSD acquired from longer exposures to trauma, like in dysfunctional family systems).
I’m feeling better. I still have a ways to go, but I’m definitely better than I was. I am still feeling overwhelmed from time to time that I have 10-13 years left of hands-on care (my youngest is 8).