Tag Archives: trauma

Parenting, Helplessness, and a Brand New Adventure

Photo by Flickr user darkday

Photo by Flickr user darkday

Master Nine came home from school one day in February and burst into tears. “No one likes me,” he said. “Everyone’s mean to me.”

My heart froze. I would do anything to have my children avoid the type of bullying I went through as a child. And yet here he was, saying the exact words that I remember saying at his age. I wanted to scream and shout and wrap my arms around him and never let him go. But before I did anything, I took a deep breath. It was possible — only possible, mind you — that I was overreacting.

After all, he was eight. And it’s developmentally normal for children his age to go through a period where they feel like no one likes them; where they feel like they have no friends as they take place in normal social push-and-pull power plays.

So I listened to him, and I gave him a hug, and l I told him it would be all right.

I was wrong.

By the end of March, Master Nine no longer wanted to go to school.  He no longer wanted to go anywhere. He was scared. All the time. Of school, yes, but also of everything else. He was terrified of familiar stories; of movies he’d seen a hundred times; of the thoughts in his head; of new people and old friends and leaving the house. He couldn’t get to sleep. And when he finally did, collapsing from exhaustion, he’d be woken by nightmares once, twice, three times a night.

Every night.

By April, he was suffering panic attacks every night. He’d lie in bed thinking about having to go to school the next day, and then stagger out, hours later, whimpering and struggling to breathe. I’d put a hand on his chest and feel his heartbeat, like fluttering hummingbird wings inside his chest, then hold his ice-cold hands while I helped him calm down; breathing with him, in and out, and gently reassuring him that he was okay. Eventually, he’d collapse against me and sob himself into a restless sleep, and I’d carry him back to bed.

One day in mid-April, when I was encouraging Master Nine (yet again) to tell the teacher if someone made him feel upset or uncomfortable, he looked up at me with sad eyes and said, “It doesn’t matter. There’s nothing I can do to stop them. Not even the teachers can stop them. There’s no point trying.”

I cried.

I cried for his pain. I cried for my own. I cried for eight-year-old me who felt exactly like the same way, and desperately wanted an adult to step in and make everything better. I cried for current-day me, because now I was that adult. And I still didn’t know what to do.

I thought I’d felt helpless as a child. But being a parent, watching you child feeling helpless, and still being helpless yourself? Helplnessness to the power of infinity.

We need help, like quick, on the double

One morning in late April, Master Nine snuck into my bedroom and said, “Mummy, I think I need to go to the doctor.”

“Okay, Sweetheart. What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. But everybody hates me, so something must be wrong with me. If we go to the doctor, she can give me some medicine to make me normal.”

Once upon a time, about six months ago, Master Nine was a confident young man who didn’t hesitate to talk to people — whether adults or children — and wouldn’t let me go with him into doctor’s offices. So on the day that we went to the doctor — after many hugs and reassurances from me that he is not only normal but perfect just the way he is — I realised just how much he’d changed.

He flat-out refused to talk tot he doctor without me, clinging to my arm like a tired two-year-old and not making eye contact with anyone else in the waiting room. When we went into the doctor’s office, he hunched his shoulders over and hid behind my back, then collapsed into a chair, pulled his knees up to his chest, and pulled the hood of his hoodie up over his head so he could hide in its shadows. Over the next ten minutes, Master Nine answered the doctor’s questions in whispered monosyllables . He said only one full sentence during that visit; one full sentence in response to a question about what makes him feel happy: “I don’t remember what it feels like to be happy.”

We didn’t get magic medicine. But we did get a referral to a child psychologist.

At his first appointment, I took Master Nine into the psychologist’s office and waited for him to be engrossed in an activity before quietly making my way back out to the waiting room. The psychologist talked to Master Nine for almost an hour, and then called me in. “He’s highly intelligent, isn’t he?” was the first thing she said to me. “Such a conceptual thinker.”

In the psychologist’s opinion, Master Nine had a healthy attachment to me and the rest of the family, felt completely secure and at ease at home, but was struggling to deal with the trauma of the bullying he’d endured. Her biggest concern was that he’d lost confidence in his own ability to tell friend from foe — he’d developed trust issues. She suggested he start a new social activity — one completely unrelated to his school or anyone he already knew — to get some social “wins” on the board, and taught me some relaxation exercises to use to help him with his sleeping.

Things started to improve a little. But only a little. The relaxation exercises helped him sleep, and nightmares became less frequent. But he still hated school. His reading ability was getting worse and worse, and he was too scared he’d get a question wrong to practice any maths. I started to get concerned not only about his emotional wellbeing, but also about how his emotional wellbeing was affecting his learning. And then, towards the end of May, he started telling me that he couldn’t remember whole chunks of time. A particular example that stayed with me was the time he remembered going into class, then the teacher raising her voice. The next thing he remembered, the teacher was crouched in front of him, gently suggesting he go out to lunch. That’s when he realised the class was over, and all the other kids had already gone outside.

Decision-making is hard

I started thinking about pulling Master Nine out of school back in March — back when his anxiety symptoms were starting to worry me. But I persevered, trying to make things work out. I probably did so for far too long, in retrospect; not trusting myself to make the right decision. I second, third, and fourth-guessed myself.

  • Was I projecting? Did I think things were worse than they really were because of what I’d been through as a child?
  • Was I being over-protective? Was this something he needed to experience to help him grow? Would removing him from the situation stunt his emotional growth?
  • Was this experience something that would pass? Was it a storm in a teacup?
  • Was this experience teaching him resilience and courage? If I removed him from the situation, would that just teach him to run away when things got hard?

I didn’t trust myself to make the decision. And so no decision was made. Right up until a day came when I tried to drop Master Nine off at school and he literally couldn’t get out of the car. Every time he put his feet on the ground, he started shaking and retching convulsively. His skin had turned a distressing shade of grey, and his hands were freezing cold. I closed the car door, got back in, and drove away.

We saw his psychologist later that day. She listened to me describe what had happened, talked to him for an hour, then told me exactly what I didn’t want (but needed) to hear: “He’s suffering from post-traumatic stress symptoms. You need to get him out of that environment. Now.”

I withdraw him that afternoon.

Playing the blame game…

The first instinct of people on hearing about something like this is to cast about for who to blame. Well, here’s what I think: Playing the blame game is counter-productive, unhelpful, and irrelevant. And I have no interest in doing it.

I don’t blame the children who bullied him. Firstly, because they’re good kids — I’ve known most of them since they were five years old. And while their behaviour led Master Nine to a place of trauma, it hasn’t (to my knowledge) had the same effect on the other children. Besides, children will inevitably push boundaries and see what happens. It’s how they learn about the world.  They need guidance to help them develop empathy and socially acceptable behaviour. If they don’t get that guidance… well, we’ve all read Lord of the Flies, haven’t we?

But I certainly don’t blame the parents. Again, I’ve known most of them for years. They’re all wonderful, loving, generous, kind people, doing everything they can to raise their children to be just as wonderful, loving, generous, and kind.

It would be easy to blame the school, but easy isn’t the same as right. I do believe there were some systemic issues that contributed to the situation, however as soon as I spoke to the staff about them, changes were made. The teachers and admin staff were responsive and open and caring. They did everything they could to change and manage and improve things for Master Nine. And I thank them for that.

If I was forced to lay the blame somewhere, however, I would lay it at the feet of our society as a whole, which simultaneously condemns and endorses bullying. But that’s a discussion for another day.

New Adventures, Dead Ahead!

Since the day I told Master Nine that he didn’t have to go back to that school, he’s been getting better. It’s a slow process, and sometimes it feels like two steps forward, seventeen steps back, but we’re getting there. We celebrate the little milestones along the way: A week without nightmares. Two weeks without a panic attack. Talking to a shopkeeper. Attending social activities by himself.

Our Homeschool Emblem

Our Homeschool Emblem

And on Monday we start our next grand adventure.

For the next six months (at least) I will be homeschooling him. It’s not something I expected to be doing, and I am heartbroken about the events that brought us to this point, but I’m excited for the future. And that, my friends, is the lesson I hope Master Nine takes away from this. Not that bullies can’t be beaten, or that running away is the solution, but that all hard times come to an end, and the future shines bright.

 

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Moving House with Children (Without the Trauma)

 

I have a confession to make: I was an Air Force Brat.

Big Brother in Grandad's Air Force Hat

Back when I was a kid, my Dad was posted every 2 years (on average), which meant that we packed up and moved house, suburb, city, state and occasionally country on a regular basis. By the time I was 10 years old, I’d moved six times. By the time my Dad retired from the Air Force when I was 16, I’d lived in a total of ten places — including 2 countries, 5 states, and 7 cities (we lived in some more than once).

You may think that, after all this relocating as a child, I would have been happy to settle down and put down roots at that point. Well. If that’s the case, you probably didn’t spend the first 16 years of your life moving around. It gets to be a habit. You get bored after a while. Your feet start itching. And then you start weighing up the pros and cons of moving, even if only to the next suburb. 

At the time of writing this, I am 35 years old. I have lived in 26 different houses. Twenty-six. That means that I’ve moved house, on average, every 16 months of my life.

Having children didn’t slow me down, either.

Big Brother is almost 5, and has lived in 4 different houses — albeit, all within the same city region. He’s moved house, on average, every 18 months of his life.

We haven’t moved since Baby was born, but then he’s only 11 months old at the moment. So I’m not promising that things will be different for him.

As you can see, I’ve had plenty of experience with moving house, both as a child and with a child. So when Tracy (@nystoopmama) tweeted asking for any advice on moving with kids — specifically on how to make the process less terrifying for her 3 1/2-year-old — I figured that I’d throw my advice into the ring. Because with all this experience, you’d think I’d have learned something.

 And if you’ve got any other ideas, tips, or suggestions, please leave them in the comments. 

1. Give plenty of notice — but not too much.

It’s important not to surprise a child at the last minute. This is a Big Scary Thing. Your child needs time to prepare. But, on the other hand, too much notice is a Bad Thing.

If you’ve got a three year-old and you tell him you’re moving in six months, that’s 1/6th of his life. That would be like telling a 30 year-old that you’re moving house in 5 years. Initially, it’s a bit exciting and a bit scary. But excitement fades much quicker than fear, and soon you’ve got a child crying himself to sleep every night because he’s terrified of what’s going to happen.

While different children will react differently (depending on personality, experience, etc), I go with the following rule of thumb:

  • Minimum notice: 1 week per year old
  • Maximum notice: 1 month per year old
 So for a 3-year-old, you’d want to tell them the news at least 3 weeks before the big day and no more than 3 months before the big day. Whereas for a 12-year-old, you’d give a minimum of 3 months notice and a maximum of a year’s notice. 

2. Explain the Reasons and the Process as well as the End Result.

Children like to know what things mean, how things work, and why things happen. (That’s why they ask “why” at least 700 million gazillion times a day.) If they’re not given the hows and the whys, they make them up all by themselves. Sometimes that’s great. Sometimes that’s funny. But in the case of a Big Scary Thing, that just makes your experience much harder.

If your entire explanation consists of: Isn’t it great, we’re going to be moving house! … Well, it doesn’t really explain what’s happening or why. You may as well have just told them that you’re going to live on Mars, or that you aren’t going to let them play with their friends anymore.

It’s important that your child understands both the why and the how, and that you tell them as honestly as possible — as appropriate for their age. For the “why”, an older child is more likely to figure it out for herself, but a younger child will need help.Whatever your reasons, try to break it down to something your child will understand. (Even if it’s just: Daddy’s work says we have to move.) 

For example:

  • Do you remember how we had to buy you new shoes when you grew out of your ones? Your old shoes weren’t very comfortable anymore, were they? How did they feel? This house is starting to feel a bit tight too, isn’t it? We hardly have any room for all of your toys, and there’s nowhere for you to run around and play. How did it feel to wear nice, new shoes that fit? How do you think that will feel to live in a new house where everything fits and there’s lots of room to run and play?

As for the “how”, spell out the process in simple steps so it’s not so overwhelming. The amount of detail you give will depend on your child, but I’ve found that a more sensitive child usually needs more information, whereas a “go with the flow” child just wants the major points. 

3. Where possible, show don’t tell.

If at all possible, take your child to the new house and show him where he’s going to be living. A picture is worth a thousand words, and an experience is worth a thousand pictures.

I'm Going to Live Here!

If you’re moving far away, or it’s not possible for other reasons, show him pictures of your new house online. Or of the local area. Or of his new school. If you’re moving across the country and don’t know where you’ll be living (like me as a kid), then at least get out some maps and look at those together.

All of this helps your child to feel that he has a bit more understanding and control of what’s happening around him.

4. Focus on the positives. 

My Very Own Tree!

Find two or three positives that you’re going to focus on, and talk about them a LOT. Any more than that and it’s going to sound like everything is changing, and that makes the move seem even more scary. Pick your key items and talk them up. Is it the big yard? Or living closer to Grandma? Or a room that she doesn’t have to share with her sister? Or a cubby house? Or enough room for a pet? Or the excitement of living in the city?

Try to pick the things that you are personally excited about, because that way you don’t have to fake it.

5. …but remember to validate the negatives.

I’ve moved house 25 times in my life, but each time is still fraught with stress. How much will it cost? Will we like the new place? Will I still see my old friends? Is this really a good idea? What if I hate it there? What if the removalists crash their truck into a petrol station and all our things go up in a huge Hollywood-esque explosion? What if I forget to organise electricity? Or to forward the mail? Or to order enough boxes? Or to pack something?

All those worries are normal. If you told someone your fears and they answered you with, “But you’ll be closer to work!” you’d want to hit them. Or drink another bottle of wine. 

Your child has her own fears, many of which may be different to yours. Where will my dolly sleep? Will I find good hiding places for hide and seek? What if the cat hates it there? Will I ever see my teacher again?

If you ignore those fears and concentrate solely on the positives, your child will probably not hit you. Or drink alcohol. But she may withdraw into herself, or refuse to talk about the move, or start crying herself to sleep.

Validate her fears. Talk about the things she’s worried about. Tell her it’s okay that she loves your current house, and it’s okay that she’s a bit scared — you’re a bit scared too. But if you’re both brave together, it will be okay. And then go back to talking about the positives.

Note: Some children (especially the really sensitive ones) find it difficult to talk about their fears. If you sense that your child is upset or worried but she isn’t telling you what’s on her mind, talk to her about how her toys are feeling.

For example:

  • Moving house is very exciting, but it can seem a bit scary sometimes, too. I wonder if Teddy’s feeling a bit scared. What do you think? What do you think Teddy’s scared about the most? 

6. Explain what comes and what stays

As adults, we know which parts of our world are “house” and which parts are “stuff”. We know that the “house” stays here, and the “stuff” goes with us. But children aren’t as aware of the distinction — especially if they’ve never moved house before (that they remember). So make sure to explain which bits are coming and which bits are staying.

The first time Big Brother was old enough to realise we were moving house, he was two years old. I talked to him about what was happening, and he understood but was quite worried and scared. When we started talking about fears, he said he didn’t have any. But then he blurted out, “But who am I going to live with?”

In his mind, Mummy and Daddy were part of “home”. So going to a new home meant leaving Mummy and Daddy behind. (You should have seen the number of tears I shed over that misunderstanding!)

Not Without My Toys!

At the time of the next move, he was 3 1/2 years old. This time he was pretty cool with the whole family was moving. (I was 6 months pregnant with Baby at the time.) But his concern this time was just as serious. “But I don’t want to leave my toys behind!” 

When you’re explaining the process, make sure to talk about exactly what comes and what doesn’t. Are you taking the curtains? The bookcases? The books? The toys? His favourite chair? Be specific, because what’s obvious to us isn’t always obvious to them.

7. Remember: It’s supposed to be fun!

As we all know, actions speak louder than words. If you keep talking about how great it’s going to be, and then your child finds you crying, or acting stressed, or arguing with your partner in hushed tones, or yelling more often, the gig will be up. If you’re upset and stressed, your child will be upset and stressed.

Share your worries with your child (at an age appropriate level). Tell her if you’re feeling a little bit overwhelmed today. Or frustrated. Or scared. Then give her a hug and ask how she’s feeling. And then find a way to make the day’s work fun.

A Better Use for Moving Boxes

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