Little has been engaging in certain behaviors, every day, for over a year, and it’s become really hard to therapeutically parent him in the face of said behavior.
These behaviors became extremely problematic when we pulled him out of school to homeschool him because those behaviors prevent him from falling asleep… And when Little doesn’t sleep, he ventures into meltdown city, and he literally loses his ability to think.
When well-rested, he’s a tiny calculator, computing two-digit addition and subtraction problems with ease and speed not usually achieved until much later on in a child’s schooling. But when he’s bleary-eyed and sleepy, the kid can’t even add 2+2.
I wish I was exaggerating.
Anyway, it was a problem when he was in school, but once he was home it became incredibly urgent that he stop these behaviors so that we could abide by our state’s homeschooling guidelines. As such, we decided it was time to dole out consequences for the behavior. We started with sending him to his room for a bit when we caught him engaging in this behavior. That escalated to having to spend the rest of the evening in his room (with the door open). This had virtually no impact on changing his behavior, so we escalated to closing his door.
We escalated to grounding him for the next day… No change.
We moved toward grounding him for multiple days… Of course, no change.
I think you can see where this is going.
This went on for weeks. Weeks.
Husband and I got stuck in a
stupid ridiculous and unwinnable battle of control over Little’s behavior, and we soon found ourselves stuck in a punishment-escalation cycle that was having absolutely no effect on curbing Little’s undesirable behavior.
We had to get out of it. But how?!
Have you been here before? Or, maybe you’re stuck in just such a cycle right now? Are you wondering how to escape this madness, as I was earlier today? Well, read on, and I’ll tell you how to get out of it.
You may not believe it. And you’re probably not going to like it.
Are you ready?
All you have to do to get out of this nasty cycle is simply ditch the punitive tactics and start anew with therapeutic parenting.
Just start over.
I can feel you all gearing up to throw things at me, but hear me out. It really is that simple.
This afternoon, I decided our experiment with grounding was an utter failure, so I waltzed into his room and announced that I was ungrounding him. “I’ll still notice your tricks. But I’m not going to freak out over them – unless you’re hurting someone. I’m just going to point them out and move on, at least for tonight. Because I miss you. I miss having you with us in the evening and spending family time with you. So, I want to start over.”
I bent down on one knee and extended my hand to him. “Hi, I’m Trauma Mama S. Your sister calls me mom. You can call me that, too, if you want.”
Little giggled – a sound I hadn’t heard in days. “I’m Little. Nice to meet you, too.”
“I think it’s time for you to get in the bathtub, Little. Are you ready to do that?”
“Yes!” he shouted, and immediately got his clothes and marched to the bathroom… and if you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you know this moment alone is nothing short of a dang miracle!
I often feel like I’m just the worst parent in the world because I absolutely cannot get two of my kids’ behavior under control when they’re in the trauma zone, and my instinct, like most of yours, I’m guessing, is to escalate punishments until they DO feel like changing their crappy behavior. But here’s the thing… If they’re dysregulated and spinning out of control, acting out every which way they can, punishing them is not going to convince them to behave.
I’m sure you’ve seen this meme running around the Internet:
I laughed when I saw this meme the first time because it’s so very true, right?
I know this about me, but I so often forget that my kids aren’t likely to calm down just because I’ve demanded they get it together! Which is totally bonkers because they’re children… If I don’t calm in response to a demand, why on earth would I expect my kids to be able to do that?!
That makes no sense!
If you’re in a punishment cycle with your kiddo who has trauma issues, there will eventually come a point that it becomes abundantly clear that your kid isn’t going to change his behavior just to please you or just to get released from the elaborate punishments you’ve created for him. You’ll recognize it when you see it.
And when you get there, you will wonder how on earth you’re going to get yourself out of this, how you will ever manage to steer back toward
tranquil semi-calm waters so that you can regain your footing and leave this miserable cycle of punishment behind.
Of course, there are steps you’ll need to take before starting over.
First, disregard the voices of doubt.
You know, those inner voices that demand you revert to traditional parenting tactics, those voices that try to convince you that your child is acting intentionally and malevolently instead of acting on instinct out of fear – tell them to cram it. Because that advice, whether it’s coming from you or from your well-intentioned friends and family, is not going to do you any favors here.
When I finally decided to unground my son, the traditional voice in my head howled in horror and indignation:
He’s going to think he won – that he beat you! That he can trick you whenever he wants and act whichever way he pleases, and that you will eventually give in if he just sticks to his obstinate ways long and hard enough. Worst of all, you went through all of this and the kid has learned nothing! Nothing, I say!
Ahem. That’s the censored version.
But anyway, my point is, ungrounding my child before he showed even one iota of remorse or regret over his actions went against every single fiber of my being… But I did it anyway. Because it was the right thing to do, and it was the only way to move past this nasty cycle we were in and get back to some sort of normalcy… Maybe even bring back a little joy and fun into our relationship.
Second, recognize the true source of defeat.
You’re going to have to recognize and come to terms with the truth, and that is simply your tactics are defeating you in these cycles. NOT YOUR CHILD.
When we’re in the thick of it with our kids, if we’re not blaming ourselves, we’re most likely blaming the ever-living heck out of our kids. We’re especially prone to this blame game when we’re not 100% sold on the merits of therapeutic parenting or when we’re new to this method of raising little ones (I’ve been doing it for about three years, and I still consider myself a newbie at this trauma parenting thing).
So, we get frustrated. We punish. It doesn’t work. We blame.
We think things like, If only he wasn’t doing this, our family would be somewhat functional!
Or, What is wrong with this kid?! What does he WANT me to do to prove to him I’m here forever?!
Or, This kid knows what he’s doing is wrong. He’s just doing it on purpose to make everyone else as miserable as he is.
Or maybe even, Eff this! Therapeutic parenting is BS and I’m going to show him who’s boss right now and get rid of this obstinate streak of his once and for all!
Our kids don’t really deserve that blame when we’re knowingly utilizing ineffective tools to guide their behavior. Traditional methods aren’t going to work on a child who struggles with attachment issues because such a child expects you to get tired of his crap and leave him, quit loving him, neglect and/or abuse him. He’s just waiting for the moment you give up on him.
Heck, if your kid is comfortable enough with you, he may even tell you that he’s waiting for that moment, as my Little did multiple times during this experiment with grounding.
“If you’re going to kick me out, just do it already!” he said one day, trying desperately to cloak the fear and sadness in his voice with a mask of rage. “I know you don’t love me anymore and I don’t care! But I didn’t mean to break that pencil!” he wailed.
Yes, Little thought I was going to send him away because he broke a pencil.
A CHEAP, 25 CENT PENCIL!
Third, understand that your punishments mean nothing.
In most circumstances, kids diagnosed with attachment-trauma disorders have already lost so much, so the common parenting tactic of removing access to toys or privileges means little – if anything – to our kids.
Traditional methods like this usually work well with kids who have not gone through immeasurable losses at a young age because losing access to their tablet or favorite stuffed animal or missing so-and-so’s birthday party is damn near earth-shattering for most kids, right?
But for kids who have lost one or both of their biological parents, for kids who have lost all their belongings in multiple moves throughout the foster care system or some other terrible and tragic situations, do you really think taking away a stupid toy is going to do make a bit of difference in their behavior?
I can tell you from first-hand experience… No. No, it’s not going to do a bit of good. It’s only going to make the kid dig in his heels harder.
And a kid who has gone through neglectful circumstances? That kid is going to be amazing at entertaining himself with nothing and convincing himself it’s as good as any of the toys you’ve squirreled away, out of his reach.
If you decide to “appropriately spank” (if there is such a thing) a kid who has been physically abused, do you think your piddly little swats are going to make an impact? No. Spanking a traumatized kid is just going to send them into a PTSD spiral or it’s going to have absolutely no effect – because your pat on the tush didn’t leave bruises or scars or break bones like the last time he experienced corporal punishment.
John Simmons writes in this article about parenting his daughter with Reactive Attachment Disorder, “Unless I was willing to push her to the brink of death, and perhaps beyond, I couldn’t compete in her world. And that is why with Reactive Attachment Disorder, punishment escalations would never work.” I read this article over two years ago, and I return to it often because I’m constantly forgetting the truth of this statement.
After reaching these three steps – and it may take you a while to get through these steps – you’ll need to set aside your need to control your kid’s behavior, accept him as he is, and show him the empathy he deserves.
Will it feel like you’re giving away your control of the situation? Probably.
Will you hate it? Most likely.
Will you question yourself? Will others question you? Absolutely.
But taking away the control battle, using PACE or TBRI or whatever therapeutic parenting method you utilize with your child instead of coercive, punitive tactics that we are conditioned to rely on, that really is the right thing to do with our kids.
And man, it’s a struggle. I struggle with it often, wondering how parenting this way is possibly the right thing to do. I mean, it just feels wrong to get playful, accepting, curious and empathetic with a kid who’s doing everything he can to get you to completely come undone, right?
Christine Moers, my hero, as many of you know, thankfully has a video addressing this very issue. So, I shall leave you with her video “This Doesn’t Feel Right,” and I do hope it helps anyone struggling with a punishment cycle to break free of the trap it has laid for you and your child.
You can do it. I know you can.
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