How connection helped us heal from trauma

It is Children’s Mental Health week and as a mother to two young boys who have suffered significant trauma, I would really like to raise awareness by sharing my experience in the hope it can help others.

I feel that it is more important than ever right now in light of the current pandemic.

But what is trauma?

It sounds like a big and scary word but the reality is that it affects so many of us.

It can be defined as going through very stressful, frightening or distressing events.  Trauma is also about how we are affected by our experiences.

They can happen at any age and we all have a different reaction.  Sometimes these are evident from the outset but they can also transpire a long time afterward.

It could be triggered by a one-off event, an ongoing experience (i.e. living in a traumatic atmosphere) or it could be linked to a person’s identity if you have been harassed, bullied, or experienced discrimination.

When I first realised that my boys needed support to deal with their trauma, I went into panic mode.

I have worked in education most of my adult life (I am a former teacher) so I could see the signs but I felt helpless.  I was their mother, the person who should keep them safe yet I felt so much guilt for not protecting them in the first instance.

I thought I had let them down.

Leo went into shark mode which is a common trauma response.  He needed to attack, shout, and be heard in order to feel in control.  This anger was so hard to deal with, hard to not react against, yet I knew it was a camouflage for his pain and fear.

In reality, he was a goldfish underneath that shark fin

Luca, on the other hand, recoiled into his shell like a tortoise.  He became withdrawn, distant and sad.  He dealt with the world by trying to shut it out.

It broke my heart.

And there was I, dealing with my own trauma by becoming a whizzing dart who found it easier to keep busy and move rather than stay still and deal with my emotion.

But I did reach out and we did get support and I realised that if I had any real hope of helping my boys emotionally regulate, I had to sort my own shit first!

Or at the same time at least.

I took a step back and I realised that I had to consider the dynamic, we were all dealing with trauma in our own way.  The only way to move forward was to stop responding and reacting and start connecting.

I started by connecting with my own emotions.

Why was I feeling them?  What were they trying to do?  How were they keeping me safe?

I reflected on the woman I wanted to be, the mother I wanted to be to my boys, and I realised that she took care of herself so that she could take care of her children.

So self-care became a priority.

Now, I am not talking spa days and massages – I am completely on my own with 2 kids, as if!!

I am talking about getting enough sleep, eating regularly, and getting out in the fresh air!

As I started implementing these things, I found I had the strength to focus on giving my boys what they need.

I got curious about how they were thinking and feeling and how this was manifesting in their behaviours.

I realised that by reacting and responding, I was living in survival mode.

Once I started reflecting and thinking, I was able to learn, grow and create the conditions for my children to feel safe and nurtured.

Childhood trauma is relational trauma…you can’t heal reational trauma by yourself.  It has to be healed in relation.

Joyelle Brandt

The reality is that response doesn’t make things better, connection does.

I always knew that praising positive behaviour was important but I now try and embed it.  Rather than just saying ‘I am proud of you, Leo/Luca’, I slow down and explore what it means for them when I say that.  In fact, the other day I asked Leo what animal he would be if he was proud.

‘A peacock, mummy, they are so beautiful,’ he said.

By doing this, I am embedding positive feelings and promoting his self-esteem.

The way we talk to our children really does shape them, it is so important that we help them remain positive.

Be their rainbow in the storm.

But you cannot do this if you cannot self-regulate yourself, hence why I had to work on myself first.

Another thing to remember is that children don’t talk, they do! I find that when I engage in a multi-sensory activity with them, they are more open to natural discussion about their feelings. So gardening, cooking, even role play really help.  In fact, Leo loves being a Megladon whilst I am a fish and he often plays out events that he needs to process.

Luca loves it when we cook together and it has helped us develop a deeper bond and connection.

I also learned not to sweat the small stuff.

Kids will always be kids and often negative attention is better than no attention so it is often better to ignore ‘bad’ behaviour and focus on addressing the root cause which is often pain, fear, loneliness or insecurity.

Being that rainbow, that person they know loves them however they choose to behave, will help them work it through.

One key thing I have learned is to never criticise the child, address the behaviour but do not identify them with it. Don’t tell them they are naughty or disruptive, tell them that the way they have acted is.  Ultimately they can change their behaviour but they cannot change who they are. And nor should they ever be made to feel that they should.

I would just like to end by saying that much of what I have learned through my experience now translates into how I work with clients.

I get results because I create connections and build relationships.  I help them see that change is possible, that often their habits and behaviours are as a result of their experiences.

Once they can get to the root of this, in a safe space, they are able to build the confidence and resilience to eat well, be happy and live life to the max!