Is that child just “acting up” or is it trauma?

I believe that every child is a gift. I especially agree with my own three children. They have been an amazing blessing in my life and I am so proud to be their mum.

Nothing in life really prepares you to be a parent. Sure when you are pregnant you can read all of the parenting help books or talk to health nurses, but really you are never quite prepared when that little baby is placed in your arms. Suddenly you realize that no one, but you is responsible for this living and breathing little person. It’s life depends on you. Wow what a profound moment that was for me.

As a parent I have always wanted the best for my children. It is hard when life and what you want doesn’t always match up. My oldest was born in 2001 and for the first 9 years of her life we lived with her father. Unfortunately for her, her younger siblings and myself their father was an abuser. Abuse of many forms was prevalent throughout our house and this affected each of my children in different ways. We have dealt with PTSD diagnoses, OCD tendencies, nightmares, wetting of beds, soiling of pants, disassociation, violent outbursts and yes some substance abuse. None of this is what I wanted for them. It has been heartbreaking as a mum to watch my children struggle and it has been debilitating to them at various times of their life. This is definitely not the life I wanted for my children.

Despite all of the trials my children and I have always been a team. I have let them know from the moment that they were born that I will always be there for them. With every cry in the night  to cheering them on at their band concert at school I have been there.  I have worked hard to be their safety and their constant despite the turbulent beginning years of their life. When my ex and I finally separated, my kids and I shared my Queen size bed for months. We all had our spot on the bed and perhaps it was not the most comfortable of sleeps as we all crammed in, but we were together, we were safe and that was the most important thing.

Kids experience trauma in different ways than an adult. For one their brains are still developing so trauma affects their brain development. Children also have different ways then adults on how they express their trauma. If you have an infant, toddler or a preschooler you may observe;

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Disturbances in feeding
  • Feelings of helplessness and passivity
  • Generalized fearfulness
  • Specific new fears
  • Loss of or regression in recently acquired skills like walking, talking or potty training.
  • Clinginess and separation anxiety.
  • Inhibited play
  • Thinking or talking about the event
  • Upset at reminders or avoiding reminders of the event.
  • Irritability
  • Agressiveness
  • Scanning for danger
  • Easily startled

If you have school age children you might observe;

  • Posttraumatic play. This kind of play is a repetitive reenactment of the event
  • Thinking and talking about trauma outside of play
  • Being upset about reminders of the event.
  • Specific fears triggered by the event
  • Fantasies of revenge
  • Feeling guilty about the trauma and feeling responsible for it
  • Impaired concentration and difficulty learning
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Headaches, stomach aches and other physical symptoms
  • Concerns about theirs and others safety
  • Aggressive behaviour
  • Anxiety
  • Withdrawn behaviour

If you have an adolescent you might observe;

  • Detachment, shame guilt
  • Self conscious about their fears and intense feelings
  • Abrupt shifts in relationships
  • Desire for and plans to take revenge
  • Premature entrance into adulthood or reluctant to leave home
  • Being upset at reminders of the trauma and doing their best to avoid reminders
  • Coping behaviours that may include self-endangering behaviours such as substance abuse and/or cutting

I am sure you have observed these behaviours in children or teens. They may not be your own children and often when this behaviour is observed most being ask “what is wrong with that kid?” and the school system usually wants to label the child with a learning disability, but that is not helping the child. This is not a case of “what is wrong with that child?” it is a case of “what happened to that child?” We need to start changing the conversation around “troubled” children and start looking at what has happened in the past. What are they trying to tell us?

There are ways to help a traumatized child. For our infants, toddlers and preschoolers it is important for parents to stay close to their child. Kids of all ages need security, especially after trauma, but for our younger ones they will struggle to verbalize their trauma (if they can at all) and what they need. So staying close to your child gives them a sense of security. Help the child anticipate what will happen, give them choices. When trauma happens our sense of control in our life is rocked to the core. It is important to give that feeling of control back to the child. I will give you an example. Let’s say you ask your youngster to put away their toys and they refuse too. Instead of getting angry at them it is important to offer them a choice like, “Sarah you can put your toys away or you can go to your room for a time out.” This gives the child a choice without anger or a threat and they are then in control of what happens next. It is also important to name the child’s feelings and letting them know that feelings are good to feel. It is also important to give them reassurance as they need it and expect to do this over and over again. It is normal for children to need repeated reassurance.

For a school aged child it is important to listen to a child’s concerns and to answer questions truthfully and simply. Also let your child be close to you if they need you. They too will look to you for security. Reassure the child that they are safe. Also name their feelings and encourage them to express them through play or art. It is also important to help the child anticipate what will happen next in their life to help them feel in control and to give them choices. Like our younger children expect to do these things over and over.

For teens it is very similar to the younger children. With teen you will also want to give them choices, be close to you if they need to, encourage them to express their feelings through journaling, art, dance or writing poems and songs. Help them anticipate what happens next and provide an environment where your teen can talk about their concerns. Also expect to do these things over and over. Healing from trauma takes time, patience and hard work. There is no straight time line for healing trauma so basically it will take as long as it takes. Over time, as your child heals you will notice that the effects of trauma will lessen and the trauma will become a part of them. If  there are symptoms that you feel incapable of handling on your own it is always best to seek professional help. It is also important as a parent that you are supported. It is not easy to watch your child struggle and all of this can be a heavy load to carry so reach out to family and friends. If needed seek professional help for yourself to help you cope in healthy ways.

I have to say that my children have come a long way in the last eight years.  We no longer need to share a bed together. Outbursts and clingyness has been replaced with children who are getting to know who they are, are enjoying being with friends and can sleep without nightlights. I am extremely proud of each of them for all they have achieved in their recovery.  The good days happen more often than the bad now, but yes we still have struggling moments. Which is why last night when I held one of my children, as they sat on the bathroom floor and cried, I was not surprised that this was happening. I held them knowing that their pain still needs to come out and that is OK. I know that I do not have to solve this for them I just need to be there, to listen, hold them and let them know that they are safe and loved. I know that over time the impact of their trauma is lessening, one day at a time.

If you or your child needs extra help dealing with trauma I encourage you to speak to your doctor or seek out a therapist trained in trauma to help you through it. Until we meet again….

Peace,

Janet

PS. Kids Help Phone is available for any child in need. They can be reached at  1-800-668-6868

 

 

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Christmas Anxiety

To say that this Christmas season has been easy for me would be a lie, it hasn’t been. It is not because I don’t like Christmas either, because I love the Christmas season. I love celebrating the birth of Christ, all the lights, the carols and time with family and friends. It is a lovely time of year. So why has it not been easy for me? Anxiety.

Anxiety is a disorder that cripples many. I am one of them. I was diagnosed with PTSD back in 2011 and with PTSD comes anxiety. A lot of the time I am able to cope with it. I know all the breathing exercises to calm myself. I know how to do positive self talk. In fact I am a person who often helps others with their anxiety so you would think I have this all cased wouldn’t you? Well I don’t. I have shed tears in my vehicle after shopping in a mall. I have suffered a full out anxiety attack while decorating our Christmas tree and I have had moments where I just crawl under the blankets and seek silence. To be blunt it sucks.

I know why I am suffering. Christmas was always a time when my ex husband was more abusive. He would yell more and would make sure I knew what a chore it was to shop for me. Everyone else’s gifts would be planned out weeks in advance whereas mine would be last minute. He would make sure I knew that he was only buying me something because it would look bad in front of everyone else if he did not. He crushed my self worth every Christmas. I understand that those memories go deep so of course when December rolls around I am not surprised if I am triggered and on edge.

What am I doing to cope? Well I am happy to say I was remarried this last fall to a wonderful man who loves me deeply. He has been my rock during this anxiety ridden time. He holds me when I cry or when my whole being is shaking with anxiety. We talk about what I am feeling or sometimes we just sit in silence. I also pray. I am a strong Christian believer so I have had many “chats” with God praying for peace and strength and I am also looking for the positives in every day, even if it is a small thing like going out for a walk on our farm in the snow and sunshine.

If you are also struggling this Christmas my thoughts are with you. Please know that you are not alone. I too am taking it all one moment at a time. Breathe and take care of you. Merry Christmas.

 

Janet

 

Anxiety, it’s a Nasty Thing

Anxiety, it’s a nasty thing. Today I woke with an anxiety attack. My heart was pounding, I felt shaky and on edge. To make matters worse it was also really windy out and I could hear something tapping against the house.

Tap

Tap

Tap

With each tap I felt myself jumping out of my skin. What was that? Was it a person? Was someone going to hurt me? I could no longer sleep. I pulled myself out of bed and went to find the noise.

Tap

Tap

Tap

My heart kept pounding and my arms felt weak. I zeroed in on the noise. It was outside my kitchen window. I made my way with shaky legs to the window and looked out. There I saw a wind ornament that hung off the edge of the garage, spinning in the wind. It had spun it’s way over next to the house and was hitting the side of it.

Tap

Tap

Tap

I did what I know I was supposed to do. I took a slow, deep breath, in through my nose and out through mouth and did my best to try and calm myself. I told myself that I was safe and that no one was coming to get me; it was just an out of control wind ornament.

Anxiety can be a paralyzing disorder. Anxiety is a worry about future events. In extreme cases some people are terrified to leave their homes or even their bedrooms because the anxiety has them believing something catastrophic will happen. Those with anxiety have usually, if not always, gone through some form of trauma, something that took them completely way out of their comfort zone and caused them pain whether physical or emotional. Myself, I was in an abusive marriage for 15 years. The constant trauma from abuse left me with a diagnosis of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and anxiety is a part of that disorder. There was a time when I was very sick with my PTSD symptoms and leaving my house or answering the phone was a terrifying and overwhelming thought. I saw even the most loved people in my life as a threat, as someone who could hurt me. To me it made sense, the man I had loved and married had tortured me through various forms of abuse for over a decade. If I could not trust him how could I possibly trust the clerk at the grocery store?

To someone who is not battling the anxiety giant my behaviour today would seem completely irrational. I get that and yes I do feel a bit crazy when I am battling anxiety. On a logical level, I know the grocery store clerk is not going to hit me and I know that if I call a trusted family member they are not going to scream at me and call me names, but my nervous system does not get that. It is on high alert and passes that alertness on to me through anxiety so that I stay on edge and over aware. It is a terrible cycle to be caught in. Many lose relationships, jobs or suffer in their school attendance all due to the fear anxiety causes.

The fear. Fear is a reaction to current events and it is big when it hits with anxiety, but is it rational? No, not really.  My first thought when I heard the tapping was that someone was outside about to hurt me not that it was windy and something must be hitting the house as a result. That was pretty irrational of me. I believe to combat those irrational thoughts one needs to understand where anxiety with PTSD comes from. We all have the limbic system in our brain. It is our animal brain and it functions the “fight or flight” mode we all go into when danger strikes. We hear strange noises in the garage at night, we freeze for a moment and listen, the hairs go up on the back of our neck and our body starts to pump extra blood to our limps preparing us to either flee the danger quickly or to fight it. This is a great system built in us that protects us. With PTSD anxiety, we are having that adrenaline pump through us when it is not needed. Our mind perceives a threat and thinks it needs to go into the fight or flight mode based on past experiences.

So how do you combat this anxiety?

It might sound silly, but breathing exercises help. So do grounding exercises. These are two things that focus our brain on the present, what is right in front of us. It breaks the anxious thought cycle. Talking to a friend or a trained third party helps. Doing something creative can be a good release or for some they get out for a walk and burn off some of that anxious energy. It takes time and being very aware of whom you are to combat anxiety, but I do believe it can be done.

Anxiety no longer rules my life. I can go to the grocery store now with no anxiety. Making and receiving phone calls has become easier, but I still do have tough moments like I did today. It is in those moments that I do some positive self-talk and tell myself that I am safe and to just breathe. I might make a cup of tea or like today it was a mug of hot chocolate, hug my new husband and just be safe and calm. Over time my anxiety drifts away and I feel like myself again. It has taken a lot of work; time with a counsellor, some medication and self-exploration to get where I am today. I am not cured, but I am getting there. You can too. Until we meet again…..

Peace,

Janet

Deep Breathing Exercise

Sit comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.

Breathe in through your nose. The hand on your stomach should rise. The hand on your chest should move very little.

Exhale through your mouth, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but your other hand should move very little.

Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to inhale enough so that your lower abdomen rises and falls. Count slowly as you exhale.

Grounding Exercise

The “54321 game” is a common sensory awareness grounding exercise that many find a helpful tool to relax or get through difficult moments.

PROCEDURE:

  1. Describe five things you see in the room.
  2. Name four things you can feel (“my feet on the floor” or “the air in my nose”)
  3. Name three things you hear right now (“traffic outside)
  4. Name two things you can smell right now (or two smells you like)
  5. Name one good things about yourself

You should feel calmer and more at ease by the end of the exercise. Repeat the five steps more than once if needed.

-Dr. Stephanie Cordes, ND