It was the dinner hour one day last week in the Wilson home, and our 8 year old daughter seemed particularly bouncy. As we attempted to settle in, it became apparent why she had a little extra energy running through her body. She passionately began to share that during school that day, her class had participated in a “code red drill”. My mind flashed back to early elementary school days when my school had fire drills and a couple of real live “bomb scare” evacuations of the school. Unsettling. Something about our precious 8 year old describing how all of the children in her class had to take cover in a place that would put them out of the line of sight (code word for fire) of anyone peering through the glass window of their classroom door made my heart sink. Corners, under tables, all bunched together. I could not fully let my mind’s eye go to a scene where this drill could become reality, though it doesn’t take a lot of imagination as I interact with the daily news.
As if their hearts needed to redirect after such sober matters, they moved onto lighter topics. Suddenly we were discussing what would each of our daughters do if a boy wanted to marry them. Their dad puffed out his chest a bit and said something to the effect of “bring them to me”. This led into discussion of the different girl friends and boy friends dad and mom had in the past – lots of kissing questions ensued. And then our talk jumped back to what to do if someone wanted to marry one of them and they did not want to do so. I suggested that if this happened, they should dial up a “code red” and 4 men over 6 feet tall would come running – one of the many gifts and advantages of having 3 grown, tall brothers and a daddy.
On Monday, I was responding to a summons to appear at our county courthouse for jury duty. My name had been called and I was sitting in a courtroom with 36 of my peers waiting to see who would be called to serve. In this setting, I lived my own “code red” moments. A text came in to a mom seated next to me reporting that several area schools had been placed on lock down, my children’s school among them. The far-fetched code red drill of dinner conversation seemed to be happening and I was truly grateful that they had practiced. To add to the stress of the moment, the babysitter that I had arranged to pick up my girls after school texted to say that her high school was on lock down and she wasn’t sure she could pick up our girls. You can’t just get up and walk out of jury duty – a contempt of court charge will likely follow. My husband was not reachable. Several deep breaths and a 15 minute break later, contingency plans had been made, friends filled in gaps, a vice principal explained that the girls’ school was taking precautions but the students were not on full code red procedures. The lock down situation did resolve, our girls came home and reported at dinner they had another code red “drill”- thank you awesome school staff for protecting young hearts and minds- and all was ok in our little world. On that day, I was not forced to explain that an ex-husband had shot his ex-wife in a nearby parking lot and been hunted for four hours until he was found dead, of suicide. But I do pray for God’s grace and care on the three newly orphaned children and their family members who are left behind to deal with a big code red situation. God have mercy.
It can happen with all children. Something goes wrong and the response is to blame another – that other often times is Mom or Dad. For children who have experienced trauma, the intensity and nature of the arrows let loose during such an exchange can sting acutely and sometimes come flying at a very young age. It can feel like they are expert sharpshooters and the bulls eye is dead in the center of the parent’s heart.
In reality what is usually happening is that their harsh words are triggering something in us– a past hurt, a feeling of deficiency, a buried fear. The goal – and may I say loudly and clearly, a very difficult goal indeed – is to not take these angry expressions personally. I, for one, can testify that this is extremely challenging and way easier said than done. Receiving the emotions of frustration, sadness and happiness is a lot easier than receiving anger. It just is. Most parents would literally lay down their lives for their child, so sharp words and searing accusations can feel ludicrous and hurt deeply.
There is another way to view this. We as parents are the safe haven – a kind of sanctuary where all emotions are allowed and the child is still beloved. Children from hard places often feel the need to control –in response to the fact that a significant part of their lives have been completely out of their control. They can feel shame and sometimes see themselves as worthless. Rather than let those very deep feelings into their consciousness, they need a safe place to target them. That secure place is often right at home in the midst of those who love them most. Deep down they may be testing to see if we are really, really going to love them and stick by them through “come what may”. Can we tolerate all parts of them – the good and the bad? Anger often covers up a deeper feeling of fear, shame or sadness. They, like all of us, have a desire to be truly known and yet unconditionally loved.
King David is one of my very favorite guys. He was passionate, raw and a master of extreme emotional expression. He got into big messes, called out to God in such authentic ways and fully asserted a great range of emotion. He was chased and often running for his life– he was an unjust target. He also made others unjust targets of his own desires; think Bathsheba and Uriah. But he always knew God as a safe haven. “I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.” He flat out voiced all kinds of things to his refuge/shelter/ always there God. And God received it all. David was known in a way that I wish to be known -as a person after God’s heart.
With time and patience, we can begin to discipline and teach our children how to express angry and fearful feelings in healthier ways. It is a moment by moment, day by day, looking toward the long term goal kind of training. To get there often requires a lot of target practice.
Coming off of a week’s vacation in a beautiful South Carolina beach town seems like the appropriate time to address this topic. There is something deep in my gut that kind of hitches whenever I hear others telling me or just espousing the idea of the importance of taking care of self. Something in my brain screams “selfish”, “you don’t deserve that” or some other degrading negative message. That gut check message has come from different places and voices. Well, like with so many things, I am challenging that line of thinking.
To be clear, what I am not talking about is a lifestyle that mirrors the Vogue or Cosmopolitan covers that I walk by and read over in check out lines. Somehow American values have led us to a huge emphasis on SELF, and admittedly part of my hang up is the conflict I see between faith values and the worship of self. But on the other extreme, there is an uber Puritan work ethic that we have embraced that says he who is busiest and sacrifices most is superior. A recent New York Times blog written by Tim Keider (to read full blog, click http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap) expressed it this way. “Puritans turned work into a virtue evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment”. The God I know and love is the one who though gave us an ability to find satisfaction in work, also commanded the Sabbath.
Anyone who is involved in intensive and stressful caretaking – that could be with an aging parent, a troubled child, a sick family member, etc. – needs the cushion and space in their lives to be able to do extreme care. As human beings, we have limits and needs. We can’t do it all. Self care is important throughout life, but in the intense care giving times, it becomes critical.
For all of us, there are the non-negotiable areas of care – diet, exercise and sleep. None of us gets a pass on these areas of caring for self – we will pay a price if we don’t do them. It is simply how our Creator made us. But there are also the elective areas of care. What is the thing that really brings life to us as an individual? It could be art, gardening, reading, massage, intense practice of a physical activity, walking through the woods or a myriad of other pleasurable pursuits. We have to find what it is that de-stresses us and make time to do it.
If you’ve ever flown on an airplane, the flight attendant has no doubt said, “in the case of an emergency, put your own oxygen mask on before you place a mask on your child”. We don’t have the capacity to take care of another if we don’t take reasonable care of our self. Philippians says “in humility consider others better than yourselves”. This is impossible to do if we are exhausted, cranky, and living on the edge. From a great deal of experience, I’ve learned that I am much more patient, calm, loving, kind (fill in the blank), when a portion of time has been spent in Sabbath periods and caring for myself. Something I used to view as selfish I now see as critical – not only to myself but also to those in my care.
A while back, I saw a Humane Society bumper sticker that caught my eye – it said “who rescued who?” Bumpers are a place where many philosophies, beliefs and theologies are proclaimed. That one got me thinking – in particular about adoptive parents of children who come from difficult places. Sometimes from fellow adoptive parents, I hear things that make me shudder inside – things like, “we saved them from this terrible place”, “we can save one more”. Pretty much any sentence with the word save and a child is extremely disturbing.
We are not asked to be saviors and our children should not be looked upon as charity cases who now owe us a huge debt. Any child who ends up in foster care or living in an orphanage should be honored and admired. The spirit and inner strength necessary to survive are admirable indeed. They know a hardship deep down that most of us will never experience. They are strong.
Anyone who has even stepped foot into an orphanage or looked into the face of a foster child quickly knows that a family is where children are meant to grow up and settle. But those who invite these children into their homes and lives must be willing to walk alongside this child through the good and bad, happy and sad, and all the ups and downs of life. If they expect a posture of gratitude from their child all along the way, there will be great disappointment and disillusionment. We have to desire to parent and share all of life together. We can’t set up a savior/grateful recipient kind of relationship. If that is the expectation, then it will surely implode at some point.
As parents we must be mindful and thoughtful about the gifts and grace that our children bring to us. Even, or maybe more accurately especially, on the most difficult days, there is a deep down exchange of life and hope. Parenting calls us to reach way up to God, way down inside and to be better human beings. One of my parenting mentors, Bryan Post, says it something like this – when your child triggers something in you, turn to them and say “thank you for forcing me to deal with my own issues”. I am not going to say that is easy or that I am even remotely “there”, but my heart resonates with this truth.
So who saved who? In my experience it is a mutual exchange of life giving and receiving. We don’t need to be or see ourselves as saviors – that’s God’s business. We need to walk alongside and embrace the full range of life together with our child.
In Judaism, sitting shiva is the seven days of mourning following a death. The family focuses on mourning during this time, and friends make shiva calls. Thank you to Dr. Ron Wolfson and his “How to make a shiva call” for the following:
- You are not alone is the fundamental message to be shared.
- Comforters are obligated to tend to the needs of mourners.
- What do you say? The tradition suggests being silent, allowing the mourner to open the conversation.
There is much to be gleaned from this beautiful tradition in living life with a child who began life in a difficult place. We need to learn how to make shiva calls. Often in our own discomfort, we rush to say things, dismiss emotions, try to fix things or reassure our children. Silence and real, genuine presence with someone in emotional distress is often best. I am here, truly here, with you in your deep pain. No words are necessary.
How do we practice genuine presence? Now that is a difficult and complex challenge – especially in the midst of a child’s behavioral outburst or emotional shutdown. In the heat of the moment, it involves suspending our own fears and judgments – in short, denying our self. It involves taking deep breaths and truly engaging right alongside and with our children. Jumping ahead to “if this is what is happening at age 6, what is it going to look like at 16?” or behind to “If I had only _________, I am a miserable failure as a parent” are completely paralyzing in the midst of emotional upset.
Beware. There is a counterfeit to presence. Emotional detachment is not true presence. It may appear as calm on the outside, but internally, we have checked right out of this scene. The reasons are myriad – we, the parent, are now triggered by our own pain or hurt and in a very fearful place; we have learned somewhere along the way that strong emotions are dangerous, and detachment is our habitual place of safety; our own fear has led us somewhere other than in the moment.
We all have experienced talking to or being with someone who just “isn’t really there”. Children who have lived early relational trauma have an incredibly sensitive radar system. They can sense and feel the radical difference between true presence and detachment. And when they do, their response can range from a silent cocooning shutdown to a raging behavioral outburst. The only way to slow and calm this cycle for our children is to be genuinely present with the child wherever they may be.
As I write these words, I am personally challenged and reminded of my own shortcomings. There are so many examples of when I fail to be present. I have heard “stop saying so many words” and “you aren’t trying to understand” more times than I want to admit. But being mindful – a topic for another day – of myself and what I am thinking/doing/experiencing in the midst of emotional turmoil is a first step. It will begin to lead me along a path of making compassionate and helpful shiva calls, offering life giving presence, to my children and others.