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.
It started as a fairly innocuous dinner conversation about my hair – coloring my hair that is. I do that about every 10 weeks and this was that day. Our older daughter was checking it out up close and noted that she couldn’t see the gray any longer. This moved into a discussion on how long I would color my hair. I said something about wanting to keep it up while young children are in our family. Our younger daughter requested that I do it at least until they were teenagers. We chatted a bit about wrinkles and the options for addressing those and then the conversation took a turn.
Around the corner of talking about parents aging, in the hearts and minds of these daughters, is the often present theme of death. Deeply imprinted on our girls’ hearts is a fear of losing a parent. We have had countless conversations of “what if” – Mommy dies and Daddy doesn’t, Daddy dies and Mommy doesn’t, both die and….you get the point. They want to know specifics about what will happen to them, who will care for them, how in the world would we manage this thing? It is a consistent fear in their young, impressionable hearts and minds and often a topic of conversation.
This was certainly not a focus or repeated conversation that we had with our sons. There are probably several reasons for that. One may be that we did not encourage the same depth of emotional expression that we do now. But a professional once told me that “typical” children do not allow themselves to go there. I don’t think our boys spent a lot of mental or emotional energy in this sphere. Yet for any adopted child, the scenario of losing a parent – to death or some other force – is not theoretical or “could happen” stuff. It is a part of their story.
From my observation, at a very young age, this knowledge is present at a cellular level. They KNOW that the loss of parents is well within the “could happens” of life. It has in fact happened. And as they grow cognitively, they know this truth of their own story on an even deeper and often more confusing level. We have friends who have indeed lost a parent, and I’ll never forget the day that the reality that a child can also die entered their realm of possibilities. Despite a desire to shelter them from these pains, that isn’t possible or healthy. Walking a line of being trustworthy and truthful and meeting their great need to feel safe is a tricky one.
So, my response on that day was that it is unlikely that I die soon, but if that did happen, Daddy and I have plans and provisions in place to take care of them. We have family and friends who would step up and in to help us through. At the end of the dinner, our youngest said, “Mom, keep coloring your hair, and everything will be just fine”. If it was only so simple.
My deep desire is to imprint something new onto their hearts – “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. “ We are on our way, but it is a long, slow journey.