It was one of my very favorite times during church – children’s sermon. Lots of children seated up front on the steps and the question posed was, “what do you do if something at home needs to be fixed?”. Travis very excitedly and with confidence shouted out, “call a professional!” I loved that child – he was one of those zesty kids who had a sparkle in his eye and was not bound by too many conventions in life. There was laughter and a moment of redirect.
I have noticed that within some of the Christian contexts of my life, there is a great reluctance and sometimes even a stigma associated with expressing struggles and seeking professional help– in particular, in the area of mental health. Do we sometimes think God should be sufficient for absolutely everything and we are failures if we need this kind of help? Are we afraid of what others will think or say about us if they find out? Is it that we are admitting some kind of defeat or weakness of self? I am sure there are a myriad of thoughts and reasons around this. Maybe the American values of being self-made and self-sufficient are all tangled up in it.
With seven people in our family, there have been several occasions when we have needed to call a professional. I recall the very first time many years ago. If I am honest with myself, pride and arrogance along with fear of the unknown were at the root of my reluctance. Somehow my thinking on this issue had gotten really twisted. But the truth of the matter is that getting help was a huge relief. We needed it. Things were happening that we didn’t have the tools to address and our children and family would suffer if I let my pride stand in the way of getting help.
I think back to three conversations related to this topic. One was with a minister who expressed something along the lines of “surely there are other people in this church who are struggling with their children – why don’t we talk to each other about this?” And a porch conversation with a minister’s spouse who told me that she and her husband had been going to see a therapist. She recounted that she had been quite honest and talked about this fairly openly. Her view was that this was a healthy and helpful thing to do for their marriage and family. She was puzzled and surprised by the people who literally came and whispered in her ear or called her later asking her questions about this as though it was a big secret shame. Her friends needed help too, but they were afraid, shamed, or somehow needed permission from the minister’s family to go and get that help. And a recent conversation with a dear friend who did go and see a mental health professional – “there were a lot of families in the waiting room – there are a lot of us”.
So, to answer my question about when to call a professional, one thought is that when daily life is interrupted. When we get stuck and just feel like we are barely keeping our heads above water. When things are chaotic on a regular basis or there is an issue for us or our children that we just can’t handle alone. In the context of children with early relational trauma, why do we expect to be able to naturally navigate all that may come our way? As one professional said to me, “this is very specialized parenting”. She also imparted this wisdom to me – it is a privilege to be able to work through some of these things with a professional. And indeed it is.
In Ecclesiastes, it says, “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken”. I’ve always envisioned God in that mix of three, but also know that another person is a part of that cord as well. For the sake of our families, when it is time, may we confidently seek the help that we all need at some point and deeply know the joy of sharing the struggles of life with another.
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.
I imagine that any parent who navigates life with a child who is different, out of the norm or has some type of special need is faced with a grief to be felt and a gift to be relished.
The grief – looking around at other “normal” families, our families are somehow out of step. There is a complexity that though not always seen by the casual observer is still very much a reality. It can show itself in many, many places – we may not be able to fully participate in some of the regular things of life such as church, certain social events, school or sometimes just an uninterrupted night’s rest. Spontaneity can be stifled and desires put aside as we strive to be realistic and constantly mindful of healthy limits and boundaries for our children. And each family finds themselves somewhere along this “out of sync” continuum.
Mental health professionals have long said that grief expressed is healthy while grief stuffed is going to leak out somewhere and eventually wreak havoc. So though it may be elusive and difficult to put words to, finding a safe place to acknowledge this grief is very important to the health of ourselves and our families.
The gift – living life with a child that demands we march to the beat of a different drummer is truly a gift. It is like going to the school of what really matters. It is a crash course in getting over pleasing other people. If embraced, this new perspective quickly leads to a far less judgmental stance toward others – we are acutely aware that we never truly know what is under the behavior of that screaming child in the grocery store or that teenager who is “acting out”. We are forced to a deeper reliance on and wrestling with God and are wise to submit to a much slower pace of life. We receive a gift of often being able to see beyond the surface into the deep places of life. It is a portal to true joy.
I spent a fair amount of my life in much shallower waters. I now mostly love swimming in a deeper real life place. But I need to be honest that there are times when I long to swim back up to the shallow area. When that happens, it is critical that I acknowledge it – out loud to a trusted person is best – and feel that loss. Doing so allows me to then dive back in to the sometimes painful but overwhelmingly joyful place of the gift.
For over 25 years – a quarter of a century, half of my life – I’ve been actively parenting children. Our first three children, all amazing boys, came to us through birth. Our next two, beautiful girls, came by adoption. Though there are definitely things I would have done differently and mistakes were made (!), for the most part, our parenting journey with the boys rolled along with the mostly typical bumps in the road. I somewhat brazenly and naively felt fairly prepared, adequate and up to the task.
I was comfortable with and familiar with a “traditional parenting” model that I heard much about in Christian circles. This paradigm mostly demanded respect and obedience with an emphasis on control and left little room for emotional expression – this was my comfort zone. I had confidence in the parenting toolbox in my possession – it seemed adequate to the task. Those who taught and espoused this method made sense to me, for the most part. I spent some years reading such authors until one day I read a book called “Grace Based Parenting” and there was something deep in my soul that resonated with that text. On completion of that particular book, I resolved to take a hiatus from reading about parenting. I needed to experience and impart more grace to myself and others.
This was the beginning of a crack in my parenting paradigm. But things were rolling along in reasonable fashion, so there was no impetus for real change. Enter our daughters. They came to us, via living in an orphanage, at the ages of 18 and 22 months. Though our adoption agency had responsibly educated us and challenged us to see that parenting children who have experienced early relational trauma requires different skills, we still weren’t so sure about that. Love is enough is a very common misconception for adoptive parents – well, that and the parenting skills I already possess.
Critical crossroads – I very clearly remember the moment. There had been a big rage and tantrum that had gone on for hours. I had pulled out all of the tools in my parenting toolbox, and things were escalating. It was as if God Himself whispered, or probably screamed, into my ear, “you can change yourself and your parenting or you can dig in, cling to your old ways and in the process destroy two children – this is your choice”. That was holy ground.
This blog will be an attempt to share the now 7 year, and still ongoing, journey of the pursuit of new, different and more life giving tools to fill up the toolbox. It is quite a ride.