Bessel van der Kolk, discipline, domestic violence, Frances Rae, no hitting, no screaming, no smacking, parenting after trauma, raised voices, re-traumatize, Shawna Ayoub Ainslie, Stigma Fighters, The Belle Jar, The Body Keeps the Score, trauma, trauma after abuse, triggers, vulnerability
This is a post idea I’ve been on the fence about writing. I drafted it a while ago, then let it languish–because my son’s age-appropriate, tantrum-y behavior improved; because I wasn’t sure of what all I wanted to say on this topic; and because no one wants to associate her sweet little one with abusive behavior.
I want to say outright that the only smacks my son ever gets are when I swat his hand if he grabs something I’ve told him not to grab. This isn’t intended to sound preachy, but I do not believe in hitting children. I don’t believe in hitting anyone.
But I do have to raise my voice sometimes, and I don’t like it.
I’ve written about temper tantrums before, and fortunately, Jax doesn’t throw many. I mentioned that my method for dealing with this rare occurrence is a cocktail of distract and ignore. When he’s not throwing a tantrum, just being defiant, I try to be patient. Most parents do.
What I lose my patience over usually concerns some issue of safety or manners. When we’re outside in our yard, Jax knows he has to stay in the grass. He can’t linger on the driveway and he can’t go down to the road. When he ambles toward pavement, I steer him back. When he does it again, I steer him back and remind him, “We stay in the grass. The road is for cars.” When he does it again, I steer and remind again.
When he does it AGAIN, I raise my voice. I do it because it works. I wish my calm voice worked, but sometimes, it doesn’t.
Jax is also learning about table manners. Mastering utensils, taking one bite at a time and not talking with food in his mouth, keeping all food on his plate (not the high chair tray, not the floor, not his hair), saying “excuse me” if he burps–the basics. Some days, he’s so well-behaved I can’t even believe it. Others, not so much. He knows what he should and shouldn’t do at this point, so when he throws his cup or dumps his plate, it really tries my patience.
What destroyed me, though, was the day he looked up at me from his chair, screamed, “NOOOOO!” and hit me on the arm.
I know toddlers do these things. I’m not suggesting my toddler is being abusive toward me, even if his hitting me reminded me of having been abused. I’m saying that having to grab his hand, lean in very close, and raise my voice to say, “WE DO NOT HIT EVER. NO HITTING!” is a little traumatizing for me. I’m saying that when he screams in anger and I calmly and softly repeat, “There’s no need to yell. Use your words. Use your quiet voice. We only yell outside. No yelling in the house,” it feels too much like pleading with someone to stop directing their rage at me, to listen to reason, to please let me walk away. And you usually can’t walk away from your toddler.
I can feel my patience erode into desperation when either of us are yelling, and I have to remind myself it isn’t the same desperation as when you are afraid of someone’s behavior. I have to remind myself that I’m teaching Jax the right way to act, not begging him not to hurt me. I have to remember that Jax will learn, and that he is testing boundaries for the first time, not the 100,000th time. I do this reminding via the same methods I’ve learned to control my anxiety: sensory grounding (distracting one’s self by observing what you can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste in the present reality), ritualistic grounding (specific yoga poses that help me center and find balance), and deep breathing techniques in which I focus on exhalation and visualize expelling negativity with breath.
About a month ago, I read a great post at a blog I follow called The Belle Jar. It’s a guest post by Frances Rae called “Parenting with Trauma,” and the author, in speaking about her own daughter’s tantrums and moments of conflicting emotions, admits that, “The most difficult thing for me in those situations is how much my daughter’s response to anger and frustration and disappointment mirrors the behaviour of adults with whom I have been in abusive relationships in the past.” Yes.
Rae continues: “It is so frightening to be the parent, where all of those vulnerabilities in another person are my responsibility, and feeling the memories of trauma telling me that I’m the one who is vulnerable in this moment.” Oh my, yes.
Rae also says she had difficulty finding material on this topic, which is a main reason why I hesitated to write about it. Her post made me feel less alone in my feelings, and made me realize there is probably a need for posts like this, even just as conversation starters.
Then I let the draft of this post linger for a while longer, because I wasn’t saying exactly what I wanted to say. Until I read Shawna Ayoub Ainslie’s piece on Stigma Fighters, called “Anxious All Over.” Ainslie writes movingly (everywhere–read her blog) about her struggle to not become an abuser herself: “I can’t tell you how surprised I was to have to fight that impulse. I can tell you it was nowhere near as jarring as falling into a flashback, striking my child, starting therapy, digging in deep to that healing, and still having to fight daily to not see my child as my abuser. To never strike my child again.”
Rae and Ainslie are brave writers committed to de-stigmatizing the long-term effects of abuse, and I feel blessed to have found their words because they helped me finish writing this post and feel less alone in these feelings. The thing I want to say on this topic that I’d been having trouble articulating is an echo of Ainslie’s main point: “The body remembers.”
I’m reading an incredible book right now called The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Dutch trauma psychologist Bessel van der Kolk wrote it, and he insists not only that our bodies code and translate abuse and trauma into physiological responses–anxiety, panic attacks, outbursts of rage, periods of sullen withdrawal, carrying tension in certain parts of our bodies, etc.–but reminds us that because this is “a body thing,” that means we can change it. Just as we can lose weight, gain weight, build muscle, increase flexibility, and learn new things, we can un-learn trauma-induced anxiety. Just as we were conditioned to be afraid, we can be conditioned to let go of that fear, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.
I welcome comments about the lines we walk when disciplining our children, about maintaining patience, and about being triggered, re-traumatized, or flashing back when hearing raised voices, or raising one’s own voice. Thanks to Frances Rae and Shawna Ayoub Ainslie for being courageous enough to raise a topic that not everyone is going to understand–but which some of us will relate to more than we might care to admit.