With great anguish, we had sent our 6 year old son, Alex, adopted at 14 months from an Eastern European orphanage, to live with Miss Debbie, a therapeutic parent. He stayed there for 2 ½ months. While the time apart was painful, it was also transformative, for both him in terms of new patterns of behavior and us in terms of parenting differently. We learned that while most children will grow up fine with a vast array of parenting styles (as long as there is some love and discipline thrown in there) children who have experienced significant trauma in their first three years of life, especially if that trauma includes attachment challenges, need a very specific type of parenting to heal. So we had to become those therapeutic parents. Miss Debbie could change his trajectory and start him on the road of healing, but we needed to help him continue those changes.
So what were the tasks that were set out for us to learn? My mentor, Grace, refers to them as “the three legs of the stool.” All three are needed for the stool to be stable, take away one and the stool falls over. The following is an outline of what we learned.
A) We always need to be Alpha Mom/Dad. When we are in charge, our kids will learn to feel safe and to trust us. We can only really be in charge and in control of parenting and our household, if we are first in control of ourselves. When our kids test us, we must remain calm and immovable–resting in our own authority and weight of our office (of parent). Thus, learning to be calm under duress is essential.
B) Our kids lack internal order. Their minds, hearts and souls are in a state of internal chaos. In order to compensate, they may try to control the outside world through manipulation, defiance and other controlling behaviors. As their parents, it is our job to provide them with external structure – routines, traditions, and well defined boundaries, and to help them develop strategies to compensate for lack of internal structure.
With children who have experienced trauma, this step follows structure. To provide nurture without being in the Alpha position tends to backfire and empower our kids’ desires to control us. Please note that this is the opposite how it works with healthy, secure children where nurture preceeds structure. For us, it is just as important to know when not to nurture (i.e., Cesar Milan motto: never nurture an unstable mind, Kirk Martin: don’t look them in the eye when they are going nutty), as it is to know when and how to nurture. Getting our love into their hearts is a tricky business, but it can and must be done.
Although this step follows structure initially, the two must go hand-in-hand. Nurturing requires calm and an opening of our hearts to our child, while not allowing him to hurt us (it is very unhealthy for the entire family for a traumatized child to be allowed to hurt his parents either emotionally or physically).
A) Getting to Their Truth: Once established as the Alpha and connected with your child through nurturing, we are ready for the Truth Telling piece, which is where deep healing occurs in our children. When they feel safe, secure and loved, they can then open up that very painful place. It is in this vulnerability that the deepest healing and connection occurs.
B) Our Truth: We are not the cause of our kids’ deep and often overwhelming problems. However, we are responsible to help them heal. Often, however, instead of us helping them get better, they make us and our families sick. We have gotten into a bad dance. It is so easy to get into the blame game and avoid looking at ourselves and the role we play. We must remind ourselves that we are the adults. We must take the lead and see what we can change in ourselves because, in the end, we really only have control of ourselves. Having said that, we deeply believe that we can help our kids change — but only after we change first.
These are the things we had to learn about. Winston and I were good at the nurturing piece, but not so good at the alpha/structure or the truth telling pieces. We had to learn these different roles in order to help Alex heal. And Alex had even more work to do than we did. He had to unlearn his basic ways of operating in the world, and learn to push away his need for control (which he thought he needed to stay alive), let in our love (which was truly terrifying for him) and tell us his truth (all those painful feelings that motivated his behaviors).
Our transformation as a family had begun.