help4yourfamily

Create the family you want to have

Caught in the Loop: Why People Repeat the Same Bad Choices Over and Over

train circle

train circle (Photo credit: bitmapr)

written by, Kate Oliver, LCSW-C

When I met Aaron, he was 10 years old and living with his parents who had adopted him after three failed placements.  Aaron’s parents were at a loss about what to do with him.  They were committed, loving parents who wanted to help him make better decisions; however, after living with them for over a year, Aaron continued to have bizarre behaviors that they did not understand.  In addition to continuing to steal from his parents any time he had the opportunity, his parents had just figured out that he had also been urinating into the vents in his room.  Aaron’s parents were at a loss as to how to help him change this behavior and they were terrified that it would continue to get worse.

Children who have experienced trauma can seem to continually engage in activities that can be baffling to parents.  I have had many a parent come in to my practice and describe a foster or adopted child who seems to seek attention in negative ways and to actually work to recreate the circumstances that were traumatizing to them in the first place.  From rooms that seem to get instantly messy immediately after cleaning them, to repetitive behaviors that pluck even the calmest parent’s nerves, these children can seem intent on turning their parents into a recreation of the child’s biological parent or earliest caregiver.  There is a name for this phenomenon.  It is called “traumatic reenactment.”  The best way to explain traumatic reenactment is to first understand how trauma works, and the ways we store it in the brain.

Think of your brain as a computer.  The files in your computer are stored in different areas.  There is a short term memory file that stores what you had for breakfast today and yesterday.  There is a long term memory file that stores the stories from your childhood.  There is the work file, the running “to do” list file, and many, many more.  Days that go as planned are pretty easy to file away.

But what happens on a day when something traumatic happens?  An easy definition of trauma is anything that impacts you in such a way that it causes you to feel as though your life is in serious danger, with the possibility of death, or that changes who you perceive yourself to be in a negative way.  To show how people typically store traumatic memories, let’s take the example of a car accident.  You do not wake up in the morning thinking this is probably going to be the day you are in a car accident.  If you really believed that, you would probably never get into the car.  But, there you are, driving down the road and someone sideswipes the car you are in.  No one is hurt, but there are a few moments of panic and your car is seriously damaged.  What do you do?  Well, of course, as an adult you make sure everyone in both cars is okay, call 911 to make sure no one is hurt, and then the insurance.  But what is happening with your memory filing system?  How are you filing this memory?  It sure does not go in the breakfast file!

What happens with trauma is that, until we file it, it acts like a virus on our computers.  If you have ever had a virus on your computer, you know what happens.  You go to get on the internet and think you are checking your email, only to find all kinds of unwanted images popping up on your computer.  Then, if and when you are able to get to your email, you may find out you sent a bunch of messages to people that were not even from you!  You never sent that!  This is how trauma works.  Until you file that traumatic memory you just got from the car accident, your brain is going to be working overtime to file it.  You will go to get in the car and up will pop the memory of the accident and maybe another accident you had a while back.  You will start to remember those terrifying moments when you were out of control and you did not know if you were going to live or die.

Healthy adults file traumatic memories as they verbally process the trauma.  Remember how you called the police?  You had to tell them what happened so they knew who to send.  You were processing the memory.  Remember when you had to call the insurance?  Same thing.  Did you sit in your car for a moment and do some sort of self-soothing like deep breathing to calm yourself down?  Maybe you got a hug or reassurance from someone.  Perhaps you reminded yourself that you have been in cars thousands of times and the vast majority of those times nothing bad happened.

If you did any of those things, you were processing and filing your memory.  Another part of filing trauma is finding a way to understand the event.  This includes thinking about whether you could have done something differently, how you got through it, and how you can avoid the same thing happening again.  Therapists call that mastering the situation.

Now, think about the child you have or have had in your home who has experienced trauma but did not have anyone to process it with and did not have anyone to soothe them, nor did they know how to self soothe, after all, who would they have learned soothing from?  The clinical term for the way this “virus” manifests is “traumatic reenactment.”  It goes like this.  A trauma occurs.  It is not filed appropriately because there is either no, or not enough, processing or soothing for the child.  The child tries to gain mastery (understanding) of the trauma by subconsciously putting themselves back into the same situation over and over again in an attempt to understand or “master” it.

Remember Aaron?  When Aaron lived with his birth parents he was repeatedly locked in his room for days at a time when his parents went on drug binges.  When his adoptive parents brought him in to see me he was lying and stealing constantly, then, they had recently discovered that when they sent him to his room for punishment, he had been urinating into the vents of their home.  What became clear was that this child had found a way to experience a traumatic reenactment with his adoptive parents.  He lied and stole, then got sent to his room for punishment.  While in his room, he had the emotional experience of feeling trapped again, just as he was trapped when he was very young.  In his mind, being sent to his room meant he was not allowed to come out even to go to the bathroom.  When he had to go, he did what he had before, went in the vents, so he did not have to be around a wet spot in his room.  His loving parents had responded in every way they could think of to change these behaviors, but it was not until they understood where the behaviors were coming from that they were able to adapt their responses to more accurately fix the underlying problems.

In therapy, Aaron processed the trauma, learned how to soothe himself and to be soothed by his parents.  It really did not take long for the vents to become dry again so his parents could focus on new ways to address other issues related to his early abuse and neglect.  For traumatized children, I strongly recommend counseling, with a therapist that specializes in trauma, as a resource to help them process traumatic memories to improve behaviors and help parents find a way to adapt parenting styles in ways that are most beneficial to the child.

January 15, 2013 Posted by | attachment disorder, child development, discipline, help for parents | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

It’s Not Just Strangers- spotting potential abusers: Part II

Join the movement to end child abuse: www.1sta...

Join the movement to end child abuse: http://www.1stand.org (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While 96% of all abusers are men,* and men tend to be the focus of this article, it is important that we refrain from trivializing the role of women as abusers as well.  In this article, I speak mostly about men, but the same holds true for women.  Here are some tips to spot potential perpetrators or unsafe situations:

1. Look for people who are more interested in your children than their own children.  For example, if you go to a birthday party and see the father of the birthday kid paying more attention to your child than their child, take a moment to listen to the words they are saying to your child.  Are they trying to draw your child away from the crowd?  Are they excessively flattering?  Are they trying to get your child to come for a playdate even when your child seems reluctant?

2.  Pay attention to any men who are overly willing to be available to babysit, especially if they are willing to put off other, adult activities to be more available to your child for one on one time.  This is true for teenage boys and boys or girls that you know have issues but just like to hang around with your children even though your children are significantly younger.  Kids who are developmentally younger than their chronological age will still begin sexual development at the same age and if they feel more comfortable with children their own age, they are more likely to try out sexual behavior on younger children who will let them get away with it.

3.  “Grabbers” are perpetrators that take the opportunity when it presents itself.  These are, for example, the in-home, daycare provider’s brother who came to visit for a week and was in the home when you dropped your child off.  You can protect your children from those by asking any adult who is in charge of your child to tell you if there will be any other adults around your child.  If you notice a new face when you take your child to school or child care, don’t be afraid to ask.  Just do what I do and say you are an over protective parent.  Own it 🙂

4.  “Groomers” are people who take time to get a child (and parent) comfortable with them.  They may take a long time to even begin doing anything to the child.  In the meantime, they begin to seamlessly insert themselves into the family and over time, develop a relationship with the children.  Listen to your gut if you get a feeling about someone, take a minute to ask your child and get curious about how they feel when that person is around.

5.  Be visible.  Parents who are a known presence at school and day-care are less likely to have children who are victims.  Show up unannounced at child care and for school lunches if your child’s school allows it.  Volunteer a few times a year so you get to know teachers and other school personnel and they get to know you.  Know your childcare provider and, if you do not trust his or her decision-making, get a new one.

6.  Be aware of people in your own family who you know are perpetrators.  This may sound obvious, however, I have met enough people by now who allowed their child to be around the grandparent who abused the parent, yet the parent felt if they were watchful enough, their child would not get hurt, or hoped that the perpetrator had changed enough that they would not do that to their grandchild.  Similarly, if you are a divorced parent and abuse was an issue during your marriage, or you knew that your child’s other parent was harming or neglecting the children, if possible, protect your child from being alone with that parent.  Wikipedia reports that, “the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that for each year between 2000 and 2005, “female parents acting alone” were most likely to be perpetrators of child abuse.”  **  If someone is a known perpetrator to you, do not allow your child to be alone with them.  Stepfathers and fathers respectively are the most likely to be reported as perpetrators of sexual abuse for girls 10 and older according to childabuse.org.

7.  Listen to your child.  Children, especially young children, often disclose information that we do not catch if we are not listening.  If a child says something that causes you concern, be curious and ask them about it to clarify what they are talking about.  Sometimes because our young children are so sexually innocent, they don’t even know that there was anything out-of-order with what happened and they just tell you about it.

I want to conclude by being perfectly clear, that there is no guarantee that our children will never deal with an abusive caretaker.  However, the likelihood that a child will identify a problem to you sooner, so that you may take action immediately will be increased by talking to your child and being aware of the tricks of abusers.

Related Articles:

*http://www.child-abuse-effects.com/male-sex-offenders.html

**http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child_abuse#cite_ref-31

May 18, 2012 Posted by | child development, help for parents, keeping children safe | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Qualities of good programs to prevent child abuse

PEARL HARBOR (April 23, 2010) Mara MacDonald, ...

PEARL HARBOR (April 23, 2010) Mara MacDonald, from the Navy New Parent Support Home Visitation Program, leads a group of new mothers and their babies in an infant massage class. The program is administered by the Navy Region Hawaii Fleet & Family Support Center and assists new parents and expecting parents with home visits, information on parenting, referrals, support groups and nurturing skills. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jason Swink/Released) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my final post (for now) about programs to prevent child abuse, I thought I would highlight some qualities of programs I have seen that effectively work to prevent child abuse. As a reminder, my original start to this series of posts was a question posed on another blog about how we can prevent child abuse and child deaths.

1.  The first quality any program providing aid to people who could use parenting help is compassion/ empathy.  I know this may seem like a no-brainer, but some programs I have seen seem to leave this element out.  No one wants to go to a program to hear how awful they are, thus confirming their internal fear that they are, in fact, awful.  A compassionate program understands that all parents experience fear, that we are all doing the best we can, and that none of us have children thinking we are looking forward to messing them up as much as possible.  Acknowledging this over and over is an important part of any program seeking to help parents.

2.  Normalizing getting help is an incredibly important part of any program seeing to end child abuse.  Highlighting the diversity of parents, race, class, and gender, who seek help is also incredibly helpful.  This is, in my opinion, best achieved by having mentors that have completed the same or a similar program and are a representation of the general client population of the program.  For example, if this is a program aimed toward parents experiencing postpartum depression, you would want a parent mentor or group leader who has experienced this and is regularly available to participants.

3.  Good programs focus on the importance of parents in a child’s life.  For regular followers of my posts, you know I had to mention attachment :).  But seriously, the cornerstone of a good program that prevents child abuse absolutely needs to highlight the impact parents have on their children.  I think people sometimes think it is a given that parents know how important they are to their children, but for people struggling with parenting- perhaps people whose parents were not ideal either- I find that many of these parents feel disempowered to make change in their child’s life.  A good program reminds a parent of just how important they are.

4.  The final quality I would like to highlight is that a good program helps people to build a supportive community.  Good programs build communities so that if the program is ever unavailable, the learning and growing continues among the members of the community.

Some good programs I know of in my area are:

The Healthy Families program where parents are met in the hospital by someone from the program and are given support if they request it.  Support can include getting help with access to services or forming a group of other new parents in the community.  While there are healthy families programs all over the country, you can find the one near me here: http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/howard_county_general_hospital/services/mothers_and_babies/healthy_families/index.html

The National Family Resiliency Center (NFRC) is a center for families experiencing a family transition and for parents where there is any need for co-parenting agreements.  NFRC has been a national leader in helping court systems to recognize that when parents separate it is important to keep in mind the best interests of the child.  They provide individual, couples, group counseling for parents and children, reunification and collaborative divorce services as well as very good classes for parents and children who are experiencing the transition process.  Additionally, NFRC helps parents who would like to have co-parent agreements and low-conflict divorce.  One way they do this is with an on-line program, www.familyconnex.org to help parents make decisions that are in the best interests of the children.  Here is the link to NFRC’s website: www.nfrchelp.org

The Infants and Toddlers program, which is part of the educational system but may go by different names in other states, identifies infants who may have developmental delays and helps parents by offering resources for children birth-5 years with the combination of services they might need to get them school ready.  You can find them here: http://marylandpublicschools.org/MSDE/divisions/earlyinterv/infant_toddlers/about/message.htm

There are many more, but these programs I mentioned in particular, although they target different populations, offer the combination of qualities important for a program aiming to prevent child abuse.  While they might not even directly target child abuse, they are organizations that can recognize and report possible abuse, and that may help to prevent it in the first place though education and service.

What do you think?  Do you know of any good programs that have been effective in your area in preventing abuse?  I would love to hear about them.  Also, did I miss any qualities of effective programs to help parents?

April 20, 2012 Posted by | help for parents, social services | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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