help4yourfamily

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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

Discipline vs. punishment

FCC program offers child care, career - FMWRC ...

FCC program offers child care, career – FMWRC – US Army – 100916 (Photo credit: familymwr)

written by Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

People might wonder why it is that I would wish to make a distinction between discipline and punishment since we often use the terms interchangeably.  However, I believe there is an important distintion to make.

Discipline is a word that originates from the word “disciple” which means one who accepts and teaches the learnings of another.  If you think about that word, and it’s origins, we can narrow it down to discipline being about teaching.

Punishment is different and mainly refers to inflicting consequences on another.

Deutsch: Historische Federzeichnung einer schu...

Deutsch: Historische Federzeichnung einer schulischen Körperstrafe. Handschriftlicher Begleittext in Original: Tyranis di Magistrum (Tyrannei des Lehrers). Randzeichnung im Buch Lob der Torheit von Erasmus von Rotterdam English: Schoolboy receiving bare bottom birching, from a medieval source (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a quote we use in attachment to teach parents about how children learn to see themselves in the world.  It is by Thomas Cooley, “I am who I think you think I am.”  This is the truth for children.  The full quote from Cooley is actually, “I am not who I think I am; I am not who you think I am; I am who I think you think I am.”  I find this to be so true for every child I have ever seen with the “I” being the child and the “you” being their parents.  Think about your own childhood.  Did you come to know yourself as a child by virtue of what you thought your parents thought of you?  Have you ever struggled with finding out who you are as you moved away from what your parents think of you and who you are, to be who you truely are?  The same is and will be true for your children.  They believe they are who you believe them to be.  What does this have to do with punishment vs. discipline?  It gives us a framework for making decisions about what to do when our children display behaviors we find undesireable (or desireable too).  In many ways, we are Gods to them.  They are your desciples.  What will you teach them?  Or, alternately, will you punish them for things you do not like?

In case you have not figured it out, I am all for discipline, not so much for punishment.  As you will see in the other posts I have written and will keep writing, I do not believe that to teach children new behaviors we mush punish them.  In fact, I think punishment tends to do the opposite by taking the focus off of the behavior and onto their relatonship with you and the conflict you are experiencing with each other.

So, what is the big deal and how will it look different day to day?  Well, in the end, it may not look that different, the discipline framework I am referring to is more a question of the intent of you as a parent.  When we come to our children as loving teachers, the same intervention can have a different feel to the child.  For example, both a disciplinarian and a punisher might decide not to allow their child to go out the weekend after they break a curfew.  However, the disciplinarian would say something like, “Sure, you can go out until 11pm after I have learned to trust you to come in by 10 reliably.  Guess we’ll have to see whether you can do that next week.  Tonight, I want you with me so I don’t have to worry about your safety like last time.”  A punisher says something more like, “You were late last week.  You know the rules, if you break curfew you’re in for a week.”  The tone of discipline is on loving the child and expecting them to do their best for them and for you while punishment is more about, “I’m in charge and you’re in trouble.”

Lots of times discipline looks more forgiving and tolerant of a child’s choices and people can make the mistake that it is overly permissive.  Please let me clarify that discipline allows more for natural consequences with the understanding that children can learn best by age appropriate experiences.  An example of this would be allowing for a bad grade then remarking about how difficult it must be for your child to see themselves earn a grade that is beneath them.  You could also remark on how you are surprised by the grade since you know they are a good student (I am who I think you think I am).  Not only is discipline easier for us as parents (let’s face it- when your kids are punished so are you), in my view of it, we are teaching our children to love themselves and expecting that they will love and respect us in return.  By expecting and giving love and respect as part of our ongoing give and take relationship with our children, we teach them that who they are is important and worthwhile while building the foundations of positive self-esteem that will last a lifetime.

April 9, 2012 Posted by | discipline, help for parents | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Trash Your Behavior Charts!

Kids (film)

Kids (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have a pet peeve as both a parent and as a clinician about behavior charts.  You know, those charts where kids get stickers for doing things they are supposed to be doing anyway, and then they get a treat or prize for doing it enough times?  I am aware this opinion may be upsetting to some clinicians and especially school professionals where behavior charts are relied upon so heavily.  As a parent, I just think they are annoying and hard to follow for me.  As a clinician, I believe they set up a tit for tat system in a family where everyone starts measuring who did what when.  For my parents with children with attachment disorder they are especially frustrating because by the time a child has earned the prize, you might feel as though you are so angry about all the work it took for you to get them to do the chore/ desired behavior that you don’t really feel like giving them anything.  Sometimes kids make you sorry you gave the prize after the fact by deciding now that they earned the prize they don’t need to do anything for a while.  What a pain.

I have a much better alternative to traditional behavior charts.  It’s the only one that works and it requires little effort from you!  This will take all of two minutes of your life.  Here’s how it works:

  1.  Take a piece of paper and write down one or two (I would only do a couple at a time because it’s easier to keep track of) things your child does that bug the heck out of you i.e. lying, “forgetting” to do their chores, sassing back.  Pick something that is realistic for their developmental level.
  2. Think of a few prizes you might like to earn that involve self-care: a massage, getting a cup of tea with a friend, take a long bath, etc.
  3. Let your child know that you are now giving yourself a behavior chart.  When you are able to successfully handle this behavior from your child in a manner you feel is appropriate (without you yelling, whining, engaging in a back and forth battle), you get a point!  Decide how many points you need to earn to get a prize.   Tell your child that when they engage in that behavior from now on you (not they) will earn a point.
  4. When they do engage in the behavior, calmly remark on what an opportunity this is for you to earn points so you can take care of yourself.  It’s important for parents to take care of themselves when kids are giving them a hard time.  You can wonder aloud how long it’s going to take to get your prize.
  5. This is the most important step.  Follow through!  When you earn your points, do the thing you said you would do to take care of yourself, even if you don’t feel like it.  Remember you picked things you like to do so perhaps they can help you now.

I have successfully used this “behavior chart” with many parents now and I have used it myself.  It works like a charm.  I used it with my own daughters who kept coming in at night to have me take them back to bed when they had their normal cycle of lighter sleep.  I modified it so that if one kid came in, she earned her sister a point!  Guess who sleeps without interruption for weeks at a time?  This lady, right here does! J  It’s really a win-win either way since even if you don’t get the desired behavior right away (and you will because kids get annoyed at the idea of earning you a prize) you at least get some self-care.

April 5, 2012 Posted by | attachment, discipline, help for parents | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

   

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