Struggled to respond to the smashing of things – the screaming, the scratching, the swearing, the withdrawal, the stealing – with a gift. Struggled to find it in myself to respond to the manifestation of her trauma with a loving act, and struggled to see how such a gesture does anything but reward and give permission to her fury.
Sure, I’ve made the tea, written the little messages of love on the post it, and left them outside her door. Yet my heart wasn’t always really in it. Often the gesture stuck in my throat – reluctant and wooden – giving rise to huge waves of resentment. And sometimes I couldn’t bring myself to do it at all.
The strategy was revisited by the Adoption UK ‘Parenting Teens’ course. Like many of the parents there I questioned it; argued and kicked back hard against the principle. We gave example after example of situations where a cup of tea and a post it was surely an inappropriate reward when all hell was breaking loose. The group’s response was unanimous; does this act of selfless kindness make them feel like what they’ve done is okay? The trainer focused on me, and with every example I gave she asked “Did she do it in overwhelm?” My answer was always – “yes”.
“Then it’s not a reward.”
A penny dropped; layers of confusion fall away in an instant:
If fear based responses are not wrongdoings, then reconciliation gestures are not reward.
Take that in.
When none of the words we say, the consequences we lay down, or attempts at ‘fixing’ each given immediate situation have any effect other than to feed the escalation of trauma. When feeding that escalation simply separates us further from our kids. When dealing with the ‘immediate situation’ means we are tackling with the ‘wrong situation’, all that is left is to help them cope with the real situation; the trauma itself.
That cup of tea and a post it note helps distance us from their trauma; it allows us to step off the rollercoaster of their overwhelm, and lay down a safe solid base for them to move into, right here alongside us. The more we do it, the more they can depend on that safe place being there; ready and waiting for them to choose it. To want it.
More than that, if getting involved just places us firmly at their centre of overwhelm, then getting involved is itself a negative reward that reinforces their trauma, deepens their relationship with it, and labels us as a clear and present danger and yet another source of external threat. Stepping into the trauma involves us in it, and leaves us open to blame and hostility.
Then another penny drops: reconciliation does hold a kind of reward. A real and helpful reward; one with a much deeper, positive and important impact than our fear of reinforcing trauma behaviours. With every cup of tea and a post it, she begins to look back on each incident more clearly, with less confusion about what happened. She starts to beat her own neural pathway through the previously impassable space that stretches between overwhelm and calm. She starts to seek the safety of the calm place as a way out of the turmoil of the trauma.
And my reward is in watching her take tentative steps on slow journey toward seeing me as the closest thing to safe she experiences.