Three legged stool

I realize mumdrah is a three legged stool; with each leg distinct in it’s character.

The first is ‘therapeutic mumdrah’.

She understands. She needs little, and she’s happy to give. She moves naturally and empathically – from the heart and mind – with ease. She soothes even in the maelstrom of a scathing attack. She is patient, and calm. She sees things through the eyes of a yogi. She plays the long game. She makes hot chocolate while objects fly, covers post it notes with heart shapes. She sees the trauma for what it is. She is the amygdala tamer to a little girl who hurts.

The second is ‘stepford mumdrah’.

She labours. She uses huge amounts of energy. She goes through the motions; does what is expected and hopes it is enough. She wears thick protective armour. Her lips are tight in attempt not to let anything slip out. She is not natural, or flowing, or easy. She is tightly in control, forced and robotic. She is born out of sympathy, but also of exhaustion and self-protectiveness. She clings to knowing what is right, but she doesn’t get it right. She is sometimes a little withdrawn. She survives. She is the amygdala tamer to herself.

The third has no name.

She hurts. She is the traumatized wounded sister to cht. She is deeply hidden. She rises to the surface rarely and explosively. She craves the signs that everything is – or will be – okay. She buckles under the pressure of getting everything right while being pilloried for getting it all wrong. She comes when she can no longer ignore the hurt, or the blame, or the selflessness. She is needy, and can no longer put other people before her self. She cries out for acknowledgement, for help, for understanding. She is the amygdala tamer to no one. She is her own amygdala gone bad.

The stool doesn’t stand right without accepting all three parts of mumdrah. They each rely on and inform each other in some way, and they each help me understand my role as an adoptive parent that little bit more.

Each and every aspect needs acknowledgement, and love, and nurturing. Perhaps some forgiveness too.

Buckaroo

We start with all four of my legs firmly on the ground.

Stable, resilient and strong. My back is broad and there is room for a heavy load, because I know you have much you need me to carry.

I’m here for you, pile it on; i’ll find ways to brace and take the strain, to juggle pieces around to balance the weight of your fear, your blame and your shame. Your sharp points and ragged edges may pierce and tear at my thick skin, and yet I keep standing under the strain; as solid as that trusty, determined, dutiful burro.

As my legs begin to tremble, my sides start to bleed and my heart beats faster, I dig deeper and work harder, because I understand and accept my task.

But sometimes – just sometimes – the burden you give me to hold proves too much. Your load comes too thick, or too fast, or it clashes with my own, and the struggle to bear it all reaches a tipping point I can no longer contain. Like buckaroo, I crumple and twist, and gravity takes over to throw off everything in one explosive and sorry moment.

Because I am just me, and sometimes the load is bigger than I am.

Cup of tea and a post it note

In the two years since first hearing this strategy, I struggled.

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.

Therapeutic parenting

Therapeutic Parenting means simply giving our kids a ladder to climb out of situations, rather than a spade to dig deeper in.

Therapeutic parenting – asks us to pick up different tools.

Positive parenting strategies and tools that fit the bill on paper have a tendency to crumple and fail in situ.  Problems experienced by traumatised kids are misshapen and multilayered, and do not fit the neat, round holes of theory.  Tools – especially those that tackle behaviour ‘mid behaviour’ – simply apply more pressure to confuse or escalate issues.  And those that reward, incentivise or penalise just add pressure or increase feelings of shame and failure.

Opting into these parenting methods – however brilliantly and gently we use them – translates what our children do as defiance or disobedience.  It misses the trauma their behaviour is communicating, and it turns our backs on the call for help contained within. Bit by bit their use pushes our children deeper and deeper into those fox holes; more lies, more concealment and deceit, more secrets, more conflict. For CHT and me the patches of calm between issues grew shorter until they almost disappeared from view.  For a while back there, I began to feel like I was simply ‘managing her’ – no time nor heart nor energy for ‘active’ love, mothering, or fun left; I became little more that a lion tamer.  Then worse came, her withdrawal and silence; sure signs our relationship was eroding.  I was doing all the ‘right things’ by the book, and yet her perception of me was slowly changing to that of an enemy to fight, rather than an ally.  The tools and strategies had become a wedge between us, and we were both exhausted and lost.

One day, as I stared down into yet another deep dark hole, it dawned on me that fighting the behaviour was like fighting the hole: impossible, ridiculous, and harmful.   I took a deep breath, and I jumped right in that crater alongside her.  I rolled up my sleeves, and asked her to come along with me to fix what was happening.  I stopped asking questions, stopped quizzing and looking for confessions.

TP in its fullest application stops us from delving into the whys and wherefores that pinpoint what went wrong; it ends the dissection and explanation over specifics.  Instead it has us recognising and understanding, mirroring and acknowledging.  I started asking for help in fixing without looking for confessions or truths.  I began to reflect and offer simple understanding for what was happening and why that might be, and to search for the escape ladder that makes practical amends, and then thank her for doing such a great job.  I ended my focus on the behaviours I wanted to stop, and regrouped my efforts into starting the solutions we needed to see.

TP is crazy hard.  Hard enough to get right while safe and secure in an emotional vacuum – armed with an instruction book – let alone when all hell is breaking loose around you. It feels one sided, with you the adult being tested and pushed and pounded while having to maintain calm and restrained and engaged.  The scales feel loaded, and getting it right can feel like a thankless task.

But little by little the change comes.  The magic moments are hard won, and they come with no bells, no whistles or celebration.  They come from knowing that in the face of it all, we done good.  They come from watching our traumatised children draw a little closer, ask for a little help, and start lifting themselves onto the first rung of that ladder – unprompted.