DON’TS AND DON’TS

 

A significant part of working with children involves working with family systems, and in community mental health, that often means contending with inter-generational trauma. I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the reality of that; I, under excellent supervision, expend a lot of mental energy trying to factor caregivers’ own personal issues into their choices with kids, adapting my message to what they can hear and take in at any given time. After all, if caregivers feel criticized, the likelihood of their support for therapy drops significantly, and change is unlikely to happen. Sometimes that means trading no change at all for painful slivers of increments. And sometimes, let me tell you, that trade becomes deeply sad and demoralizing. Like this month. Like this in-like-a-lion-and-the-lion-keeps-roaring March. I’m feeling spent by the effort of starting over every bloody session, and I just want to be mad and let it out. Indulge me?

If you are caring for a child who was born in withdrawal from drugs, abandoned, passed around, and abused in every possible way, and as a result lacks a sense of appropriateness and has a bottomless need for attention, please observe the following don’ts, in no particular order:

Don’t refuse to tuck her in because she hasn’t made her bed. Don’t deny her a birthday because you don’t like her behavior. Don’t send her to her room when she’s having a meltdown; don’t film her while she melts down further, desperate not to be rejected and alone. Don’t show the video to people and shame her. Don’t show the video to a therapist and expect sympathy for YOU, the person impassively holding your smartphone up while her struggle plays out. Don’t claim you’ve tried everything, because you haven’t if you haven’t rocked and cuddled her. Don’t expect her to act her age when that’s developmentally impossible. Don’t automatically take others’ word against hers, every time, not even teachers’; teachers see a lot, but not everything, and they aren’t always right. Don’t condemn her for craving electronics when you yourself bury your head in “Candy Crush” and other less important things when she’s trying to make eye contact with you. Don’t justify that by saying that she always wants attention. Don’t reject the games she likes to play with you. And speaking of games, don’t show mercy to other players but gloat (“Ha-ha!”) when you get her out, thinking you’re teaching her a lesson about fair play because, you say, that’s something she’s done. Don’t tell her it serves her right if she falls because she sat on a chair the wrong way. Don’t tell her she can’t have friends because she doesn’t know how to behave. Don’t tell her teachers, in front of her, that she’ll try to manipulate their sympathy. Don’t say, “We love you, but.” Don’t say you’re thinking you might not be able to keep her. Don’t say 100 no’s for every yes. Don’t miss every single chance to validate what she’s feeling, even when her therapist has explained quite clearly, with relatable examples, that validation isn’t agreement. Don’t take her to therapy, an hour a week, no matter for how many years, and expect the therapist to undo the damage of life in an unloving home. Don’t blame the therapist for failing, when the therapist is working hard to help the child feel like she matters. Don’t tell the child in your care that your life is shitty because you’re caring for her.

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Sympathetic readers might appreciate the haunting song “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” by Neko Case. Thank you, Neko Case, for your vision and your songs. // I’m deeply grateful for my readers, and in 2018, I’d love to reach more. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too, by linking to it in whatever way works for you. I typically post once a month, so no barrage.

Out of respect for client privacy, names here are always changed or omitted, and details may be altered in fact while relevant in spirit. Text and image copyrights held by me. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. “The Numbers Game” (July 2017), now long delayed, will be continued in a future post, when I have more stamina for the topic. Thank you wholeheartedly for reading.

8 thoughts on “DON’TS AND DON’TS

  1. Wow. Some of that list happened to me too. My father delighted in showing me films and photos of how I looked while I cried. It did a fair bit of damage because the child learns they’re an object of ridicule when hurting. It’s…sadistic, in my opinion. I understand the parent is frustrated and wants empathy and validation…They’re stressed, lack empathy for their children, and tend to see acting out behaviours as willful defiance from the child.

    My partner loves my laughter and my smile but it only took 12 years to start believing him. 🙂

    As for those children…I believe they, like myself, also remember the good people who cared. The ones who told me it wasn’t OK. The ones who didn’t know but were kind. I definitely do.

    W

    Liked by 1 person

    • Please forgive the delay in my reply – it’s been a hectic week. As always, I appreciate your thoughts. Kids definitely internalize their meaning to others, and “My pain is entertaining” is a particularly destructive message to receive and carry. I appreciate and value the book recommendation, although it needs must get added to a rather long list! It made my heart smile to read the line about you and your partner. So happy for you. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. There’s a really interesting book I’m reading about intergenerational trauma though I don’t agree with some of his recommendations ”
    It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle”

    Lots of science in a lay person friendly way.

    Like

  3. I had a friend in a similar situation as your composite client. Made to go to therapy as a kid by his narcissistic mother who wanted the therapist to “fix” him. One thing the therapist said aided him through the darkness of times until he could leave the household: That he wasn’t bad, that he was being abused and that it wasn’t his fault.

    That was his takeaway from the few sessions he had.

    Like

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