The Ripple Effects of Trauma
My heart aches for my little girl. She is feeling the ripple effects of trauma.
As parents with a very secure bio child, trauma was an unfamiliar concept when we began our adoption journey. Our adoption agency required us to read certain books and attend specific workshops to teach us about trauma and I promise, we were good students. We really thought we understood it when we traveled half-way around the world to bring trauma home. But, oh my. We had so much to learn.
Once we really started to understand that trauma wasn't going to go away with a few months of hugs and good food, I put on my Researcher hat and started reading. And reading. And reading. I jumped all the way into the deep end of brain research and trauma psychology. We went back to our counselor (we love counseling!) and learned more. What we didn't know (who could?) was that we would revisit this subject in a whole new way after my health crisis in February.
While I was processing my own trauma and trying to think clearly after the fog of pain medication, my children were processing the trauma from their perspectives. Back to the counselor we went. (Do you have a good counselor? If not, let's talk!)
My teen is at the age where he has his own support network and we saw it in action as he reached out to process my trauma with them. It is so heart-filling to see him growing up in ways that are healthy and right. So, we checked in with those folks and checked off that box. We moved on to the Littles.
My middle son couldn't go to school for awhile. Couldn't process lessons. We let him check out for a while. When stress levels reach the point where nothing is staying in the brain, you give your kid space. Time. Grace. And let his brain adjust on its own time schedule. With this one, counseling is just one piece. And counseling will be necessary for years to peel back the layers of each trauma over and over again. That's ok. We've got time. He's got time. God knows where his story is headed. Our job is to let the story unfold with the maximum amount of support possible. Sometimes, support looks like counseling. Sometimes, support looks like another parent-teacher conference. Sometimes, support looks like canceling soccer practice and staying home for stories inside a fort of blankets and pillows. It's super tricky to find the balance, but that's why we are the parents. It's our job, not his.
My littlest has, so far, been the easiest to help process trauma. I'm not sure why. I think God has protected her heart on many levels so that as long as she is with her tribe, she relaxes and just spreads joy in her wake. She can be crazy silly and for the most part, we just let her be crazy. But something happened as this year progressed. Her crazy started getting a little too crazy. We couldn't figure it out. Then, we went to her first parent-teacher conference where we learned that so far this year, she has not talked in class at all. At all! Friends, if you've met my sassy-silly girl, you would be picking your jaw up off the floor right now. I know I had to. Chris and I sat down and put some pieces together: a little extra crazy, some school stress, my health crisis.... time to call the counselor. Our counselor is the BEST. (You need one. Truly you do!) Lickety-split she drew a straight line from my health crisis to the new school situation and declared, "She's got serious separation anxiety going on. Let's get her in here for some EMDR."
Follow me on this: adoption (aka. mom/dad didn't come back) >> my health crisis (aka. no one knew if mommy would come back) >> new school situation (aka. I think I'm worried that mommy won't come back for me). Seriously.
So what's EMDR and why are we doing it?
EMDR stands for "Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy." It's a method (not vudoo science) that a trained Therapist uses to help a person take memories out of the amygdala's junk drawer. Ready for a mini-biology lesson?
Your amygdala is the place in your brain which responds emotionally to events in your life. Little events. Big events. Doesn't matter. What matters is the emotion you feel at the time of the event. The trouble comes when you have an emotional event that doesn't get fully processed at the time. (Let's use the word "trauma" here but don't limit your understanding of trauma to just BIG things like death, rape, divorce, etc. Trauma can look very small and still have serious effects.) If the emotion isn't processed and filed away at the time of the trauma event, it goes in the junk drawer. Lots of reasons why that can happen, but reasons don't matter. The amygdala doesn't care a whit about your reasons. It only cares about emotions. The junk drawer is simply the place in your amygdala where unprocessed emotions stay to stir up trouble later.
As you move through life, your amygdala can hijack any random moment if the emotion you feel reminds your brain of the SAME emotion you felt in the past but left unprocessed. It pulls that emotional/trauma event out of the junk drawer. It thinks the two events are connected because the emotion is the same.
Let's use an example from my life: Recently, I became completely overwhelmed by the trauma that little Rowen is experiencing in SoCal. I don't know Rowen. I don't know her mom. I know of them through a friend and I read the updates that Rowen's mom posts on Instagram daily. So, Rowen and I are pretty far removed from each other. But my amygdala doesn't care. I cried uncontrollably every time I read an update and pretty much became unable to function for a few days/weeks as I tried to make sense of why I felt panicky and trapped. I knew, logically, that I was over-reacting. But I couldn't control my emotions. And THAT was my red flag. Time to call my counselor. I knew that my amygdala was connecting the emotions I felt when reading about Rowen to some traumatic piece of my own experience. My amygdala was hijacking my emotions and adrenaline and all the other messy things and trying to put me right back in MY OWN ICU memories.
EMDR helped me pull some junk out of my junk drawer. During EMDR, my brain drew another straight line to a really old memory in high school. It had nothing to do with my lungs, a hospital or any other sick person. It drew a line to a memory I had in which I felt trapped/stuck. (Trapped/stuck was the connecting emotion.) So that's what we talked about. The old, unconnected high school memory. As I processed the memory by talking about it with my counselor, my brain took that really old memory and finished processing it. It put it in an appropriate file in my memory, no longer able to cause havoc from the junk drawer.
And that's it. That's how it works. Now, when I read about Rowen, I feel sad, compassionate, and prayerful... all at reasonable levels. I'm having the same feelings but my amygdala isn't able to hijack my body. That's EMDR.
Trauma and Kids
Trauma, no matter how big or small, has ripple effects. It doesn't just affect you. It affects your family, friends, community, even your littlest children. They need to process trauma in their own way. Otherwise, their amygdalae are going to cause havoc in their lives.
People say kids are resilient. And that's true, a little bit. New science is proving that the brain can adapt. New pathways can be formed around parts of the brain that are damaged. Children are better at this than adults. So, kids are resilient.
But it's not entirely true. Kids have less skills to self-regulate, to adapt to their circumstances, to process their feelings, to connect mind and body. They need more support to process trauma than an adult. In the O'Meara household, we readily acknowledge all of that and go to the pros often.
Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. - Gal. 6:2
Our counselor taught us that with kids, we don't want states to become traits. We can function in a stressed-out state for a while. But if we stay there for too long, that stressed-out state can become a stressed-out trait. A character trait that no one wants. So, as parents, we get proactive. We treat our mental health equally with our physical health and our spiritual health.
I want to stop the ripple effects, when and if I can. For my littlest, stopping the ripple is my current number one priority.
Are you wondering, "How do I know if I need a counselor?" or "How do I find a counselor?" Emily at The Struggle Well Podcast recently had a conversation (Episode #159) to answer just those questions. Give it a listen. Or leave a comment below. I'll do my best to help you.