H.U.R.T. = Healing “Un’s” and Releasing Trauma

A key element of the healing strategies for individuals who have experienced trauma is to “ReWriting Our Narratives.”  These are the stories that we believe about ourselves as a result of the negative, hurt-full things in our life. But these stories are not all true even if they feel so, so, true. They are also not the end of the story. We can be the authors of our own lives and choose the plot lines of your future story. 

Children and Trauma

Children are “ego-centric”. These means that they believe the world revolves around them. Therefore, when bad things happen, they believe it is their fault. This is due to an immature nervous system and executive functioning skills that are supposed to help them see things rationally. They are not rational creatures. Consequently, if something bad happens traumatized children believe that they are bad! This is a false narrative based on painful/shameful memories.

This is a hallmark of trauma-informed care that is revolutionizing the programs and services across the nation. We are learning to shift our paradigms from asking “what is wrong with a person?” to “what happened to a person?” This allows us to concentrate on the story. But this must go deeper. We have to ask the healing questions: “where does it hurt?”

We can use the acronym for HURT to help us explore our stories:

H.U.R.T. = Healing Un’s and Releasing Trauma

HURT children carry around a lot of Un’s (a prefix meaning “not”): Unworthy, unwanted, unloved, unsafe, unstable, unkind, untrustworthy, etc”.

What UN’s do you or your child believe?

1.

2.

We could also ask ourselves this question. What UN’s do I believe about myself. Everyone goes through some level of trauma. The challenges and hassles of everyday life can be quite severe. Many caregivers suffer compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma as a result of working/living with a traumatized child.

Fortunately, healing is possible for children and adults. We can look at where the HURT is and find strategies that change our life stories with positive, resilient endings!

Get more help from Ron Huxley by scheduling a session today or taking one of an online Trauma-Informed training at http://FamilyHealerSchool.com

Children who no longer live with their birth parents must go through their own version of grief…

by Ron Huxley, LMFT

In 2014, Child Welfare Services checked up on 3.2 million children reported as abused or neglected, in the United States of America*. Many of these children are removed from their birth parents and enter foster care. Some return to their parents while others are adopted by loving families. The goal is always permanency for children but the issues of grief must be addressed regardless of the child’s placement.

What is Grief?

Grief is the state that individuals experience when a significant loss occurs in their life. The loss might occur as a result of death, divorce, and/or abandonment by a family member. It might be said that nontraditional families, like foster and adoptive families, are born out of grief as they are formed as a result of a loss. This is confusing due to this is a time for both celebration and sadness.

Grief is a profound loss for children that is not always recognized by parents and professionals. One reason is that children do not grief in the same way that adults do. Young children often act like nothing happened at all and adults wrongly assume they are not grieving. Later, when they erupt in anger and aggression towards others, adults are surprised by their behavior. Misunderstanding the behavior will lead to incorrectly managing it and parents miss an opportunity to address the loss and create a healing bond.

Stages of Grief

Despite the confusion, grief has predictable stages of development. This is beneficial to the nontraditional parent as they attempt to make sense of their child’s grief experiences. Most importantly they know that the most negative feelings of grief and loss will not last forever, at least not in the same intensity as when it first started.

Perhaps the best known framework for grief and loss are the stages listed in the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who wrote the book On Death and Dying (1969). Her stages of grief include:

Denial
Anger
Bargaining
Depression
Acceptance

These stages can manifest differently depending on the child’s developmental stage. As a child matures, their ability to understand themselves and their world changes, allowing for deeper levels of grieving. This is why young children can act like they don’t grief or care about their past. They may not want to talk about their past or have any questions for adults. When they are older, however, they may “suddenly” have questions and this can be perplexing to adults.

Another way grief can affect children is creating a division between “age and stage.” A child may be 16 years of age chronologically but act emotionally and socially like a 6 year old. Would a parent allow a 6 year old to take care of his or her younger siblings? Of course not! A 16 should be responsible to watch their younger siblings for a short time. A 6 year old would not have the cognitive ability. A 10 year discrepancy between age and stage can cause grieving children to look like they are on an emotional roller coaster ride. One minute they are responsible and calm. Then next they are reactive and impulsive. Parents can easily make the mistake of dealing with the child’s age and not their stage.

Close the gap between the child’s emotional and chronological stage by creating a space for them to grief past losses.

Waves of the Ocean

A useful metaphor for understanding grief are the waves of an ocean. When you are way out in the ocean, the waves are large and frightening. They pull you under and twist you about, creating a sense of hopelessness or fear of your future. This is similar to the stage of Denial or shock at the reality of the loss. When the waves pass and the ocean feels momentarily calm, this is called the stage of anger or bargaining. The shore represents the stage of acceptance. As nontraditional parents and children swim for the stage of acceptance, waves continue to crash over them, sometimes threatening to pull them under in denial and shock and at other times settling down and letting anger and bargaining propel them forward to the shore. The closer you come to the shore the less intense the waves. But even small waves, when standing on the edge of the ocean can unsettle and cause you to lose your balance.

Parents can use this metaphor to help themselves and their children find emotional balance. Because they are in the ocean and not on the shore they cannot compare their children’s action to others. In addition, rather than live up to society’s expectation of what an ideal family should look like, parents need to concentrate their energy on helping their child swim for the shore, in their own timeframe, even if it must be developmental stages.

Art and the Heart

Expressive arts can open the heart of the child who is grieving by allowing them to freely process thoughts and feelings that have been trapped in her heart and possibly . Parents have to set an atmosphere of acceptance to help the child “swim to shore”. Parents who avoid talking about sad or angry feelings communicate that it is unsafe or unwise to share. You don’t have to be an art therapist. Just get out the crayons and paper. Pull out paints and use your fingers. Play with legos and dolls. Make believe and role play. As adults we can interject healing ideas and allow grief and loss to work naturally. 

Talking about Birth Parents

It can feel rejecting for foster or adoptive parents to talk to their children about birth parents. Ironically, opening up conversation and allowing children to grieve will create a closer, more intimate attachment. Not talking about them will reinforce shame in the child and idealizing birth parents creating a vicious cycle or hurt between parent and child. The loss has already occurred. Avoid it doesn’t make it go away. It stays buried until it comes out in more painful ways. 

If parents need help in this area, consult with a child therapy and spend some time working through the age and stage of grief. 

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Sources: 

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/07/in-a-year-child-protective-services-conducted-32-million-investigations/374809/

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying (1969).

Ron Huxley, Love and Limits: Achieving a Balance in Parenting (1998).

Grieving and the Nontraditional Family

While grief is fresh, every attempt to divert only irritates. You must wait till it be digested, and then amusement will dissipate it.

– Samuel Johnson

It has been said that the nontraditional family of yesterday is the traditional family of today! These means that the nontraditional family is fast becoming the norm in today’s society. But that also means that society is not prepared to help nontraditional parents and children cope with that reality. In particular, society has few, if any, means to help nontraditonal families cope with grief and loss, out of which they are born.

Nontraditional families include single, divorced, step or blended, adoptive, foster parents, and grandparents raising grandchildren. They are quickly becoming the majority in today’s society. Whether society/people consider them defective or less than “ideal” they are a reality and need special information and support. Most of the parenting programs available to nontraditional parents forget this reality. Consequently, the parenting programs apply only to traditional, two-parent, biologically based parents. Part of the problem is that nontraditional families have unique needs not usually experienced by traditional parents. One example of this is grief.

Grief is the state that individuals experience when a significant loss occurs in their life. The loss might occur as a result of death, divorce, and/or abandonement by a familiy member. It might be said that nontraditional families are born out of grief as they are formed as a result of a loss. This is not to say the traditional families do not experience grief but that nontraditional families have this experience, to one degree or another, in common.

Grief has predictable stages of development. This is beneficial to the nontraditional parent as they attempt to make sense of their grief experience. Most importantly they know that it will not last forever, at least not in the same intensity as when it started. Perhaps the best know framework for grief and loss are the stages listed in the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who wrote the book On Death and Dying (1969). Her stages of grief include:

Denial
Anger
Bargaining
Depression
Acceptance

A useful metaphor for understanding grief are the waves of an ocean. When you are way out in the ocean, the waves are large and frightening. They pull you under and twist you about, creating a sense of hopelessness or fear of your future. This is similar to the stage of Denial or shock at the reality of the loss. When the waves pass and the ocean feels momentarily calm, this is called the stage of anger or bargaining. The shore represents the stage of acceptance. As nontraditional parents and children swim for the stage of acceptance, waves continue to crash over them, sometimes threatening to pull them under in denial and shock and at other times settling down and letting anger and bargaining propel them forward to the shore. The closer you come to the shore the less intense the waves. But even small waves, when standing on the edge of the ocean can unsettle and cause you to lose your balance.

Nontraditional parents can use this metaphor to help them balance love and limits with their children. Because they are in the ocean and not on the shore they cannot compare themselves to traditional parents. Rather than live up to society’s expectation of what an ideal family should look like, nontraditional parents need to concentrate their energy on swimming for the shore.

Adopted and Angry

Q and A with Ron Huxley, LMFT

Dear Ron,

How do we discipline our 8-year old (adopted) son? He is extremely angry, at times violent and aggressive and has been since about 4 years old. We have seen therapists, psychiatrists, medical doctors, etc. We have tried it all, from medicine to discipline (time out, spanking, withdraw privileges, positive reinforcement, redirection, isolation (in his room), writing sentences, physical activities) and none of it makes any difference to him.

Up until recently, all his anger has been directed only at us, his parents. However, this week he hit a boy with his hat, on the school bus. The consequence is a warning from the principal. Next time he’ll be removed from the bus and no longer allowed to ride it. He is extremely smart, socially immature, and very much likes to be in control – of everything, even us. We need help.

Signed,

Adopted and angry

Ron replies:

Dear Adopted and Angry,

I find that it is helpful to break things down into manageable chunks when overwhelmed by parenting problems. You have very complex case here that involves multiple issues, some of which are workable and others that may not be. Here are the various issues I read in your question: Adoption, child development, aggressive behavior, professional help, behavioral modification, parenting hurts, peer relationships, control issues, and desperation.

I threw that last one in there as semi-jest, semi-truth. You are obviously very frustrated and at the end of your proverbial rope. This permeates everything else you have said and everything you will try to do with your son. This frustration may sabotage your efforts and shorten your ability to fully modify his behavior. You are using some great behavior modification techniques (time out, withdraw privileges, reinforcement, etc.) and I would urge you to continue to use them. But, behavior modification has limitations, especially if you are already experiencing your limitations with your son. In fact, it is possible you are reinforcing him negatively to continue.

The biggest issue you have listed, in my opinion, is adoption. Adopted children come into our families wounded on a spiritual or deeply psychological level. Some people call this the “Mother Wound.” The feeling of being “given up” for adoption, even in the best of circumstances, to the best of families, is a difficult issue for children to cope with. This can be even more difficult if there are other biological children in the home and if there is a dramatic physical difference between children. It is also affected by how adoptive parents handle the whole adoption issue with their adoptive children.

Another related issue with adoptive children is genetics. Parents often don’t know a lot about an adoptive child’s family history and genetic make-up. Mental illness in your child’s family tree may be a big, unknown factor here, and this may not be about behavior, per se, but a genetic problem. If you haven’t already investigated this, I would encourage you to do so. It will help you and the professionals you are working with you to deal with this problem.

Given that you already have a host of professional helpers on your side and you have a good knowledge of behavioral techniques, I would suggest that you focus more on helping your child heal from the spiritual or psychological wounds of adoption. Anger is rarely the real issue in children. What’s under all that rage? What fuels his aggression? How can you answer the main issue of hurt and loss that makes him resistant to change?

What we are really talking about is love. True, unconditional love. The fact that he targets you, his parents, with his rage demonstrates his sense of safety. I know this is confusing but angry/aggressive children usually vent at those they know will not abandon them. And adoptive children are highly sensitive to abandonment. You must reassure, love, and embrace him every time he attacks. This is the only way you can answer his violent test (“Will you give me up, too, or will you keep me no matter how ‘unlovable’ I am?”). Let your behavior modification set the limits on his behavior and let the embrace of your arms be the limits on his spirit).

Blessings,

Ron Huxley, LMFT

Parenting through grief

Staying strong through tough times

Losing a loved one is probably the worst thing that can happen to someone.

When you are grieving a loss, continuing to be present as a parent can be difficult — especially if your children are grieving too. How can you give your children what they need during this time, when you aren’t even sure what you need?

Grief is a journey like no other. When you are a parent, you can’t just put your children on hold while you sort out your feelings of sadness and loss. Life goes on, children need stability and they may be dealing with grief as well.

Help yourself first

Jennifer Shurnas was in her early 40s when she experienced the sudden and horrific death of her husband. She was faced not only with grieving the loss of her husband of almost 20 years, but with helping her three daughters through the experience as well. “One metaphor that describes parenting during grief is the airplane oxygen mask instruction which flight attendants give you — in order to help your children you must first help yourself,” Shurnas shares. “Fundamentally, you can’t help your child unless you are helping yourself.” Find the support you need in close friends, family members or a therapist. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need, and accept offers of help when offered.

Got grief?

“Don’t hide your feelings,” advises Christina Steinorth, licensed psychotherapist and author of Cue Cards for Life: Thoughtful Tips for Better Relationships. “Many parents make the mistake of ‘being strong for the children’ and hiding their feelings of grief.” Especially when the children are also grieving the loss, it is helpful for them to see how adults process those same feelings. “Parents need to know that it’s OK for their children to see them sad,” says Steinorth. “When parents hide their feelings while the kids are grieving too, it doesn’t help children learn to process grief. It almost teaches them that it’s not OK to be sad and have feelings of loss and hurt.”

“Each year we release three dozen red, white and blue balloons
into the sky in his memory.”

“A child observing your own grief, mourning and processing makes you authentically human and credible to them — someone they can relate to,” shares Shurnas. “It sends a message that it’s OK for them to do the same.” Depending on the age of the child, they will understand and process feelings of grief and loss differently — but look to parents and other adults for guidance.

“While each individual’s grief journey is unique, they will hopefully settle into their own process with your guidance and the guidance of others,” says Shurnas. Each of her three daughters found a different way to work through mourning their father. “My youngest child made and edited amazing videos of her father and dubbed them to music. My middle child would draw for hours at a time, and my eldest would talk and write about her feelings,” she remembers. Her own way of working through mourning involved touching objects that belonged to her husband, reading things that he wrote, looking at photographs and writing.

What helps

Sometimes, just having someone who counts on you each day is enough to make you keep moving forward. “It isn’t an easy balancing act,” Shurnas adds, “but my desire to take care of my children while making endless necessary decisions actually saved me from falling into a deep ditch of depression. Quite simply, my daughters indirectly saved me.” After the initial period of mourning passes, many find that trying to return to a regular routine of work and family commitments helps them stay on track as parents — and helps their children see that life goes on.

For some families, observing special days of remembrance or having rituals they can perform together helps. Shurnas and her daughters decided to have special rituals from time to time to acknowledge her husband’s spirit and keep the good memories of him close to their hearts. “For example,” she shares, “his favorite holiday was the Fourth of July — Independence Day. So, each year we release three dozen red, white and blue balloons into the sky in his memory. Red represents the love we have for him, the white is for peace in our hearts and the blue represents our releasing our ‘blues.’”

Parenting can be difficult as you face the emotional challenges of grief and loss. By including your children in your process of grief and recovery, you are teaching them a life lesson and helping yourself at the same time.

Click on our freebies link to get new parenting tools to manage children’s behavior and build character into your family.

Children and Grief

Grieving the loss of a loved one is difficult, especially for a child.  When a child loses a loved one to death or incarceration, the loss can have a profound effect on the rest of his or her life.

Emotional, psychological and physical trauma that often come with loss challenge children’s well-being and school performance.  Grieving children are likely to feel different, and very alone.

While concealing deep emotional   pain, fear and loss of concentration,   children are in the pressure cooker   of  expectations to grow emotionally   and academically. They say that   seeing friends with parents and   parent/child school activities are daily reminders of their own loss.

Children express grief in a different way than adults.  They tend to move in and out of intense feelings, rather than sustaining high levels of one emotion for long periods of time.  When adults see a grieving child playing or laughing, they may mistakenly believe that the child is “over it”.  This perception may influence how much grief support a child receives.

In the United States, approximately 4.8 million children under 18 are grieving the death loss of a parent.

1.5 million children in the US are grieving the loss of a parent to incarceration, sometimes for the duration of their childhood.


Community awareness and support help children heal from loss and excel in life.

Start a Support Group

The loss of a loved one is a universal human experience. How thoughts and feelings about the loss are expressed vary by culture. We encourage you to adapt information in this site to what fits for your beliefs and customs.

Ron Huxley Resources: I am preparing for some presentations to professionals who work with adoptive families and reminded about one of the most basic of all clinical tools: grief work. One of the most common assumptions is that children grieve in the same was as adults and therefore, the same tools work for them that work for big people. Each intervention should have individualized criteria built into them. Do you know of a child that has suffered a loss? What worked for them to help them cope and heal? Share with us on our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/parentingtoolbox or leave a comment below.

The Imperfect Parent

How many of the parents, reading this column, are perfect parents? None? Well, how many of the imperfect parents, reading this column, have perfect children? Still none? While it may be that perfect parents don’t need to read this column, I think the real truth is that there are no perfect parents or perfect children. If that is true, then why do so many parents act as if there is such a being as the “perfect parent” or “perfect child?”

To illustrate my point, try completing the following sentences. Just say the first thing that comes to mind:

A good parent always…

Good children should…

As a parent, I must…

My children ought to be more…

If I were more like my own parents, I would be more…

If a parent falls short of these standards, and so, is not a “good” parent, what does that leave the parent to be? Parents are left with the belief that he or she is a “bad” parent. These beliefs are responsible for why parents feel so out of control and powerless in their parenting roles. Parents need more realistic beliefs about parenting. Realistic Beliefs about Parenting Beliefs are expressions of parent’s values about themselves, other people, and the world. Unrealistic beliefs create a feeling of demand that pushes and drives parents unnecessarily where realistic beliefs create a feeling of inner stability, even when circumstances aren’t always stable.

One way to create more realistic beliefs is to evaluate the evidence for your unrealistic thoughts about parenting. Ask yourself these questions: What law states that a child will always listen and be respectful? What evidence really suggests that all parents must be available to their children at all times? What edict states that I must be perfect?

For one day, make a list of all the negative thoughts that come to mind as you go about your parenting duties. At the end of the day, look over the list and write out alternative, positive counter-thoughts. Whenever the negative thoughts come up, immediate state the alternative thought to break its power over you. If it is too hard to remember them all, pick one or two of the negative thoughts that create the most interference in your parenting and counter those only. Do that for about a week and then move down the list to the others. Changing what you say about your parenting will change how your feel about your parenting.

Try this experiment: complete the following incomplete sentences and notice the emotional difference between these and the first list.

A responsible parent always…

Good children sometimes…

As a parent, I can be…

I desire my children to be more…

If I were like my own parents, the positive qualities I would like to have…

Only one word was changed in each of these sentences and yet it dramatically changes how you think and feel. If you are going to accept the fact that you are imperfect then you will have to eliminate “perfection” language from your thoughts and words. You will need to accept the fact that you are acting “good-enough.” This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t strive for more out of yourselves or your child. Self-improvement is not the same as expecting perfection It takes courage to be a “good-enough” parent.

This is what the child psychiatrist, Rudolph Driekurs, calls “the courage to be imperfect.” While there are plenty of perfect parenting standards to fail short of, there are no rules for how to be an imperfect parent. Here are ten un-commandments for developing the “courage to be imperfect”:

1. Children should be encouraged, not expected, to seek perfection.

2. Accept who you are rather than try to be more than or as good as other parents.

3. Mistakes are aids to learning. Mistakes are not signs of failure. Anticipating or fearing mistakes will make us more vulnerable to failure.

4. Mistakes are unavoidable and are less important than what the parent does after he or she makes a mistake.

5. Set realistic standards for yourself and your child. Don’t try correcting or changing too many things at one time.

6. Develop a sense of your strengths and your weaknesses.

7. Mutual respect, between parent and child, starts by valuing yourself. Recognize your own dignity and worth before you try and show your child their dignity and worth.

8. Unhappy parents are frequently discouraged, competitive, unrealistic in their standard for themselves and their children, over ambitious, and unbalanced in their love and limits.

9. High standards and expectations are frequently related to parent’s feelings of inferiority and lack of adequate parenting resources.

10. Parents need to develop the courage to cope with the challenges of living, which means, they must develop the “courage to be imperfect.”