Post Traumatic Growth

In late January I listened to an excellent webinar, put on by Minding the Baby called The Relational Foundations of Reflective Practice and Reflecting Parenting. I was intrigued both because RIE really is a reflective parenting practice and because it seemed like it would dovetail nicely with my rereading of Raising Good Humans. But I was hooked early in the presentation by the question posed by the presenter:

“How can we enhance reflective capacities in parents who are highly stressed and traumatized?”

Oh my, what a key question as life over the past 11 months has been stressful, and sometimes downright traumatizing, for many of us. And yes, we’ve figured out new norms and new ways of coping, but this question really struck me because of the funk I’d found myself in mid-January. As I wrote back on January 7, in some of my thoughts about talking to children when traumatic things happen in our wider world, I didn’t really believe that once I started writing 2021 on documents, life would miraculously be more normal…but I think I did think I’d be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And as January trudged on and there was not even a glimmer, I found myself still stressed, or maybe a little extra stressed. It reminded me of times, when running in a race, I’d be near the end and spectators on the sides of the roads (pressed together and shouting, can you imagine such a thing?) would call out “you’re almost there!” And I’d feel a boost and I’d push a little harder, only to realize that the finish line was so much farther than I’d thought when I heard “almost there!” It felt like the finish line got moved…I had enough juice to get me to where I thought it was, but now it seems to have moved farther away. And many of the parents I talked to were (are) feeling the same…and it seems parents around the nation are feeling it and talking and screaming about it, too.

That’s really hard because as we’ve all experienced, as our stress response increases, our thinking and empathy decrease: it literally becomes harder and harder to think about how others are feeling and what they are thinking and experiencing when we are stressed. And thinking about how your child is feeling and thinking, wondering about what they are experiencing, is the heart of reflective parenting.

But I have good news: acknowledging our stress and talking about it, in a developmentally appropriate way, with your child is good for both you and your child. If you have time, I encourage you to check out Raising Resilient Kids in an Anxious World, but I want to give you some of the most important takeaways here. This short webinar (just over 30 minutes) is a conversation with Dr. Christopher Willard, a psychologist and educational consultant who has written over a dozen books, for parents and for children, all on the topics of resiliency and mindfulness. He opens with a powerful thought: When we think about trauma, we all go to PTSD. In fact, he says that what is more likely to occur after trauma is Post Traumatic GROWTH. He argues that we can emerge from traumatic situations stronger, more resilient, more connected with communities, with new insights, clarification of values, and maybe greater physical or mental strength.

It made sense for me when I thought about how ‘trauma’ on the micro level…ruptures in our relationships, arguments and disagreements…can be beneficial, strengthening relationships, taking the connection deeper…when there is repair. There will always be ruptures in our relationships: it is the nature of relationships! And as long as those ruptures are followed by repair, there is growth: our relationships get better. Not to add another book to your booklists, but I’m eyeing The Power of Discord: Why the Ups and Downs of Relationships are the Secret to Building Intimacy, Resilience, and Trust particularly to look more deeply into why this is, but I think this review nails it: in trying to repair, “we practice attention, connection, and listening. We practice our humanity.” It is in our efforts to repair that we give each other what we need most.

And so, it is what happens as we mitigate traumatic situations, both for ourselves, and for our children, that we can come out with growth instead of disorder. Indeed, it starts with us: our emotions are contagious and your children are experts in reading you. So, this is where self-care, and at the least self-talk, becomes even more vital. Willard talks about the importance of making things predictable for children, and how even if we don’t know what’s going to happen in 6 months, we can predict what the next 6 hours will be like (most of the time). And in times when you feel out of control, focusing on things you can control and predict brings stability…for you, and thus for your child. One thing that really resonated for me was when Willard was talking about parents who perhaps aren’t feeling at all resilient themselves. He encourages you to look back to the hard times you’ve gotten through in the past: you got through them! And think back to who you were and what you were facing in March. I don’t think any of us really expected to be 11 months in and still be in this situation…but we did know it was going to be a long and uncertain time…and here you are: you’ve come through it to this point, you’ve learned so much! And even if you didn’t rock every single step, you tolerated it when you didn’t measure up to your own goals, hopefully you can forgive yourself: this, too, is part of resiliency! He encourages you to think about what your strengths are, rather than your shortcomings, and to think about those external things you can do to help yourself feel better: getting dressed every day, a nice cup of matcha tea, a long hot shower in the morning, 20 minutes of yoga, a class you can take on your own schedule, a text or Marco Polo with your friend…identifying those elements and prioritizing them, make even the most interminable day, a little easier. And the last suggestion I’ll mention is his advice to involve your children in helping you: being helpful makes us all feel less helpless.

Rereading this list makes me think of a book I read recently…over the past month, I’ve been part of a group working on dismantling our own racism…in a unique way. We’ve started by reading children’s books about slavery and racism and using these simple, yet powerful books to jump start conversations our own feelings and experiences around race and racism. (The facilitator has created an extensive list, which I highly recommend to you to look over for your children’s bookshelves.) Ruth and the Green Book is the story of a young Black girl in the early 1950’s driving south from Chicago with her parents to visit her Grandmother. It is her first experience of Jim Crow laws and the separate and very unequal experiences Black people in the South endured then, and yes, even now (and not just in the South). It was a harrowing trip: not being allowed to use a restroom because they were for ‘whites only;’ having to sleep in the car because her parents were unable to find a hotel that would rent to them; being stuck on the side of the road with a broken-down vehicle because no one would stop to help.

What kept her experience from being traumatic was her mother. When she felt ashamed and unworthy because she wasn’t allowed in the bathroom, her mother helped her redirect that anger, aptly, at those who excluded them. When she was worried when they got turned away from hotels, her mother encouraged all 3 of them to sing. When they learned that Esso Stations carried the Green Book (and had bathrooms they could use), her mother assigned her the task of looking out the window for a station and later asked her to look through the book to find a place to stay and a mechanic who would help them. Her mother’s actions gave Ruth so much security that she had the empathetic reserves to notice a worried young boy at one of the last places they stayed, and give away her childhood teddy bear.

And that’s how traumatic events can lead to growth…for you, for your children, and hopefully for our world. Life is still uncertain, our resiliency is most definitely being tested, but in the end, we will all come out stronger for it.

16. Empty Yourself of Worries

To survive as a parent
you must empty yourself
of your constant thinking,
planning and worrying.

You and your children
were born in the Tao,
live in the Tao,
and will return to that same Tao.
If you don’t realize this,
you will mistake the sorrow you see in life
for the final word,
and you will become hardened with fear.

But, knowing how things really are,
you gain true confidence.
Being confident,
your mind opens to see your children
as they really are.
Seeing them as they really are,
your heart fills with genuine love for them.
Truly loving them,
you realize your own divine nature.
Realizing your true nature,
you enter eternal life.

These truths lie behind all religious traditions.
Believe them.