Some days, when our son is having a good day, I easily forget that he experienced trauma as a baby. Then…he bangs his head, skins his knee or maybe breaks a toy. And I see what we now call the trauma dance.
It begins with him running toward me or Danielle. We wait with sad faces and anticipation of comforting him. But he doesn’t make it to our outstretched arms. He suddenly veers off and runs in crazy circles crying as if he is looking for the one thing that will comfort him yet not really sure what he is looking for or where to find it.
He has even pushed me away in anger when I have reached out to hold him.
One time when I was out of the country, something upset our son. He was crying to Danielle that he wanted his daddy even though she was right there more than willing, even desperate to comfort him. Danielle gently explained that I couldn’t be there right then. “Any daddy will do!”, he yelled.
If you have experienced this you know all to well the helpless, sometimes hurt feelings stirring within you as you watch your child push, maybe even run away from you.
It’s moments like this that remind us with a starkness that pierces our soul that our child has suffered loss, anguish, pain…trauma. For many of our children, they were too young to remember the trauma they experienced, at least explicitly.
Yes, it hurts my heart when my son reacts this way. Regretfully sometimes I respond out of anger or frustration. In my weakness I am offended. ” I am your Daddy! I can help you if you will just let me!”
Yeah, not a good scene when I join him in running around with my emotional lid flipped too.
It’s especially hard for adoptive parents like ourselves when a child pushes us away. We desperately want to connect with our child and offer him a safe and trusting environment.
Why does our son do the trauma dance?
When most children get hurt, they immediately run for mom or dad for comfort. However, children from a “hard place” or traumatic background often respond like my son.
“This happens not only when they are injured, but also wen they are sad, embarrassed, frustrated, lonely, or angry—even when they are tired or hungry. In all of these situations and many others their reactions can look a lot like willful disobedience or defiance. In turn, parents often respond by coming down hard and using discipline that physically isolates their children and leads to even greater emotional distance between them.”
“Instead, children from hard places need to learn how to trust in order to heal. For this to happen, parents must move in closer even as their child pushes them away. They must resolve conflict and respond to misbehavior in ways that both correct and connect. This often requires parents to connect first, then correct—an approach that goes against the instincts of most parents, but actually can make their correction even more effective.” (from When Your Child Pushes You Away by Michael Monroe)
What does my son need in that moment?
Like Michael Monroe states in the quote above, my son needs for me to connect first, then correct. He needs for me to respond in a way that shows him that he is safe and “never alone”. He needs to know that I hear and see him. These responses will help build the connection and trust that naturally exists between a biological parent and child in a healthy family.
Even though it’s still hard sometimes for me to press in closer when my son pushes me away, I do it more often than not. Thankfully our connection has greatly improved. Now more times than not when he is hurt, angry, embarrassed, etc., he will look for us even if takes him a moment to fully trust us to meet his need for comfort and safety.
If you have a child who is pushing you away, I encourage you to press into him even when your natural tendency is do the opposite. I trust that over time, this approach will pay off—for you and me.