If you watched the Super Bowl, you may have seen that great ad that had these giant rabbits dragging people down huge holes. Very catchy but I have no idea what it was advertising. But I do love a good rabbit hole…
I started out thinking I’d write about the confusing subject of cutting, or Non-Suicidal Self Injury (NSSI in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or the DSM). This took me into the idea that these scary events typically follow a period of intense negative emotions and are most common in teenagers.
Thinking about the children in your homes with histories of chronic, early trauma, it is certain that intense negative emotions are familiar territory. The sources of those negative emotions are varied.
- Real Time Cruelty
- Real Time Misunderstandings
- Implicit Bias
- Brooding Rumination
- Cruelty – The school yard or shared sleeping quarters can be overt sources of hurt, resentment or feelings of inadequacy.
- Misunderstandings – If I heard you incorrectly because you spoke quietly or I wasn’t paying close attention, I have a choice to ask for clarification or to carry on believing my first, incorrect, impression. For example, last week in the noisy car, I said something to the kids in the backseat (I have no idea what I said). Thankfully, somebody spoke up with “Porta potty kid?!” I promise I didn’t call them porta potty kids but if they hadn’t clarified but held on to the idea that their beloved Nana would call them porta potty kids, who knows what injury might have resulted. It’s a good practice with some kids to verify what they think they heard you say.
- Implicit Bias – When I act in accordance with my prejudices or stereotypes UNINTENTIONALLY, I am in Implicit Bias territory (as soon as my behavior is intended, organized or systematic, we have moved into Explicit Bias). In the current context, my negative emotions may be related to people in my past who looked like you, dressed like you or simply inhabited a role like your current one of caretaker. If that person didn’t/couldn’t care the way I needed them to care, you are expected to be similarly disappointing and a source of all kinds of related negative emotions like anger, guilt, sadness, or loneliness.
- Brooding rumination is emotion focused – Watch for this one after a cancelled or disappointing visit with a parent(s). Feelings of worthlessness or inadequacy are typical. I call this my hamster wheel. It is hard to get off once I get it really spinning. It seems to be kicked off by threats or losses. This inflexibility also shows up in kids who struggle with shifting attention in transitions to new activities. This can also be an obstacle to recognizing that things have really changed! Such brooding habits interfere when problems need to be solved or decisions need to be made.
Fortunately, a different sort of rumination, Reflective Rumination, can be brought to the task of analyzing negative memories and the feelings associated with them. If you have an inkling that your child is motivated to feel better, be happier, put this practice into play. Self-interest and curiosity will serve them in their effort to understand negative feelings and memories. There is research that shows that bringing this reflective sort of analysis either in conversation or in writing with a trusted other, serves to WEAKEN the neurological pathway laid down by the NEGATIVE memory. This analysis may involve considering who/what might have changed the outcome, imagining a different outcome, what factors contributed to the event (drugs, illness, dark, poverty, isolation, confusion, etc.). Reframing is the practice of looking at the event from a different point of view and even intertwining elements of current reality with the painful memory. This analytical part of your brain is available to you once any fear or anger in the present moment has passed and a sense of safety has been restored, however briefly. “A burden shared is a burden halved.” The foundation of talk therapy and shared journaling!
Additionally, there are even strategies that serve to STRENGTHEN the pathways associated with POSITIVE memories. These aren’t to be analyzed, they are to be savored and, unquestioningly, re-experienced. In a happy moment, be sure to notice and share with those around you your immediate sensory experiences, e.g. What a wonderful time! The sun is shining but not too hot. The sky is so blue, no clouds/fluffy white clouds. I can smell the ocean/cake baking/forest/creosote in the desert after the rain. There are so many greens in the trees/the flowers are red, yellow, and orange. Later, enjoy recalling that memory with comments about what it felt like: The sun was bright and warm with a cool breeze. It smelled like funnel cakes on the beach! The wind was perfect for all the kites flying. I remember my straw hat smelled like fresh cut grass. That was the first time I wore my new swim fins. Later, simply thinking about this wonderful memory will further strengthen it and make it available as a safe harbor when a new storm threatens.
We have opportunities to mimic happy people even before our own happiness sets in. We can practice gratitude, optimism and doing things for others. We can write letters of thanks, count our blessings, do kind things for one another or strangers, recognize and celebrate strengths and successes even when the kids minimize them. Mix it up! Thanks to the work of researcher, Sonja Lyubomirsky, for many of these insights.
Maybe next time I’ll really explore NSSI…
- Check out the AZAFAP Event Calendar at https://azafap.gnosishosting.net/Events/Calendar.
- Our online Friday night Happy Hour Chat and Tuesday afternoon Coffee Chat continue weekly. Some find me and a single other participant; others find a conversation among 4 to 6 people. The topics range from the silly to what hobbies have us in their grip to what life has thrown in our path. If you ever find yourself wanting a bit of grown-up conversation, consider joining us (check your email for the unchanging link).
- Parent Mentor Partners: AZAFAP has trained volunteer parents as mentors who are ready to help support foster, kinship, and adoptive parents through one-to-one conversations. Interested? Fill out the form at https://www.azafap.org/family-support-services/
- Though pandemic pressures are finally easing, reach out if you need an ear or even to share your thoughts about this or a past blog: email@example.com.
- I encourage you to check out what Dr. Bruce Perry has to offer. Find his thoughts at https://www.pcaaz.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/B21-Insightful-Caregiving-Intimacy.pdf and at https://www.neurosequential.com.
Thanks for listening. Maintain yourself so you can be there reliably for others.