“The path of least resistance is the path of the loser.” H. G. Wells
Put more gently: The path of least resistance is rarely the path of wisdom.
“The path of least resistance leads to crooked rivers and crooked men.” Henry David Thoreau
I remember getting new carpet once and noticing how fluffy the pile was in the doorways compared to the old stuff. I even went so far as to carefully place my steps further out near the door frame for a while, hoping to delay the inevitable crush that heavy traffic brings to pile carpeting. The practice didn’t last long but the memory has persisted just like that carpet showed its “memory” of thousands of footfalls. The center of the doorway was just the easier path, the one that didn’t take any intention to use. It took focus and persistence to place my feet anywhere else. My busy life just couldn’t support that new habit and soon, my new carpet reflected what had happened to it. Again.
I’ve used this analogy for many years to help caregivers understand the neurological implications of childhood trauma. We sometimes seem to act as if neglect takes a backseat to physical or sexual abuse developmentally and legally but that is a mistake. Carelessness during pregnancy or neglect of the newborn’s basic needs for comfort, company, or celebration in those first months and years of life creates neurological and physiological templates that guide the child’s interactions with the world for a very long time. They don’t need to “remember” what happened; they behave in ways that demonstrate what happened with no idea of why. Their brains have been shaped in a distinct way that determines how their senses experience everything.
This consequence is to be distinguished from the consequences of trauma experienced by adults. Healthy adults bring a complete history to the moment of their traumatic experience; children do not. Adult trauma has huge consequences for the ongoing functioning of the person, but it occurs in the context of years of foregoing experience from which the person can garner support, skills and strength. The adult knows something is “off”; that their usual functioning has taken a hit (hot temper or anxiety where once calm; disturbed sleep where once well rested; and/or isolation where once actively social, just to mention a few). A young child’s entire perceptual schema is FORMED by their trauma. They know no other way to encounter the world. They may not even notice that their response styles are unusual compared to their peers. They just know they are in trouble a lot. They begin to believe they are unlovable, unworthy, or incapable of effective participation in life. But, just like adults, kids try to avoid the source, and anything similar to the source, of their trauma. Too often, because you are human, you are something to be avoided. As much as they still want connection, it is just too scary.
Conclusion: a child with an early trauma history needs the comfort of a caring adult but is too skeptical/afraid to accept the concern/attention/care offered by those in their sphere. What a rip-off! This now requires you, the caregiver, to hold off on the hugs, allow the child to approach first for comfort, and ride out any emotional display without judgement or any attempt to control or intervene. If your calm cannot de-escalate the situation yet it is probably because these wild displays of frustration, anger, or disappointment need to last until the child is “spent” because “spent” is the old, familiar pattern of coming down off strong feelings when there was no one there to provide comfort. What next? They clean up the mess and only then do you talk about what happened for the few minutes such conversation can be tolerated. No corrections, no other consequences, no moral lessons. Just patience and understanding that they are really doing the best they can with tragically limited resources based on such early trauma.
Then you do it all again tomorrow and the next day and the next day until an ember of trust begins to shimmer. Then you do it again and again until that ember has a chance to take hold. Careful: too much wind will blow it out so take it slow. In the meantime, take care of yourself in whatever way feeds your soul so you have the bandwidth to deliver the patience and curiosity this child needs from you and anyone else in their life. Maybe then they will have a chance to give and receive the kind of love you have been able to show them for oh, so long.
- Check out the AZAFAP Event Calendar at https://azafap.gnosishosting.net/Events/Calendar.
- Our Friday night Happy Hour and Tuesday afternoon Coffee Chat continue. 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/
- Registration is also open for new, regional Circles of Supportive Families. Reach out to find another parent who understands.
- 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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 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.