by Elina Falk, MC., RCC
What is he trying to do? Helping your child heal by supporting the intention behind the troubling behaviour.
Suzie is always trying to get people’s attention. Jonathan is an escape artist and can open any child-proof lock. Peter is as quiet and unobtrusive as possible.
On the face of it, it might not seem that these situations have much in common.
But in fact, all these children are likely trying to complete their intention to reduce the impact of the trauma they have experienced.
Dr. Francine Shapiro, Dr. Peter Levine, and Babette Rothschild, all renowned trauma experts, talk a lot about this aspect of trauma recovery.
When we experience trauma, the thoughts, sensations, emotions, and intentions associated with the trauma become frozen in time. It is like they are held in our brain as “red alert files” to never be forgotten. This is our brain’s attempt to protect us from that kind of trauma happening again.
An excellent way to help children to recover from trauma is to help them complete the intentions they formed during the event. Helping children complete these kinds of purposes or goals calms their nervous systems, increases their sense of personal power, and does wonders for the attachment relationship.
So for instance,
- Suzie, who is always trying to get attention, spent her first five years in a chaotic household where she was almost always forgotten. She likely holds the intention to act in such away to ensure she will be remembered and her needs attended to.
- Jonathan, the escape artist, spent much time confined in a small space with emotionally abusive parents. Odds are he holds the intention of getting away to find safety.
- Peter who is quiet and seems to want to disappear, spent his first 7 experiencing unpredictable bouts of physical aggression and verbal abuse by his father. He probably holds an intention to stay safe by not being noticed.
An excellent way to help them complete their intentions is through playfulness.
With Suzie, rather than telling her to wait her turn, it will likely have greater impact if you playfully encourage her to make herself as big and noticeable as possible, and tell you loudly and clearly how much she wants your attention. After she has done it, you’d celebrate how great she was at expressing that. Then you do it over and over again, over several days, weeks, and months. Gradually, if you can retain a playful and loving manner, she will likely feel that her intention to be noticed has been met, and she will became less and less attention seeking, calmer, and more genuinely connected.
So it is with Jonathan. Rather than keeping him confined with increasingly unbreakable locks, you will help his healing more if you playfully help him escape and run to safety. You can do that by running with him through obstacles or opening closed doors and gates, toward a designated safe spot. Repeating this many times will probably help him feel more powerful, more heard, and infinitely safer.
Again, the same principle will hold with Peter. Instead of encouraging him to speak up and express himself, you will help him recover faster if you build a safe hiding space that he can go to whenever he feels the need. Over time, as he learns that he can stay safe in his hiding place, his nervous system will likely relax, and he’ll be more interested in connecting with people and the world around him.
Want to learn more? Dr. Peter Levine and Maggie Klein’s book “Trauma Through A Child’s Eyes—Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing” gives lots of ideas and strategies on how to help children and teens complete all types of sensations, impulses and intentions frozen by trauma.