One of the most frustrating aspects of parenting children with trauma is knowing whether they won’t make good choices or whether they can’t make them. The only answer I have found is that we rarely know which it is, so we have to approach every situation with humility and a large measure of grace.
We do need to resist the current temptation to blame everything on physical neurological problems. I’ve seen quite a few absolute statements that “we know” that trauma causes brain changes. The studies that I have been able to track down, however, are either studies on animals or very small numbers of humans. The studies also show intriguing correlations, but don’t yet establish true causal links. The current science is suggestive, but I haven’t seen anything saying that it is settled.
On the other hand, we know that people who have suffered trauma do have involuntary reactions. One symptom of PTSD, for example, is having intrusive, uncontrollable thoughts and memories of trauma. The science is clear that at least some of our children’s reactions are not completely voluntary.
So how do we respond when a child lies to or steals from us? Is it a controlled moral choice, or a learned coping skill, or a bit of both? It’s hard for us to tell, and our children rarely have the vocabulary to describe what’s going on inside their heads. I’ve decided that the best approach is to give our children the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are reacting the only way that’s within their control.
That attitude has a few important benefits. First, I’m not as likely to take their behavior personally when I think of it as a reaction to past trauma. They aren’t lying to me personally, but resorting to a skill from their past. So it makes it easier for me to think past my emotions and concentrate on what they need. It does make a difference in our attitudes when we don’t feel personally attacked or ignored.
Second, I am able to choose more positive language when talking to them. Instead of demanding “why do you keep lying,” I can point out that their habit of cutting corners with facts will make friends not trust them.
Next, we can concentrate on helping our kids understand that actions have consequences. Their motives for the actions rarely change those consequences. Whether they lie out of malice or trauma, for example, people around them still can’t trust them. Not being trusted limits their lives in ways that they need to see and understand. As with all of their coping skills, we have to help our children understand that the ways they have learned to react to trauma won’t help, and usually will hurt, them in their current and future lives.
Finally, it doesn’t hurt to assume that our kids are reacting to trauma. Understanding bad behavior is not the same as excusing it. We still have to set boundaries and establish accountability for their actions. Our kids may need to figure out their motives in order to change their behavior, but they still need to change. We have to be patient, but they also have to do the hard work of learning new coping skills.
All of this is very complex and it takes a lot of time. But it’s an inescapable part of parenting. Our children need to learn new behavior for their new lives, and the calendar does not stop just because they are not emotionally ready to handle responsibility. How we deal with them, however, changes when we treat the root of their behavior as trauma rather than just a bad attitude. Giving them the benefit of the doubt lowers the stress on the relationship, helps us keep some objectivity, and helps them deal with their behavior rather than our accusations.