One of our dogs is a rescue, and her early life experiences have left her a bit anxious and high-strung. Whenever we come home, she spins in circles, vocalizing her displeasure that we left without her in the first place. One afternoon, my youngest stepson was watching her antics and said, “Wow! She feels ways about things, doesn’t she?”
I laughed, appreciating his way with words, but later, I realized that he had expressed a pretty deep truth about some of the children that I’ve parented. They have experienced trauma and have to deal with a lot of deep emotions. What they feel and what we see can be just a blob of feeling and reactions. When something triggers them, in the words of my stepson they can only feel ways about things.
It usually doesn’t help to ask them what’s wrong. Younger kids don’t have the vocabulary to identify their feelings. Even older kids often cannot untangle their emotions well enough to identify them separately. They certainly can’t trace those feelings back to their trauma. One of the things that we have to do as their parents is give them the vocabulary and help them untangle their emotions. To do that, we’ll have to marshal a lot of resources, ranging from therapy to educating ourselves about the results of trauma.
One of the benefits of our digital age is the availability of good resources about the effects of trauma in children. You can learn a lot at websites such as SAMHSA, Child Welfare, the Center for Child Trauma Assessment, the CDC, and a multitude of others. There are a number of good networks, such as Facebook groups about foster and step parenting, that can help you apply what you learn. If you can find the budget for therapy, be sure to look for someone trained in a trauma-focused protocol, such as cognitive behavior therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, or play therapy for younger kids. Any and all of these resources can help you learn what may be happening in your child’s brain and know how to respond to it.
Finally, don’t forget that “feeling ways about things” is an inevitable part of childhood. Even non-traumatized children have to learn the vocabulary to describe their feelings and wait for their brains to develop. Trauma can slow down that process, but all parents have to help their children through it. Take a deep breath, learn all you can, and find ways to give your children the tools to understand how to handle their emotions.