Adopting two boys with a history of early childhood abuse and trauma has had a profound effect on all aspects of our life. It has changed the way we see and navigate our world. It has made me question truths that were once embedded in me and flipped any parenting strategies that were tried and true with my older children, on their head. Parenting a child from trauma requires me to pause, consider how I instinctually would respond to the situation, and then do the complete opposite.
It is like living every day as “Backwards Day.” One area where this is particularly true is how I respond to emotional escalation. When my children were little and they would start to escalate or spin out of control, my instinctual response was to channel my internal “Mr. Rogers,” lower my voice, speak softly and calmly, and decrease the energy level of the situation.
When parenting a child that comes from trauma, this approach is not only ineffective but can have the opposite effect that you are seeking. For children who come from abusive homes calm, quiet, and soft voices are unfamiliar and scary. They are so foreign to these kids that were raised in an environment of chaos and heightened fear. I have discovered that when children from hard places are feeling emotionally out of control often what they are most in need of is external chaos. By increasing the energy level, by bringing an unexpected and crazy response to meet their chaos, their internal anxiety lowers.
I know it sounds so counterproductive to those of us who come from healthy homes, but for children who have lived their entire life in a state of heightened adrenaline, calm is unknown and uncomfortable.
It has taken me a long time to reprogram my approach. It takes presence of mind to walk into one of the boys’ meltdowns and rather than talking calmly and trying to diffuse the escalation, amp up the energy with a pillow fight, a Three Stooges comedy routine, or an impromptu Nerf battle.
I knew Friday was going to be rough. Ozzie was returning home and with his return came heightened emotions on everyone’s part. I knew the situation was a ticking time bomb.
Ozzie was angry and blaming me for his time at the hospital.
Tyler was fearful of Ozzie’s return home.
And everyone else was emotionally on edge.
I knew it was time to pull out the big guns and amp up the energy and chaos is a big way, so as to avoid a crisis. I had to choose a parent driven, fun, healthy form of chaos before the boys tried to meet their own need for chaos in an unhealthy and destructive way.
Friday evening Toby and I just had the two little boys with us. Molly was at work. Rusty was on a white-water rafting adventure with his Boy Scout troop, and Grace was recovering from wisdom teeth surgery (more on those adventures in a future blog) so we made plans to have some one on one time with Tyler and Ozzie. We knew it needed to be high energy and adrenaline filled, given the emotionally instability of everyone with Ozzie’s return home. We were also looking for an activity that would bond and connect Tyler and Ozzie in a healthy way, with the hope some shared fun would dispel the fears Tyler was having of Ozzie’s return home.
So, what did we do??
We headed to the Butler Farm Show for some messy, muddy, noisy fun at the Demolition Derby!
I knew it was the PERFECT activity for the boys.
We arrived at the Butler Farm Show just as the Demolition Derby was beginning. Despite the rain, the crowds were high.
We parked in an outer field and took the tractor-pulled wagon to the front gate.
At the front gate, we purchased tickets and headed in.
The sun was just starting to lower in the sky and the neon lights of the rides and booths lit up the fair grounds.
We walked past the buildings that held all the 4-H farm animals.
We stepped into the arena where the demolition derby was being held and the place was buzzing with excitement.
We missed the first heat but saw the after effects of the destruction which just fueled the boys’ excitement for what was coming.
As we sought out seats in the already packed stands we ran across friends and stopped for a quick chat.
We eventually settled ourselves near the top of the stands…seats that allowed us a sweeping view of all the action without any of the flying mud that accompanied the lower seats.
The next round of cars drove out and lined up for the next heat.
The competitors drove junk cars that had been dolled up and personalized with paint and props, which was as cosmetically effective as putting lipstick on a pig,
But the results were comical. There was much creativity put into the designs.
Then the countdown began…
5, 4, 3, 2, 1…
And the destruction began.
Much like an adult version of bumper cars, the vehicles rammed, crashed, and collided into each other.
The thrill level increased as tires flew off, bumpers crumpled, and engines caught on fire.
It was everything a little boy loves: cars, mud, noise and destruction.
Not only did they love it, but they enjoyed it together. It was a shared thrill, a connecting experience, one step closer to bonding.
As chaos ensued below us I watched as the boys found peace with the thoughts in their head.
They were still. They were calm. They were happy.
By feeding their need for chaos with a fun, healthy, high adrenaline experience we found some peace.
Oh, the irony!
I have a feeling there will be more demolition derbies in our future.