When your complex traumatized child is what you interpret as “disrespectful” or “defiant,” take a breath to soothe yourself before you say another word. What comes next depends on it.
Most of our children have an “implicit” memory of devastation hardwired into their brains from neglect, abuse, abandonment, and/or institutional living in the early years. They usually have no “explicit” memory of the events.
When I was 17, my mother was killed in a car accident. At first I didn’t feel much but the chaos all around me. Over time though, I started to feel a violent grief in the depths of my being that couldn’t be satisfied by anything except releasing a wolf-like howl for hours into the cold night of my empty room. I thought I would die of it.
Because of this experience, I am keenly aware of attachment panic that feels like going crazy or like dying from despair. It was explicit to me. I knew the cause of the pain. Our children have this kind of violent despair implicitly. They have no idea why they feel the way they do.
Children from difficult beginnings are often triggered into that place when they feel the smallest slight, such as YOU saying “no,” them being pressured, or from fear of change, loss of control, or being thwarted in any small way. To fend off the inevitable feeling of overwhelming despair, they fight, flee or freeze without awareness. Our children are actually dissociated, operating on implicit memory, and from every cell in their being struggling desperately to survive. If YOU happen to be the one triggering the event, YOU are in danger of being acted-out upon in very negative ways.
So, soothe yourself before your next sentence in the face of your child’s small misbehaviors, because a hint of rejection is all it takes to trigger the implicit memory of impending death that they happened to live through.
Ce Eshelman, LMFT
Be soothing to your child when YOU get disrespect or defiance. Something deeper is afoot.
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