MOVING TOWARD TRIGGERS - written by Phil Bradfield
Happy New Year to WinShape Homes’ parents and staff. Last month I wrote about vicarious trauma, and in part of that I touched on how children’s trauma can get triggered. When triggered, their trauma often leads to challenging behaviors, and this month I want to focus on that. Those challenging behaviors over time can cause you vicarious trauma, burnout, and compassion fatigue. Those behaviors can easily trigger your vicarious trauma. So what is a healthy approach to such a problem?
Having a healthy approach to challenging behaviors is critical for our own mental health. So many issues today in mental health are about people taking steps to avoid pain rather than embracing it. Our children engage in bad behavior to avoid their pain. How we deal with our own pain is even more critical because we are modeling health. We should practice good boundaries through self-care, but only to protect what we wish to maintain; not to get away from what triggers us. Those two approaches can look the same on the surface, but are very different at the heart level.
1 John 4:19 tells us that, “We love Him, because He first loved us.” God’s greatest commandment through Jesus can be summed up as us needing to keep our love turned on. If I say that I love Him, then I forfeit the right to turn my love off. Maintaining your love means that you are powerful; powerful to create connection; powerful over the goal of keeping connection. When we re-center on that passage and understand it, our relationships become about keeping your love turned on. When it comes children or adolescent behavior issues, our love has to be powerful enough to keep connection the priority, and let go of our need to control behaviors. It cannot be about our efforts to make them do or not do certain things. If we make it about us, it will become natural to retreat until they ‘get their act together’ so to speak. It becomes self-preservation over the truth of their struggle, but what they need most when misbehaving is for someone to move toward them in love. People are the hardest to love when they need it the most. Romans 5:8 states, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Thankfully God moved toward us in the midst of us not deserving it. It can feel risky to love others that way, but as parents, short or long term, we give our lives for their success. Even Jesus took on risky relationships. Judas was keeper of the money, but was also a thief. Why would Jesus have his ministry finances set up that way? Perhaps He gives chances before it is deserved.
Every child does not respond to trauma the same way, but as the caretaker, having a consistent and sensitive approach is best. One way to sum up a healthy approach on the part of the caretaker is an attitude of ‘what happened to you?’ versus ‘what is wrong with you?’ A lot of foster children remain in survival mode from their trauma, and their survival often manifests in bad behavior or inappropriate conduct. Children and teens do need consequences for bad behaviors, but more important than consequences is the caretaker’s ability to keep connection through administering discipline. I want to encourage you all to lean into the household relationships where you are triggered by misbehavior. Lean into the child with increased love and connection, and have no part in avoiding pain to deal with stress. If there are scenarios where we allow our stress to put strain on the relationship with our children, we need to take the time to ‘repair the rupture.’ Listen to this podcast for supplemental material: