We know that all children have a natural need for connection. We also know that for children who have experienced a traumatic event, particularly one that is relational, the healing process requires deep connection and trust building. So when it is time for someone else to be the recipient of intense focus and attention, fear emanates from our traumatized children. This intensely, deep rooted fear manifests as screaming, whining, demanding, perhaps physically getting between their caregiver and the guest of honor, even physical aggression. Crying that they want a present too and to blow out the candles or receive an award too are common. Your child is not trying to be difficult. They don’t want to spoil the fun or make others uncomfortable. These are outward signs of really big internal fears and feelings. Every ounce of their being is pulsing with, “I can’t feel you there! I feel afraid! I’m so alone! Help!” They are in desperate need of co-regulation. They cannot calm by themselves. They NEED connection because the most powerful part of their body, the amygdala in the brain, is roaring as loudly as possible, “DANGER! DANGER!”
Sometimes (ok, let’s be honest, if we don’t prepare in advance, always) caregivers become frustrated, embarrassed and bewildered by these behaviors and can (will) overreact because our own engines surge into the red zone. We feel helplessness, then embarrassment, then anger. Unfortunately, the child in desperate need of connection because their bodies are consumed by fear, bears the brunt of that anger, confirming to the brain that there is real danger.
How can you prepare your traumatized child for these special events?
I am including a social story that I wrote for you to personalize. Begin reading this with your child a few days (not too many) before the event. Work together to develop the strategies that he/she can use in that situation. If walk-away is not a good option because it is an outside party with lots of strangers and a busy road, then what can they do? Can you designate a safe place that they can go to? How will you support that child so they are not alone? Can you develop a secret handshake or other healthy touch that will tell your child that they are seen and heard by you even if it looks like all their attention is on someone else?
- Practice ahead of time using the social story. Create a visual “cheat sheet” of strategies for dealing with the big emotions. Let them carry it or bring it out quickly when you see they need some help.
- Be ready to calmly and lovingly step away from the festivities for a few minutes if your child needs you. Don’t make it a punishment but a time of loving, caring attention. If a parent will come close, and listen while the child cries hard about how sad and frightening it was, a child can get it off his chest. He cries hard. He sweats or trembles. He/she may be angry and lash out. The adult offers eye contact, a warm voice and tone, and gentle arms that communicate, “I’m here. I’m sorry that was hard. You can show me how hard that was. I’ll listen.” When a child has worked the whole experience through, he relaxes. He can notice the closeness that his parent offers. He can absorb love again. And his behavior transforms from difficult to open; from provocative to cooperative. If the hurt he’s working on is a big one, you’ll see small but significant changes. Many more hearty cries will be needed to relieve the attention-seeking behavior entirely.
- Talk with the guest of honor (and their parents if warranted) ahead of time. Let them know how you feel about them but that you also recognize this may be a difficult time for your child. Tell them you may need to step away now and then to help them manage their fears.
- Be mindful of your own triggers and emotions. Keep focused on what is most important and work together. If it is a big event and you feel that you cannot give your attention to two places, hire a sitter to stay home with your child and make it special for them or pay a sitter to come with you that can be devoted to your child’s needs.
- Social Story for Someone Else’s Special Day
In the comments, let me know how the next celebration went. Do you have suggestions for other parents?