Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Cleaning Out the Emotional Closet

Emotional ClosetQ: How do you give a narrative to a child that suffered neglect as an infant during the first three months of his life, especially when I do not know the details? A: What a great question! Children need to know their stories. This helps them understand themselves and gives them an understanding of who they are.

The actual details of the story are not important, and in fact, should not be the focus. This is especially true for trauma that happened preverbally (before the child was speaking). Infants and young children are 100% emotional beings, so the story needs to be told from this level to connect with the child's early experiences.

When giving your child his story, focus on how the child felt (helpless, scared, terrified, sad, hungry, etc.). A child who was neglected missed the warm and nurturing touch of a parent, so hold your child next to you or in your lap while giving him his story.

The important factors are your tone of voice, facial expressions, posture, and tempo of movement and speech. These are all right brain expressions that will speak to the subconscious experiences of your child.

Dr. Allan Schore, the "king" of affect regulation, explains that the right brain is the unconscious processor of the emotional self. The attachment bond is an emotional bond, so it takes expressing yourself and your child's story at the emotional level. What you say isn't as important as how you say it.

A dialogue might sound something like this:
"When you were a little baby, sweetheart, you were really scared. Your mommy wasn't able to help you like you needed her to. There were many times that you were left in your crib alone. Babies get super scared when this happens because they are helpless. I'm certain this is how you were feeling. It probably felt like you weren't lovable, also. I do wish I could have been there. I'm so sorry this happened to you, honey."
I was speaking to a mother just the other day about giving her daughter who was severely neglected for the first year of her life her story. The mother's fear prompted these questions, "Do you think that this will just make it worse for her? Won't this only bring up bad memories and get her upset?"

This is a fear that parents have…and, of course. You're just trying to get better and move on in your healing process and I'm suggesting a trip back in time to expose the pain and overwhelm. The paradox is that in order to move forward, it takes going backwards, seeing the fullness of the trauma and experiencing it at all levels.

When your child's story goes unexpressed, he will be subconsciously living out it everyday. This pain and overwhelm will continue to influence him and drive him in his actions. You're not giving him anything new by giving him his story. You're simply bringing the subconscious to the conscious so it doesn't have the power to create dysregulation anymore. When these stories, connected to the feelings and emotions, can be expressed, healing happens.

So the question then becomes, "Whose fear is this really about?" Resistance is about the parent's fear of going back to experience the depth of darkness that the child experienced. Just the thought of what some of our children went through is completely overwhelming to us.

I remember one day my daughter, who was also severely neglected, was beginning to open up to her early life experiences. I was getting so overwhelmed by her pain that I had to call a friend over to be with me so I could stay present with her. I needed support. Interesting that it was too much for me as an adult, so why is it that we expect our children to live alone in this kind of pain by themselves and be okay?

Find the courage to experience your child's early life with him, feel the impact of his feelings of being unworthy, and validate how bad it was for him. Then, you will have opened up the space for healing and a connected and happy future.

Remember that attachment is about decreasing negative emotions. But even more than that, attachment is about increasing positive emotions. Clean out the closet to make room for joy, happiness, peace, and love!

Press on,

Heather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2, and Dare to Love

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