Parenting A Child In Crisis

A child in crisis requires different parenting tools

Not too long ago my eldest got triggered. To me it seemed like a little moment, something I could push back on a little to work on their coping abilities and to help them stretch their window of tolerance. But I misjudged. I didn’t see all the signs. My love and desire to do right by my child had the unintended consequence of triggering my child.

As parents, this happens. And as parents, we must learn how to forgive ourselves when this happens.

So what happened…

My child escalated to uncontrollable meltdown in about 3 minutes time and left the house. At night, in the dark, when it was maybe around 20 degrees outside. They took off and didn’t look back.

My husband and I knew we needed to let them go. Going after them would have just made them run away faster, harder and longer. We knew we needed to trust that once they were calm enough they would come back. That we would be allowed to help when they could accept our help.

My husband and I were able to stay completely calm for the first 20 minutes. After all, this was not our first rodeo. Our eldest has been running away since around the age of 4 or 5.

But after 20 minutes, the doubt started to creep in. The fear of judgment began. How it would look to others who would see a preteen wondering alone on a cold night. Why aren’t they at home? Doesn’t their mother care about them? Are there no rules or discipline in that house?

I worried about if the police would come across my child when they are experiencing a trauma response. Chances are it would make things worse. Make my child escalate further. I worried about their safety if this were to happen.

I also worried about being seen as an unfit mother and losing my child because institutions rarely have compassion and understanding for what it is like to be a child in the throws of a trauma response or to be the parent of a child that gets hijacked by their body’s biological responses.

After 30 minutes my husband and I started looking out the windows and doors. It was now past 9pm. We looked for signs that our eldest was working their way back to us. No sign. So we talked and we decided it was cold enough to go looking for them.

Hoping enough time had passed that they would be able to accept our help. But of course there were no guarantees.

A child who lives with trauma or a disorder which causes them to become dysregulated is not in control of their actions. The survival part of their brain is, and it is telling them to fight like hell because their life is in danger. It does not matter to the brain if the threat is real or not or if it is truly a matter of life or death. The child has no control over their reaction and no control over how long their stress system takes to calm down. It is a waiting game for everyone.

By the time my husband got geared up to scour the neighborhood and started walking through our front yard our eldest was heading back to our house. My husband waited and walked them back into the house.

I gave my child a hug and asked if they were okay. When they said yes, I told them I was glad they were safe and that they had come back home. And then I simply said, ‘let’s get ready for bed, I’ll help you’.

There was no lecture, no yelling, no ‘what were you thinking!?!’.

With a child that requires “more”, what we do before is just as important as what we do after. I had made a mistake before, which caused my child to become triggered. Of course it did not feel great to know I caused my child’s distress, but I also know to forgive myself because these are the challenges my child has to navigate in life. It is not them and it is not me. It just is.

So as counter intuitive as it may seem, especially to other parents who raise neurotypical children or children who have not experienced trauma, simple acceptance in the present moment is what heals a child in a stress response.

The next day, when my child was calm we talked about how scared I was for their safety and what they were feeling that made them run. We also talked about what we can try to do to cope with big emotions.

My child will tell you that when they are triggered they either freeze or fly. They know themselves, but they cannot change their body’s physiological reaction, no one can. So we talk about prevention and safety. These are the things we can control. These are what keep incidents like these few and far between. It is also what made my eldest aware enough to grab some winter gear before going outside even in the middle of a stress response.

For children with extreme behaviors and challenges this is what life is like. Prevention and repair are key. There will be very little you can do when your child is in the actual throws of a meltdown.

For children who do not struggle with disorders, trauma or intensity, they are more able to accept help and direction to calm during a meltdown. But the children I am talking about, the children like my eldest, will not be able to accept that kind of help in the moment. They are too far gone. No amount of deep breathing will help them in that moment. Although it will help you. Deep breath and practice your coping techniques while your child is having a meltdown. It will allow you to stay calm and make you ready to help them regulate once the worst parts of the meltdown are over.

Parents and caregivers who parent a child who requires “more” often feel isolated and hopeless when having to deal with the daily challenges and meltdowns. Society, and even friends and family, can judge these parents and caregivers harshly by telling them they are incompetent or that they have failed to instill discipline properly. Incorrectly blaming the parent, caregiver and child for a child’s physiological response to stress.

But you are not alone and you are not incompetent. And your kid is not bad, wrong or less than any other child. They just require a different set of tools. Ones that parents and caregivers are not usually told about or given.

Let’s get you the tools you and your child need to make parenting easier and more effective!

Jen Kiss, Certified Parent Coach
Parenting a Child in Crisis
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