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Healing Trauma at the Beach

Updated: Jul 15, 2022

This morning my husband, son, and I went for a bike ride down to the lake. When we got there we parked at the beach and enjoyed the first day of sunshine we've had in two weeks (at least!). My son took his socks and shoes off, waded in the water and searched for pretty rocks. He brought them to me, one by one, to show me the pretty colors and get my opinion on if they were worth keeping or not.

I was struck by this moment from the very first rock he brought to me. The rocks were varied in color from green, pink, purple, black, and white. And every single one was beautiful. But the joy in his face as he brought each one for me to inspect reminded me of how a toddler’s face lights up when they put a rock, flower, pine cone, tuft of grass, whatever it may be, into Mom’s hand to see her face light up too. They want to know if Mom and Dad will be just as excited as they were at their find.

My son is sixteen. I’ve written about his special needs on this blog in the past, but have been silent on the subject for some time. For the past year and a half I’ve been studying brain science in the hopes of discovering ways to help him create new pathways in his brain so he doesn’t have to live with extreme anxiety and anger forever. And it’s possible. With very simple exercises that I don’t necessarily have to explain to him, he can create those pathways. But he needs people to help him do it. He needs his community to help him.

I’ve thought, planned, considered, worried, stressed, prayed, and thought some more about how to accomplish this. How to get more people involved in doing these simple exercises and I thought I had found a direction until this morning, before our bike ride, when I experienced anxiety over asking my son to take a shower.

I thought I was getting beyond these moments. My son hasn’t lived at home for a year now. When we first moved him to the group home and came home to visit, it was always tense. But things got better. However, my brain had developed a fight, flight or freeze response to certain situations and I would experience anxiety whenever I perceived one of those situations might arise when our son was home. So I started using what I’ve been learning about brain science on myself and saw improvement, which was encouraging since I want to use these same techniques on my son.

However, this morning when I had to ask my son to take a shower, the anxiety returned and I felt like a failure. I thought I’d moved past this part, I’d made plans to start doing the exercises with my son this weekend and now here I was, stuck in the same old rut unable to make eye contact with him, unable to get too close to him, and unable to stop feeling shaky. I felt frustrated with myself, hopeless that I would ever reach a place where I could truly help my son, and upset that I couldn’t get myself to quiet using the skills I’d learned for more than a minute at a time. It was a vicious cycle.

Breakfast was no better because I cooked a meal I wasn’t sure my son would eat. After breakfast was said and done and there was no meltdown, the anxiety disappeared. And while my husband and son were repairing a flat tire on one of the bikes, I went to a quiet corner of the house and took my heavy heart to the Lord in prayer.

He affirmed me, told me I wasn’t a failure, this was just another hiccup that needed to be cleared away and did not mean I had done anything wrong. He commended me for trying so hard to keep it together, for recognizing I wasn’t in a place where I could be relational and for trying to get back to being myself.

After praying I felt better, but was still disappointed I couldn’t jump into helping my son just yet. We went on our bike ride and stopped at the beach where I noted my son’s toddler like behavior. I noticed it because I’ve been looking at maturity milestones specifically with him in mind and a lot of things he was supposed to get as a baby, he didn’t get.

Also, I started reading a book this week called “Mindsight” by Daniel Siegel and in it he talks about a study done with mothers and their babies. The mothers were instructed not to look at or engage with their babies when they woke up from their naps so the scientists could observe what happened.

Every baby would wake up, see Mom, smile, and make sounds to get her attention. After a few minutes of being unable to do this, they began getting fussy. When Mom still ignored them, the babies would begin to scream in distress. Babies can’t talk, but they want connection more than anything and the only way they can get that connection is through touch and eye contact. When a baby doesn’t get those connections, they experience attachment pain, which is considered Type A Brain Trauma.

Simply by not being held or looked at enough a baby can experience brain trauma. This was the case with my son. By the time he was a year old, he finally had parents in his life who could give him the touch and eye contact he needed, but it was too late. His brain had decided he needed to figure out how to care for himself because he wasn’t going to get the care he needed any other way. This is why he has Reactive Attachment Disorder.

Because my son is missing some key maturity milestones from his babyhood, he will sometimes display behaviors you expect to see from a child under the age of four, such as handing Mom rocks to see if she is as excited as he was to find them. In order for his brain to grow in this area, and for him to be able to mature past this, he needs exactly what a baby needs: He needs his Mom to look him in the eye frequently and smile at him.

I realized this when he handed me that first rock, so after I looked at the rock, I looked up into the eyes of my sixteen year old son so he could see the smile on my face as I told him it was a beautiful rock, and I repeated this process for all the succeeding rocks as well.

In a way, I think God showed me I am ready to help my son even though I’m still getting healing for myself. I just have to be present in each moment, and not worried about my plans going the way I expect them to or being wrapped up in the “how-to’s”. I know the information, I’ve been studying and practicing it for over a year now. I just need to let it flow and trust God to bring the moments for me to use what I’ve learned.

Had I not taken the time to figure out how to get back to my true self, I might have missed this moment. I know how I can get when I’m feeling disappointed or being hard on myself. I turn inward. I analyze. I overthink. When people talk to me and I’m in this mood I give one word responses. Sometimes not even that, sometimes it’s just an “mmhmm” or shake of the head.

It’s possible my son could have brought me that first rock, felt I didn’t want to connect with him, and I would never have seen a second rock. His brain would have confirmed to him, again, that Mom’s don’t want to connect with him and he needs to take care of himself.

In that I truly would have failed. Instead, I got a small opportunity to begin creating a new pathway in my son’s brain, and brought him a small amount of relief from attachment pain. And that brings me joy.

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