The emphatic use of my name stopped me mid-lecture. This was a while ago—about six months into my foster parenting adventure, and everything still felt uncomfortably new.
“You really need to listen to Thich Nhat Hanh,” T continued. “You know he says to focus on the present. But you’re focusing on the past.”
He had a point. We were, in fact, discussing the consequences he would receive for hitting me earlier in the day. He had finally calmed down and was ready to play; I was still feeling the residual effects of his three-hour-long screaming fit.
I quickly mumbled something about an apology and gave him a hug. As he moved on to his Legos, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s words from his book, The Body Keeps the Score, resonated loudly in my mind.
“Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions,” he writes. “It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think…For real change to take place, the body needs to learn that the danger has passed and to live in the reality of the present.”
The reality of the present is something we talk about a lot in my house. And while I’m under no illusions that reading excerpts from a Buddhist monk before dinner have impacted the organization of anyone’s brain—his or mine, I was impressed with his application (even if it was simply to avoid a potential punishment).
Because experiencing trauma is hard. And the reverberations are complicated and complex and messy.
So we work at it. In an awkward yet reassuring dance between clueless foster parent and traumatized child—we work out from under the ways our pasts have imprinted themselves on our present realities.
Which means we go for walks. We do yoga. We run and race and tell enough bad jokes that eventually someone belly laughs really hard. We give hugs. We scrub floors and wash baseboards and pick up sticks in the yard when we forget to use kind words. Sometimes we go out for ice cream when we make bad choices or don’t follow the rules. And we take lots of deep breaths—for ourselves, but also to remind each other.
Every once in a while, as we move our bodies in safe and healthy ways, we talk. We let ourselves feel and remember, even when it hurts. We talk about what it’s like to be scared or sad or mad or to think we’re going to die.
And I spend lots of time reminding myself that his outbursts aren’t personal. His body is keeping him safe. So even though I know he is safe, we keep doing the work until he knows it, too.