Monday, April 15, 2024

Are You Traumatizing Your Child Knowingly?


Eight years ago, I wrote Are You Traumatizing Your Child Without Knowing It?, an article about how the developing biology of a child responds to inconsistent signals received from their caretakers


While they were still infants, if our interactions with them successfully activate their social engagement system rooted in their VVC, signs of this success is observable in their socialization performance, later on. States of confusion they will experience further into their growth are more likely to be met with resilience, and less likely to be early sparks of future trauma. 

Reading through this today, I detect subtle contempt in the opening paragraph, and again in the closing,  rendering the last sentence ("What are the ways in which you may be unwittingly hitting them with signals of aggression?") ironic. Funny! I don't remember injecting temperament into my words when writing them. (Am I the only one sensing this?) 

My motivation for writing the article was to inform readers about the importance of mindfulness in their interactions with children. Knowing myself, this was also a likely attempt to update my own family members with information they seemed to have been lacking when raising me and my younger brother. 

Over the years, I've shared the things I've learned with them, to help fill gaps in their knowledge. It's my way of supporting those I care about. (I like being treated the same way but try not to expect it automatically.) If you help me know something I didn't before, you may have helped me cross a barrier of some kind - that's precious! Much to my surprise, within the past year and a half it began to dawn on me that I was not being well received. 

On the contrary, I was perceived as bossy, out for dominance, trying to control everyone in my family with behavior I disguised as "giving advice".  Unwanted advice is certainly irritating, however one of my highest held virtues puts great value on individual human liberty. 

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Problems arose when I started to glean that my brother was in trouble. Coming off of a long term toxic relationship, he should've been in recovery mode but he seemed to be dealing with it in ways that were just accruing more injuries: I got the impression he was degrading further every successive time we spoke. Was he abusing illicit substances, or was this the onset of an organic disorder? Was he being attacked remotely through some psychic means of harassment? Maybe a combination! 


Whatever it was needed immediate attention before reaching a point-of-no-turn (if such a thing existed). Our parents were disagreeing with me, claiming they thought he was faking his symptoms. They didn't believe him and suggested I do the same.

Over the next few months his perception of things around him became only more outlandish. I was no longer the only one noticing: my partner was starting to agree. We tried approaching this together but still, those living with my brother refused to intervene.  We were met with push back in the form of arguments and disbelief each time we tried to tell them what we were witnessing.

We naturally recruited another source of sound judgment -- a third party we all loved and respected. Rather than assuaging the situation, this instigated a kind of oppositional reaction I had never seen nor expected from my parents. 


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Being of Eastern descent, most of my family tree was raised on a prescribed collection of rules that dictate interpersonal hierarchies and allowed behaviors. Passed down through generations, these rules are the skeleton that shape most eastern cultures and traditions.

My parents grew up in such a matrix, and then moved to the US where they raised me and my brother. They had no concept of teaching culture because within eastern societies, these rules don't have to be taught explicitly. My parents had to simply exist and learn by watching and interacting. Everyone around them followed the same rules, molding them into well adjusted members of that society. Those systems are self perpetuating.   

In the old country, parenting didn't need to be very hands-on when the larger society availed the cultural guardrails to all its members, but my brother and I were growing up in Brooklyn. Those lawless days were characterized by rare family meals and no bedtime. Him and I would stay up all night, baking and watching runway shows on obscure network channels, anytime of the week. Like a couple of mutated muffins, we were taking on shapes they were not expecting. I take it that this, for them, was a source of deep frustration.



Growing up in the States, I was not trained to assume things. Rather, I was inspired to ask questions. In the West, we prioritize our freedom, and our unspoken rules are not nearly as rigid. Our survival is not as directly dependent on us following them. 

This freedom comes with significant responsibility: to play an active part in a) who we allow ourselves to become, and b) what we make of our government. Each person must mindfully do both in the interest of protecting our freedom. Eastern cultures systemically relieve the members of their societies from this particular burden. 

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My brother's complications were steadily advancing, rendering him increasingly unreachable. Earlier in this debacle, I got him a copy of Robert Greene's Art of Seduction and we agreed to meet for an hour every Monday night to discuss chapters from that book. (I assumed this might be a healthy remedy for things that disturb him while he gets over his recent relationship.) We agreed to prepare for every meeting and promised to let each other know if anything came up that prevented us attending.

This went well the first two weeks but by the third week, the hour was upon us and he was missing. I couldn't reach him. I called my dad and asked him about my brother's whereabouts and he said to me,"You brother took a train to Vegas. But now that I have you on the phone, I need you to do me a favor..." 

That favor took about three and a half months to fully complete and by the time I was done, my dad's plans had changed for reasons out of his control. He no longer needed it. 

Within those months, I began receiving accusatory threats from my brother via text --  he was probably back from the desert strip. I gathered he might have felt unloved since I never chased him down for abandoning our Monday night meetings. I did not have time for that! My head was buried. I was busy fulfilling my dad's request, which was to get a particular AWS certification. 



As the texts came in, they only became more bizarre - he was accusing me of conspiring against him with all of his friends who were secretly making a documentary about him. He was confident that all of our combined income came from selling him down a river. His thought process was completely out of whack so when I could, I tried mentioning it to my dad. Silly me, like always, I presumed he was listening. At times he may have been, but my dad would soon face his own health complications in the form a cancer diagnosis.

He underwent many weeks of chemo, and my brother watched him get reduced to an old man in a wheelchair who was incontinent. During this period, his texts became more hateful and I felt bad for him: I called my dad everyday but since my brother lived with them he had to watch this first hand. I imaged that was devastating!  

A few months after my dad's course of chemo treatment was completed, we paid my parents a visit.   



My brother wasn't around so I asked about him and my dad told me, "Greg isn't here because he's in LA for a job interview." I thought to myself, How is that even possible in his decaying condition? Were my parents telling the truth when encouraging me to not believe the things he was saying? 

If ignoring him was in fact the best course of action, that would mean the brother with whom I had rock-throwing contests at Sheepshead Bay... the same brother I would come home with to stay up laughing over late night informercials -- that brother had written hateful, antagonistic texts to me in a normal state of mind. 

Did he really believe I conspired against him with his cronies to make money at his expense? Was he trying to lure me into believing the things he was falsely reporting to me or were my parents trying to prevent him from getting the necessary help? 


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This story gets far worse before it starts getting better. Thus far, I had gotten a bag of mixed signals from my brother, to say the least. He wanted my help and went as far as to set up recurring meetings. Then he vanished without any follow up, and eventually began attacking me from somewhere deep inside his imagination. All of the disdain he expressed in his messages to me -- was all of that simply because I didn't chase him down after he went to Vegas? That didn't add up.

What happened to him? I know our parents emitted mixed signals to us. Our talks always gave me the impression that we were both aiming to be better than our parents. It was upsetting to watch him fail so terribly at communicating his issues, and lash out at me with accusations that can only be made sincerely by someone who never met me. Was this a skinwalker? What was this and what did it do with my brother?! 

Whether sincere or malicious, to me his new behavior patterns were oddly reminiscent of our parents. 


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My intentions in writing this post is not to complain about those who are related to me, but to revisit an older discussion about the formation of connections between children and their caregivers. Doing this properly results in a connection within the child's nervous system, setting them up for a better future than if this requirement is left unmet.

In my older post, I make the point that sending mixed signals is harmful for the child because it interrupts this critical part of early development. By being careless in what we are communicating to them, whether intentionally or not, we are exposing their immune system to stress. Kid are notoriously tough, and so we are robbing their adult-selves of resilience. 



"Resilience is about being able to adapt well in the face of adversity." (0)



The above quote comes from an article in the Irish Examiner which also tells us, "Resilient people are not immune to stress, but they can manage it when it comes into their life." (0) What happen to my brother's resilience?

A Guardian article (1) on this topic lists six ways to create the connection, and among them are to spend one-on-one time together, and valuing sleep -- two things that didn't happen for us while we were kids. 

Researching this subject brought me to the website of a unique organization called FRIENDS Resilience. They offer programs that put kids through exercises designed to  prevent early onset of anxiety and depression. Their programs are modeled in a way that's worth our attention, so this is where I'll be picking up, on the next post.  

If you enjoy the illustrations throughout the writing, you may also like my posts on the blog, Tailless Trails, which will soon have a podcast where we talk in depth about these issues, and about the value of the work done by rare organizations like FRIENDS Resilience. If you would like more posts in [this] anecdotal storytelling format, or want to know more about my personal story, please let me know in comments. Thank you for reading.




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