FINDING THE POSITIVE: Utilizing what I’ve learned in therapy to teach my own kids

Let me start by saying that I am a huge, huge, huge advocate for therapy. My mother used to threaten to send us to therapy. I’m not sure why she did this. Therapy was meant for crazy people, for kids who couldn’t control their tempers. It was a punishment. It meant that we were clinically insane. So, in my little kid head, hitting my brother equated to mental insanity, which was then dealt with in some horrible place called a therapist’s office. Great line of logic going on there. Thanks, Mom. No not really.

Needless to say, the stigma of therapy stayed with me into adulthood. By the time I crawled my way into a therapist’s office, I was at my end. I didn’t know how to help myself anymore; therapy was a desperate cry for help and my last line of hope. Looking back, I can without a doubt say that doing so saved my life.

I learned preventative measures to keep the anxiety from escalating and how to calm myself down when it did get out of hand. I learned how to slow the racing thoughts and to re-evaluate the internal messages that drowned me in depression. I learned to be kind to myself, forgiving myself for limitations, and not to push myself into taking on more than I could handle. I was able to give myself permission to slow down and make myself a priority. I was taught how to deal with the flashbacks, and ground myself during dissociative episodes. I was assured that what I was experiencing was normal and to be expected.

In a healthy environment, children are taught coping skills through their parents and loved ones. Adults are able to model healthy coping mechanisms, which the kids naturally pick up on and use for themselves. At a very young age, children are limited in their ability to cope with stressors. Parents attempt to keep them in a window of tolerance, allowing them to face challenging circumstances but sheltering them from things that may be too overwhelming. As the child gains mastery over the simple stuff, his or her parents allow them to face increasingly difficult situations and provide emotional support and guidance when needed. It goes without saying that in order for any of this to occur, parents must be mentally/ emotionally healthy individuals themselves. A person cannot teach what he or she does not know. In addition, the parent must also be willing to provide a considerable amount of time and attention to support their children’s emotional needs. In summary, healthy adults are, in large part, the production of parents who are able to teach, scaffold and demonstrate positive coping mechanisms for stress.

This outline of how healthy coping mechanisms are developed can help draw our mind’s eye to some of the damaging effects of childhood abuse or neglect. The very children in most need of a toolbox full of coping skills are the ones who have the fewest tools at their disposal. Unfortunately, this limited acquisition of skills in childhood carries over into adulthood and impacts life in a multitude of ways. Not only are adult survivors of child abuse carrying around emotional scars that never healed properly, they are still functioning with the emotional coping skills of that of a young child.

And this is where I stand now. I was one of those kids without a toolbox. I am 30 years old, and just now learning the skills that should have been taught to me when I was 8. For nearly two years, I have sat in a therapist’s office, filling my toolbox. It started with the very basics: I literally spent months learning how to label emotions. From there it progressed to more complex skills: redirecting attention, thought stopping, taking timeouts, sitting with emotions, learning to verbalizing myself—first through art, then through writing, and eventually through actual words. Looking back, it’s almost like childhood revisited. Overwhelmed? Go to your room and breath. Getting upset? Let’s find something else we can do for awhile (color, play piano or violin, read a book, etc). Can’t explain the terrible thoughts and feelings inside? Okay, well, can you draw me a picture? And it’s just continually progressed: breathing exercises, grounding techniques, meditation, guided imagery, muscle relaxation exercises, self-care, etc. Some of these tools are specific to combating PTSD symptoms, and many others are general tools that would be useful for anyone.

It’s easy to get angry with my parents because I must depend on a therapist to teach me the things they should have taught me themselves. But I try to reign that anger in the best I can. My parents didn’t provide me with these coping skills, because they couldn’t; they never obtained those skills themselves. And what is even more, it’s very likely that they were completely unaware that they were lacking to begin with.

I don’t want my children to inherit that same empty toolbox. I want my children to have toolboxes that are overflowing, I want them to handle whatever the world throws at them, I want to give them the best running chance possible. My focus and goal right now, is to take the skills I am learning in therapy, and teach my children the same. I want my children to be able to label and express their emotions, I want them to have a multitude of skills in hand to deal with these emotions, I want them to have enough mastery and awareness so that they understand exactly what it is that they are doing when they are applying these skills.

I can’t change my PTSD. I can take all the necessary steps to mitigate its symptoms, and I do. But even with all the hard work on my end, it still impacts my family. I wish it didn’t, but wishing doesn’t make something true. Sometimes, in the light of negative, you take whatever positive there is and amplify it as much as possible. For me, it’s a matter of taking all the things I am learning, and passing those lessons on to my kids.

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