Trauma-Informed Parenting with Abby Wong-Heffter

Dan is back this week with Abby Wong-Heffter to talk about trauma in light of their upcoming training, Effective Trauma Care, in just a few weeks. Today’s episode is invaluable for anyone navigating the lasting effects of trauma from this past year, but particularly so for parents. Abby shares her own experiences of parenting as a mom and step-mom in this season, ways to know if a child has been significantly affected by trauma, and how to tend to your own mental health.

Effective Trauma Care is coming up this July 22-23! Learn more about what Dan and Abby explore over this two-day event and register today.


Episode Transcript

D: Well, welcome back to a conversation with Abby Wong-Heffter, my dear friend, but also co teacher of a conference that we’re going to be doing July 22nd and 23rd. Effective Trauma Care, and Abby, welcome back.

A: Thank you. Good to be back.

D: Let’s talk trauma. I was a little too buoyant I think our last time, but I still feel pretty excited to engage really the realm of freedom and what indeed dealing with trauma can open the heart and relationships to. And what I want, I want people to have a sense that yeah, we’re dealing with trauma. We’re going to deal with vast categories of trauma, sexual trauma, emotional relational trauma, spiritual abuse. We’re dealing with a broad range of trauma, but I know for many people, this season of COVID, season of racial trauma, the season of upheaval has created just heartbreak for their children. And I was talking to someone the other day about this conference and they said, I’m so glad you’re training professionals to deal with this. And I said, yeah, me too. And I said, but we’re also dealing with professional parents. And the person looked at me like, what do you mean? And I said, well, you have children. Yes. And they’ve been traumatized, right? Yeah. So you’re not a professional therapist, but you in one sense, need to consider yourself to be a professional trauma care person as you deal with your own children. It was really a conversation to say, look, this is a conference that has a whole lot of generalized ability to a whole lot of endeavors that we normally think the professional deals with, but we’ve got to have, all of us, freedom and a knowledge to deal with our own trauma, to be able to deal well with the trauma that’s inevitable if you’re living in a fallen world. So start us off by saying you as a step mom of two beautiful children and a mother of one wild, wild, lovely, but still wild boy, what have you been going through as a mom through this season?

A: Oh my goodness. Well, I don’t honestly, I do not know a single parent that has experienced these last, what are we now, 18 months in, I don’t even know. However long we have been living with COVID-19 in our presence, I don’t know a single parent that has not experienced just heartache, rage, levels of irritation where we’ve gone well beyond our own capacity. So yeah, I think it’s just a really, really legitimate category to say this is a moment of collective trauma. This is a moment of collective trauma that has some specificity for parents. And I know some of us have had far more privilege than others. I have had a preschool that has been open almost the entire time. So I have been able to do my work with my four year old Being cared for by other people. I have a 10 year old and a 14 year old who are fairly independent. And so when they are in online school, they are in their bedrooms and are able to manage most of that on their own. I am so aware of so many folks where you literally have your kindergartner sitting next to you while you’re trying to be eloquent, articulate in meetings and no five year old can manage themselves for more than 20 minutes at a time. So, oh my gosh! Like your bodies have suffered. I’m guessing your sleep has been incredibly compromised. The sort of parents that I think we dreamed of being has been so compromised. I feel, especially at least in the kind of work I do like, I really give, I give at the office. My empathy tends to have been completely used with my clients and I come home and feel like I have, it’s like on the last, we’re running low on fumes. Yeah. Um, yeah, when I think about my own kids, like they’re navigating, um, some pretty big realms around their own sexual and gender orientation. So a lot of identity development is happening in my home right now and it’s happening via Tiktok and Youtube and in the place where I think, you know, to have a middle schooler where in some ways like praise God that they haven’t had to like walk the halls that I think for most of us had some element of trauma. I mean, truly, I’m not making light, like a lot of us did not escape middle school or junior high without some form of, of just like devastating betrayal, bullying, degradation, humiliation. Like I think that’s a really unfortunately common part of that developmental stage. So I am deeply thankful that in some ways my kid like had a year and a half of a three year educational experience that was separate, but in other ways it meant that the mirror that would be their peers, but in some ways that’s the necessary part of development, that individualization that happens for teenagers means that they use their peers as their mirrors. And now it’s through social media and I don’t think we have any idea in this moment what that has, what that will mean. I don’t think we have any sense.

D: Oh yeah, part of me wants to, we’re not going to do it, but part of me just wants to sort of like take a nap right now. It’s too much. What you’ve named already is, if anything, that whole notion of I am not being the parent that I want to be, and the sense of the inability and it’s truly inability, combined with judgment with comparison, to either those who have more, I have less or to I don’t want to be a parent like my parent was to me. And yet in some ways I’m failing even more egregiously than I may have been failed. And now to come into one’s own identity in the midst of essentially a collective trauma worldwide and nobody’s ever gone through this except perhaps 100 years ago. And we don’t have a clue really what was happening in the language, in the experience of that world. So to set us back again, how do you know if it’s ubiquitous and universal inevitable, how do we know that our child is actually even more significantly affected by trauma? What would be some of the symptoms you’d be looking at to know, right now I have got to engage a highly traumatized child.

A: Well, if you didn’t listen to last week’s podcast, we talked a little bit about attachment. And one of the key things that we understand around attachment is attunement, which means I see you, I read you, I anticipate you, I know you. That does not mean thoroughly. It does not mean perfectly, but a sense of, I have a sense of you in the world. And so I think the hope would be, we are making efforts of parents to be more attuned and so, you know, your kid, maybe you could do better. Gosh, I like even as I say that I’m like, oh gosh, it’s hard for me to talk about parenting right now because I can just see my failure all the time. But you have a sense of your kid and how they move in the world. So what are you noticing that’s off? How are they different than they used to be? Were they incredibly extroverted before all of this, and now they find themselves kind of holed up in their room? Did you have a really active kid that now, is this interested in playing outside or in getting together with friends? I know that we also are all grappling with are now screen obsessed children we already were, and now it’s out of control. But I think there’s a difference between, you just took my candy from me and like, I don’t know, I don’t have any imagination or desire outside of zoning out in front of this device. I have to actively pull my four year old away from his Octonauts every night. For those of you who don’t know what Octonauts is, it’s little sea creatures. That actually it’s a very educational, cute little show, but good God, I watch a lot of it. But anyways, like a four year old kid who, like, throws a total fit predictably every time. But within five minutes he’s out like, jumping on the trampoline. That would be a good example of a screen obsessed child. But has the plasticity, the the adaptability to go back to other things, pay attention. Does your does your kid do more than throw a tantrum? Do they go into into a despairing place again? Have they lost their interest in their creativity? What most of us understand is depression is exhibited in kids in a little bit different ways, but in some ways not that much like lifelessness. No longer taking delight in things. That’s what I want you to be paying attention to. And I think the more demonstrative behaviors, those are going to be probably a little clearer if you have a if you have a kid that’s become physical with you, more violent throwing things. Talking back. That’s a clear indication in some ways. I’m so sorry, that’s really hard. But I’m guessing for you parents, if that’s what’s being exhibited, I don’t think you’re questioning. Is my kid traumatized, or does my kid have mental health needs? I think that’s probably clear. I’m more concerned for those of you who have a child that’s going underground. And here’s what’s really hard: you might be going underground too.

D: Mhm. You’re talking about looking for anomalies where you have something that just is just not normal for your son or daughter. But again, to say, not normal for you, but this whole era is anomalous. So it is so hard to discern how much our atmosphere, the dailiness of all these threats. And we’re also now reentering so called something of a new world. And as a result, I mean, Becky and I feel– like, we had folks over last night and it was so delightful. But we were kind of shaken before they came. Like, can we do this? After they left, though it was a sweet, sweet night, we were more exhausted than if we had traveled to Amsterdam and back. And I’m like, what’s going on? Nothing makes sense. So to step back and go when the anomaly is great enough that you notice it at a level where you’re just going, I don’t know what to do. You’re facing trauma, you’re facing your child or your spouse or your friend’s trauma. And then when you see people in many ways disconnecting, dissociating, that’s what you’re talking about is going underground. You know, they can’t give up the screen, they can’t really engage with significant portions of life. There will be periods like that for all of us, even in the near future, but when it becomes such a pattern then there’s something deadening, something of despair or depression and even biological presence of depression at play. Those are the things that I’m hearing you say.

A: Mmhmm. Will you hear Dan talk about anomalies and check in with yourself? Because to parents, while you’re also in some form of your own trauma, like I’ll just be honest. April, like March and April and May and now, have been so hard for me. After the Atlanta shootings, I have not been well, I have lost my appetite. I have had my, I mean my fuse has been so short. I know I’m traumatized and so to be engaged as a parent from the place of being really aware like okay, I’m not well. And you can’t schedule your kids’ emotional needs. They come at you usually at the most inconvenient moment.

D: Guaranteed, guaranteed. And in one sense, at the moment you least have the ability to bring what you would most want. So to take us in that direction when you as a parent, I know you’re in the middle of your own trauma and somebody else is traumatized. What are you finding again? Nobody can do this. Well no one can do it as you would wish. Nonetheless. What are you finding helpful?

A: Well I’m gonna not necessarily say an answer that would suggest that I’m doing what I’m about to preach. I’m not practicing what I preach, but in the moments that I have, I think this will not be unfamiliar to any of you. You need to give yourself five. Like take a break, go walk around the block, literally go sit in your car or stick your face out your front door whatever you need to do so that you can settle yourself. And obviously for those of us that know what it is to be feeling like we’re traumatized, learning how to settle yourself is not a simple task. But but we do know in terms of our bodies that a really simple way to settle ourselves is to take a breath. And I know you all might be saying er er er about the breathwork or the mindfulness. Oh yeah you keep talking about that but truly you are not going to exit you’re anxious state. If you can’t engage your parasympathetic nervous system so you need to take a deep breath in and modeling that for your kids is huge. So for you to say mama or daddy or however you name yourself, I need to breathe right now. You are welcome to join me. Or you might, I might need you to go take a moment and go sit on the stairs and breathe and then we will re engage because it is almost impossible to assist someone that’s in their own trauma. If you have an unsettled body.

D: The other day, I have the privilege right now of my daughter and son in law and two granddaughters living in our home. They’ve been doing so for the last couple of months and you know I’m not a parent, I’m a grandparent but I’m closer to the bone of parenting both a daughter, adult child, but also granddaughters. And my near six year old granddaughter, Grace at one point said to me, papa, you need to spray me down. It was like what I mean? It was not a hot day. All the things where you go and you know it wasn’t even play and I’m like, tell me again what you want me to do. She said take the hose and spray me down and I’m like, oh okay, can you like, I mean she didn’t have a bathing suit on and I said, how come? And she said because something in me just needs it. That’s all she could say, something in me needs it. And I said, you know what, I am glad to spray you. But I’ve had the kind of day my daughter granddaughter, I need you to spray me so I’ll spray you if you’ll spray me. She was like, yeah. So we sprayed one another and got soaking wet and it began to dawn on me, wait a minute over the last six months probably. I have put my head under a faucet sometimes you know once a day I didn’t need to, I just needed, I literally needed to cool down and it was, I mean I didn’t even, I didn’t even the category that I was doing that for trauma care until she named that until my six year old granddaughter named I basically am in trauma and I need water to refresh me again. I’m not going to take it to the notion of baptism but there is a kind of, I need to be cleansed, I need to be, I need to be calmed and cooled and I was, it was a sweet gift to be able to say that was our version of the five take five.

A: Oh, I love that. Because here’s what’s true. I think that actually kids know how to do this so much better than we do. And actually what Grace was doing was engaging her ventral vagal because cold water plunging cold showers actually is part of what we understand is a form of settling our bodies. So she’s brilliant.

D: Yeah. It’s somebody the other day said, oh, you’re an expert in trauma. And I’m thinking, yeah, not as good as a six year old, but I’m learning. So before we end, I want you to begin to put words to what someone who engages trauma needs, to know what we’re going to do in the effect of trauma care conference can be put not simplistically, but to two or three major categories. What do you want people to walk away from as they come through that conference?

A: Well, I think first and foremost I really want people to be able to broaden their understanding of what trauma is. So to say, I want you to come away with a better definition of trauma.  I think culturally we’ve done such a better job in the last decade of of this sounds like a strange sentence, but paying homage to trauma. It’s now being, I mean it’s talked about all the time. But unfortunately I still think we’re leaning on the understanding around what we would call single incident events. So we still culturally think of trauma as a mass shooting. Of course it is. But you aren’t considering these microaggressions, these quieter things that happen on a daily basis. You aren’t considering that trauma. So I want you to broaden your vision of what trauma is. I want you to understand how trauma uniquely impacts you because of your context. So where did you come from? Where are you now? Who are the people in your world that all informs how you digest trauma?

D: Yeah. We cannot see it as mere individual or single event. Not to deny personal and individual or the power of single events, but to say that you can’t live in the face of injustice. You can’t live in the face of systemic structures that call into question or even more so assault human dignity and think it has no effect. And especially if you think it only has effect for people who are marginalized, then you don’t actually own the fact that everyone, even in the reality of being the a powerful person or in a powerful collective, you can’t escape the trauma of others being traumatized. You can’t escape being traumatized or how you do harm to others. So to ask of all of us, we have been harmed and we do harm. How do we hold that in the light of the Gospel? How do we hold that in the light of there is no freedom without truth but truth without mercy will never bring the human heart to a level of rest, let alone joy. So these are categories of what is trauma. But how does the Gospel engage trauma with righteousness and justice, but also mercy and kindness? I think it is something that again none of us do well. But we have to have categories to be able to move the conversation, let alone our practice into a much richer dimension that we often find any last thoughts happy before we invite people to return to their day.

A: Well just it will be a delight to engage with any of you who choose to set up with this conference. It’s just one of truly my favorite um, places of getting to engage and teach. I think I often come away just standing in awe of all of you and how you are and how you were choosing to love and where you’re choosing to love. So just really look forward to meeting you. And I always love to play with Dan and clearly a man who sticks his head under a faucet is a good person to hang out with.

D: All right, thank you. And not only that, but when we both came in wet my daughter Amanda looked at both of us and said I don’t want to know, I don’t want to know. And it was like, yeah that’s fine. We we have come to terms with our own need and I had forgotten. That’s crazy that I forgot how the vagal system actually does come with cool, not cold, not not terribly cold, but cool refreshment. So we’ve got a lot to learn and we do believe we have some very important things to teach and we love to have you join us July 22nd 23rd. And Abby to teach with you is again, what are those lifetime privileges? So good to be able to play with you and thank you for joining us today. Thank you.