When Every Day is Traumatic the Little Things Matter
I was holding my youngest daughter at the Koi pond in a local garden today orienting to our environment by watching the large orange, grey and speckled white, and golden fish lumber through the water. Something made me look across the rectangular pond to see a panicked mother plunge her hand into the pond and pull out her approximately 18-month old little boy by the ankle. His head just missed the concrete edging to the pond on his way back out. She was hitting his back in fear he had swallowed water, and as soon as she heard the sweet and heartbreaking sound of his scream — his life force, his fight response to this shocking trauma — she knew he was breathing. She set him upright, hugged him in her arms and hurried over to the other three mothers and children with her that day. They doted over her, validating the little boy’s feelings that it was scary, and cold, and wet, and comforting the mother (who was still in shock), asking her if she was okay. All she could say was “I didn’t even bring a change of clothes for him today.” The mothers said they did and led her and the boy to get him changed.
In the moment I felt paralyzed, frozen in response to witnessing this trauma. Not knowing what to do I reminded myself of the blue — the little boy was physically unharmed, and mom was physically unharmed, and they’d help each other recover. They had support all around them. It was okay for me to do nothing in that moment… Even though I wished I could help.
I leaned into freeze for a moment, knowing it was okay to be there. Freeze can be good. Then ready for social reengagement, I felt my heart go out to the mother, knowing that it could have easily been any of us.
As the loving friends helped lay the boy on the bench and strip him of his cold, dripping wet clothes he screamed louder and his panic amplified. The additional stimulation of all these people fussing over him when he was already past threshold was WAY too much for him to handle. He was in overwhelm. My daughter was looking at him with concern, and I was seeing the tears and shock in the mother. She couldn’t talk, she couldn’t really act, everything was just happening to her in this moment.
Suddenly, it struck me, and I knew how I could help — they both needed help finding the path back to neurological regulation — to reconnect to the bodily knowledge of safety. I walked up very gently to her, put my hand on her shoulder to help her feel some support and said calmly in her ear: “I think some skin to skin contact would help your son to calm if you’d be willing to take off your jacket and hold him.” The only acknowledgement she gave that she heard me was that she handed me her purse, and immediately stripped off her jacket and let it fall to her feet. She picked up her naked son, still in a wet diaper and touching her cheek to his, wrapped her arms around his body.
Immediately, he took a deep sigh, that deep body vibrating sigh of a nervous system transitioning from over-activation to deactivation. He stopped crying. He wrapped his arm around his mother’s head, and stroked the tail end of her soft ponytail, his body organically finding the most comforting way to orient, and feel safe. Finally, with his body and nervous system he could feel his mother was there, and that he was okay.
“That’s it, mama,” I said to her, encouraging her to feel the positive power of being a mom. The loving friends continued to remove his wet diaper with him in her arms, and put on a dry one. They proceeded to get him dressed, all while still in his mama’s arms — helping him to orient and know he was safe. I walked away to attend to my own family as I knew after that moment they were on their path to recovery from a traumatic incident.
Witnessing the traumatic event today, and feeling my own emotional response to what occurred, I was reminded of what my older daughter and I have experienced together hundreds of times over the past 5 years. She has Sensory Processing Disorder. What I’ve learned about trauma is that it isn’t isolated to onetime major events. Trauma is experiencing total overwhelm and your mind and body being unable to process what is happening. It can show up in everyday forms.
I’ve found the definition of Sensory Processing Disorder is experiencing everyday sensations as overwhelming and experiencing trauma frequently as a result of neurological thresholds being extremely low or non-existent. Children with sensory processing issues, actually experience every day sensations as life or death. The famed “Sensory Meltdown” sensory parents often refer to, is actually a fight, flight or freeze response to trauma. A fight or flight or freeze to a hair dryer, an unexpected touch, a bug flying unexpectedly across one’s field of vision, or just too much all at once (grocery store) can trigger a traumatic outburst of panic and a call for help from a sensory sensitive child.
Thanks to our Occupational Therapist, Letha Marchetti, and my training in Organic Intelligence® my understanding of my daughter’s challenges has shifted from “this is so difficult, why do all her responses have to be so extreme” to “it feels like this could kill her, and she needs help to calm and recover.” This new approach has been healing for her, and us. We moved away from desensitizing her to triggers (a more traditional approach to sensory processing treatment), and much more towards uncovering the tools of trauma prevention and trauma healing practices. In the physiological and neurological sense, we are learning how to help her nervous system activate and deactivate in a healthy, regulated way.
The results from shifting our approach and understanding has been profound. And while there are still hard times, hard days, weeks, or months, I know that we are on our path to recovery from experiencing everyday life as trauma. And I hope a tiny thing I did today helped one mama and her beloved son.
Amber Dawn Sutter is a Certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator, a Certified Early Childhood Associate Teacher, a student in the OI HEARTraining®, and a mother of two girls. She created Safe Space Parent Coaching and Sensory School. She received a firsthand lesson in Sensory Integration when her daughter was diagnosed at age 2 with Sensory Processing Disorder. Through the process of learning to better support her daughter and strengthen herself, Amber discovered Organic Intelligence, a program developed by Steve Hoskinson. The OI tools for healing trauma and building resiliency combined with Letha Marchetti’s (Occupational Therapist) methods have produced optimal results in helping her daughter.
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