We've all seen the TV movies where a war vet comes home and is plagued by memories of their time on the battlefield. These memories are often preceeded by a trigger; a sound, a smell, or something said, that brings them back to the feelings of fear or anxiety. (You know, a car backfires, and suddenly the guy is hiding behind the couch?)
These triggers happen also to our kids who have a history of trauma, and it can lead to negative behaviors, or what we call in the field "bad days"!
"Yes honey, we had a bad day today- that's why there is marker on the walls, the cats are all hiding, and I look like I ran a marathon."
I'm not a psychologist (nor do I play one on TV :-)) but after 7 years of raising our little one, I can pretty much anticipate what her triggers are. Birthdays are one of them.
The buildup is often rougher than the actual day, because of several reasons.
First, the traumatized child often doesn't feel they deserve anything as wonderful as a birthday, so they will rebel against the good stuff. Self esteem of a child who has endured abuse is bottom-floor low, and they have been made to feel that they don't deserve good treatment or love, so why should they deserve a celebration?
Second, to accept gifts and accolade on your special day, that involves some bonding on their part, and trust is always a scary issue when all these old feelings of DISTRUST are bubbling up in them. What if they actually relax and ENJOY the party- that could lead to relying on a party next year. What if all this "good" goes away? They have already experienced a lot of loss, and they aren't anxious to tackle more.
That brings us to third- the feelings of loss of their birth family. Their birthday reminds them of the family that they no longer know, and there is always sadness associated with that loss. They may be wondering where their birth family is, and if their birth family is thinking of the child they no longer get to see.
Fourth, they can't control these feelings of "not good enough", but there ARE things they can control, so they do. They can pick their skin until it bleeds as a release, they can stuff dirty clothes under their bed until you can't fit anymore, they can cut off Barbie hair, break their favorite jewelry, forget all of the house rules, horde food, eat too much or not eat at all. All ways of trying to control their universe. We saw several of these emerge the week before our recent birthday celebration.
The real celebration comes in the growth and change that has occurred in this child over the past 7 years. She has come to rely on two adults taking care of her and wanting what's best for her. She knows that she is loved and that she is worthy of a celebration. She no longer has to be hyper-vigilant in taking care of herself, and if she needs soothing, she has two laps that are waiting for her.