School lock down drills. Fire drills. Bomb threats at school.
All of these act as triggers for kids with trauma in their past and since e-learning came into effect, the things about school my daughter does not miss. In fact, despite the lack of routine, the inability to see her teacher, or interact with her classmates, learning from home has helped, not hindered, her mental wellness.
Six months ago her PTSD flared up with a vengeance. It caught my husband and I off guard as literally, her stability switch seemed to flip off over night. It started with the return of nightmares, feelings of sadness, fatigue, and an inability to function.
Mornings were difficult as she couldn’t find first gear to get out of bed. It was baby steps all the way: getting her downstairs, sometimes carrying her, to get her to eat breakfast. We picked out clothes the night before so the stress of choosing an outfit was eliminated, but then in the morning she didn’t like her selection but was unable to make a choice.
Self-care was compromised; brushing hair and teeth were optional and usually only happened on weekends. It was a Herculean effort to get her socks on, her shoes tied, and her out of the house. Sometimes we only made it to the driveway before the sadness spell consumed her. Sometimes to the crossing guard.
Yet, once she entered her third-grade classroom, she transformed into a conscientious student and social butterfly. Her teacher said she did great work, had lots of friends, and never would have guessed she was having such a rough time at home.
She would leave school arm-in-arm with a friend, smiling, energetic. However, the minute she got home, her demeanor would change. She would lie on the couch, face buried under blankets, and say she was too sad to do anything.
We maintained her enrollment in gymnastics, yet she would cry all the way to the gym. Then, upon entering, she would transform into a capable and poised gymnast, only to cry on the way home.
Our bed became crowded with three of us in it. Nightmares invariably caused her to come running into our bedroom. In the morning, she would wake up tired but have no memory of the nightmare.
This was our battle rhythm with her PTSD. She could perform so well in known situations, where she knew what was expected of her and the prescribed routine. It was at home where her sadness filled the void of not knowing what to do, what to wear, what she wanted to eat. Weekly therapy sessions and medication helped to stabilize her, but an unexpected fire drill or lock down would set her back.
So, when the shelter-in-place mandate was executed, I was fearful of taking away her structure and routine. The first week was rocky, but I have learned how she learns best: short periods of concentration followed by long breaks, and lots of close physical presence. While I am inclined to push her to finish her math, encouraging her to complete the final five questions and be done, I have learned to honor her boundaries. When she says she needs a break, she needs a break!
Learning from home has given her the opportunity to learn at her own pace, to figure out how to plan her day, and get her tasks accomplished. She is in the driver’s seat and this has empowered her. She has learned how to navigate the ambiguous spaces where there are no activities planned. For the first time, I have seen her engage in independent play where she has built a fort, painted rocks, made slime, and designed amazing outfits for her dolls.
She still gets sad, but without the noise of the busy classroom, she is better able to identify it and express it. It is a safe environment for her to disclose her anxiety. She is no longer in a constant performative state. Her energy and appetite have increased. She grew an inch in 3 weeks.
When she gets overwhelmed with the amount of work assigned, she is learning how to regulate her emotions. We now plan morning walks to break up the work. She also has the time and space to try out different outlets to see what calms her down.
Who knew that chewing gum, coffee filters, and pipe cleaners could be so soothing? And while the therapeutic benefit of singing has already been documented, the benefit of singing loudly cannot be overestimated.
She still exhibits avoidant behavior, like when she doesn’t want to clean her room or eat her vegetables, but these are age-appropriate avoidant behaviors. Gone are the crying spells and vacuous withdrawal behaviors.
Her weekly therapy sessions have continued through telemedicine and her therapist is amazed at her progress. She is slowly weaning off her medication.
It is ironic to think that amidst a global pandemic, with anxiety and depression on the rise, that my PTSD child can find calm and stability. She is now sleeping in her fort, all the way in the basement, in the dark, by herself.
At first I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to hear her if she had a nightmare. Then I missed her warm, cuddly body next to mine. But I too have adjusted and have gladly reclaimed that extra space in the bed.
I know it will be challenging for her to return to school this fall, but I am confident she will be able to apply the skills she has honed from the extra space the pandemic has lent us.
Karin Becker lives in Colorado Springs.