I’m still still wrestling with the NCTSN paper called “Complex Trauma in Children and Adolescents,” which is very good about pointing out sources of original wounds and omissions, showing how kids try to compensate and which compensations don’t work. Not so good about what to do. (Is anyone?) They speak of “handbooking” which is the idea that strategies can be listed, advice and experience shared. Good idea unless it’s not stitched to the real practice.
I like that they think in terms of kids learning to manage themselves — NOT how to control them. “Capacity to express emotions and capacity to modulate internal experience are linked, and children with complex trauma histories show both behavioral and emotional expressions of impaired capacity to self-regulate and self-soothe. Children who are unable to consistently regulate internal experience may turn to alternative strategies, including dissociative coping (e.g. chronic numbing of emotional experience), avoidance of affectively (emotionally) laden situations, including positive experiences, and/or use of behavioral strategies (e.g. substance abuse). “
In short: If no one soothes a child who is hurt, scared or confused, and if the adults are also unable to find realistic consolations for themselves in face of inevitable disappointments, so as to provide an example, then the child will not know how to do such a thing, or even that it is possible. It’s the emotional equivalent of a wound infection, extending and making more serious what might have been a small thing if addressed properly, which is a function of paying attention. We seem to confuse consolation with compromise, giving up, which classifies consolation with weakness. Renaming it as “healing” might be an attempt to address this. I'm not sure it works.
What happens to individuals is often written large in the whole culture and then feeds back into the dynamics of the individual. Are we an inconsolable culture? Learning to reassure and comfort oneself is what they call “executive functions.” We see the president weep because he is inconsolable over the mass deaths of children in shootings. Shouldn’t he weep? Aren’t we far too easily consoled with little rituals instead of major changes — since we don’t know how to make the real changes the society badly needs?
WIKI: “Executive functions (also known as cognitive control and supervisory attentional system) is an umbrella term for the management (regulation, control) of cognitive processes, including working memory, reasoning, flexibility, and problem solving as well as planning and execution. The prefrontal areas of the frontal lobe are necessary but not solely sufficient for executive functions.” Chimps and dogs have no prefrontal areas of the frontal lobe, but they do have executive functions — up to a point. Consolation is a rational cognitive response to an emotional and maybe unconscious state. That's pre-frontal operating on limbic.
The observable symptoms of children whose executive functions aren’t working are split: either they shut down and try not to let anything in, or they go hyper, searching and changing all the time. The first is often ignored. The second is punished.
Last night I was looking at my old report cards, which my mother saved. The early ones have careful notes from the teachers and then they get more and more empty until the later ones have no place on the card for a teacher to make a note anyway. Two, both men, didn’t even sign the cards where they were supposed to. The high school PE teacher, a woman, badly misspelled my name.
I remember vividly the time the school secretary was putting the grades on the cards, using a class list from the teacher, and gave me 3 F’s by mis-copying. I was in a primary grade. I had never had an F before. I arrived home bawling. My mother rose for battle — not against me. She said, “You don’t GET F’s. Something is wrong.” The school secretary was quickly repentant but not inconsolable. She was only conscientious up to a point. There were a few teachers who wrote, “Mary is a pleasure.” But I think it was because I worked and didn’t make trouble, not because I was delightful. Delighting people, being delighted by life, is a consolation. I could be a screwball who made them laugh, but that's not quite the same.
It impressed me that my mother KNEW that I didn’t get F’s. The teachers always wrote “Mary works hard.” In fact, the word that is most repeated through twelve years of cards is “conscientious.” The truth is that I was terrified of slipping up and thought I was facing near-fatal consequences, because I never really knew what I was supposed to do or why. (Does anyone? Ever?) It was the Forties. I was sharply aware of perfectly respectable Jews and suspected traitors being taken in the night. (I and others are convinced it’s still happening, even in America.) We should NOT be consoled.
“Under” means not planning, organizing, delaying response, exerting control over behavior. In excess, maybe aggression or obsession. They call them “impulse control disorders” like Obstinate Defiance Disorders or Borderline Disorder. Hard to know whether people with with “ICD’s” can’t realize what’s happening, or don’t care, or are somehow stuck in an unseen way. These events affect the child as early as toddler-hood and interfere with the subsequent developmental steps. “ICD’s” might give up easily or refuse to try or just pretend or cling to adult help. (How I hate these first-name encryptions. I think I’ll try to write a story.)
Lack of sensory and emotional interaction appear to be among the most damaging deprivations. It may prevent the capacity for speech from developing, which is different than a child who just refuses to speak. I was a chattering child and soon discovered that if I found my mother pinned down with work, for instance while she did the endless ironing necessary in those days, and told her shocking things about the neighborhood or school, she wouldn’t send me away. My younger brother was close to silent, and this was felt to be because I took up all the verbal space. I did not suffer for lack of speaking — it was not being heard.
Teachers were always asking me to help some other struggling child. No one knew I was struggling. I didn’t tell them. If I write it now, people quickly rush to shut me up with false consolation. Unwelcome hugs. Gifts I don’t want. They don’t think I should feel bad. Being inconsolable is feeling bad. Feeling bad is an offense. It makes other people feel bad so you won’t be able to sell writing, but a lot of writing I see is about people feeling bad. Feeling bad means you can be captured, feeling bad makes you think.
Action is consoling. Often it takes so little. Sometimes a small gesture can be effective even if it’s “virtual,” only imagined. “I put my hand on your shoulder.” “I lend you my ears.” Pets are good at it. Song and dance — all the arts — are consoling. Reading, painting. The more primitive the better. That’s my opinion. Technical and intellectual pursuits are too much in the pre-frontal cortex.
The new mayor of Valier is Greek. I met him on the street and, meaning to tease him a bit, asked if he could dance like Zorba. I demonstrated, singing along. He was astonished! I said, “The town could use a lot of this!” He thought -- then he agreed. “Yes,” he said. I hope he can figure out how to console us. It probably has something to do with inconsolability as children in the Forties when the world was inconsolable. And terrified.