Where do you fall in the nature vs. nurture debate? As I studied public health and learned of epigenetics, how genes are expressed without changing our DNA, I began to think more thoughtfully about the ways in which our experiences and environment shape our gene expression. I think of trauma and how it manifests itself in our bodies generation after generation. I think of my son, who has experienced years of war, violence, death and abandonment. How will his children be impacted? What about how his children’s children will be affected? Before I fall down an existential rabbit hole of the impacts of future generations, I pause to think about the present. How do my son’s past traumatic experiences manifest today?
Lately, I’ve seen it in the way he gets angry. When he’s angry he’s not only angry at the situation, but he’s furious at the world. It’s a level of rage that I have rarely seen and when it shows itself, I’m often startled at the level of intensity. My son’s blind rage is all consuming. It comes in frantic waves- thrown drumsticks, smashed toys, punched walls. Hours later, when the fury has settled to calm, he’ll sometimes reflect on his actions that seemingly come out of nowhere, and is often just as confused as I am about the level of anger he's capable of showing.
We’ve been having long conversations lately about self regulation- recognizing the signs, physically and emotionally, that build up in our bodies and brains before we burst with anger. We’ve talked a lot about consequences and about how our actions impact others. We’ve exhausted just about every parenting suggestion we’ve heard through friends, family, counselors, and our foster care agency about how to calm him down.
I see him so much as a typical child, that I sometimes forget that he has not had a childhood in which he’s learned these skills. He did not have opportunities to learn about appropriate ways of expressing his emotions, when survival skills, not emotional regulation, were of the utmost importance. The rivers of trauma run deep in his body, and I must remind myself to not shy away from the intensity of his emotions. I believe that’s my role as a foster mom, to honor these deep emotions and address them head on. While often challenging, these difficult conversations about trust, fury, and safely expressing ourselves will hopefully lead to growth, both for he and I.