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A plugged bathtub will overflow from a constant drip. Eventually, the tiny droplets accumulate and cause the equivalent damage to your floor as if you just filled it all at once with a firehose.
When a big “T” trauma happens to you, it’s often easier to expect and explain the physical and emotional injuries from having survived it. However, just like the water trickling into the bathtub, the residual harm from your small “T” traumas piling-up can be just as destructive.
In episode 162, we made emergency preparedness a priority. This week, continuing our Expert Series, I welcome Shellee Burroughs to teach us how to recover after trauma.
A transition and trauma specialist, Shellee’s also a registered art psychotherapist with renowned global experience across generations and cultures. Her methods extend healing by reaching beyond the sufferer. Shellee equips the whole inner circle with tools, creating an entire trauma recovery system built on proper understanding and pressure-free support.
Simply put, Shellee’s valuable strategies piece people and families back together. Join us as she shares her professional insights for healing after trauma.
What You’ll Learn in this Episode:
- Involuntary body responses
- Opening the Pandora’s Box of therapy
- Warning signs of impact & monitoring regressive behavior
- Allying with teachers for what you don’t see
- The power of witnessing without asking
Listen to the Full Episode:
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Featured on the Show:
Are you inspired by Shellee’s work serving expats? Does it light a fire under you to do more with your talent and expertise? Good. Then, sign up right here because we’re busy assembling our expansion team for Expat Coach Coalition, and we need you with us. Don’t miss this chance to amplify the value of your work and make a lasting impact on a global scale.
- Thinking of joining the Expat Coach Coalition? Don’t hesitate to hop on the interest list here
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- Shellee Burroughs Website
- Facebook Business Page – Sundae Schneider-Bean LLC
- Facebook Group – Expats on Purpose
We’re delighted by our nomination to the global Top 25 Expat Podcasts!
Hello, it is 7:30 am in New York, 2:30 pm in Johannesburg and 7:30 pm in Bangkok. Welcome to the Expat Happy Hour. This is Sundae Schneider-Bean from www.sundaebean.com. I’m a solution oriented coach and intercultural strategist for individuals and organizations and I am on a mission to help you adapt and succeed when living abroad and get you through any life transition.
I had just arrived in Switzerland. The days before me were what you call sheltering in place. And to shelter in place is when your government says don’t leave your home because what is going on outside your doors. It happened to be that I was in Burkina Faso at the time when there was an attempted coup d’etat. And my husband happened to be in Switzerland at the time. So I was in Burkina, he was in Switzerland and the borders were closed. Sheltering in place with my kids, hearing what we told my kids was the sound of popcorn, which was the sound of either bullets or blanks outside of our door. And wondering if anything was going to go amiss.
Thankfully we found an opportunity when the borders opened to leave Burkina and find a bit of peace in Switzerland temporarily to regroup. And that day when I got back to Switzerland, we were welcomed by dear friends and they said, “Sure you can spend the night here.”
My husband was actually going back to Burkina in a day or two. And we were standing outside looking at their beautiful house and their pool. I decide to go in and take a shower. As I’m down the stairs getting ready to get in the shower I hear a siren and I duck. I was surprised at how my body responded. And the siren was simply a siren from the alarm for the pool. If a child jumps in then the alarm sounds and everybody knows you need to be alerted to check the child and the pool.
But I was shocked at how I ducked. Later that week also when a plane went overhead I felt this sensation to duck, and I thought “Is this like a little bit of PTSD? Is this a little bit of trauma from that situation?”
And in that moment I had so much respect for people who really do go through trauma, who have deep traumatic experiences where what is happening to them has an impact on them that goes beyond their control.
So this is an important topic, trauma and transition. One that affects globally mobile families living all over the world who have sudden abrupt transitions, might have sudden family loss or even political upheaval.
An important topic and I’m so grateful to have an expert with us today. Shellee Burroughs, who is a transition and trauma specialist and also a registered art psychotherapist, to help us understand trauma better.
So welcome to Expat Happy Hour Shellee.
Shellee: Thank you very very much for your wonderful introduction, Sundae.
Sundae: I want to tell a little bit more about you. So they understand why I’m such a big fan. So I know that you were born in England, you moved to Wales, you have a Canadian father. So you’re basically a TCK from birth. Now, you’re raising TCK’s, Third Culture Kids. Although you’re right now based in the UK, you’ve lived and worked in the US, Australia, Japan, Canada and Malaysia. You get it. You understand expat life.
Not only has Shellee lived the life, but she specialized in supporting highly traumatised and abused children and teenagers since 2003. I mean how amazing does a person have to be to say yes to that kind of support. What kind of resilience can you imagine Shellee has when that’s the work that she’s doing.
She’s worked for the National Health Service in the UK, with First Nation teenagers in Canada. And this is the interesting thing, with international school students in Malaysia. And what I found most interesting was that Shellee shared with me that she was amazed to find similar levels of trauma and PTSD symptoms in all three of these groups.
So that is amazing Shellee.
So thank you for being here today. And I just want to say thank you for the important work that you’re doing for the global mobility community.
Shellee: Thank you very much.
Sundae: It is so important. I can’t do this work. That’s way beyond my professional scope. Regular parents can’t do this work. It’s really truly an important contribution.
Before we dive in, could you define for us in the most basic sense, what is trauma?
Shellee: Well, there’s different types of trauma and very simple way that I found of describing it that actually made sense to a lot of people was, there are small T traumas and large T traumas. So large T traumas, big ones are kind of the transition, loss, bereavement, war, terrorism, very very high levels of trauma.
The things that are more obvious to us and for a lot of people, it can be physical attack, it can be neglect, physical abuse, all of those big T traumas.
Small T traumas are the smaller traumas that are more to do with how we are going on in our daily lives. So it can be things like for instance a loss of a pet could be a small T trauma for many people. But it’s how your brain perceives the trauma. So small T traumas can be frequent moves, frequent changes, friends leading school, you moving to another place at very very short notice. But over time those small T traumas can kind of stack up and have more and more of an effect.
The jury is out at the moment whether the small T traumas can add up to make big T traumas or even post traumatic stress disorder called PTSD. And some people say that it can and some people say that it can’t. My rule of thumb as a clinician is that if I am looking at a case-by-case and individual. Their symptoms are increasing, they are struggling more, they are disconnecting with daily life, there is more avoidance, there is either higher shows of emotion where they are crying or becoming very angry or they completely shut down. This is where I assess on a case-by-case basis. And children, teenagers and adults all perceive trauma quite different, right?
Sundae: I have chills when I think about this, because when there is either a big T or a small T trauma, it’s not that just one person is impacted impacts the entire family.
Shellee: Yes, yes it does and you may have for instance, if you have say in my case children. When I moved, the older children, they perceive it in one way, the younger children perceive it in another way. So you may have younger children that are not developmentally able to fully understand what is going on, who might seem to breeze through transitions. Whereas you will have older children or teenagers that have to say goodbye to their friends, don’t want to move. Or conversely you Just have different factions within the family where some people want to leave and some people want to stay.
Sundae: So here’s the thing is, my intention today is not to paint global life as this traumatic experience that people should avoid. Because if anybody’s ever listened to my podcast, you know I am all about making the most of your life abroad and enjoying it and embracing it, cherishing it. And I think that when we’re smart about small T traumas and big T traumas, we can make smart choices in how we support ourselves, how we support others. And these when we hear the word trauma, it feels like an exception to the rule.
However, when I look at the global community that I’m in touch with it is not uncommon for someone to reach out online and say “Hey, my kid is going through a really rough time, is anybody here to help?” So I think it’s worth looking at in terms of the bigger sense on how we can be more savvy to look at the signs and empower ourselves for what can we do to either prevent some of this or proactively work with this when it happens. So that was something important I just wanted to say as a caveat.
So to help me understand here, we’ve got small T and big T. I kind of when I was listening to that list I’m like “Boy, we’ve been in situations where we’ve had big T and small T happen at the same time.” Sometimes those come in packages, where a family is dealing with big T trauma and small T trauma all at the same time.
Can you tell me what are some symptoms or signs we should look out for, that there is some stress from the trauma big T or small T that someone’s going through.
Shellee: So you have two ends of the spectrum, you can have what’s called emotional numbing where effectively the individual will kind of shut down. So you will have, if I’m thinking about when I worked in International School, you would have some students that would come in and they would cry and they would rant and they would get all their feelings out there on the table. And be very very clear on how they felt, how they didn’t want to do this, how they didn’t want to do that and the impact on their life.
So they were very very clear, but they also reacted in an emotional way. Now when you have this reaction, it gives you something very very clear to see you can clearly say “This is something that I have noticed, it’s increasing over time. If we’re transitioning it is getting higher and higher and closer and closer to the leaving point.”
But the other side of the spectrum is when effectively the individual shuts down or switches off. So they’re so overwhelmed, they might come into a session and they really might not say anything. I mean you have that kind of classic sort of teenage boy response where they just sort of make this kind of noise and maybe roll their eyes. Sometimes we’ll get that in younger children, but they do not want to open that box. And in therapy we quite often refer to it as Pandora’s Box. “We are keeping the lid on the box. We are not going there.”
When you get to that point that is when we would be looking at, I would want a conversation with the parents, obviously this was in a school context, but as much information as you can get from teachers, parents or even just by watching what they’re doing. If it’s your child and you’re at home with them it’s just, what are they doing? Is there anything that they’re doing differently? Are they struggling at bedtime? That’s a very common one. Are they waking early and unable to get back to sleep? Is there any regression? Regression is key. If it’s a child where they are maybe wetting the bed again or in some cases soiling, problems with eating. In older people it might be a case of issues with eating, self-harming or just a kind of changing behavior, which seems to have come completely out of nowhere. All those are very very common.
Sundae: I’m struggling here with some of these signs to differentiate between being a teenager and suffering traumatic stress.
Shellee: With this communication is key. I know I have a teenager myself. That communication with teenagers can be quite difficult. And also they’re wanting to assert their control and be in control of what’s going on. So they’re not usually the most giving of information. One thing that I found to be very useful if wanting to talk and strike up a conversation with a teenager, or maybe someone who’s less verbal and might not want to say as much, is quite often in a car because it’s a safe contained space, it’s a good place to have a conversation and they kind of jump out of the car when you get home and they are in control of that ending.
The other part of the equation as an art psychotherapist is the use of images. Now, I’m not condoning that people be in their mind an art psychotherapist, an art psychotherapist is several years of training. But if you have younger children, and they are drawing maybe things that “Just tell me a little bit about your picture?” That may be different to what they’ve done before. Or playthings and if they are playing with their toys and you are either seeing repetitive, they’re kind of going round the same things over and over again or there is no clear ending.
Sundae: This is so interesting about the drawings. I’m going to just share a quick story here from that same synopsis I shared at the top. During this time of sheltering in place I was staying with an American friend. And we really tried to create a fun environment as if it was like a five-day sleepover. And we put movies on, you know with young kids you put movies on, and made popcorn and did all these things. And I really thought, if we did talk about stuff it would be like in another room and quiet tone, etc. And I thought “Okay they just thought they had a five day sleepover with a little bit of questions around what’s going on?”
When I landed in Switzerland I watched my kids drawings and at a relative’s house and they were of tanks, they were of people in camouflage, because there was a tank that we drove by when we were getting to the airport because that was what was going on from a military perspective when we were there. So even though I thought I was sheltering them from that they were absorbing it. And I discovered that by paying attention to drawing.
Shellee: And with drawings a lot of children find that for a huge amount of children it is part of them processing what they are seeing and experiencing. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they are traumatized. It does not necessarily mean that there are going to be problems further down the line. This is just how children process.
And an example of a First Nations child that I worked with in Canada every session I saw him you would come in and we would have our session at the end he would draw on the corner of the blackboard a little figure of a girl and then he would rub it out and leave. And he would not talk about it. He would not address it. And this went on for months. And I was kind of increasingly intrigued about this figure, but thought “He’ll tell me when he’s ready.” We got to a year worth of sessions and it was our actual last day before my training ended and before he moved schools and he said, “I suppose you want to know about the person on the board.” And I said, “Yes”. And he said, “That was my sister who was killed in an accident.” And that was his way of processing. But he said, “I also wanted to see if I could trust you enough to tell you and you didn’t ask.” So just a very very deep moment.
And this was right at the end of my two years training in Vancouver where I just saw the power of witnessing without asking and believe me there were repeated times I was desperate to know but I knew that he would tell me when he was ready and that was his way of processing.
Sundae: Well that gives me chills up my arms. The power of witnessing without asking. That’s powerful. In coaching what we talk about is a compassionate witness, how you are just present and listen. And I think as a parent, for talking about what parents can do, I think there’s an internal dilemma that we feel as parents. Because while cognitively we know that they need a compassionate listener and a witness to their struggles. We also want to fix it and make it better.
Shellee: Most definitely and I mean the day, the last day that we left Kuala Lumpur as we were leading up to leaving. So for the last two months me and my family, mainly my children, would do a drawing every couple of days to just see how we were doing with our transition. So all these different things came up and some were quite humorous and some are a bit sad and some are quite dark, and mainly mine were the dark questions with my adult, “We’re going back to the UK” head on. But my children’s just became, their pictures shrunk, they got smaller and smaller. I have actually got them on my website, the process is there for all to see. But on the last day my son drew a Petronas Towers, the Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, and it looked like they were crying. And he would not talk about it. And my daughter basically said on, we were going out for our last meal, and she completely broke down and just begged us not to leave. And I think as a parent it was one of the most distressing moments I’ve ever experienced. I was her parent, but I was also the school counselor, I was always there to make sure that things were as good as they could be and I just saw my daughter completely and totally heartbroken.
Sundae: It’s so hard. I mean the same thing. I’m an intercultural specialist. So that’s my job to help people through transition. And then when I watch my own kids struggle, it’s hard, it’s really hard.
Shellee: It’s the hardest. And I think also for her, I mean she said a few weeks later that she felt a bit better afterwards because she knew I was listening. And I think about listening. I wanted to make it better. But I knew at that point I couldn’t change what was going to happen. And that is the hardest part for me. But the images when we look back on them, when we got back to the UK and a few months later I found them, she talked me through what she’d been thinking and she said she found it very helpful because she didn’t have to share with me using words.
Sundae: Well, I want to know more about this. So can you tell us more. There’s a lot of ways in which trauma can emerge in a globally mobile context. But let’s just focus on transition. When we have to leave, whether it’s planned or whether it’s abrupt. Help me understand what can parents do? I’m hearing there is something with drawing, I’m hearing listening. Chat can a parent do who is not trained in art therapy to support our kids in transition, to minimize the negative impact and still hold space for that.
Shellee: The school that I worked at in Kuala Lumpur, we realized that this was something that we were coming up on a timely basis. Because the turnover as it was an international school was very very high. So every term we would run this workshop say, how to say goodbye workshop. It was all about how to say a good goodbye before you transition.
And that to me has remained and is key to pretty much all of the experiences that I’ve witnessed. Whether or not the person has a years notice or three months notice. And for a couple of individuals that was very very painful to witness, where they found out that they were going to be changing schools that morning was their last day. Which I cannot disagree with more. It caused huge outpourings of grief. They did not have time to consolidate anything. They did not have time to say a good goodbye.
So saying a good goodbye is saying goodbye to everything. Whether it’s collectibles, whether it’s restaurants, whether in our case in England when we left, we had a huge tree outside our house and we called it the Bee Tree because all the honey bees liked it. We said goodbye to the B tree that was important. And said goodbye to our friends of course. But it was saying goodbye to our car. We said goodbye to so many things. But you are acknowledging and you are saying “I am grateful for you and we are moving on.”
Secondly. It’s very easy to underestimate the making sure that you’re getting as much sleep as you can, that you’re eating properly. That you’re not, in teenagers cases up on devices half the night, that didn’t help. But for them it was just a case of communication is key, even if you’re having a bad day, we try and share something about how we are feeling. With parents the need to prove that you are the parent who can hold it all together, that can be the person that’s in control and make everything effortlessly run from A to B to C. I would say forget that. It is about showing who you are, being the container for everybody else’s needs. But also it’s a family container, you all support each other, but you are also there for each other without needing words.
Sundae: And what I love about this one. There’s a couple things I’m just going to step back on. You know this idea of saying goodbye. There might be people out there who are listening who say, “Well if I say goodbye to all these things it’s gonna add salt to the wound.” But actually it’s a really healthy part of acknowledging the connection that you had with people, places and things, the gratitude and allowing people to move on.
I love that you talked about the sleeping and eating. In my work what I notice is when pressure gets high, and that’s in transition because you have so much more to do on top of your regular life, that the first thing to go is your self-care. And I always say double down on yourself care in those times because that’s when you need it most.
And then the third thing that I’m seeing is checking in on how people feel. And what I love about what you shared is we ask our kids to say goodbye to their friends and we say it’s okay to cry. But we won’t cry in front of them. Like how is that? How is that okay? So giving yourself permission to actually process your own transition I think is so healthy for kids.
Tell me more about this without words. I’m a words person, I’m a communication person. My poor kids I always ask them to articulate stuff. Like how do we do this without words?
Shellee: So from my perspective, and this is where my more therapist hat comes on, is what are they saying without actually saying it? What is a child or teenager or an adult, what is the person saying without actually verbally saying anything? And again, we all work in a globally mobile community, if you’ve lived in a country where you have not spoken the language you become more attuned to this. What is somebody saying without using words? And what I’ve found over time is that a lot of people have a kind of pattern, that they will have a way of showing things. I always ask them the question, “Are you upset because you are angry or angry because you’re upset?” Most of us tend towards one or the other camp. So I get quite quite angry and grumpy when I’m upset because it’s easier for me to show that, that’s very much my conditioning. Whereas I meet people that will be in floods of tears because of their anger.
Sundae: I hate that by the way, if I’m angry and then I start you slobbering crying, like it really takes out the impact of my anger. I’m so mad and then I’m like this slobbering mess. Like I want to show you how mad I am, but I’m not. I can’t.
Shellee: And also from a cultural perspective, British people don’t do mad. They don’t do mad in the same way that I do. So I would say that it’s a part of my Scots-Irish background. So they are kind of banging heads together. But it’s the person trying to tell you, is there some just get that gut reaction saying take a bit of notice of this, this is important because there is loss. And this is where saying goodbye comes in, thank you very much gratitude, and we can look at this as an important milestone. It’s painful, but we’re acknowledging it. And if you don’t have that then there is unresolved loss and unresolved loss is further down the line. It’s a bit as if the last word that you say to somebody isn’t very nice and then they die. A very extreme example, you cannot go back.
Sundae: So I love what you said milestone there. I just want to touch on that for a second. Because I think continuity in our global mobility, if you’re rotational expat. I mean you might be a lovepat, you might be living abroad for other reasons. But the ones who are rotational, who know they’re going to leave every two to four years let’s say. There needs to be continuity in the story if everything is always changing. And I love that you talked about milestones because when I think about that, this is a stone, a celebration, a moment in our entire journey. It’s not disconnected, it’s part of the journey.
Shellee: Yes, and it gives it momentum and it makes you realize that it has meaning. It’s, what meaning does this have? You don’t have to tie up all the ends. You don’t need to be projecting in your head, “Oh where will going to this school get me in 10 years time? It isn’t that kind of ego way of looking at things. It’s a very intuitive gut feeling where, say for instance from my position, where I returned to the UK and UK is obviously in a state of flux at the moment which everybody knows, but that’s another topic. I can’t work because the legal requirements for me to get my permission to work have changed significantly. My children are at school living their life. My husband is at work leading his life. And I’m at home cleaning the toilet and wiping mold off the walls. It’s very difficult to see milestone in that kind of point of view when I’m in that place thinking “I hate this, I’ve left my nice warm big apartment in Malaysia and now I’m here dealing with this.” But there is that looking forward. “Where does this fit? What can I learn from this? What is this bringing to my table?”
Sundae: What can I learn from this and what does it bring to my table? Very good. Oh, there’s so much to do. So we’ve looked at what parents can do. I’m hearing so far, is observing your children, which of course it sounds obvious, but let’s be honest when we are in the middle of transition it is so easy to get self-absorbed. Like you have all the things you have to do, you’re feeling your own stuff and you just want your kids to have clean underwear and food and sleep and shower. Like let’s be honest.
So just taking a step back and a moment to observe the patterns. I think my husband’s better at that than I am. He’s really good about noticing slight changes in the kids. and I feel like I’m the one who’s like running the show, the routine. Like get up, brush your teeth, eat the food, get on the bus. And I think that’s because he’s not as physically around as much as I am. He’s the one who notices it from the meta level.
Shellee: Yes, I think a lot of people find that. That’s a really good point.
Sundae: Or maybe you can ask your partner. Like if I know that about myself, I can say, “Hey have you noticed anything different?” Or “Can you help me look to see what’s going on?” So I think that if you’re in a partnership and your co-parenting that might be something you can do.
I’m hearing this planning and ahead. Really how important it is to acknowledge the goodbyes and show gratitude. I liked what you talked about what meaning does it have? You could ask your kids that, what meaning that experience has for them? And then inviting some things like if you do have younger kids watching the drawings. Tell me more about this thing that you were doing leading up to the transition. Did you make your kids sit at a table and draw? Because I don’t know if my kids would be into that. Tell me what you did?
Shellee: I did to start with and then I realized that, I think several drawings in, that that wasn’t going to happen every day. My children by that point were just as drained as I was. So I realized that if it was going to just be me then it would just be me. If they were going to join me then I would give them the choice. And that’s basically how it worked. So some of them are just mine.
There was another one where we got the Monopoly game, the Kuala Lumpur Monopoly game, and we used all the pieces, which saved drawing. That was interesting. But the images, like I said, my son’s in particular, took up less and less and less space the nearer and nearer we got to leaving. And then when I got back to the UK, I pretty much continued because I was the only one at home and it was a really interesting looking at my images. But it was my kids, they basically said that they wanted to come back because we came back to where we started. And the one I would touch upon in transition and difficult transitions, coming back to exactly the place you started in can be one of the most difficult transitions to ever go through.
Sundae: My kids are resisting it. I mean one of my son’s was like, “Nope. Nope. I want to go somewhere new.” He doesn’t even want to think about it.
Shellee: My children, I mean they came back. And I mean just to make a point. About six weeks ago, so my daughter’s a year before high school, so she is in UK year 6, she’s 11 years old. I took her to see her teacher. A new teacher was reporting about her work and how well she was doing. They said “I’ve got some sort of queries about the way she writes, the way she phrases things?” And I said, “Well, she’s come from a different system.” And the teacher had no idea what I was talking about. She said, “What do you mean new system?” And I said, “Well she went to school in Kuala Lumpur.” And the teacher said, “Oh, right.” She said, “So that’s why in our RE class last week your daughter stood up and told us all about Islam.” She said, “I had absolutely no idea.”
So it’s communication with, so if you’re looking at it from a parent working with a school, the communication with the school so that the school is aware that the transition is going to be taking place or that your child has just transitioned, which is equally important. The other part of it is, if you are looking at “We are going through our transition, how is our child doing?” School is always a great place to find out because teachers see so much the parents don’t see. So I would always say you could contact your class teacher, you could contact the school. If there’s any involvement with school counselors, then I would just see “Is there anything that you could give me information about?” But the teacher, the class teacher is a really really good place to just say, “Look I’ve got a few queries, we’re transitioning, could you just keep an eye out and let me know if there’s anything that’s different or that you might think is related to this?”
Sundae: That is so important. It’s like your teacher is an ally on the other side of transition. And what I know is for example, if my children were to transition to a Swiss school. It would be incredibly challenging just from language and culture, etc. And the teacher themselves probably would have no idea the way my kids have been raised. So you really have to create understanding between the teacher and the parent so they know what to look at.
Shellee: Yes. And I mean my children. If you saw them, if you hear them speaking, you would think British children a hundred and ten percent. You would just have no idea they grew up in a Muslim country. And then this is where it doesn’t take very long for the realization. So my son refused to wear Speedos to swimming because he was uncomfortable wearing Speedos. I had to go to school and explain why he didn’t want to wear Speedos. And they were fine. But it was just that well, he’s British, he’s like everyone else, he’s not different, why is he acting like this?
And school can be fantastic allies. Some international schools have great counseling services. Some counseling services will run workshops like these on a termly basis. Because the expat lifestyle, the highs are incredibly high and the lows can be incredibly low. But that is the price that globally mobile parents pay. I wouldn’t change anything.
Sundae: I just heard this from a client. She said her father used to say “If you want to dance you’ve got to pay the band.” So it’s like, we gotta pay the band. And I also believe truly, even though I wouldn’t have said this probably 20 years ago. The hardest moments of my life in retrospect were some of the richest moments of my life. And the deepest place of learning. And I think I grew up in a way where you should avoid discomfort, like everybody’s happy, everybody’s fine, let’s minimize conflict. And at the same time when, excuse my French, when shit hit the fan and I was in the middle of it, what I learned afterwards as it’s so much depth in my life, I’m grateful for it.
Shellee: And it’s that gratitude that comes from that experience. I mean sometimes I think that that fear can almost be telling you to do something. You learn to listen to fear. And especially my job when I’m listening to people talking about fear and the emotions that come with it. And at the moment I work with quite a few Asian children that have been adopted by European parents and I’m listening to the trauma in their backgrounds and the fear. And the part of you that doesn’t have words, the limbic part of your brain your gut reaction. There aren’t words. There are only feelings. And that is very very hard to manage if you’re a words person.
But I would also just like to say, is that with most individuals transition is something that we learn to manage. It doesn’t mean that it’s easy. We find our own processes. We find what works for us. For children it might just be a case of “Well, this is what I did and I’ve got new friends.” But the more you do it, the more you can either become numb to it, which is something that could bring its own issues further down the line, or triggered by it. And it’s just everyday you’re just kind of walking a line. And you might have a numb day, we all need them. And you might have a trigger day and we all need those as well. So it’s just about recognizing that we have these to’s and from’s but it’s also when they go further than that, which might be the next point to discuss is “What should I do and when do I need to find professional help?”
Sundae: Absolutely. That was exactly my next question. Help us understand as parents. When are we reaching our limit? And when do we need to reach out to someone who like you who’s a professional?
Shellee: So what I would say is that for a lot of children, it is just a spectrum of behavior. And it’s how far along they move along that spectrum. So if you are looking at a child who, okay brothers and sisters kick and hit each other they fight and there is sibling rivalry, but if a child is doing it with classmates they are becoming aggressive to more people then they might turn the aggression on themselves in the form of self-harming.
So if it is anything that concerns you that is moving on along a spectrum increasing in severity. So say self-harming, it might be little slight cuts on their arm and then all of a sudden it’s big cuts on their legs. How long it’s been going on before, so it’s something that you thought was going to happen for a month and then all of a sudden three years later, they’re still doing it and it’s got worse. That is a very extreme example, I know. Or regression again, but you suddenly have an eight-year-old whose wetting the bed, talking in baby talk. I’ve seen quite a few traumatized children that are eight, but will kind of talk in baby voices like three-year-olds when they’re in very very high stress situations.
Or lack of eating, eating disorders. You would have to look, again his is the teenagers. Some of the online things that they are doing or that they are involved in all their histories. That is what we had a lot of input on in the school I worked in because we had so many problems with the anorexic and bulimic students visiting these kinds of pro-anorexia sites. Not just, “How much weight has my child lost?” But it’s a composite picture because, yes teenagers will go up and down, all children do. But it is something where I have a parent come to me and said, “I knew then that I had to send them to you.” Now we all have that little voice in our head. And I know as a parent myself I’ve had to go in to speak to teachers about what my children have been up to. It’s not a very nice feeling.
Sundae: Here’s what I’m thinking of we talked about aggression, moving on the spectrum. It’s like in hindsight you realize it was going on for three or four months. But during that time those are tiny little moments and we’re not connecting the dots.
And so I’m guessing, I mean I think about my own situation where even something simple, like physical like signs of asthma let’s say. I had with one of my son’s, we were like “Wait a minute, he’s been having breathing problems for seven months. Like how did I miss that?” You’re not connecting the dots. And I’m wondering, this sounds kind of nerdy of me because I want it to be very scientific, but should we be journaling about these things? What can we be doing as parents to sort of connect the dots faster?
Shellee: What I would recommend is firstly developing good communication with teachers because they’re very good at joining up the dots because they have a bigger activity. But also if you have, so we would have at our school kind of parents groups of children that were in transition. So they could kind of have these coffee mornings together so that they were chatting. And it was really common for one parent to say, “Oh, you know my daughter started doing this and it’s driving me crazy.” And then all of a sudden you would see that. But in that setting it’s not therapy. So there was no shame attached. There’s no embarrassment. One person had voiced it and it would be maybe the oil family parents. They tend to be quite chatty about things that were going on.
But then you also had the parents that were very very clear that everything was perfect and that nothing was wrong. So when we have these group settings it develops relationships between these groups where they could actually talk a little bit more about what was going on.
The mums that were at home, the dreaded trailing spouse title that I detest. They had backup from each other, but they were also often able to reconnect to the next country that they’d gone to because that’s just the nature. That’s one of the amazing things about our lifestyle.
Even myself as a psychotherapist. I’ve had moments where I’ve looked back and thought, “I missed that. What was I thinking?” You can handle things, but I would suggest that connection with other people going through the same thing can help because they will start talking and your brain starts processing it in a different way.
Sundae: So I’m hearing, keep curious for the people who have contact with your kids. Whether it’s the teachers, fellow parents and your partner, maybe even siblings. One little trick that I’ve learned along the way is, and I hope my kids don’t listen to this because then they’re going to know. But I’ll say something like “Hey, how do you think your brother’s doing right now?” Like I’ll ask the younger one about the older one and ask older one about the younger one to see if they’ve got their hand on the pulse of the other sibling. And that’s a little secret way to find out too.
Shellee: That’s also a great way of doing it. I forgot to include carers. If you have a long-term carer that knows your child well enough to say “They’ve not been eating their tea when they come home.” Or “I’m noticing that they’ve been quite cheerful but nobody knows why.” It’s like being a detective, getting as many jigsaw pieces as you can. But I’m aware that when you’re transitioning and you’re exhausted and you’re exhausted and you don’t want to go there yourself, that can be very very difficult.
Sundae: So let’s just accept that as part of a matter of course when we live in transition. Which we are always in transition. We need to take regular checkpoints about our kids. And that’s the same thing with any relationship, you check in to make sure that things, the wheels don’t fall off too far down the road before you readjust.
So listen, you have so much to offer and I would love to speak with you for hours and hours and more. But I know that I have to respect your time. Tell me if people would like to get in contact with you. Where can they find you?
Shellee: Yes, if you go to my website, which is www.shelleeburroughs.com
Sundae: I will put the link in the show notes.
Shellee: All the information and contact details are on there, the images that I did with my family and myself are on there. And any questions, please contact me. I’d love to hear from you. Because the trauma field is coming into its own. Four years ago nobody wanted to really go there and now people are joining the dots.
Sundae: It has been amazing. So thank you so much.
Shellee: Thank you, Sundae.
Sundae: My hope is that by sharing your wisdom and your insight that one parent is going to hear this and make a choice and connect those dots just a little faster and support their kid in a new way that wouldn’t have been possible without you. So thank you so much.
Shellee: My pleasure.
You’ve been listening to Expat Happy Hour. This is Sundae Schneider-Bean. Thank you for listening.
I’m going to leave you with the words of Michelle Rosenthal “Trauma creates change you don’t choose, healing is about creating change you do choose.”