I wanted to take a moment to talk about something that has significantly helped us with our son, Declan and his behavioral issues.
First, the disclaimer. I am NOT a medical professional, a massage therapist, or anything even close to an expert. I am, however, an expert in my child and mother’s intuition.
Declan’s Early Life Medical Trauma
Declan was born May 25, 2018. He was not diagnosed in utero so we were thrust into the world of pediatric cardiology quickly, fearfully, and unexpectedly.
Declan was diagnosed with pulmonary atresia with intact ventricular septum and severe right heart hypertrophy. He underwent an open heart procedure to place a BTT Shunt (Blalock -Thomas-Taussig Shunt, previously known at the BT Shunt) between his right subclavian artery and his right pulmonary artery. All was well at the time. They were actually able to close him during the procedure. Normally they leave them chest open for a few days to allow the swelling to go down for them to be able to close the chest.
Overnight, however, he desaturated twice; the second time requiring them to re-open his chest bedside to remove the clip from his PDA. Essentially, his body was suffocating. He had a complication with the BTT Shunt where the part sewn to his pulmonary artery was pulling away causing a purse string effect at the bottom of the shunt, which would not allow blood flow to go back to the lungs to pick up and carry more oxygenated blood out to the body. The result was his oxygen saturations plummeting into the single digits, which would have resulted in death.
After a trip to the cath lab to find the problem, they took him to the OR to revise the procedure to sew a bovine patch to the pulmonary artery, which would allow the shunt a more sturdy place to be attached. When he arrived in the OR, he went into ventricular fibrillation, which led to a witnessed cardiac arrest. Thank God his chest was already open and able to be manually massaged while the anesthesiologist bagged him for manual breathing. They were able to hook him up to TandemHeart life support, revise his shunt, and bring him back to his room.
The rest was two steps forward, one step backward. Some of the other traumas he experienced were fentanyl withdrawals, partial lung collapse, and likely more than I’ll ever know.
What’s I’ve learned is that many children who have gone through early life trauma experience many of the same behavioral issues and tendencies. Skeptics will say these are all normal toddler behaviors, but I believe that mother’s intuition is stronger than anything. Having three other children, I felt like his behavior lasted longer than any “phase” we’ve experienced with our other children. We feared this was his personality and it was a hard one to maneuver. Here is a list of some of the behaviors and tendencies we’ve experienced for longer than 6 months. Mind you, he will be 3 years old this May 25, 2021, so phases at these early ages don’t typically last this long
•Getting into rages where he gets so frustrated that he begins banging his head on anything.
•Doesn’t like to be touched, snuggled, hugged, show affection, etc.
•Defiance behavior: refusing to do anything anyone tells him to do, purposely doing things to upset others, looking you in the eye after repeatedly telling him not to do something and then doing it to spite you, or being vengeful.
•Getting so angry about being told “no” to something he’s unable to disobey and do (for example, closing the pantry door so he can’t go inside) and running to you while shrieking and hitting you.
•Stubbornness: this has been the most frustrating one to deal with. He will ask if he can do something, like asking to close the door, you tell him ok, then he says, “No” so you go to do it and he freaks out, so you tell him to go ahead and do it and he says, “no” so you do it and he loses him mind.
•Not being able to break the cycle: all of my other kids have behaved in similar ways at one point, but the phases were short lived (2-3 weeks) and I could always break the cycle or what we call “flip the switch” somehow. Usually we could sing a song, start talking in a difference voice, show them something exciting, etc., but there is no breaking the cycle with this kid. Everything just makes him more angry. We’ve gone as far as spanking (how do you spank your miracle child???) and he just laughs and continues with the defiant behavior. Sometimes my husband will spank him and he’ll cry but continue getting out of time-out and trying to be defiant.
•Frequent meltdowns, usually spanning the entire day. Once you wrap up one meltdown, within minutes, another begins and this goes on all day long.
•He finds hurting people funny, whether it’s throwing things at people, hitting them, etc.
Looking for Answers
The more time went by, the more things just continued like this, I just felt in my gut that this wasn’t my little boy. He has a smile that lights up a room. I knew there had to be something to do about this and that this wasn’t just a phase. Call it a mother’s intuition, but I just felt in my gut that he wasn’t destined to be this kind of kid.
I started googling various things trying to find something exact, never really finding what I was looking for, however I was able to piece different pieces of information together to come up with something to test as a theory. I’ll spare you all of the search details, but what I found to be the last piece of the puzzle was the concept of birth trauma, whether from c-sections, use of forceps, etc, could manifest in behavioral issues that only worsen with age. Whether or not that was true, to me, was irrelevant because I was willing to try anything. All of my kids were c-sections and none of them had behavioral issues like this so I don’t tend to believe c-sections are considered birth trauma unless something happens during that c-section that’s out of the ordinary.
I read on one website some interesting information on birth trauma. The website is the Irish Association of Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy. To summarize, what I learned was that many times, massage therapy was used on babies and toddlers, usually up to about 18 months, with surprising results. Although Declan is much older (currently 35 months) I thought anything was worth a try. In the massage therapy on the IAHIP.org website, they mention simulating natural birthing through massage. After an average of 3 lessons, many issues had improved, allowing parents to sleep through the night and reducing fussiness in their child. To read the article, click here.
Learning Massage Techniques
I did what probably millions of other people do. I went to YouTube to find techniques on performing trauma massage. I found this video and although this is on an adult, I still found it massively helpful and used what I learned in it to start massages on Declan.
Testing My Theory
I started testing my theories on Tuesday, April 16th. I had made my own massage oil out of coconut oil, grapeseed oil, and a blend of essential oils. I went in to wake Declan up and I turned on his favorite soft music, laid a towel on the floor, changed his diaper, and covered him with a light blanket to keep him warm. I started with his feet, moved up his leg, then went to his hands and worked my way up his arms. Then I moved to his shoulders. This is where things got very interesting. More in the results section. Then I moved from his shoulders, down his chest and belly. Then I had him roll onto his belly so I could massage his back.
The results were nothing short of fascinating, especially for me being such a skeptic. When I first massaged him, I expected him to just sit there and do his thing, enjoy it and we would be done, but to my surprise, I learned something about not only the fact that his body was carrying trauma but also that his shoulders were where he was carrying that trauma.
I want to take a second to describe body trauma and its lingering effects because I’ve personally experienced it. When my husband and I lived on the north side of Chicago, we were leaving one morning and I stepped the wrong way in a puddle in some low profile sandal heels and fell down a flight of outdoor, wooden stairs. Although I didn’t break anything, I had a contusion in my foot and ankle that required me to wear a boot for 6 weeks and an air cast for another 4. For at least 4 years after this accident, I could physically sense when something was near my inner right ankle and I would immediately pull it away to avoid it getting touched by anyone or anything. It could have been my husband wanting to snuggle and us intertwine our feet or a dog brushing again my leg. Although the injury had long healed, I still felt a pain as though something were touching it even though something was touching it, only close to it.
I can only imagine that that must be a fraction of what Declan felt. When I moved up to massage Declan’s upper body, he was happy and giggling. The second I touched his shoulders to massage them, his demeanor immediately changed and he grabbed at my hands and pushed them away. I was blown away for two reasons. The first reason was that he very clearly expressed a lack of desire to be touched somewhere. The second reason was that I figured if he had an aversion to being touched anywhere, it would be his chest where is scar is. I lovingly continued his massage by massaging his chest and belly and only brought my hands up to gently touch his shoulders while I told him in a soft voice that I loved him and was so thankful he survived. We finished the massage on his back and that was it.
What is extremely profound is that he did not have a single melt down the entire day. This was a complete 180 from what we had experienced for at least six months prior.
On a chance it was a fluke, I did the same thing the next day, Wednesday. Same thing. He allowed me to touch his shoulders but was very pensive about it, using his arms to almost move my hands out of the way, but still allowing me to touch them. That day, same thing; SOOOO much sweetness and not a single meltdown. He also, completely unprovoked came up to me on three separate occasions and plopped himself in my lap to snuggle, which is unheard of. That night, I told my husband he should try it and we went upstairs together to put him to bed and I showed him how I massage Declan. When I got to his shoulders, I said, “Watch this” and he very visibly saw Declan’s smile leave his face, his babbling stopped and his nervous nature of me touching his shoulders appear.
The next day, Thursday, I massaged him again. This time, he did not mind me touching his shoulders at all. He did not allow me to finish by doing his back because he was ready to get up and play with his sister, Clara. He, again, was incredibly sweet and no meltdowns. His behavior was a complete change.
Since then, I have tested days of not massaging him and although his behavior isn’t as bad as it was, he does have a handful of meltdowns and is generally more defiant on the days he does not receive massages. Yesterday he did not get a massage and was a terror. Today he got a massage and has been a complete joy. No defiance behavior, no meanness, no terrorizing his sisters, he hasn’t been yelled at, put in time out, etc.
Obviously this is not a scientific study, but having searched outside the box and been willing to find and try anything has led me to something that has brought out the little boy I knew he was and could be. He’s become snuggly, in just two weeks, sweet, more joyful, and has become this amazing little boy that no longer makes me worry that he’s going to grow up to be a bully. The complete transformation in his behavior is nothing short of a miracle. I don’t know that this is an answer for others kids with early life medical trauma, but I wanted to share what I’ve found for myself and our son in hopes that if you can’t quite find anything to help, you may find your way to a solution that you may never thought.