“They pulled knives out of the drawer when the babysitter was here,” I was informed by my parents when I got home from a night out.

It was the first night out in what felt like forever and it wasn’t even for fun, it was for a grief support group for young widows. I let the words sink in. Many emotions fought for my attention, like anger, frustration, fear, embarrassment, and sadness—but mostly sadness, because I didn’t know what else to do. They’d never done that ever before and they knew not to play with knives.

Maybe to the outsider looking in you might think, “Those kids need more discipline,” or “You (me, the mom) are clearly not an involved parent.” We’re so quick to judge each other’s circumstances, aren’t we? You see, it’s quite the opposite of both. My boys (early elementary school age) are trauma kids, meaning they’ve been through trauma (the drawn-out loss of their father to cancer) in their short little lives. It was trauma too big for their minds and hearts to comprehend and so I’m left having to watch and help them process it little by little. They process it so differently, but both get very, very angry. We’ve been down a long windy road of counselors, parenting coaches and classes. I’ve read books and books and attended webinars…but I can’t take away their pain and I’m seeing it come out in all sorts of ways I never would have imagined.

I’ve seen the anger before, the short fuse, and anyone who has lived with an anxious, angry child knows it’s no walk in the park at home. Sometimes it’s a downright nightmare for all involved. The anger ebbs and flows, and it creeps up when change happens. I saw it rear its head this time when I fell and broke my ankle. I was put in a cast and unable to drive and do all the super-mom stuff I usually attempt to do. Different people were taking the kids to school, different people were picking them up. I had to sleep on the couch and therefore wasn’t in my bed. All of these things are triggers going back to the time their daddy died; the different people watching them, medical gear, and, daddy disappearing from his bed never to return again. They call them “triggers” for a reason, and yes, children get them too. So, their answer didn’t surprise me when I questioned my boys as to what happened with the whole knife incident. It wasn’t malicious or violent intent, rather one of my boys looked down ashamed and told me, “We thought if the babysitter got scared enough, she’d go home and you would come back for us.” I understood what they meant. I felt great empathy for them, as I’ve had my own trauma to work through. But I had to reach through my empathy to hold them up higher than their circumstances, to help them see the consequences of their actions and that there is never a good excuse to put someone else’s safety in jeopardy because you, yourself, do not feel safe.

I found it ironic that only days before the incident I had reached out to a parenting group for help with ideas for how to help my boys to not be so aggressive and enamored with violence, and response after response was, “Boys will be boys.” And I get it, the army guys, playing war, defeating villains, wrestling etc., BUT I would NOT let myself use their loss as an excuse to potentially put others and themselves in harm’s way. Even some people I told about the knife thing could only shrug and say, “Boys are boys, they just like knives.” No, sorry, but that wasn’t going to fly with me, especially in an age where violence and death ends at the credits and everyone gets to go home virtually unscathed, where you get more lives if you get blown up on video games and there’s more available to our kids visually now more than ever. Especially when I’m on my own in this, with no positive male role model who’s a constant in their lives.

When I heard about the incident, I called my kids’ therapist and asked what to do. She suggested to call the police station and ask for a trauma-informed officer to come and talk to them. So I did. Especially as a single mom, I desperately needed back-up. Only an hour after calling, an officer took the time from her beat to come and talk to them about safety, and threatening others and consequences of doing so. She told them that if they were 16, they’d be in the back of her car right now. I don’t know if that resonated with them, but it certainly did with me. I couldn’t even let my mind wander that far into the future, because they are here now, my two little boys, with teachable hearts, eager to do the right thing, but unclear on how to do that through the persistent, painful emotions that keep coming around. I know, because I know. Because hurt people hurt people, it’s not just a boy-thing, it’s a human thing. And they were worried, and confused and at the end of the day, just wanted their mom to come home. But it’s not my job to give them an excuse to act out based on the emotion they’re feeling that day. It’s my job to help them overcome that, to rise above, to God-willing create empathy rather than apathy.

Children aren’t angry for no good reason, and it’s not because they’re “bad kids.” Bad things happen to good kids and it’s up to us as caregivers to not assume they’ll just be resilient and get over it. It’s up to us to help them thrive and not just learn poor coping mechanisms just to survive.

I know that all boys want to be the hero at the end of the day, but sometimes they might not be able to see that on their own. Sometimes the anger and sadness of the real-world gets in the way. Sometimes it might even make them feel like they identify more with the villain, and in those cases, they need us, moms, dads, grandparents, caregivers, to fight for their goodness. The goodness every child inherently has. I will not tell my boys, “Oh you’re aggressive and angry because you’re a boy.” I will not put them in that role. I tell them to put on their armor, Ephesians 6:10-18. I tell them every day, I pray every night it speaks to their hearts. Through the hurt, through the confusion in a terribly broken world, I pray for them to be the heroes, I whisper to them as they drift off to sleep: “You’re a good, strong, kind, boy who God loves very much. Fight the good fight, son, fight the good fight.”

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