We were well into the third year of our family’s new normal, before I had come to the realization that things really were different for us. That no, all kids really don’t do this-whatever “this” may mean at the moment-and that we were not imagining the stress. We were not imagining the frustration. It took nearly four years to accept that the challenges we were facing couldn’t simply be dealt with by working harder or doing more. It took nearly four years to come to terms with the fact that living in a family with children who have experienced early childhood trauma(s) can be an isolating, lonely, and oddly enough traumatizing endeavor, with very unique and difficult challenges. So few on the outside can understand what it’s like to live inside our walls. That is not to suggest whatever is inside our neighbor’s walls is more or less difficult, just different perhaps. Below is my imperfect attempt to give words to some of our family’s daily struggles.
- Invisible Disability. Children who have experienced in utero and/or childhood trauma have disabilities that may not be visible to the untrained eye. Our children can look physically healthy and happy, and yet their physiology has been altered by one or more traumatizing events in their lives. Their biology is different. Their brains are physically different. Because 80% of brain cells grow in the first two years of life, the damage experienced during those first years can and does manifest over the course of one’s lifetime. How our children respond to day-to-day stressors is often outside the norm. Our children can and do achieve in school and in other environments. Yet, sometimes they cannot. They can be behaving in socially acceptable ways one moment, and become dysregulated the next. Disability is defined as “a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities.” When children who have experienced past trauma are “triggered,” their disability shows its face. And yet, while focusing on the behavior or the child, the disability itself, the underlying causes, often remains invisible to eyes who have been taught that disability needs to look, act or talk in a certain way.
- There is SO Little Understanding. While I cannot speak from their perspective, I often wonder if trauma parents today may feel in any way similarly to the way parents of children on the autism spectrum felt a decade or so ago. Living with a general diagnosis that doesn’t quite hit the mark? Confused about how to advise teachers, coaches and other caregivers? Parental instinct and daily realities constantly tell us something is not quite right, but so few resources are able to help us correctly identify what is going on AND what to do about it. Trauma mamas and papas often find support, comfort and professional resources in private online groups or through private conversations with others living this reality. One of the most frustrating parts from my perspective is that not one of our countless home-study visits or adoption agency meetings leading up to our adoption(s) consisted of someone telling us, “This will be the hardest thing you have ever done. Line up the therapists and begin counseling immediately. For your kids, for your family, for your marriage.” Other than a brief online training about RAD, or reactive attachment disorder, which was presented as an extreme and unlikely reality, trauma and it’s likely realities, as they would present in our home, wasn’t even broached. Perhaps that is because the DSM (Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders) is not even sure how to classify trauma and attachment disorders? There is progress being made, however, and there seems to be chatter about reclassifying PTSD as “a spectrum disorder.” This gives me hope, as so many of our children are definitely on trauma and attachment spectrums. Yet, due to lack of understanding in society, or worse, judgement, we often retreat to our safe places and speak nothing of this. We are simply too tired, to be quite honest, to do more than what is essential each day and yet we desperately need more professionals who understand trauma to be vocal advocates for trauma informed awareness and education. We need those who know and understand to help move society from a place of so little understanding to a place that provides knowledge and resources for parents, teachers and caregivers.
- Few Integrated Solutions. Because traditional parenting methods do not work on children who have experienced trauma, because consequences have no lasting impact, because reward and punishments systems do not encourage positive behavior, because our kids often lack cause and effect thinking in the moment and because there is so little understanding in society as a whole about how trauma operates, if often feels like our family is David facing Goliath, with the whole world stacked against future healing and wholeness, through no fault of our child. Yet, there are approaches and systems, or more accurately lifestyle modifications, that do show promise for bringing healing to children who have endured trauma. Trust Based Relational Intervention, Connected Parenting and Therapeutic Parenting are amazing approaches that truly understand how trauma has impacted our children, why our kids behave they way(s) that they do, and how we should parent our kids to foster healing. These techniques require consistent effort and focus, and are contrary to way most of today’s adults were raised. They are HARD. Personally, I get it wrong more than I get it right. Yet, when I understand that my child is always operating out of fear of the worst case scenario happening again, I can better understand and better respond. Unfortunately, because schools and the greater systems of society do not often operate under these “connected” principles, parents are again alone, either shielding our kids from systems that don’t understand or trying to piecemeal a plan together that is not a win-win, but is also not a lose-lose. Again, we need advocates! We need the training and education to leave academia and enter our educational systems, pediatric offices and our parenting models.
- Secondary Trauma. Maybe you, like I, have learned this the hard way? Maybe you, like I, lived in denial for a long time? Maybe you thought you could soldier through or shake it off? Maybe you tried to convince yourself you were imagining things? The truth is, however, I have come to learn the hard way that being the parent and primary caregiver to a traumatized individual or individuals, and constantly being exposed to their trauma, means that there is a high likelihood that I am living with secondary trauma. According to Amy Sugeno, a LCSW and trauma therapist, “Many parents describe feeling burned out, chronically overwhelmed, or fatigued. It can become increasingly difficult to maintain compassion and the desire to nurture, while simultaneously feeling guilty about this. We may shut down and withdraw or be on edge a lot of the time. There can be hopelessness, anxiety, and seemingly unending frustration. Other issues may be more specific to the experiences parents went through during the adoption journey or to the experiences of their adopted children.” In short, many adoptive parents are living with secondary trauma. So busy caring for the needs of those around them, that we forgot to remember we need to be cared for too.
If you can relate to anything written above, you are certainly not alone. The pain is real. The struggle is real. The trauma is real. The isolation is real. More so, the hope is real and the healing can be real too. For our children and for us. While it may seem like no one understands and it is true that few actually do, there are professionals who can relate. There are communities of parents you can join who will support and encourage you. There are approaches to loving and raising our kids that show promise.
And while we, as parents, certainly need professionals to advocate for our children and families, to educate the educators, and to help us heal, the truth is that YOU will likely become your child’s biggest advocate. I want my child to succeed in school, socially, and in life. Therefore, my choice is to either continue to view myself as minuscule and paralyzed David who is facing a monstrous Goliath, or remember that when David was armed with wisdom and knowledge of a greater plan, he was able to not only face the giant in front of him, but begin to dismantle it. And as daunting as that may seem, perhaps that is exactly where you and I need to begin? By sharing the realities of trauma and the education we have received with everyone who influences and interacts with our children, we can help to begin to move in a new and healing direction.
What has been the biggest challenge of parenting trauma in your life? Where have you seen the most hope and healing? What words of wisdom can you share with others along this path?