There are so many things I wish my husband and I would have known before embarking on the journey of building a trauma family. For starters, it would have been awesome to know that trauma families were even a thing.
It would have also been great to know that the very foundation of being a human being had been altered in my child, in ways that may never be able to be healed or made whole. For years and years I have struggled to put my finger on the invisible beast that can often wreak havoc in our family.
However, through therapy, relentless researching, and the wisdom of God, I discovered something new recently about the nature of this beast. Namely, the very foundation of being human is that we are designed to connect with other human beings, especially our family and loved ones, through healthy, mutually beneficial, age and developmentally appropriate, reciprocal relationships. When we relate to other people in healthy ways, almost everything we do is done out of love, out of trust, and out of the belief that those we are in relationship with care about us too.
Introvert, extrovert, people person, project person, child, or adult, it doesn’t matter. We are meant to be in relationship with our Creator, with other people, and with all of creation. We cannot escape this in our homes, communities, or even our planet, as the earth itself is a closed system. We are in relationship. And what is at the heart of all healthy relationships? TRUST.
But for children with attachment disorder, trust has been broken at the most basic and foundational level. Their basic needs for food, water, safety, shelter, and security were not met, or were only met in haphazard and anxiety producing ways. Whether this was intentional or unintentional does not really matter, because either way, brains and bodies were altered. It’s that serious.
The world is not safe. People are not safe. Survival, therefore, becomes key. The brain and body of those living with attachment disorder or trauma scars may often revert or fluctuate in and out of survival mode. And while regular therapy and connected parenting strategies are essential and help move us forward, the truth is that switching into survival mode, even after years of being in a healthy environment, isn’t a conscious choice for the child as much as it is the brain taking over and doing what it has been programmed to do.
The effect of this broken trust, could mean a lifetime of living in a hypervigilant, non-trusting or semi-trusting state, where relationships are always viewed or approached in a cautious and guarded fashion. In a previously written article on attachment disorder, I explain this more fully. For now, this image gives us a glimpse of how foundational breaks in trust occur:
What this means is that children living with attachment disorder often cannot form truly healthy relationships. And because relationships are at the heart of nearly everything we do as human beings, the entire human experience is altered by this horrible trust break. Worse, the relationship most impacted is the one with the new primary caregiver, be it adoptive parent, foster parent, guardian, or grandparent.
In many ways, the primary caregiver who steps in to parent, raise, and care for a child whose trust has been previously broken is often approached as the nurturing enemy. I have no words to describe how devastating and utterly depressing this reality is. It’s a mixture of hopeless and helpless, with an extra-large side of carnal frustration and a daily sprinkling a Divine Grace that is only ever enough to help you persevere through whatever current challenge is before you.
Here is another part of the relational suck. In many ways, I, as mom, am no different or more special to my attachment-challenged child than Ms. Katie across the street or Ms. Baker teaching in her classroom for several hours a day. While my child can explain what a parent is in cold, objective terms and phrases, there are not really any feelings or deep-seated emotions connected to them. Can you imagine?
Connected feelings, similar to trust, have been written off by the brain as dangerous and potentially deadly. Therefore, “avoid them!” her brain screams at what I imagine to be a deafening volume inside her head. And while again, connected therapy approaches teach us to name feelings and engage them, it is utterly devastating to know that my child cannot experience the fullness of parent-child relationships at this point.
Looking back now, at everything we didn’t know then, I am both thankful and resentful for the lack of solid information and relevant training that was available to us. Thankful in that ignorance was bliss in my ways, for a few years at least, while we said yes to God and stepped out to build our family in this way. But resentful and deeply hurt because we almost fell apart along the way.
It’s not that anything we now know would change our past decisions, it’s just that our family, and many likes ours, were/are completely unprepared for the realities of raising attachment challenged children. We were not prepared for what it would be like to build a family when one or more members of the family had experienced early childhood trauma, or any trauma for that matter, that reshaped their connection with parental figures, other human beings, and the world at large.
For years after trauma joined our family, I didn’t have the words or the right kind of training or understanding to accurately articulate what was going on. For years, I shunned labels or diagnoses, because attachment disorder was supposedly “rare.” It’s not! I knew something was off, relationally speaking, but couldn’t quite place it. I knew this particular relationship was different, different even from other children who joined our family via adoption, but thought trying harder on my end would help. I knew my child was deeply hurt on the inside, but didn’t realize the extent of the trauma. I didn’t realize that there may be some things about my child that I will never be able to fix. Maybe you have felt or are feeling that way right now?
I ran and denied and came up with other explanations because I didn’t want to believe it could be her. It could be us. It is!
Since that time, we have accepted (and must continue to accept each day) the reality that we cannot run from early childhood trauma, attachment disorder, or the long-term effects it will have on our children and our family. We cannot “outyear it” by putting in more good years than there were bad, like I initially assumed. We certainly can’t ignore it, as there are daily reminders. So, we can and must, as hard as it may be, simply accept that attachment disorder is real and that there will be unique struggles for us.
Every day, we commit ourselves to loving, parenting, engaging, and building up our children as best as we can. For me, the most hurtful reality and daily challenge of parenting an attachment disordered child is not that life is hard, because I am gritty and determined and will find answers where they exist. Rather, the biggest devastation is the unspeakable and in many ways invisible reality that one of the most basic elements of being human, to relate to a parent or primary caregiver, in a caring, trusting, and healthy way, has been altered.
I am mom in name only at this point. Moms are there to care for their children, to provide for, to keep safe, to play with, and to help raise kids to adulthood. This, we know. But for now, there are no real feelings attached to these facts. No understanding of what relationship means.
And now that I know this, and know that this reality remains invisible to nearly everyone outside of our home, I also know why the damage done in my own heart and mind has been so severe. Being a mom in name is one thing, but being a mom in true relationship is the bread and butter. Healthy relationships, the bread and butter of being human, consist invisible connections that enhance everything visible, and vice verse. Attachment disordered parent-child relationships on their own accord are often lacking bread, and lacking butter. Or, perhaps for some, the bread and butter is just deeply hidden and can be drawn out over time, maybe a lifetime even, with the help of loved ones and professionals.
Things were not meant to be this way. Human beings have been designed for right relationship, for security, for trust, and for love. When the foundation is broken, everything else will be impacted.
Lord, in your mercy…