Twenty years ago today, four kiddos got off a plane with Grandude, and my hubby, Jerry, to come to their new home. They had flown from Warsaw, Poland to Chicago, and then to Pittsburgh.
In a hospital, thirty minutes away, my stepfather, Bud was slowly, silently, slipping away – going on to glory (as he would say). As Dickens so poetically pointed out:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Today, twenty years later, I reflect, rejoice, celebrate, and grieve. Those early days after the adoption were the season of light and the season of darkness all rolled into one. Today I celebrate the addition of my four kiddos, as well as grieve the loss of Bud. It was during this season I learned through experience how joy and sorrow could co-exist.
Joy and Sorrow
I experienced the joy of my kiddos in their firsts:
Living in a house for the first time
Having enough to eat at EVERY meal
Sleeping in beds with relative safety (not being beat up or molested in the middle of the night)
If there was any night time activity it was night terror which we tried our best to comfort. We prayed long and hard because we were out of our depth. Or it was Gregory jumping on a sibling, just because he could.
Grieving and Growing
We were all grieving and growing. My kiddos were grieving their old life. Letting go of the past is difficult no matter what sort of past it is. I was grieving because I felt Bud slipping away. He had been my first link to unconditional love. He died a week after the kiddos came home.
Despite our grief, we were growing together, meals at the table, putting on puppet shows, playing with dolls, tea sets, Legos, and race car sets. Playing, reading, and shared family meal times knit us together even though frayed ends stretched and pulled, trying to unravel us. Hateful words. Meltdowns. Night terrors. Hoarding. Medical issues. Survival mode. Disorganized attachment. Before you think I’m only talking about the kiddos, don’t. It was me too. Totally raising my hand.
If you are reading this and thinking, I can’t adopt. It’s too hard. What if I enter a Job syndrome? May I ask you a question? Did you come into the family of God kicking and screaming? Were (or are) old beliefs still hanging on for dear life? Beliefs that tell you:
You don’t matter.
You are not chosen.
God doesn’t love YOU.
If so, you are worth fighting for. Aren’t you? If you’re not sure, the answer is YES! And so is every orphaned, abandoned, and neglected child. As Jesus said, let the children come to me, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 9:14 paraphrase). Just as you are worth it, so are those children who need a home. Jesus came to heal the brokenhearted, to set the captives (physical and spiritual) free, to open the eyes of the blind, to bind up wounds, and give gladness instead of mourning. We are anointed to do the same. Don’t let the thought of doing hard things stop you from pursuing adoption.
If I had a time machine and I could go back to pre-adoption me, would I still adopt? Yes. I’m so proud of my kiddos, who they have become and all the life lessons they have taught me along the way.
*I started this series as a response to a question I got via email. If you missed the beginning, click here.
At the end of the first article, I said a few words about teens. I’d like to continue with more on the topic today.
Let’s not excuse behaviors, Let’s Understand Them
If you read through my first two articles, you may be thinking trauma-informed means excusing behaviors and doing everything to make the child happy. That is not what it means. We don’t excuse behaviors. We nip them in the bud. A trauma-informed church, school, or co-op, uses the IDEAL Approach. Instead of letting a behavior escalate, it is dealt with immediately. Directly. Efficiently. And leveled at the behavior, not the child.
For all interactions with your kiddos, use the IDEAL response as a guide. The IDEAL Approach is among the best tools for parenting, teaching, or supervising kids who have had trauma:
I: You respond immediately, within three seconds of misbehavior.
D: You respond directly to the child by making eye contact. Get down on their level (or look up for some teens).
E: The response is efficient and measured. Use as few words as possible.
A: The response is action-based. Lead the child through a re-do.
L: Your response should bed leveled at the behavior, not the child.
Applying the Ideal Approach to Teens
When Dr. Karyn Purvis and her team from the TCI Institute of Child Development, trained staffers from Methodist Children’s Home in usingTBRI (Trust Based Relational Intervention), the youth (aged 11-18) experienced remarkable changes. Several of the staffers remarked that Dr. Purvis didn’t let the kids get away with anything. This may be because when you start talking about focusing on relationships instead of behaviors, some people get the idea that you are going to excuse behaviors while you float on rainbow clouds and eat ice cream.
What Dr. Purvis did is respond immediately to behaviors with a redo or whatever fit the bill and went back to connection quickly. (For more information on how to respond, read our “Instead of” Tips.) One of the most important things that trauma-informed organizations do is make sure staff/volunteers are present. It’s a mistake to take a group of teens who have had trauma or a capital letter syndrome and let them hang out unsupervised. Adults need to be present and participating in order to be a co-regulator for the teens and stop a meltdown before it starts (no guarantee that the teen won’t meltdown anyway, better to have an adult present).
I asked three of my adult boys about this topic this morning. They agreed they shouldn’t have been unsupervised at youth type events. They also agreed hanging out with other teens with proper supervision was super healthy for them.
Social Camouflage, is a way of learning social nuances, that help, to fit in, and function in this world.
The natural camouflage teens perform is to do the thing when the adult isn’t looking and then stop when the adult is. This is when you hear the “Yes, sir,” or “Yes, m’am” types of responses. These kids who were behaving badly suddenly act good. We adults know the pattern (most of us). What we must understand is teens who have had trauma or have a capital letter syndrome don’t camouflage. They don’t behave one way in front of adults and another in front of peers. They just are. And. This. Gets. Them. Into. Trouble.
Why does the inability to camouflage get teens into trouble? Usually because they watch a peer performing a dangerous feat or breaking the rules and they follow suit even after the adult appears. These teens who can’t camouflage don’t turn off the behavior. Some don’t have cause and effect thinking. Some don’t have a break pedal. They will keep performing the behavior until someone gets hurt (usually themselves). This is why kids who have had trauma or a capital letter syndrome need adults to be present and participating.
The Inability to Regulate happens at home too
It’s not just when these kids get with a group of people they endanger their lives. They do it alone. As I said, many lack cause and effect thinking. They dysregulate alone. There are stressors everywhere. It’s not the other kids. It’s their own inability to regulate. It’s their inability to process stimuli. These kiddos are impulsive. So, if the idea has crossed your mind that these teens are just misbehaving for you, it’s not true. When you replace behave with regulate, it makes more sense. These teens can’t regulate no matter where they are. If we are going to minister to them, we have to become co-regulators.
Want to read more about co-regulation? Click here.
Just a reminder teens CAN sometimes be toddlers in larger bodies. If you begin to picture them that way, co-regulation becomes a little easier to swallow. You have the opportunity to be their pre-frontal cortex until it has time to mature!
Want some free trauma-informed e-course for your church?
I started this series in a response to a question via email. As I said in part 1, I know the answer is complex . It’s not a one-size fits all answer. There are some aspects you can see in a trauma-informed church. There are some things you can feel. There are some words you will hear. There are also some practices that will be followed by all leadership in a trauma-informed church.
It starts with trauma-informed training
I’m one of those people who will chase you down the hall and tell church leaders that they need trauma-training. I’m also one of those people who get the door slammed in their face (metaphorically). Leaders for some reason don’t want to invest in training. They also don’t want to ask their staff and volunteers to go through training. I know. It’s a huge time commitment. It is. It’s also an investment.
The parable of The spilled milk
Let’s say you put an open gallon of milk on the table in your kitchen. You hope it won’t spill. You pray it won’t spill. You light a candle and pray it won’t spill. Then it spills. You sop up the mess and tell the child who knocked it over not to do that again, then you leave the gallon again. It gets spilled again. You tell the child again not to knock the milk. The child knocks it again. You tell the child again. What’s the real problem? The adult didn’t take responsibility to put the cap on and put it away.
I see the the same thing happen in churches, homes, schools, and homeschool co-ops. They pray the milk won’t be spilled. In other words, they hope and pray that kids who have had trauma or capital letter syndromes won’t have meltdowns. The kids do. The adults tell the kids to stop. There are behavior charts, stickers, lectures, and Bible verses hurled at them. They meltdown again. They can’t regulate. What needs to happen? The adults, leaders, and parents need to cap the milk by becoming trauma-informed. When leadership is trauma-informed and begin to lead with this in mind, the milk wont’ spill as often.
Start with the Five Bs
The Five B’s Affected by Trauma
Brain – Children from hard places have altered brain development and an overactive amygdala. It’s as if the child is being chased by a bear all the time.
Biology – Children from hard places have altered neurochemistry.
Body – This could include learning delays, developmental delays, and sensory issues (which may be mistaken for willfulness and defiance). The child may be frustrated and disconnected.
Behavior – The child may have an altered ability to self-regulate in response to stressors.
“If a child has had trauma, it’s as though his brain has a bunch of loose wires that don’t connect. If I were back in computer programming, I could imagine that for every if-then statement, I would get an error message: ‘Does not compute.’”-
How to Have Peace When Your Kids Are in Chaos
Understanding the effects trauma has on child (or adult) is a start. Some of the church leaders who have emailed me want their churches to be trauma-informed to better serve the needs of the kiddos (and adults) in the body. Some of you are running into the same sorts of road blocks I do. Time. Money. Leaders don’t want to ask their volunteers to have to invest more time, to come out one more night a week, to watch videos, or host a conference. So the milk gets spilled again and again. And the children get reprimanded for being dysregulated because they CANNOT do what’s expected of them.
For those who want Trauma-informed churches, schools, and co-ops
Want to continue the conversation? Hop on over to our podcast page and listen to the series on the Five Bs Affected by Trauma. These are coffee break podcasts, no longer than fifteen minutes each. Share them with the people who serve your kiddos.
If you’re interested in the free e-course- Five Things , click on the graphic below:
That’s a great question with a complex answer. I’m going to tackle it anyway.
First and foremost, trauma-informed churches are more about relationship than they are about proper behavior. As I said in the article linked above, trauma is a buzzword. Churches are hopping on the bandwagon and saying they are sensitive to attenders who have had trauma, all the while, making sure everyone’s behavior measures up. I’m going to focus on kids here because that’s what I’m trained in (mostly through experience).
Trauma-informed churches don’t expect kids to regulate (behave).
Most churches who are trauma-informed say that relationship trumps behavior. Acknowledging the idea is a great start. Do they follow through?
At- risk children can easily feel alienated and cornered, alone against the world. Feeling that way, it almost guaranteed that they will come out fighting, manipulating or fleeing. Then the only adult attention they receive is endless scolding and punishment. Soon this dysfunctional dynamic becomes a habit, and the the children learn to seek familiar and available attention by acting out. What a scary and miserable way to live!
The Connected Child
When a child can’t stay in a seat for worship, is the behavior a detriment to the relationship? In other words, will the child be put in time-out, shamed, sent back to parents, berated, or fill in the blank? Does sitting in a seat, being in an environment that produces sensory overload, or the inability to regulate due to stressors cause a break in the relationship? Is the child put on the chopping block and asked to measure up to a standard before he is accepted? This is not what a trauma-informed church looks like.
The concept of “being good” in church.
I totally understand the concept of “being good” in church. When I my kiddos were younger and I sang in the choir. I had to be at church early for warm-ups. With hubby out of town or at work, all seven of my kiddos had to sit on the front row while I was up on the risers with the choir. I got pretty durn good and shooting looks at my kiddos that meant “behave or else!” I grew up in an era when everyone had to be respectful to adults, especially those in the ministry no matter how we felt about it. If I got in trouble at church or school, I was sure to get double trouble at home. No explaining away my behavior. No excuses. Kids submitted to authority or suffered the consequences. If you grew up like I did, it may be difficult to shift gears to a new way of thinking especially in a spiritual or religious setting.
A new way of thinking about behavior.
Things have changed. Science has discovered many ways that trauma effects kids. I have written many articles about that, for the sake of brevity, let’s say – Kids who have had trauma cannot behave, not – will not behave. When Sunday school teachers, children’s church workers, youth leaders get that scientific fact firmly placed in their belt of truth, we will see more effective ministry for kids who have had trauma. If we want our churches to be trauma-informed, we’ll be the adults that say, “It’s up to us to figure out what works to build relationship with each child.”
Start with talking to the parents (or whomever brings them to church).
Trauma-informed churches ask foster parents, adoptive parents, parents of kids with capital letter syndromes what the kiddo needs to feel safe and what helps the child regulate. Trauma-informed churches put needs of kids who have had trauma on the list right next to severe allergies. If one child cannot have peanuts and another goes into overload if the music is too loud, skip the peanuts and have some noise reducing headphones. It looks like an away room with headphones, adults to help a kiddo regulate, and someone to connect with even if there has to be a correction first. Especially if there has to be a correction first.
If you need help with how to train your staff on correcting, try the “Instead of Tips” here and download a printable resource here. Trauma-informed churches have a system set up that everyone can follow. All of the staff and volunteers use the same approach which give another layer of felt-safety to the kiddos. If you’re interested in an e-course to accompany the graphic, make sure you get on our email list to get the link when it’s live.
A short word on Teens
If a group of teens comes to the after-school program at your church and you know they have had various levels of trauma, make sure you have trauma-trained staff to supervise. This usually means more staff, more supervision, and more structure.
It’s a fallacy to think when teens who have had trauma or a capital letter syndrome will be able to regulate just because they have large bodies. The truth is most of these kiddos are half their physical age emotionally. Teens with large bodies and little ability to self-regulate in response to stressors can quickly spiral out of control.
I’ll continue this line of thought in one of my articles.
A few months ago, I wrote an article titled “What If We Treated Foster/Adoptive Parents as Missionaries?” I got lots of flack from non-Christians (which is understandable, to an extent), but I was shocked to also get some negative comments from Christians. So I started asking adoptive/foster parents what they thought about the subject. Then I took it a step further and created a survey that asked all the questions I was curious about. I shared it with my adoption/foster care support group, and several friends did the same. I’ll be sharing the results throughout this article along with some of the feedback via quotes.
Your Home as a Mission Field
Before I began the season of homeschooling in my life, I hadn’t thought of my home as my mission field or considered the far-reaching implications of family to the third and fourth generation. I pretty much thought about whatever seemed to be going on at the moment or what the church was putting on the calendar that I needed to attend to.
When Jerry and I were married, we were just getting our sea legs when it came to Christianity. We were both sorting through the theology and doctrines handed to us by our parents. (You can read the whole scoop in A Positive Adoption Story.) I had a general sort of doctrine — don’t get divorced, don’t commit adultery, go to church regularly. My beliefs about family were muddled somewhere in the middle of all that, but I had taken my cues mostly from the culture around me. These are just a few of the assumptions I picked up:
Having children is a choice and sometimes (even in the church) viewed as an impediment to true ministry.
Ministry happens at the church, out in the community, or in some third-world country.
If you have children, you can’t (or shouldn’t) bring them along to things that are holy or have the word “ministry” attached to them. You farm them out or wait until they are grown before you do anything of real value.
I followed the church culture like it was the Pied Piper of Hamelin. I filled my schedule with church ministry activities and shooed my kids out of the way. I needed to do holy work, and they were obstacles to that — until Denny Kenaston planted a seed in that set of tapes, A Godly Home. That seed grew into the vague, unsettling idea that I was growing the wrong sort of ministry. In response, I began researching other authors, listening to other teachers, reading the Bible, and questioning everything I knew about family.
Although I’m the type of person who likes systems, facts, and formulas, I have learned the hard way that without a foundation, these things aren’t effective. I was that way with family. I thought if someone could just give me the general formula — stay married, don’t commit adultery, feed the kids, etc. — then everything would be alright. But the how alone doesn’t work. There has to be a why. The Bible puts it this way: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6). Families are destroyed because we don’t fully understand their importance.
The Stay-at-Home Missionary
I sat on a comfy couch in the Chi Alpha room at Trinity. The smell of rich, brewed coffee permeated the air as the Keurig hissed for the tenth time. Women filed over and filled couches, chairs, and the floor. Soon, coffees were abandoned on end tables in favor of pillows to hug. Women cried as they poured out their woes, insecurities, and failings. This wasn’t a group therapy session. It was a Mom’s Tea I led every Friday at our homeschool co-op, THESIS. These women were my friends.
The overarching theme was “I’m just a mom.” Some of these women had left nursing, accounting, teaching (in a public school), and other careers outside the home. The message culture was hissing at them was toxic: “The job you are doing is not important.”
And we were not alone in that belief. As I mentioned earlier, only 56.9% of people I surveyed said they think of family as a mission or ministry. Meanwhile, 25.9% said family is not a ministry or mission, and 17.2% said maybe. I shouldn’t be surprised at the results, but I was!
But this idea of family not being a ministry couldn’t be further from the truth. The acts of raising, teaching, praying for, and attaching to our children are among the most important things we will ever do. Moms are stay-at-home missionaries. One survey-taker noted: “I believe God created our family to be together to minister to other families and our community — both with our own gifts and with our experiences. Plus, as a mom, raising my kids to know God is my greatest ministry.”
I agree. That’s why I love the movie Marley and Me. Jen, who has decided to leave her career as a journalist and stay home to raise her kiddos, says something like, “No one told me it would be this hard.” Her husband John agrees and gives her an out, saying she can go back to work, but she won’t bite. She wants to raise her own children.
Jen alluded to the fact that her career outside the home was easier than raising kids. I cry every time I watch that scene because it resonates with me so much. It’s as if the culture tells us women that we bring no value to the world if we “just stay home.” The world wants us to raise children who are well-rounded, emotionally stable, educated, and contributing members of society — but often looks down on those who leave a career outside the home to focus on that responsibility.
Our society is full of therapies, counselors, and facilities designed to help people heal from childhood trauma and its long-term effects. We have an army of women willing to stay at home and raise kiddos so they don’t have trauma or help them heal from past trauma, and the voice they hear is, “You aren’t worth. You aren’t doing anything of value.” In Parenting is Your Highest Calling and 8 Other Myths that Keep us Trapped in Guilt and Worry, Leslie Leyland Fields shares:
“The intense spotlight on the home comes to us at this point in our history for good reason. All of us know, the traditional family is under serious attack. Family units now include same sex couples and three parent families in which children’s needs are sometimes less important than the rights and whims of adults. Child abuse is rising so fast that it is described as an epidemic by the Child Welfare League of America. As families fracture and states scramble to fill the gap, more and more children are entering foster care. Against the backdrop of such moral fragmentation, surely we can assert that our highest call is our families!”
Leslie goes on to say our highest calling is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27). While I wholeheartedly agree with her, we cannot overstate how important raising your family is. This mission is a big part of our highest calling. I point this out because the feminist pendulum has swung so far to the left that it can actually damage and divide women. It often leaves the impression that being a stay-at-home mom is an second-class, almost subhuman role.
Foster Care as a Ministry or Mission
Out of the families surveyed:
70.7% said that yes, foster care/adoption is a ministry.
17.2% said no.
12.1% said maybe.
If your family is a mission, isn’t it a natural progression that foster/care and adoption is? If we categorize being a mom as a mission, why wouldn’t we include foster care and adoption?
Let’s be clear: We don’t adopt or foster to create a ministry. We don’t have children to create a ministry, either. God puts us in ministry. Often, we’re not even aware of it until we look back and see His handiwork. Our job isn’t to create a ministry; our job is to be obedient. Ministry exists in every area of our lives when we are obedient to Christ.
Ministry draws us closer to God. When we walk in obedience, our relationship with Jesus is fuller, more dependent, and more intertwined. Our relationships are affected and enhanced. That is true ministry. It’s not a plaque on the wall or a saying on a tee shirt — it’s relationship. Through our relationship with Christ, we become new creatures. Our old habits and ways have passed away, and we live with His light shining through us. That is the ministry we engage in and that the world longs to see. This sort of ministry isn’t planned in your Google calendar or written into a mission statement. It’s found in your everyday life with Christ, led by the Holy Spirit.
As foster or adoptive parents, our home is a long-term (forever) mission base. We bring these kids who have been discarded by the culture, hurt by their parents, and harmed by trauma into our homes. There is rarely a respite.
I talked to Elizabeth King, a full-time missionary with twenty-two years under her belt. When she and her husband were presented with the opportunity to adopt two girls, they said, “More ministry? Yes!” They were up for it. Hadn’t they been practicing this for years? She says:
“But we were not really ready for the total onslaught of doing ministry right from the very core of who we were. Always before we had ministered outside of our home or had temporary visitors in our home. Our residence was a place of refuge from the rigors of ministry. But now, by accepting these broken girls into our lives – there was nowhere left to retreat to. Nowhere to relax. No escape from the desperate needs and destructive behaviors of the two hurting souls. We found that all our weaknesses, which we could hide pretty well in the course of normal ministry, were now staring us in the face every day.”
Rachel Judd, another adoptive parent, said this:
“I didn’t have that mentality when we started adopting, but when we brought home two from Ethiopia from traumatic backgrounds, my views shifted. I could no longer be involved in certain things as I needed to keep my focus on these children and the rest of our family. I knew our family was different from most and people didn’t understand. I didn’t even have the energy to help with VBS most years or simple volunteer work at church. I was burned out. I had to shift my thinking and see that we were parents and caretakers to some very traumatized children and that one day our season would be different.”
“I believe anytime that you walk with the Lord in your calling, it is a ministry. Google defines ministry as ‘the spiritual work or service of any Christian.’ Foster care and adoption is a beautiful display of bringing one into the home and trusting the Lord with the process.”
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t include some of the opposition:
“No, it is not for us, and it irks me when I hear it referred to as such by other foster parents. With all the faith-based agencies I see that for the majority of foster parents it is a ministry. I feel like calling it a ministry or mission makes it less about the children and more about the foster parents’ religious commitment. Calling it a mission sounds like it’s an obligation and the foster parents are checking off a box to ‘get into heaven.’”
I kind of get her point. I might agree if I were only fostering/adopting to have a mission. Like I said earlier, it was in hindsight that I saw it as a mission. I didn’t set out to adopt so I could have a mission. I became a Christian, and then everything became a mission, because as the Word says, “Whatever you do [whatever your task may be], work from the soul [that is, put in your very best effort], as [something done] for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23).
I love what Rich Mullins said in an interview with 20 The Countdown Magazine: “A spiritual thing is folding your clothes at the end of the day. A spiritual thing is making your bed. A spiritual thing is taking cookies to your neighbor that is shut in or raking their front lawn because they are too old to do it. That is spirituality.”
Whatever we do for God and others is ministry, whether it is making peanut butter sandwiches, reading a Magic School Bus book to a child, singing a nursery rhyme with a toddler, cleaning up the kitchen, or adopting an orphan. It’s all ministry.
To address the last point of the survey-taker, I would add that Christians don’t earn their way into heaven. The only way to heaven is through Jesus — it’s by grace alone that we are saved. No ministry work we do will secure a place in heaven.
And as far as it not being about the child, raising a child is about the child. It has to be, because anything else is unsustainable. Fostering or adopting can’t be about some lofty ideal, checking something off your to-do list, or making yourself feel good or important. None of those motivations will survive the everyday realities of parenting kids from hard places. I can’t imagine telling my kiddos — as I serve up the third batch of chocolate chip pancakes on a Saturday morning before spending the rest of the day at swim meets, birthday parties, or whatever else they have on the agenda — that it isn’t about them. Raising children is about children. There’s no other way around it unless you are the worst-case scenario in the system: an abuser, neglecter, child molester, or pedophile.
One survey respondent summed it up well: “The Bible says religion that is pure is caring for the orphans. Children in foster care are modern day orphans [with] parents that are absent in their lives. Providing a safe and loving home for these kids to enjoy their childhood with their basic needs (and beyond) met is fulfilling Scripture!”
Want to hear more about the Spiritual and missional Aspects of Adoption?