Children who have been traumatized in infancy and early childhood cannot be expected to behave or respond to stimuli in the same way as children who have not.
Key to remember– As Dr. Purvis reminds us, our children were harmed in and through relationships, and they will find healing in and through nurturing relationships.
Trauma is much more far-reaching than we assumed in the past. We have always been told that children are resilient and they are, but there are effects that trauma leaves behind. It affects every area of life for a child.
Trauma harms the brain. Its footprint can be seen in these areas: Social, learning, behavior problems (regulation), physical development
Dr. Purvis calls children who have had trauma in their lives “children from hard places.”
“The passage of time for these little ones does not in itself reduce trauma’s impact to a bearable level. The trauma contaminates the meaning of life and is part of early personality formation. Neurobiologically, trauma shapes the developing brain.”
-Deborah Gray, Nurturing Adoptions
Did your child have early trauma? If you aren’t sure, read the “Six Risk Factors” and listen to the podcast on the subject (linked in the article). Also, you can find a handy printable resource here.
Today, take some time to think about your child’s history. This will help you begin to recognize the triggers. Write down the risk factors she encountered before coming home to you. Take some time to pray and process how these things can be affecting her behavior.
We’ll cover more on this topic tomorrow. Feel free to comment, share, or ask a question!
If you haven’t faced your past, this week’s assignments may produce overwhelming feelings!
Sometimes it takes actually feeling your feelings before you can move towards healing or helping your kiddos move in that direction. Be sure to find a Christian therapist or counselor to help you work through your past!
Why are memories so triggering?
Have you ever smelled something like cinnamon rolls baking, or coffee brewing, and it suddenly evokes a feeling from a past event? Maybe it’s Christmas morning because your Mom made cinnamon rolls and coffee every year. Or maybe the scent of a perfume sends you to a dark place because you were at Aunt Mary’s house the time you were molested and she wore that scent liberally. Why does this happen? Why doesn’t the past just stay in the past? Tommy Newberry explains:
“Your subconscious mind is incapable of distinguishing between an actual event and one that is only imagined.”
When we have these flashbacks, our mind acts if they are actually happening again. Our subconscious doesn’t distinguish past, present, or future.
Why do we need to process our past?
If we don’t make sense of and peace with our past, we will continue to be triggered. We will live in fearful, reactionary ways. If we want to live positive lives, fully present with our kids, we must take the time to work on making peace with our past.
“Our mind is designed to control the body, of which the brain is a part, not the other way around. Matter does not control us; we control matter through our thinking and choosing. We cannot control the events and circumstances of life but we can control our reactions. In fact, we can control our reactions to anything, and in doing so, we change our brains. It’s not easy; it is hard work, but it can be done through our thoughts and choices.”
If you are thinking “Bad things happened to me and I can’t control that.” This is true. You can’t erase the fact bad things happened, neither can your kiddos. What you can do is change your mind about how you react to your triggers. You don’t have to be ruled by them. You can do the hard work of changing your brain! Are you ready?
For today, let’s start with a positive memory. Think of a time when you a child and were immensely happy. Was it a camping trip? A birthday party? Playing with your cousins? Write it all down in the most vivid detail you can! Have fun with it. Use the five senses. What do you see? Hear? Smell? Feel? Hear?
Foster/adoptive parents take all the classes and hear all the reports about how the kiddos were neglected/abused, etc.
Then we willingly sign on the dotted line and say, “Yep, I’m in.”
Adoptive/foster parents are not saints or superheroes.
Adoptive/Foster parents are just regular people who want to part of the solution. We want to build safe/secure/family oriented environments for kiddos who have had trauma.
We are called special, saints, have patience, etc… when we bring the kiddos home. When they start exhibiting behaviors as a result of the trauma, suddenly we are bad parents. I’ve been there, along with the multitude of foster/adoptive parents who contact me.
I was on the phone with an adoptive/foster parent the other day. One of her seven kiddos exhibiting some violent and destructive behavior. It was evident that she was beating herself up, i.e. blaming herself. I asked her a question that I ask all parents in this scenario – How are your other kids doing? Have you successfully parented them? Every time the answer is slow to come, almost as if it’s something the parents haven’t thought about. “Yes,” she said haltingly. I knew the answer before I asked the question. It’s a question to change the focus. We adopted/foster parents are not responsible for the trauma kids experienced before they entered the home or the effects of it. We try to be. We want hope and healing for these kiddos more than anyone else.
Trauma doesn’t always exhibit after effects right away.
Here’s a key point. Trauma doesn’t always show the effects right away. There sometimes seems to be a delayed reaction.
When I was eight, I had a serious bicycle accident. I flew over the handlebars and landed on my head after sailing over a speed bump. I woke up on in the ER to a doctor pulling rocks out of my face with a tweezer-like tool. I got off the table and said, “This is a dream.” It was pretty horrific. I was placed in a room with another young girl. She was hooked up to wires and monitors. She was in a coma. I overheard the doctor and parents talking about the car accident she had been in a year earlier. Her body was exhibiting the after-effects of the trauma now. A year later, her body was shutting down. (This really freaked me out!)
This is a physical example of what the body may do. In the book, The Body Keeps Score, Van Der Kolk, M.D. says:
“There have in fact been hundreds of scientific publications spanning well over a century documenting how the memory of trauma can be repressed only to resurface years or decades later.”
The Honeymoon Phase
Adoptive/foster parents go through a honeymoon phase with kiddos similar to what young couples go through after the wedding. Everyone is polite, kind, trying to please and be accepted. Then it gets too exhausting. We wives wipe off the makeup and put on our yoga pants because now we feel comfortable enough to be our real selves. Yes, sometimes we take it too far (raising my hand here).
The adopted/foster kiddos version of this is – I feel secure enough to go back to who I was. I don’t have to perform anymore. Or, the opposite end of the spectrum, they’re going to harm me, just like everyone else did, so I’m going to control my environment. I’m not saying these kiddos are doing this consciously or planning it out in their journal. It’s just the survival mode response. We all have it to varying degrees. Parenting the Hurt Child explains it this way:
“The struggle, however, represents something completely different for parents than it does for children. While the parents are simply trying to get the child to accomplish a simple task — such as dressing for school, getting ready for dinner or picking up his toys — the child is involved in a struggle to survive. He resists the intrusion and direction by others and perceives it as a fight for his life. As a result, his behavior becomes stubborn, tenacious, and intense. Think about it — how hard would you struggle if you thought that giving up or giving in would mean certain death?”
Be kind to Foster/Adoptive Parents
On a final note, be kind to adoptive/foster parents. You really have no idea what they are going through (unless you are one). Even if you are an advocate or therapist, you’re still behind a veil. You may know more than others, but you haven’t truly experienced the after-effects of trauma.
We foster/adoptive parents are doing the best we can. We need cheerleaders and prayer warriors more than we need judgement for our kiddos’ behaviors.
Children from hard places have altered belief systems.
What is one firmly held belief you have? Stop for just a second and think of one. Got it? Good. What would it take me to convince you that your belief isn’t true? Could I? Could I in a two hour period? How about a week? A month? A year?
Beliefs — an altered belief system, or the lens through which they see the world. “Some children, in fact, refuse reward systems. They refuse to be involved in a system that challenges their negative view of the world. They may find rewards anxiety-producing. Systems also force them to accept responsibility for their actions. And, while children may be shame-filled, they typically have a difficult time accepting responsibility following early years filled with neglect. They react to having to accept appropriate amounts of guilt”(Nurturing Adoptions). They may think, I would rather have everyone give up on me; it’s easier.
Every Child who comes to us through adoption/foster Care Has a History.
We must remember that each child that comes in that door has a history. That includes a culture that may be greatly different than the one that we live in our own homes. We can’t expect these kids to maintain the same beliefs about themselves and about the world around them. We may truly believe that each child that comes in that door is precious. That doesn’t mean they believe that.The child’s history and the impacts of that history often work together to shape many of the child’s most deeply held beliefs. This includes beliefs about parents, caregivers, teachers, ministry leaders, relationships, themselves and you.
Some common beliefs for kids who have had trauma are:
People don’t help me because I’m not worthy.
If I am lovable, someone wouldn’t have treated me this way.
Everyone is going to leave me.
I’m the bad kid, I might as well act like it.
Remember abuse and neglect. Abuse says I don’t like you, and Neglect says You don’t exist. These become firmly held beliefs.
Key to remember-In order to help children from hard places begin to change their deeply held beliefs, they will need to consistently experience the truth of what they are being told, not simply hear it.
Want to hear more about the fourth B Affected by Trauma – Beliefs? Listen to Episode of Positive Adoption and be sure to download your free printable resource -“How Trauma Affects Kids.”
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:
“A scar is evidence of a wound, but also evidence that we can heal.” – Scott McClellan
“I didn’t think it would be this hard.”
“My child’s behaviors are out of control.”
“He got kicked off the school bus AGAIN.”
“He keeps punching kids in line.”
“The whole house is like a war zone.”
“I thought I could do this, but I don’t know if I can. It’s just too hard.”
I’ve heard these statements along with pleas for help from countless parents. I have offered to come into the home and do some observation, as well as get some parenting tools that work into the hands of the parents. It seems as if every time, the parent says, “Oh, I don’t know. He/she is so manipulative” — as if the child will pull the wool over my eyes (as he may do with some professionals or teachers), or as if their situation is so unique and so individual that I won’t be able to grasp it.
It is in this pit of “aloneness” that satan likes to keep us. No one else struggles like you. Nobody understands. We adoptive/foster parents may feel as if we have slipped an Alfred Hitchcock and are captives who will never escape. And the one who is to be banished to the pit at the end of age tries to keep us equally isolated.
Fortunately, that pit is not where we belong, nor do we need to stay there any longer. There is hope. Isaiah says that God’s people perish for lack of knowledge. To move forward with our kids, we must first have knowledge.
SEcond B affected by Trauma
Science says there are five Bs affected by trauma, and we cannot overlook them. In kids from hard places, behavioral disorders are a symptom of the effect trauma has had on their development. I covered the first B affected here. Today, I’d like to talk about the second B – Biology.
Biology — altered neurochemistry. Complex trauma can cause a variety of issues: sensorimotor development problems, hypersensitivity to physical contact, somatization, increased medical problems, and problems with coordination and balance.
Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers that help our bodies think, feel, and move. However, the levels of key neurotransmitters in many children from hard places are often high, too low and/or out of balance.
Neurotransmitters (NTs) are naturally occurring chemicals that transmit information between the cells (called neurons) throughout your body. Over 5o NTs are present in the nervous system, but only a handful are currently measurable and understood in relation to our health and functioning.
Neurotransmitters or NTs control the on and off switches in the nervous system. They help define our moods, behaviors, and health.
There are two primary types of neurotransmitters:
Excitatory NTs which increase the likelihood that a neuron’s signals are sent. Excitatory NTs are responsible for providing energy, motivation, mental cognition, and other activities that require brain and body activity. We refer to these as the GAS PEDAL. The gas pedal can get stuck.
Inhibitory NTs decrease the likelihood that a neuron’s signals are sent. Activation of inhibitory NTS causes a chemical change within the neuron that oppose the effects of excitatory signals. Inhibitory NTs are responsible for calming the mind and body, inducing sleep, and filtering out unnecessary excitatory signals. We refer to these as the BRAKE PEDAL. The brake pedal can get stuck as well.
A balance between the levels of inhibitory and excitatory NTs is necessary for optimal health, yet many children from hard places show significant, sometimes profound, imbalances in their neurochemistry. This can result from a number of primary causes, such as chronic stress, poor diet, exposure to neurological toxins (e.g. heavy metals, chemicals) and genetics.
A growing body of research has documented significant alterations in hormones and NTs in children with histories of abuse, maternal deprivation and neglect.- Dr. Karyn Purvis
Want to know a bit more on how biology is affected by trauma? Listen to the edition of Positive Adoption below!
Mirroring is getting cues from from another person, not your five senses. These mirror neurons fire up for things such as: when we watch someone else laugh, enjoy something or show visible signs of stress.
Why is important?
Kids get their cues from us parents. They get approval in a smile. Disappointment in a frown or angry glare. Kids learn about themselves by mirroring how we handle the world around us. They mirror our reactions.
What does it mean for kids from hard places?
Kids from hard places are mirroring what they have been taught before they came ‘home’ to stay with us (whether forever or temporarily). They have beliefs based on what they have observed. They may believe that they shouldn’t exist or they have no value. They may believe that lashing out or shutting down is how you handle life. We can help these kiddos find help and healing by projecting our acceptance. We can handle situations with love, grace and mercy. Eventually, they will learn to do the same. It’s tough, but we can:
Faith it ’til you make it.
(Thanks, Jessica for the saying!)
What is the science behind mirroring?
This is a scientific principle discovered by Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team in 1995. “Through these neurons we literally fire up activity in the brain without actually using our five senses through the normal sensory-cognitive cycle.” (Dr. Caroline Leaf)
Here’s a short video about the subject I filmed for The Whole House Adoption/Foster Support Group Page.
“A scar is evidence of a wound, but also evidence that we can heal.”- Scott McClellan
I didn’t think it would be this hard.
My child’s behaviors are out of control.
He got kicked off the school bus AGAIN.
He keeps punching kids in line.
The whole house is like a war zone.
I thought I could do this, but I don’t know if I can. It’s just too hard.
I’ve heard these statements along with pleas for help from countless parents. I have offered to come into the home and do some observation, as well as get some parenting tools that work into the hands of the parents. It seems as if every time, the parent says, “Oh, he/she is so manipulative, I don’t know.” As if the child will pull the wool over my eyes (as he may do with some) or their situation is so unique, so individual that I won’t be able to grasp it. It is this pit of ‘aloneness’ that foster and adoptive parents feel. No one else struggles like you. Nobody understands. We adoptive/foster parents may feel as if we have slipped an Alfred Hitchcock and are captives who will never escape. What should we do? Who has the answers? To move forward with understanding, we must first have knowledge.
Foster/Adopted children have had trauma in their lives. Trauma changes the neurochemistry of the brain in these children.
Every behavior is a need in appropriately expressed.
In adoption/foster circles we hear the phrase ‘children from hard places’. As Ryan North, Executive Director of Tapestry Ministries, reminds us, this is not a geographical location. As explained in The Connected Child, there are six primary risk factors that characterize children from hard places:
Prenatal stress and harm-over 80% of children adopted/foster care have been exposed to drugs or alcohol. The Mother’s high levels of cortisol cross the placenta, alters the structure of the brain and damages the immune system.
Difficult labor or birth.
Early medical trauma -hospital stay, surgery, etc..
Trauma- house fire, natural disaster, auto accident, death of parent.
Neglect- Neglect says,”You don’t exist.”
Abuse – Abuse says, “You don’t matter.”
Five things are impacted by early trauma (any one of the six risk factors).
Brain- altered brain development, overactive amygdala. It’s as if the child is chased by a bear all the time. Our experiences shape the connections in our brain. Hebbian principle- What fires together wires together.
Biology- Neurochemistry is altered. Hormones altered. Serotonin is often low. Dopamine is low or high. Some young children have the adrenals of a ninety year old.
Beliefs- What’s one firmly held belief that you have? What would it take you to change that belief? Adopted/foster children may believe: People don’t love me because I’m not worthy. If I was worth something, people won’t treat me this way. Everyone leaves.
Behavior Regulation. Co regulation. Self Regulation. – A child from hard places has difficulty regulating because he has not had the natural progression. Remember, a behavior is a need inappropriately expressed. These kids get stuck in survival mode or Fight, Flight, Freeze.
Traditional parenting doesn’t work with these kids. In the ETC course for adoptive/foster parents, we teach 25 parenting tools to help these kids have hope and healing. The tools are based on the TBRI model- Trust Based Relational Intervention, created by Dr. Karyn Purvis and Dr. David Cross at TCU in Texas. This approach was turned into a training curriculum by Michael Monroe and Dr. Purvis called ETC Parent Training for Adoptive and Foster Parents. I am a parent trainer (along with my husband). We teach a variety of trainings, one for professionals (3 hours), a Prepare Course a six week class, for those considering foster or adoption and a Connect Course, a nine week class, for those who have adopted/foster children already in their homes.
If you read this article and see yourself in the opening statements, maybe you feel isolated and alone, at the end of your rope. Or..maybe your adoption/foster experience isn’t quite as rocky, but you would like to learn more about some parenting tools and spend some time with other adoptive/foster parents, if any of these are you, then look into the parent training. You can click hereto go to the map and find a trainer near you.