The change we desire for our children must begin with us.
“If we’re willing to piece together our stories and see the relationship between what happened then and what’s happening now, we get to make choices about what happens next.”
– Tell Me a Story
It’s difficult to make choices in the heat of the moment. This is why it is important to take some time and revisit our past, make sense of it, and begin healing.
While we are healing, we can put some proactive responses into place. In other words, you can decide how you are going to respond ahead of time. If you know that when your child steals candy out of the secret stash, it triggers a memory in you of your Aunt Verna whipping you with a switch until your behind was raw, develop a pre-planned, go-to response.
Separate yourself from the situation. Avoid saying things like, “If I had done that, my mother would have…” Instead, tend to the situation at hand logically. The child took the candy; therefore, he can’t have any after dinner — or whatever you decide is a natural consequence.
As Andy Stanley writes in Deep & Wide, “the past is only the past for a time. It has a way of clawing its way into our future. And if you don’t recognize it for what it is, the results can be devastating.” If we don’t recognize our past and its overwhelming power to invade our “now,” we will remain stuck. If we come to terms with our past and work through it, we can gain a new outlook on it.
Your Past Can Be a Gift
I honestly never thought I would view the trauma in my past as a gift. I had years of anger, bitterness, and a reoccuring theme of “Why me?”
I don’t feel that way anymore. I realized a long time ago that empathy is a superpower that is only earned by going through trauma. Sympathy can only reaches the boundaries of understanding someone else’s pain. Empathy feels that pain.
I’m not saying you should be grateful that someone molested you or did horrible things to you. But you can be grateful for the gift of empathy.
“We are assured and know that [God being a partner in their labor] all things work together and are [fitting into a plan] for good to and for those who love God and are called according to [His] design and purpose.”
God takes our pain, our past, and our experiences and fits them into a plan to help others. I’ve spoken with a multitude of adoptive/foster parents over the years. They all seem to have a common denominator: at least one half of the couple experienced early trauma.
I’ve talked to foster parents who spent years in and out of group homes, were raised in a foster home, were raised by alcoholics or drug addicts, or had moms who worked as prostitutes. I’m not mentioning these things to shame their past or their parents, but to let you know that if you experienced early trauma, you are not alone.
Maybe you identify. Maybe you didn’t have the greatest childhood. Maybe this whole module has been excruciatingly painful for you. I get it. So let’s not end on the trauma — let’s end on the gift it has given to you.
Here’s something you can do right now: Take a deep breath and go do something fun with your kid. While you are having fun, respond to them the way you wish someone had responded to you at that age. Smile. Laugh. Praise them. Don’t make it complicated. Find joy in the small things.
Journal Your triggers
Today, take a little time and journal one of your triggers. One of mine is riding in the back of a car. It’s linked to times my father came to pick us kiddos up for a visit (after my parent’s divorce). He lived in a different state every year.We often drove for days without anyone telling me where we were going. As soon as we got in the car, my anxiety took over. Today, as you write up a trigger, also write a new predetermined response. Mine is – God is with me wherever I go, He will never leave me no forsake me. It’s my go-to when traveling. Also, as much as possible, I find the route to where I am going. What can you do to conquer your trigger?
“We parents often believe that our past — that is, the way we were raised — is just a book on a shelf of memories. It’s not. Triggers are where past and present intersect. We can’t assume our past isn’t affecting our present parenting.”
If we don’t make sense of and peace with our past, we will be in constant conflict with our children.
You’re probably taking this course because you are in constant conflict with your kiddos. I get it. I’ve lived there. When I finally understood where their behaviors were coming from, I made a tiny bit of progress. I had some brain science and psychology under my belt, but my house still often felt like a war zone. Let me emphasize the word FELT. I was feeling all sorts of things. By that I mean, my kid’s behaviors were triggering things that happened in my past and I was feeling it all over again. I was taking their behaviors personally because I was personally affected by them. I had a past that needed to be examined. I was the last person to think the problem was actually ME. But I was the part of the problem that I was responsible for. I didn’t want to face the truth. I wanted to stay stuck in my cycle of blaming my kid’s behavior for the chaos in my home. When I finally got ahold of the truth that my past was parenting my children. That I needed to face it and make sense of it and peace with it that I was able to move forward.
Often our daily tussles are not about our kids at all — they are about us. That’s not to say that our kids from hard places don’t have a past. It just means our past is running interference on the play. Take a few minutes and journal the last interaction that you think triggered you to react to your past instead of the present.
Adverse Childhood Experiences
An ACE score is a tally of different types of abuse, neglect, and other hallmarks of a rough childhood.
Let’s end this day with some nurturing. If you have never taken the time until today to process some of your childhood, you may be overwhelmed right now. I’ve been there. Lots of people have. I was conducting a workshop for some social workers and nurses once and during this the topic of the how your past affects your now – a nurse yelled out, “I’m not going to parent my kids like my mom did, I’m going to hug them.” We can and should have those sorts of reactions to facing our past, not to throw our parents under the bus, but to decide to where to go from here. What is nurturing to you?
I’ve provided some questions for you to work through just that.
What is a deep source of comfort and emotional nurturing for you?
How do you recognize nurturing?
Are you comfortable giving emotional support?
Does your own childhood weigh heavily on your heart and mind? If so, how?
Do you comfort others in order to comfort yourself? What does this look like?
Are you able to recognize your own emotions as well as others? If not, what steps can you take to start recognizing emotions in yourself?
As Adopting the Hurt Child says, many health professionals blame the adoptive parents for the child’s current problems. This statement summed up how I was feeling: “It is an unfortunate fact that many of those who attempt to provide treatment to adoptive parents with disturbed children know very little about issues related to adoption.” Rafal’s issues were a result of me not caring, nor were my present strategies ineffective.
As a parent, it is my job to protect my child. That’s true for any parent, but medical issues can be especially scary and complicated when a child has been through traumatic circumstances — especially if those experiences include past medical issues. It is important for parents to know as much of the child’s medical history as possible. This is not necessarily just a bunch of papers that record history; there needs to be an understanding of how a child has received medical care.
It is difficult to make decisions about medical help for children who have had trauma
It is difficult to make decisions about medical help for children who have had trauma. Myriad services are available to adoptive families: counseling, speech therapy, play therapy, camps, feeding clinics, and much more. Jerry and I both settled into the conservative camp on this issue. We decided we didn’t want our home to be a revolving door of services. Our children had spent enough time in institutions, including orphanages and hospitals. What they needed now was to see what a secure home looked like.
I felt confident that I could do the research and help my children with speech, physical therapy, feeding, and whatever other challenges came our way. I am not saying that every family must do this. I think parents should make informed decisions and do what is best for each child.
Shortly after Rafal’s hospital visit, I attended a workshop for parents who wanted to handle the speech therapy at home. I went to work with Ania and Hunter right away, and later with Rafal.
Ania and Hunter are nine months apart in age. Hunter helped Ania learn English quickly. He also gave her his slight speech impediment. They developed the same speech pattern — a New Yorker accent, I called it. Woild for world, goil for girl. They were extremely funny to listen to and oblivious to the fact that they had developed their own accent.
Yes, I did receive flack for my decision to not receive a great deal of outside help, but as a homeschooler, I’m used to that. It is scary to step outside of the realm of the professionals — and to clarify, I did not lose my faith in the medical establishment as a whole. I understand that professionals are human beings who have diverse backgrounds and subjective opinions based on their own presuppositions. I guess that is just a fancy way of saying I don’t trust people based on titles. I trust my mother’s intuition more.
Parents should not be afraid to question professionals who work with their children.
Parents should not be afraid to question professionals who work with their children. Has this professional treated children who have had traumatic hospital experiences, RAD, or FAS? Do they even know what any of these terms mean? Will they support your morals/values and back up your work at home?
Parenting the Hurt Child recommends: “Parents should be seen as a part of the treatment team. After all, they are the only ones who can actually help the hurt child.”
Our society is built on professionals, but that hasn’t always been the case. Parents and extended family used to be the only thing that a child needed. Outside help was only sought in extreme circumstances. Nowadays, parents are offered prenatal help, lactation consultants, Birth to Three services, mommy and me classes to ensure the child is moving and talking properly, and preschool to socialize and learn basic concepts. It’s enough to make mothers feel as if they are incompetent.
Since young mothers are told they need help, they assume they do. It is an unfortunate turn of events. These services are offered to help, not to tear down the confidence of parents. Traditionally, grandparents and extended family helped mom and dad when they were perplexed. Should Johnny be walking by now? Should he speak at nine months old? These used to be questions you would ask family. Now pediatricians have handy checklists for each age and stage.
As nice as they are, these lists shouldn’t be taken as gospel truth for each child. My older brother is a genius by IQ test standards. Sometimes I have a hard time with understanding the explanations that come from his complex brain — I’m just not that smart. Yet, according to my mother, he did not speak to adults until he was three. When he did begin speaking, it was in paragraphs. My mother was not extremely panicked about it because she once overheard him practicing speech in his bedroom. She figured he would share conversation when he was ready. If he had been three today, my mother would have been advised to accept in-home help for a genius who was busy privately perfecting his speech.
Parents are the Experts
My point is this: Parents are the experts. The decision of whether extra help is needed should not be left up to someone outside the home (such as Social Worker 1). Parents should not be pressured into receiving the all of the resources available. I have seen articles in newsletters and online where new adoptive parents are plopping children in speech therapy, school therapy, and more.
My concern for these families is this: Are they building a family, or are they just a continuation of a government institution? Again, my point is not that outside help is never beneficial or necessary — just that it shouldn’t be the default. Each family should ask themselves these questions before embarking on the professional help route:
• How will this help affect the child?
• What happens if help is refused?
• What are the long-term results if no help is received?
• What is necessary?
Once you have the answers to these questions, proceed with what you think is in the best interest of the child.
I sat in a small sterile room at the children’s hospital, holding a wiggly Rafal on my lap. It seemed as if we had been here for hours. After the initial measuring, weighing, and getting vitals, eighteen-month-old Rafal and I waited. He fussed, and I fed him a jar of baby food. Then the door swung open, and a petite lady flew into the room. She walked around us, examining Rafal, then started hammering me with facts about him being underweight and his head being too large for his body — facts I already knew. Then she introduced herself as a social worker.
I wasn’t able to get a word in edgewise. This woman was angry at me for some reason. She went on and on about him being delayed and me needing assistance with him at home — and why hadn’t they seen him before this? She rushed out of the room and returned moments later with another social worker.
Social Worker 2 was quiet and let me talk. I introduced Rafal: “He is adopted from Poland. I have only had him for a few months.” I explained the feeding methods in the orphanage, the shortage of staff, and a little of his history. Within minutes, Social Worker 2 was in tears. She had adopted also. We cried for a few moments together. Then she said I had everything under control and left.
Saying No to Help for the Right Reasons
Social Worker 1 stayed. “Would you like me to set up some help for you at home?”
At this point, I was completely clueless as to what she was talking about, but I knew that she was still angry with me for some reason. I could hear it in her tone of voice and see it in her body language.
“Help with what?”
“Well, he’s not walking. How about that? How do you feed him? We could send you to a feeding clinic. Speech therapy.” She was so uptight, she could barely get the words out. She spit out fragments, and I was supposed to interpret them.
“No, I don’t need any help. I can work on walking. I know how to feed him. I use my food processor to puree things. He has gained weight since he has come home.”
When Rafal was born prematurely in September of ’98, his first four or five months of life were spent in the hospital with no parental care. The only physical contact he received came from the hands of overworked doctors and nurses. He was born with a hole in his heart or atrial septal defect (ASD) and a cleft palate. The staff had a difficult time feeding him, and IVs were used frequently.
I pieced together some of his medical history through information given to me by the orphanage and the medical records they handed over. Because of his early history, I knew he wouldn’t react positively to another hospital stay. I had mentally prepared myself to comfort him in the children’s hospital. I didn’t know how he would react — but I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would be the one in panic mode.
I had nothing against the Birth to Three program that the social worker was referring to; I just knew that it wasn’t right for Rafal. He needed to have a stable home and connect to Mom and Dad. He didn’t need any interference in that arena, nor did he need fear coming into the home to torment him.
“So you are refusing help?”
“I don’t need any help right now, thank you.”
“But someone could come to your home.”
“No, thank you. I can handle it.”
At this point, I was still calm and under the impression that if I didn’t want help, it was okay to refuse. I didn’t realize that I had broken some unwritten rule in the eyes of this particular social worker. Help is wonderful — but at this point in Rafal’s healing, emotionally and physically, he did not need another person coming in the home to work with him. He needed to attach to me. I was working diligently on that, and I did not want a new person in the mix.
Also, I knew that having someone come in my home to work with him would terrify the other children because of their past medical history. They may have gotten the idea that these strangers were orphanage staff coming to take them away. I know all of these things could be explained eventually, but I didn’t want to take three steps back when my adopted children were beginning to take baby steps forward in the areas of attachment and trust.
“I am going to write this up and send it to every doctor that is working with him. I am going to state that you refused treatment for this child.” With that, she stormed out of the room. I could hear her filling someone in on the details in the hallway.
Have you ever felt as if you were the villain in your own story?
I’ve heard countless stories of other foster/adoptive parents being grilled for the child still exhibiting the effects of trauma. It’s as if we are supposed to wipe away the years of neglect, malnutrition, and lack of proper medical treatment with a Magic Eraser as soon as they come through the door. It’s just not possible. We adoptive/foster parents can end up feeling as if we are the villain instead of the parent when those expectations aren’t met.
The other day I talked about how trauma’s effects can be delayed. That’s true. Other times, the physical effects are much more evident like in my son’s case. So how do we handle medical issues? How do we handle doctor’s visits knowing we may be called on the carpet for something out of our control? Or maybe we want to refuse help because we know it would hamper the child’s progress?
As Adopting the Hurt Child says, many health professionals blame the adoptive parents for the child’s current problems. This statement summed up how I was feeling: “It is an unfortunate fact that many of those who attempt to provide treatment to adoptive parents with disturbed children know very little about issues related to adoption.” Rafal’s issues were a result of me not caring, nor were my present strategies ineffective.
Do you feel as if you have blamed for some of your foster/adoptive child’s current problems?
Have you wanted to refuse some services because you don’t think they are in the best interest of the child?
Do you often feel as if you have no say in when to accept help?
Join me tomorrow for “Deciding When to Accept Outside Help.”
Do you have a story to share on this topic? Please share in the comments!
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.
This is the last in the series on “The Five Bs Affected by Trauma”, you if you missed the rest, start here. Also, hop on over to the printable resource page for a copy of “How Trauma Affects Kids.”
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.
Negative behaviors will be taken care of once a child is securely attached. To achieve that, we must start with the five Bs and work our way out from there.
Behavior — an altered ability to self-regulate in response to stressors. This can manifest as impulsiveness, self-destructive behavior, aggressive behavior, excessive compliance, sleep disturbances, eating disorders, substance abuse, a re-enactment of their traumatic past, or pathological self-soothing behaviors.
This is the one we seem to put the most emphasis on. Why can’t this kid just behave?
Children from hard places have an altered ability to self-regulate in response to stressors. Kids are impulsive!
When a baby is born, the mother regulates for him. She feeds him when he is hungry. Wraps him in a blanket when he is cold. She rocks him to sleep when he is tired. When he gets a bit older, he begins to co-regulate, this is the two-year-old who gets the juice out of the fridge and pours himself a glass and gets it all over the counter. He begins to recognize his needs and try to meet them. Self-regulated is the final destination of this journey. This is when a teen or young adult can regulate himself. He drinks water and doesn’t become dehydrated. He eats food. He sleeps when he is tired. He starts handling his bank account on his own.
Children from hard places often have this cycle of regulation broken. Their needs are not met consistently. They miss the season of co-regulation. As a child, they don’t recognize their own body’s signals for food and water. Their sleeping patterns are messed up. They walk around slightly dehydrated. They don’t eat enough or do the opposite. Gorge.
What we see on our end is dysregulation. A child who can’t sit still. A child who fidgets. Speaks out of turn. Who doesn’t listen.
Key to Remember – “Good/excited stress loads in a child from a hard place in much the same way as bad/traumatic stress. Generally, a child cannot tell the difference.” – ETC
As a result, children from hard places often experience heightened and persistent levels of stress and fear, driving them to develop an array of survival tactics and inappropriate behavioral responses. However, as Dr. Purvis reminds us: Every behavior has a purpose and a function. Behind every behavior and misbehavior is a need, and we must come to view our children’s needs not as something negative but as something very positive. Needs are one of the primary ways that God uses to bring people into a relationship with others and with Himself. So, we need to learn to follow the needs of our children.
Behavior is a need however inappropriately expressed.
“It’s can’t, not won’t.”
Many children from hard places deal with heightened levels of stress and fear. In order to help our children heal and move forward, it is critical that parents understand how pervasive fear can be and what it looks like in our children’s behaviors and responses.
Fear is much more than a feeling. Fear is a state of being, and for many children from hard places, it has become a way of life.
There are three ways that children from hard places typically respond to fear and stress:
Fight- frustration, explosive or aggressive, resistive, acting out, saying “I won’t, You can’t make me!”
Flight- Goofy, Physically or emotionally distracting behavior, running, escaping behaviors, distractible, clowning, redirecting, easily bored, effectively saying, “I’m out of here.”
Freeze- Body is often not receiving signals from the brain- whiny, tearful, clingy, fearful, reluctant to separate or to try new things, withdrawing, hiding, saying “I can’t!”
THERE IS A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FEELING SAFE AND BEING SAFE!
Instead of asking, What are you afraid of, ask, what do you need?
In order to truly address the issue of fear, we will need to create a sense of felt-safety for the child.
Key to remember-You provide felt-safety when you arrange the environment and adjust your behavior so that the child can feel safe. Felt safety is just as important and real as actual safety, even for adults. Think of a time that you were perfectly safe and yet you had anxiety. Everyone has something that raises their anxiety level. It could be heights, snakes, spiders, elevators, flying, or crowds.
Now think about how you react to those around you when confronted with those fears, and you’ll understand your children’s behavior better.
Want to hear more about behavior?
In this episode of Positive Adoption, Kathleen continues the series on the Five Bs affected by trauma with “Behavior.” Behavior — an altered ability to self-regulate in response to stressors. This can manifest as impulsiveness, self destructive behavior, aggressive behavior, excessive compliance, sleep disturbances, eating disorders, substance abuse, re-enactment of their traumatic past, or pathological self soothing behaviors. Grab a cup of coffee and join Kathleen as she finishes this series!
Children who struggle with attachment issues need time to attach to one or two parents. Otherwise, they will remain unattached yet be superficially engaging to strangers. They may look like happy-go-lucky, well-adjusted children in public, but in the privacy of the home, they demand control. They are miniature terrorists (or large ones, depending on their age), ruling the household with anger, violence, and battles choreographed over insignificant things in order to control their environment.
It is a sort of self-soothing. These children had to meet their own needs early on. No one was there for them. They need to know their needs will be met, and they believe they must meet them themselves — so they do. However, the way they accomplish this goal is painful in a family.
In an orphanage, stealing food may be acceptable as a means of survival. In a family, stealing is definitely frowned upon. In an orphanage, lying may be the norm. In a home, it is not. Beating up other children to get things from them may be just another Tuesday afternoon. In a home, beating a sibling to get a toy or any other item is absolutely unacceptable. Sneaking into the staff kitchen to eat their sugar may occur on a regular basis in the orphanage, but in a home, sneaking into Mom’s room and taking her possessions is not.
It is not that these children want to be hoodlums. They aren’t even trying to be difficult. They just have some faulty presuppositions leading the way. In their early life, someone failed to meet their needs. They did not attach to anyone. Because of that, early on, they learned to meet their own needs. It started with them losing the ability to communicate — they stopped crying. Crying is a baby’s only form of communication, but babies will eventually stop crying if no one ever responds.
“An infant born into neglect learns slightly different lessons. For him, the bonding cycle is short circuited. Instead of experiencing need, high arousal, gratification, and trust in others, he experiences need, high arousal to the point of exhaustion, self-gratification, and trust in self/self-reliance. Eventually this child develops less need, less arousal, more immediate self-gratification, and no involvement with others. He is likely to develop habits to gratify himself that may include rocking, head banging, sucking on his hands, hair pulling, etc.. He may grow up detached from others, appearing vacant and empty. He has few emotions and desires no interaction from others, even acting if no others are present in a room.
He has effectively learned that he can — and needs — to trust himself.” – Adopting the Hurt Child
Humanism tells us that everything is done by the power of a man. It teaches that man is able to sustain himself without God, without the Spirit. Studies on attachment beg to differ. Man is not sufficient on his own. He can not sustain body, soul, and spirit alone. The spirit of the child vacates when there is no attachment. He is like Cain, roaming the earth with no meaningful connection. Cain tried to meet his own needs rather than accepting the mercy and love of His heavenly Father. He was unattached and demanded his way. In the last chapter, we discussed the end result of that.
“Infants deprived of their mothers during the first year of life for more than five months deteriorate progressively. They become lethargic, their motility retarded, their weight and growth arrested. Their face becomes vacuous; their activity is restricted to atypical, bizarre finger movements. they are unable to sit, stand, walk or talk.” -Rene Spitz M.D.
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. As an example, consider two cases that were presented in my adopt/foster class.
There are two babies: Baby A and Baby B.
Baby A has been celebrated since the positive on the pregnancy test. She has listened to symphonies, classic children’s books, and poetry in the womb, as well as mommy and daddy’s reassuring, loving voices. When she was born, the video camera captured her debut. Mom, Dad and Grandparents cried joyful tears. She rode home in a padded car seat, wrapped in fuzzy lamb’s wool.
At home, Mom and Dad talked and cooed to her every waking hour and told stories of her latest feat to anyone who would listen. Baby A took her first steps into daddy’s outstretched arms, waiting to receive her. Baby A had it all — a clean, loving, secure environment with loving parents to cheer her on.
Baby B, on the other hand, was called a mistake from plus sign showed on the pregnancy test. In utero, he heard only negative words about the rotten luck of being pregnant. Sometimes, he got knocked around or felt a little weird and woozy after mom drank. He was born premature, too small, and with numerous health problems due to Mom’s hazardous life habits.
Baby B spent months in the hospital due to his health issues. Mom didn’t come back, and Baby B became a ward of the state, to be placed in an orphanage after his release from the hospital. He spent three months in the hospital being poked, prodded, examined. The nurses loved him, but they didn’t have the time to hold him the way a mother should.
At first, he cried, hoping someone would comfort him, but eventually he gave up crying and understood that logical consequences don’t exist. He must fend for himself. When he is picked up, he experiences pain — a new IV, a new test, surgery, etc. He begins to associate touch with pain. When he is released to the orphanage, the conditions improve, but he has too many responses to relearn. The staff tries to comfort him and feed him, but he is lethargic and unwilling to attach. He does not thrive, remaining underweight and behind physically and emotionally.
This is when the adoptive parents step onto the stage and enter the play.
From the beginning, these two babies have had two different worldviews. Baby A thinks she is the best-loved baby in the world. Everyone loves her. She is secure, and she knows that if she has a true need, it will be taken care of. Baby B feels lost and alone. He feels it is up to him to meet his own needs.
Child A has attached to her parents, while Baby B remains in a detached state. This diagram demonstrates the cycle of attachment:
When this cycle is broken in infancy, the baby is not able to attach to a parent/caregiver and may develop some form of RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder), depending on the severity of the neglect and the extent to which the parent did not respond to the baby’s needs.
“By mere definition of neglect, it is undeniable that children placed in orphanages at birth or at a young age are, in fact, victims of neglect. This is not because the orphanage staff doesn’t care for and love the children. Instead, it is because a child’s individual needs cannot be met in a group situation.
Out of necessity, children living in orphanages are forced into a routine, without the freedom to respond to physical and emotional cues relating to hunger, discomfort, bathrooming, pain, thirst, or a desire to be nurtured. The result is a pseudo-independence that mirrors the self-parenting label attached to neglected children in America.” – Parenting the Hurt Child
Three of my children came from a loving and secure environment, and four of them came from the environment described above. As I parented all seven together, I received different responses based on their past experiences.
As I mentioned before, Baby A and Baby B respond differently to stimuli because of their vastly different introductions to life. It only makes sense that an adopted child may respond differently than a biological child. His response today is based on his past rather than his present experiences. This does not mean that the child is bad or that the situation is irreparable; it just means that the child needs retrained.
The Work of Helping Kids Attach
I’m running out of time. I need to hurry. That is the language of our culture. It is not the language of the hurt, unattached child. It was not the language of my daughter Ania. Like the women in The Music Man, her way was pick a little, talk a little — or, actually, talk a lot.
The incessant chatter of an unattached child can be unsettling, frustrating or wearing if you are hurrying. It was for me. The clock ticked loudly in my head, but Ania didn’t hear it. As we headed out the door and I helped Ania put on her coat, boots, and gloves, she talked, offering me little assistance. As I cooked, she talked. As I cleaned, she talked. When I folded laundry, she talked. When I bathed her, she talked.
When I was schooling her and required her to answer a question or repeat something, she shut down. Tears streamed down her chubby cheeks, and her glasses fogged over. Why? I required it of her. It wasn’t on her terms. It was on mine. She was not in control. I was.
Children with attachment issues do not like things to be required of them. To them, that feels like giving up their power and the control they have over their environment. That control is important because it’s how they ensure that no one hurts them again and no one starves them again — no one. Giving in to a phonics lesson is painful. Bombarding Mom with incessant chatter is power.
I took Ania’s chatter as an invitation into her world. As she chartered while I loaded the dishwasher, I gave her dishes to put in. When I set the table, I gave her silverware to set. While I did laundry, I let her stuff the washer. It wasn’t long before she was working and talking about the work. “Now, I am setting the forks on the table, momma — you see that? I put the forks on the table.”
She slowly moved from meaningless chatter to chronicling her day. From there, she developed the ability to have a conversation. Much more slowly, she started answering questions during schooling — albeit with tears running down her cheeks.
Attachment is so much more than physical needs being met. It is an emotional connection. In the 1940s and 50s, doctors were discovering through research (that I do not condone) that a baby needed his mother and longed for his mother not just as a food source but as an emotional connection.
Love. Spirit. A person is not made whole by their physical needs alone being met. We each have three parts: spirit, soul, and body. A baby recognizes his mother by her smell, the sound of her heartbeat, and her voice, and he can be calmed by these factors alone. Yes, he wants to be fed — but his emotional state is just as important. Rene Spitz’s research confirmed this definitively.
Babies need that connection to their mama for physical, emotional, and spiritual growth. When separated from their mothers, children’s physical development halted and regressed. We call those development delays. The “vacuous” face mentioned in the quote above signifies a loss of spirit. No emotion is visible. David describes his loss of spirit over and over again in the Psalms. It is a dangerous place to be. It is a pit. It is dark.
“He drew me up out of a horrible pit [a pit of tumult and of destruction], out of the miry clay (froth and slime), and set my feet upon a rock, steadying my steps and establishing my goings.
And He has put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many shall see and fear (revere and worship) and put their trust and confident reliance in the Lord.” (Ps. 40:2-3)
The difference between David and these unattached children is that He had a relationship with the Lord. When all was said and done, he cast his cares upon God.
It is my job as a parent to help my child out of the horrible pit of unattachment. Ania developed new habits and patterns as she did these “beside me” jobs. Incessant chatter turned into real conversations. Although she was learning great life skills, those were a secondary benefit. The attachment was the real prize. Today, she feels confident in sharing real thoughts and feelings with me, and she respects my input, even when she doesn’t agree with it.
The attachment cycle is as simple as it is profound. The infant expresses a need, the parent meets the need. This happens thousands of times and the child becomes attached, secure in the expectation he will be cared for. Kids who come to us through adoption/foster care often have had breaks in attachment. Join Kathleen as she shares what this looks like in this episode of Positive Adoption. Grab a cup of coffee and be sure to share this episode!
*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: