Emotional and physical trauma can sometimes wear grooves so deeply into a person that their mind has little choice but to run in those grooves again and again. And sometimes the only way someone can heal from something like that is residential treatment. Around-the-clock care and observation can make the difference between a healthy future and trauma-ruining relationships moving forward. 

Residential treatment can seem like a scary choice. It is often a very last effort to keep a kid as a part of their family. Kids who have been adopted may live in fear that eventually their new family will ditch them. Residential treatment can seem like that to them: like you’ve given up. It isn’t though. It’s attempting the colossal task of helping a child to heal. 

Sometimes residential treatment is a result of what a child has done or is threatening to do to themselves. Other times it is a result of what they have done to others. My oldest son is where he is because of the second one. His history is full of awful things upon awful things. He doesn’t get a free pass for hurting others though. His decisions first landed him in a juvenile detention center, then he was admitted into two different treatment programs. His choices will affect our family for the rest of our lives. 

Regardless, he is our son and we love him. So, how do we show him we love him when his every instinct is telling him we’ve rejected him? It’s complicated. Feelings are messy, and for a long time I didn’t feel loving toward my son. He had betrayed my trust in colossal ways. Regardless, he needs a mom. 

Showing him our love while we live hours away and he’s not allowed electronic communication has been tricky. A lot of the time, it feels inadequate. However, we are making it work. We are allowed to visit him once a month. We make it a point to see him when we can. Sometimes it doesn’t work and we have to prioritize our other kids or our marriage. We are allowed to take him off campus now, but for a long time, we couldn’t. We took gifts, books, and games along with us to pass the time with him. We listened to him explain what he’d been learning and how it affected him. 

It was awkward at first, but it’s gotten easier as time goes on. He knows we are doing what we can to keep everyone safe. It’s difficult to leave him behind every time. I don’t think I’ve managed to not cry as we leave the campus yet. I’m not sure it will ever get easier leaving a piece of my heart behind. 

Residential treatment can feel like a lot as a parent. We had weekly counseling sessions, emails, phone calls, and our other children to contend with. It feels like it would have all been much easier if I didn’t care. I do, though, so we struggle.  If we want him to heal, we need to do our part to help. 

One of the most difficult things for me has been trusting other adults to care for him. He’s an older teen, and I need to trust that he will tell me if he’s upset or uncomfortable. I encourage him to talk about whatever is on his mind. We discuss books we’ve both read, activities we’ve done recently, planned our next visit, and also sat awkwardly listening to each other breathe for 10 minutes. 

Sometimes, what I need to remember is that him being away from us is the best thing for everyone—no matter how much it sucks. Adoption doesn’t heal all the trauma he experienced before he came to us. I so wish it would. Like all of us, he will be dealing with the consequences of his past for the rest of his life. Our job is to love him regardless. Even when it’s really difficult. 

A large part of loving him from far away is working on myself too. I see a counselor and a physician to deal with my secondhand trauma from all that has happened. Me being emotionally healthy helps me to help him be emotionally healthy. I no longer let him fall into patterns of guilt-tripping and gaslighting me. I’ve gotten brave enough to push back when he’s trying to make me feel guilty for letting him be placed so far away. He’s smarter than I had been giving him credit for. He knows what he’s doing. We figured out what he was doing when we got a report from my inlaws (his grandparents) that he seemed really happy and was having a good time. When he talked to us, it was all, “life is awful, everyone hates me” but was the opposite for every other adult he spoke to. When the counselor called him on it, he tried to deny it, but eventually admitted he had been trying to make us feel bad. We made sure he knew we actually had very little control over where he had ended up at that point. The decisions were taken out of our hands by the court system.

I think if I had to make a bulleted list of things to remember while you’re navigating residential treatment with your adopted child it would go like this:

  • Get to know the staff
  • Call as often as you’re able
  • Forgive yourself if it’s difficult to feel loving at first
  • Check and make sure that if you’re sending gifts, they are approved
  • Visit if you’re allowed
  • Send letters
  • Get help for yourself while they are getting help 
  • Attend the family therapy sessions if you can
  • Let your kid know it is a result of their choices, not your desire, that they are living elsewhere at the time. 
  • Don’t let them blame you for their circumstances. 
  • Don’t allow them to guilt you into thinking you’re the wrong one

It’s really difficult. If I could go back in time and prevent what happened from happening I absolutely would. But I can’t. So we move forward hoping things will be better in the future because our child got the help he needed. 

Christina Gochnauer is a foster and adoptive mom of 5. She has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Letourneau University. She currently resides in Texas with her husband of 16 years, her children ages 3, 3.5, 4.5, 11, and 12, and her three dogs. She is passionate about using her voice to speak out for children from “hard places” in her church and community.