I recently came across the Ted Talks episode, “How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime,” by Nadine Burke Harris. Harris, who is now the Surgeon General for California, gave this presentation as a pediatrician. Her discussion shed light on and made the very real links from childhood trauma to how it can carry over to adulthood with effects on mental health and physical health issues. These traumas can present themselves as depression, anxiety, drug addiction, eating disorders, and other mental or physical disorders.
My childhood trauma began before I was born. My birth mother abused substances during my conception up until the time she gave birth. I was born affected by heroin, cocaine, and alcohol. At two months old, the police found my birth mother, myself, and siblings on the street. We were homeless. The police prompted the removal of us due to her lack of care and we were soon placed into foster care. Immediately, there were abuse and neglect reports produced and an investigation took place.
When a child is affected by substances in utero, there are physical traumas as well as mental. My mother vividly remembers the babies from foster care who were placed in our home. She remembers vividly how they would shake. She also remembers the screaming and shrieking. She told me she could always tell which babies had been born affected by heroin or cocaine/methamphetamine. The cries and shrieks had unique characteristics for each drug. My parents sought out physical therapy, speech therapy, and counseling for all of us. Every day was spent running all over California to get us services.
When I was 3 years old, I was adopted. Our household was a constant home of love and chaos, as you can imagine would happen with eight children and two parents under the same roof. My parents had no idea that when they made the choice to become foster care parents that their path would take them through fires, up mountains, through ice-cold oceans, and suffocating quicksand. They had no idea they would be physically or mentally exhausted and some days would be spent crying. They did not know their faith and their will would be tested every day. What my parents did know was when they started their journey of foster care, they had so much love in their hearts to give. They knew that they wanted a big family. They wanted to care for children and give a home to them. They wanted to share the room in their hearts.
At 4 years old, I was molested. So ensued more childhood trauma. My parents did everything in their power to protect me. As I got older, the night terrors began. I remember the first night terror; it was so vivid like a movie was playing out in front of me. I was so young, and I can remember the horrific details. I remember thinking how could I be dreaming of such awful things when I have never seen them? The brain is a very powerful organ. To this day, I still have night terrors.
When I was 11 years old, we received my diagnosis of bipolar disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, attachment disorder, and fetal alcohol effects. I began to get bullied by my peers. The childhood trauma ensued. My parents shelled out thousands for me to attend a local Catholic school, in hopes their daughter would find solace and comfort. The bullying continued through high school. I ended up graduating early so I could avoid my fellow peers. Nobody wakes up one morning and says, “I want to be a foster parent to a child with trauma.” However it happens, this world is a better place because there are people who actually do take on children with trauma.
It has been my experience that most children who have been placed for adoption or into foster care, have experienced some kind of childhood trauma. The odds that trauma may be a reality for your child are good. So what can you do to or what do you need to know about trauma before fostering or adopting a child with trauma? Let’s start with the basics.
1. Educate yourself – There are so many articles, books, blogs, research, and more on trauma and childhood. Go to your local library, search online, or buy a book from Amazon and submerge yourself in the worlds that might be meeting yours. By educating yourself, you are familiarizing yourself with unknown territory. When I finally moved out of my parent’s house, my mother passed onto me many articles that she had printed off or been given by doctors, counselors, or other professionals. Having an understanding of the kinds of traumas your child might have been exposed to will not only help you to have compassion toward them, but it will also equip you in helpful and proactive responses to their trauma.
2. Get real – Get real with yourself. I am serious about this one. Truly think whether or not taking on a child with trauma is something you can see yourself doing. There is absolutely no shame in saying it’s not something you can do. We all live very different lives; with different jobs, different families, different dreams, different expectations, and different worlds. There are some of us who cannot or do not want to go through the undertaking of raising children who have known trauma. It’s not easy. I wake up every day in disbelief of what my parents have gone through and how they managed to power through decades of raising eight children. I do not live with rose-colored glasses. I am not sure I could handle what my parents went through. I certainly don’t chastise anyone for saying, “It’s just too much.“
There’s a part two to “Get real,” though. I encourage people to try. Try taking in a child with trauma. I know, as a parent, my own strength has been tested. There were moments I didn’t know how I would get through. The love that I have for this tiny human, somehow, has carried me through some of the darkest days and coldest nights. I think sometimes our own perspective on what we are capable of and what we have to offer another human can often be askew for many reasons. I have made acquaintances with so many modest and beautiful people who never thought they had what it took to adopt or foster a child with trauma. I know that if you asked most foster parents right now if they thought they had their ducks in a row, they would probably tell you they had no idea what they were doing or how they were even managing. They were simply taking it day by day and that is the truth for all parents around the world. The truth is, we don’t know our own strengths until we have been tested.
3. Self-care – Lastly, but certainly just as important, is making sure you take care of you. This entails everything from seeking services that provide respite care, having a set time for your marriage or other important relationships, and having time for your own maintenance; whether that be going to therapy, going out to lunch by yourself or with a friend, reading a good book uninterrupted (my top choice for my self-care), getting a haircut, or however you take care of you. It is so important to take care of your mind, body, and heart. There are so many services and supports put into place for parents like you. It is also important to learn how to say yes to those who offer you help. It takes a village. So let your village step in when you need it. Take time for your marriage or relationships, it will keep communication open and keep you bonded. You will go through ups and downs as does every significant relationship or marriage. Just make sure you make time to talk about it and be there for one another through those times. Invest in you and make sure to fill your own bucket. You deserve all the love you are pouring into your child.
I remember when I was 11 years old and the world was overwhelming. Hormones, puberty, trauma, emotions, being tired, and just being a pre-teen had sent me over the edge. I remember screaming at the top of my lungs. I remember crying and being mean to my mother. I will never forget when she walked over to the rocking chair, sat down, and told me to climb into her lap. She rocked me. She told me how much I was loved by my birth mom and by her. She told me I was loved and I was safe, and she kept rocking me. I will never forget that moment. I am sure my mother has. It might not have been as significant for her as it was for me. I needed that. I needed her to wrap me and rock me like a baby. I needed to be assured that things were okay, and that I was okay. That’s the power of parenting. That is the force and magnitude of your love and the ripples it sends washing over the lives of your loved ones.
Here I am, a woman in my thirties and a mother to a beautiful boy. I am a successful author and travel the country advocating for fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. I have two brothers who are extremely successful in their lines of work. I have an older sister who is an RN in Texas and another older sister who is an RN in California. I have an older sister who is a behavioral specialist in Washington and another older sister who is busy raising her own child with autism. I also have a younger sister who has been working in a successful salon for years. Each one has our own little family. The one repeating factor when you look at each one of our lives, individually, is the significance of family to each and every one of us. Family is the most important aspect in all of our lives. We have given our parents a total of 14 grandchildren and 3 grandcats.
All of us remain very tight and bonded. Last summer at our brother’s wedding, my parents were able to see all of their eight children under the same roof for the first time in 28 years. How is that possible? How did a family of so many different personalities, backgrounds, trauma, and stories manage to remain so bonded? It is because of their dedication to love each and every one of their children unconditionally, that has kept us in each other’s lives and continues to bring us home to them.
What do you need to know about trauma before fostering or adopting? You need to know how to love. Love can heal. I have seen it with my own eyes. Love can lift you. I have felt it with my own heart. Love can free you. I have watched it break chains off of others and myself. Love can sing. I have heard its harmony crooning at all hours. Love can be brave in the face of trauma. Love can stand up to trauma and make a new life. Love can close doors and open new ones when the doors seem too hard to push open. You need to believe that you are enough for someone. You need to know that trauma can be stilled. It can be lulled to shadows. It can be silenced. It can be healed.
There was a quote from Loren Eiseley that I stumbled across and remains etched in my heart. It went along the lines of this—a man walked along a beach. He came to another young man throwing starfish back into the ocean. When the older man asked why he would spend his time when it most likely would not make a difference, being as there were so many starfish, the younger man told him, “It made a difference for that one.”
Visit Adoption.com’s photolisting page for children who are ready and waiting to find their forever families. For adoptive parents, please visit our Parent Profiles page where you can create an incredible adoption profile and connect directly with potential birth parents.
Helen Simpson (Born in April of 1989) was born in San Francisco, CA. She was adopted at 3 years old. Diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder at age 11 years old, from a young age she was putting pen to paper and writing as much as she could, since words seemed no easy feat. In 2007, she began her studies in Special Education at Harford Community College. In 2017, she made it her life mission to educate and give voice to as many people as possible. She runs a website and blog www.lovemeenough.com as an advocate for FASD, Special Needs, and Adoption. In its first two weeks on Amazon, Helen’s first paperback book, “The Way I Am Is Different,” saw spot #155 on Amazon’s Best Selling Ranks for Special Education literature. Helen currently resides in beautiful but increasingly crowded, Portland, Oregon with her husband, Brando, and son, William.