Parenting is one of the most wonderful, and difficult, things that I’ve ever done. Parenting children of trauma has catapulted me into depths unknown. Sure, I did the training. I read about trauma. I thought I knew what we were getting into. I took class after class, talked to friend after friend. We thought we could do a better job of choosing a child that didn’t come from a background with significant trauma. We adopted toddlers to avoid the long-lasting effects of trauma. Spoiler alert: We had no clue. No clue.
Trauma will manifest differently in every child at every age. But there are common denominators that will help you identify the trauma and how it affects their ability to function in the world. In many ways, trauma can look like defiance. With my children, I took the long way around to understand that concept. When you don’t know a child, don’t know their personality, don’t know who they are, it’s hard to differentiate their personality from trauma. Combine the fact that my kids were both 2 years old when they arrived in our home, well, we flailed. In some really big ways. Eventually, with time, we learned who they were, how to best parent them, and how to read their emotions.
My children have a strong fight or flight response. When met with questions, they often “shut down” and are completely incapable of answering most questions. Especially the w’s. What? Why? When? When trying to figure out what happened, whether it’s an injury or a mistake, we try to ask only yes or no questions. This presents an uncomfortable scenario in social situations. But eventually, you learn to let go of how your kids “should act” and just grow in the child you have. I often reword the question so that they’re able to answer it proudly. Something as simple as “what is your favorite color?” can send them spiraling down, glancing to me at an uncomfortable rate, waiting for rescue. I’ve been asked to “let them answer” many times. Those who know trauma and have learned about my kids, will often get down on their level and ask them in a calm, funny way, and they’re able to answer. It is a sweet joy to watch them conquer the beast. I’m an imperfect parent and I forget often. We’ve learned a lot along the way and learned to apologize and be an example of how mistakes are made by everyone.
Trauma can look a lot like stealing. For these children, they have no control over their life. Not their parents, not their living circumstances, and certainly not their possessions. So, they take things and hold onto them. This becomes a problem when it belongs to another child, or it’s an expensive watch you’ve just bought yourself and cannot find. It is important not to shame your child when this happens. I try to explain the consequences of taking someone else’s toy/valuable. I ask them how they might feel if someone took their favorite item. For the most part, this works, but one of my children has a difficult time just not taking things. He often hides toys in his bed or other places. We have given each of our children a “treasure box.” They have the right to keep anything special to them in the box. However, when we find something that belongs to someone else, we take the box for a brief moment of time. I try to respect their right to “valuables,” which means if they value the sticker back from the Target sticker, then they keep it.
For one of my children, trauma is night terrors. They appear when she’s particularly stressed or has had an emotional day, such as a visit with her biological parent. She often sleeps through them, some nights I just sit next to her bed as she cries out. The dreams and terrors are fewer and fewer as time goes on.
One of my children has trauma that appears as regression, or more pointedly, baby talk. This child regresses to this behavior anytime they are in the presence of their birth parent. We try to not shame her, or even acknowledge the behavior, most commonly, we just continue as normal and if they use the babble/baby talk with us we just encourage them to use their words. My husband and I try hard to not put them in a position where we must point it out or make the least amount of corrections.
In our first child from foster care, his trauma presented itself as crying. He cried so much. I grew numb to any crying from this child. He cried when I asked him to eat. Cried when I wanted to change his clothes. Cried when I asked for a hug. The only time he didn’t cry is when I dropped him off at daycare. It was exhausting. At that point in time, all I could think about is how it affected me. How selfish, huh? We were drowning, and I didn’t know anyone in my daily life with a child like mine. Eventually, with love and trust, and therapy, he stopped the crying. He is still my more emotional child. He just cries more easily.
My daughter has a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. This has been a huge challenge for both of us. She is super sensitive to yelling and loudness in general. I am a very loud person. I yell. WAY too much. I have learned to control some of my yelling, and she has learned that I’m a lot of bark and no bite. This has been a growing process for all of us. In the beginning, we went through a lot of wet clothes, but she is healing and I am growing and learning to count to 10. A lot. Growth and healing happen with time, distance, and therapy. It will never leave her, but she can and does move through it every single day.
When my children first came home, they attached themselves to anyone and everyone. Some of those bonds, though seemingly artificial, stand to this day. None of them concern us because they are safe relationships within our family. Some have become genuine and beautiful. And some will fizzle with maturity and time. We chose to keep our world very small in the beginning. We have friends that respect our boundaries and our reasons for them. This is the one area that I feel we did our best. In some cases, it was hard for family and friends to understand. The way we parent our children is hard for some to understand.
Parenting children with a background of trauma looks very different than the average parenting. We originally had to be very diligent with physical contact, food, and affection. Our second son referred to everyone as “grandma.” There are times when I have to be soft and forgiving and times when I would like to nurture and cuddle but where they need me to be firm and direct to move through an incident. It has brought a lot of strife to our life, criticism from our family, and I have lost friendships because they simply don’t understand.
Trauma can take many forms. Its causes and effects will be different in each person, in each family. You will undoubtedly make mistakes, but you will grow, and maybe even thrive. When trauma is paired with the myriad of diagnosis in children that come from hard places, it will mean many different things. The process will change you and your family forever. That may be for the good, it may not. There are no guarantees in life, whether that comes from having children biologically or through foster care and adoption.
If you are considering foster care and adoption you will want to research the best avenue for your family. Taking on an older child will bring different challenges than adopting a toddler. It won’t be easy, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be good. Children with a background in trauma can be a challenge to parent, but hard doesn’t mean it’s not good, or worth the effort. All kids deserve to have a safe, loving home.
Parenting a child of trauma almost always brings out your own trauma. I would recommend therapy to work through your issues of trauma. It will help you be the parent you want to be to your child. Working through your own trauma will give you the best tools to help your child process their own trauma. Read. Study. Research. I read every single book that’s recommended to me by an experienced parent. My reading list grows daily and I may never finish them all, but I’ll die trying. There is never enough experience or information. But then sift that information. Not all information or education applies to your child. Your child is their own unique person with their unique experience. Not one person reacts the same. There may be similarities. But there will always be discrepancies.
My children despite their histories, in clear defiance of how their lives started, are warriors. I admire their strength and try to support them and boost their resolve. My goal is to help them feel empowered and strong in their futures and ambitions. These days, that looks like helping them be able to ask for things they want and need. Sometimes that means guiding them through choices and helping them feel proud and confident in choosing the right drink, right utensil, or favorite shirt.
Some days it means helping them admit a mistake. Teaching that truth is more important and that they are always forgiven. That there is nothing they can do that will make me not love them. That may seem easy, but for children from their backgrounds, it’s not quite as simple as telling them we love them. It’s showing them, time after time after time. That even the big things are small, and that all can and will be forgiven.
I try daily to do things that reinforce love, comfort, understanding, acceptance. Subtle touches of the hand, not overreacting when they do make a mistake or are disobedient. We work hard to provide a sensory-filled waking experience, calm routine bedtimes, mealtimes, snack times. Food for my children is a cause of stress and concern. While my children were very young when the neglect occurred, their bodies remember. Their bodies remember being left to lay hungry and cold. We make sure that food is out, though they won’t take it without encouragement. We make sure that water is available 24/7, though now they can ask for a refill. We offer snacks regularly and discourage picking up things off the ground, floor, anywhere that they can find things.
For a lot of children with trauma it can often present, and even be misdiagnosed, as attention deficit disorder or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. If you’ve tried the meds and they aren’t working, I highly recommend having a full neuropsychological exam done by a trauma and adoption-informed psychologist. If you’re not sure where to start ask a friend, find a support group of families that have been there, done that. Have a neuropsychological test given to the child on the full spectrum of diagnosis. Often you will learn a lot more. For our first son, we knew that he had sensory processing disorder, during the neuropsychological test, he was also diagnosed with general anxiety and ADHD. With this diagnosis, we have been able to get him the help he needs in life, and more pointedly, in school. We have been able to reevaluate and restructure his Individualized Education Program to help him be as successful as he can be. It has been a true game-changer for him and our family. To his repertoire, we have added play therapy. We have had a calm and enjoyable summer. He still does better with much more structure, but he’s able to speak up for his needs.
Trauma can be scary and overwhelming. Some people will only be able to see these children as collective broken things. But you are selling them short. Life may not look like you always imagined. Mine certainly doesn’t. But I’m telling you. It’s good. It is the single-most rewarding gift I’ve been given. Trusted with the healing of these kiddos. They are funny, sweet, and incredibly smart. They are adorable. They are my joy, my life, my everything. Information is out there to prepare you, not scare you. Take in as much information, training, experience as you possibly can. Learn from those before you, learn to count on their experience, their joy, and the learning curves. Then change the story. Teach your children, your family, and your community that we are all damaged in one way or another. Life may have given them a hard start, it may still be hard at times, but it can also be very, very good. Dig in, don’t let fear stop you. Don’t let trauma win.
Karla King is a passionate open adoption advocate, adoptive mom, foster mom, wife, reader, avid creator of food, a stay-at-home mom, and Christian. She loves taking care of her family, supporting others on the adoption journey, and watching the world through her children’s eyes.