Four years ago I thought trauma was merely an event that happens to some people and some not. I thought, it’s too bad that you had to go through a traumatic event but you just move on, right? Time heals all wounds, doesn’t it? Well, that’s not the case at all for childhood trauma. A developing brain is dramatically impacted by trauma which can lead to mental illness or a myriad of other problems into adulthood. There are many studies and research to support this but one talk I would highly recommend is Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’ Ted Talk for starters.
How Trauma Looked at the Start
When J arrived he was just a few months shy of turning three years old. Now that I have a 3-year-old (X) who’s been with me since he was six months old I finally realize the depth of the bond and attachment a 3-year-old has with his caregiver, the fears he has now that he is fully aware of his surroundings, the total lack of control of his emotions and the extreme need to be calmed and comforted when upset. I truly cannot fathom how emotionally damaging it would be for X to be removed from me and handed over to a stranger right now. And yet, that’s exactly what happened to J. It breaks my heart when I sit and think about what J experienced.
But did I see the trauma when he arrived? During the day, no signs whatsoever. J was happy, sweet, and seemed to be soaking in all of the new, exciting developments each day. He never had a tantrum or was angry. He never got frustrated. He just went with the flow. The only times he would scream or cry is if I left his sight or…..nighttime. When the night came he woke up screaming and crying every few hours. The situation was deceiving because during the day he seemed fine so he is fine, right? Well not at all. His emotional state was shutdown. He was in “survival mode” living in fear and operating in the lower part of his brain. You know how your kids are usually much better for their teachers at school and then when they get home they are an emotional disaster? That’s because you are their safe person and it’s a good thing! Well I wasn’t J’s safe person yet. He was holding it all in for me during the day. And when you’re operating in the lower brain the upper brain cannot function so learning and cognitive function is prohibited. Read The Whole Brained Child to learn more.
Trauma also looked like sickness. My kids were sick weekly for months. The first month I took more sick days than days I actually worked. This was brutal. At first I thought it was just their first exposure to daycare (and it was a big daycare) but later I realized that trauma lowers immune systems. So trauma looked like ear infections, bronchiolitis, gross coughs, vomit, and LOTS of running noses. The humidifier, saline spray, diffuser, and Nose Frieda were a daily occurrence. Thankfully after a couple months we were in the clear and rarely get sick now.
Trauma also looked like sadness. As time went on, we saw their biological parents once a week for 2 hours. At the beginning J was very confused and didn’t want to leave them, but it was never really that bad. He never threw a tantrum or even cried very hard. Strange, right? When it came time to transition them back to their parents (8 months later) and they saw their parents for longer and longer (including overnight visits), J was an emotional mess. Sad and crying more than I had ever seen (he was 3.5-years-old at this point). And then when the reunification failed and bio mom and dad suddenly disappeared from their lives, J was an even bigger mess. He had been in play therapy but I didn’t see much impact. I had to explain to him why he didn’t get to live with Mommy and Daddy. I had to explain to him why we can’t see them anymore. It was heartbreaking. He carried a heavy sadness around for at least 6 months.
How Trauma Looks Now
J is now 5.5 years old. X is 3 years old. For X, I haven’t seen anything noticeable yet. Although trauma can happen in the womb and for sure during the first 6-months of his life, thankfully it seems like they met his basic needs during that time. But for J, things are more complex. He lived in an unstable environment with a detached, depressed/anxious mom and a dad who would leave for days at a time and was physically abusive to his mom for almost 3 years. And that’s only what I know. There could be so much more that I don’t know. I know that he was fed and I know that they loved him. But I also know that they didn’t talk to him, they mostly sat him in front of the TV (including PG-13 superhero movies), and he witnessed domestic violence. Multiple neighbors reported a baby outside alone and crying without much clothes. That was my J.
So for him I can see small things with his brain that are not normal. Even though he’s been with me 3 years now he still mimics little brother, follows little brother, wants everything little brother has (or any child has) all the time, and he just can’t seem to take initiative or decide what he wants on his own. When we visit my parents and their cousins he reverts to a baby talk or a REALLY LOUD voice (seems to happen anytime he’s nervous or wants attention). He laughs and smiles when being scolded sometimes. He holds in ALL of his emotions until I tell him it’s okay to cry and then he lets it out loud and hard. And now that X is 3 years old I am seeing the enormous differences in what a “normal” 3-year-old development level should be vs. how J was when he arrived. J had no words I could figure out and X has an enormous vocabulary and sometimes speaks in sentences better than J does today. It’s been fascinatingly alarming. J’s been in play therapy since he was 3.5 years old but I never saw much change. Mostly it helped me understand why he does what he does. Because he missed those years where mimicking is normal for a baby he was simply doing it now. She also prepared me that there’s a good chance when he hits adolescence he will run away to find his birth parents. DEEP BREATHS…
How Trauma Affects Future
I went through the Family Minds Intervention with Dr. Tina Atkins, PhD which is a trauma-informed, psycho-educational intervention that increases parents’ ability to be reflective, to mentalize; to see inside their own mind and that of their children. This class was pivotal for me in understanding what the future of kids who experience trauma looks like. And it is very sad. The stats for foster kids ending up in jail, homeless, having depression/anxiety/bipolar or more severe mental illnesses is heartbreaking. Even kids that get into loving, safe homes. And so how do I handle this with my kiddos?
- Become trauma-informed. Once I fully understood the brain science behind it all, something just clicked and so many of my past experiences in relationships suddenly made sense. It was like a light switch had been turned on for me. I view every person differently now including my kids.
- Overly compassionate. It’s important to have extra compassion for foster kids. You don’t know their history but you know they’ve experienced at least ONE extremely traumatic event – removal from their homes and loss of their entire family in an instant. How would you feel if that happened to you? And so I do my best to live by “you never what he/she has gone through (or is going through)” and give all the grace and compassion I can. Believe me, I fail at this plenty, especially with my own kids who love to push my buttons, but I am trying.
- Speak LIFE. As often as I am able I try to speak LIFE-giving words to and over my children. I call Jesus to cast out any past trauma or wounds, to break any generational sin or trauma, and to heal any brokenness in their brains or hearts. I speak it when I pray with them or over them daily. I call the Holy Spirit to protect them, fill them with peace, joy, and unconditional love. Over J I speak confidence, leadership, and independence. Over X I speak obedience, kindness, and gentleness (full on #threenager mode).
- Trust God. It’s a hard statement to accept, but my kids are not my own. They belong to our Heavenly Father. Thy will be done, not mine. I only have so much control over their future. In the end, they will make their own choices. But I vow to do my best to give them the best chance at a joy-filled life, to teach them about love and Jesus, and to inspire and encourage them to be the best versions of themselves.
For more on trauma check out my other post, Why Foster Care?
#thisisfostercare #trauma #traumainformed #fostercareawareness #fosterlove #mamalisafosters