I thought I had a basic understanding of “trauma”. What good prospective adoptive parent has NOT prepared for this reality? Before adopting my daughter from India, I did the requisite reading and them some. I was even able to visit my daughter twice before she came home and I continuously looked for signs of attachment issues or anything else. Check. There were none that I could see and of course, I went with that, who wouldn’t?
My daughter and I lived a fairly textbook, if not fairytale, first 11.5 months home. Not perfect, but very manageable with using some of the basic tenets of connected parenting and other methods that I had always imagined myself using when parenting. My daughter was six going on seven when coming home with her previous life from day one or two having been lived in an institution. I knew that no matter what, she was a child who would have some trauma. It was a given and yet nothing really seemed to be manifesting.
I will never know if there was a chance that her trauma would have laid in waiting indefinitely or erupted at some other time. Less than two weeks shy of our first family day, my daughter underwent a surgery that was meant to help her leg (which already had a significant limb difference), be more suitable for prosthesis usage and improve her health overall. Things went horribly wrong. Not a little, a lot. Months of hospitalization and pain and the eventual loss of her entire leg were hard enough to endure. Losing my little girl from the child she had been was by far the hardest. What she endured during that time seemed to unlock past traumatic experiences as well and suddenly, I had a child unrecognizable to herself and her me. She was diagnosed with Complex Developmental Trauma and PTSD and I was thrust into a world I never could have imagined or prepared myself for.
Everything I thought I knew was suddenly wrong, and I thought I knew a lot. While my daughter was my first and only child, I had worked with literally thousands of others over the years as a teacher, counselor and administrator. I really thought I knew my stuff and yet suddenly, I knew nothing. I resisted and fought against what I was being told to do because it was crazily counterintuitive to what I believed was best way to parent and work with kids.
I dove in to brain research and Karen Purvis and connected parenting. I listened to our attachment therapist. I was trying and trying and yet, with every attempt, I also found myself drowning with uncertainty and doubt that this was working. Couple that with that a feeling of being judged by others...judged by others who simply DID NOT GET IT. The well meaning advice and always the raised eyebrows with glances towards others seemingly to say, “Is she REALLY going to let her daughter walk all over her? No wonder there is such an issue…” And so on. I felt like I was already in one battle and then had to face another front and then another. It was exhausting. Not only was I losing with my daughter, but I felt like I was losing it everywhere. It is a lonely battle much of the time.
Then I came across a post written by Stephanie Grant, a fellow adoptive mom and developmental psychologist who focuses on attachment and trauma in children. The crux of her post was urging to parents to not stress about figuring out the difference between what is normal developmental issues and what may be manifestations of trauma.
Easier said than done.
Essentially she said that if a child has developmental trauma, any issues that come up are seen is a manifestation of both. The trauma will affect all parts of development, but they are still children who need to go through the stages of development as well.
Essentially, a double whammy.
She claimed that behaviors we see in kids with trauma are indeed part of normal development but are also impacted by trauma. They are more extreme, longer, more frequent and more intense and it is this dynamic that makes trauma kids’ behavior “abnormal”.
She went on to say how this makes it harder for other people to truly understand what parents of kids with trauma go through.
Bingo. True that and then some.
It was a bit of a catharsis for me. I realized that if others haven't lived through it, behaviors could easily be mistaken for “normal” developmental issues. On the flip side, those of us living this have the incredibly bittersweet understanding that there is little that adheres to “normal” and we simply strive to find connection and understanding of our worlds.
Equal is not the same as Equitable
Rationally, I know it is almost always a very well intended and kind offering of support when people say that their kids, (who have not experienced trauma), are exhibiting the same behaviors or issues as those of us who have kids who do. It is natural for parents to want to empathize and support one another. Unfortunately, it can also have the backlash of minimizing the child’s experience and experience of those who support them. On a bad day, that can lead the caregiver down the rabbit hole of questioning their abilities to parent/ support their kids who are having a tough time. “If so and so has kids who do the same thing and they all seem to have it together and are surviving just fine, what am I doing wrong?”
All that to say that looks can be deceiving and we all know the dangers of comparing ourselves or our kids to others. Equal or equitable is not always same or identical.
For those of us who live with it with our children, we also have to suspend judgement to understand this element and stop trying to assume our kiddos will handle things the same and if they do not, that there is something faulty or wrong with them or ourselves. We have to come to terms and accept that all we once believed would be best and normal for our kids is no longer the case and we will have to change how we do things to meet their needs. It is not making excuses for them. It is not allowing them to manipulate. It IS us throwing out our egos and need to be right and control so that we can be more present and meet our kids where they need us to be - right there with them.
And so, there are many lessons learned. You never really can know where trauma may lead and where that may take you as a parent. The best thing I can offer is to simply do everything you can to suspend judgement for self, your child and others. Allow yourself to grieve what you thought would be and then allow yourself to operate outside of the typical norm. Ask yourself, “Is this battle I am about to have with my child life or death, or can I let them ‘have/win’ this one in order to build connection?” The more you can let go of the notions of how things are supposed to be, including the notion that good parenting is equivalent to control, the less the reactions of others will impact what you do.
Be prepared to make the investment of giving up ego and expectations. Starting there vs. slogging through all of the rest will save you time and mental drama...all things you may need to keep in reserve to deal with possible trauma with your kids.
In the end, it is working. I see it working. It can be hard and lonely and sometimes feel impossible to keep up but, it does work. In the end, what I am going through to support and manage my daughter’s trauma is minuscule compared to what she has going on inside of herself. Every. Single. Day. With that perspective, I shed ego, suspend judgment and love hard.