From Dark Places: Understanding Trauma In Foster Care And Adoption.

Over the past decade we have had to face the reality that some of our children experienced serious trauma before they came into our care. In the process, we discovered how little we really knew about it.


My son cowered next to the claw-foot bathtub in our upstairs bathroom. Cower would be an understatement. He was trying to push the tub off over with his head. Tears soaked his cheeks, and snot ran from both nostrils over his upper lip. He was out of control and violent. We were at a loss. In fact, we were angry. Our other children were downstairs with their older sisters, nestled on the sofa, for family movie night. We were dealing with this!

My human-instinct wanted to throw him out of the house, into the cold, and leave him there, just to show him that this kind of behavior was absolutely unacceptable and that our other children did not deserve to be treated this way. I also wanted to show him who the boss of this house was. He was not in control. He was not going to dictate, any longer, the course of our day. Frankly, we were exhausted, because meltdowns like this had become a daily ordeal. Something didn’t go his way- tantrum! He didn’t get the answer he wanted- violence! We had other things on the schedule and he had a shorter amount of time to ride his bike outside- outburst! Meltdown after meltdown after meltdown. Sometimes for hours.

As I stood in the bathroom staring at him in a ball on the floor, moaning like an injured animal, I fumed. I’m missing time with my other children because of this crap, I thought. But then, through the tangled mess of my frustration, a thought crossed my mind- “He’s afraid.” I tried to ignore it. I even tried to refocus my thought process so I could retain my anger. My attempts were futile. Slowly, as if flood waters rose to overtake a shoreline, my anger was overtaken by compassion.

Standing in our bathroom, on that winter evening, I saw my son in a new light. My heart suddenly changed. I gently closed the bathroom door, moved closer to my son, knelt down, gently placed my hand on his shoulder and said, in a whisper, “I know you’re afraid buddy. I know you don’t want to hurt any of us or ruin this night. I know there’s something deep inside of you causing you to act this way and it’s not your fault.”

It’s not your fault. 

A Place Of Fear.

That night, he was speaking from a place of fear and I didn’t even realize it. I couldn’t hear it because I grew up in a normal household, with normal parents, who never laid a hand on me (unless I needed my hind-end tanned for misbehavior). I was never starving, nor was I afraid someone would charge into my bedroom, yank me out of my bed, and beat me. I never feared loosing our house or that I would end up in a shelter somewhere. I never watched my mom take a beating from her drug dealer or the guy she was living with. Frankly, I couldn’t imagine ever seeing this, even now, as an adult.

If you’re an adoptive or foster parent, you know this place. These are the dark places our children speak from. The behavior that drives us nuts or terrifies us, is an outcry from a desperate place we know little, to nothing, about. But, it’s real.

A Place Of Abuse.

My mom never used cocaine or marijuana when she was pregnant with me. She took care of herself. When I was a child my dad never slapped me or punched me in the back of the head for walking too slow. I never watched my dad beat up my mom either. My son experienced a lot of this as an infant. Several environments he was exposed to, before he came to live with us, were volatile and dangerous. He experienced abuse and he witnessed abuse. To this day, anytime we drive through urban areas in our city, he is uneasy. They bring back visions, images, and memories  he’s tried to bury deep and forget about.

A Place Of Uncertainty.

When I was in 6th grade my parents signed me up for a week of summer camp. I had never been away from home for more than 1 night, but this was going to be 6 whole nights! Midway through the week I lost it. I wanted to go home so badly that I nearly lost all ability to function. Finally, I got ahold of a telephone and called my dad. He came within the hour and picked me up. The freedom I felt that evening, as I walked through the warm grass of our backyard, was overwhelming. I choked back tears the entire time. I was so relieved to be home.

Home. It’s what brings us ultimate security as children. It’s what gives us confidence to face each day. It’s what makes us feel safe and secure, knowing that our mom or dad are there and will make sure we are taken care of. But for a child who’s been removed and placed in foster care, confidence and security blow away like a leaf in the wind. The uncertainty of being removed from one house, placed in another, and then another, and then another, cause a child to look at the world with deep uncertainty. These are wounds they carry with them for a long time. These wounds cry out through outbursts, fits of rage, lack of respect, and lack of attachment.

Why? Because when you believe something’s not long for this world, you instinctively detach yourself from it. Your behavior changes to accommodate the change in scenery. In their mind, they tell themselves, If I’m going to move to a new home anyway, why get attached? Why form a bond? Why listen to a word these people say? There’s a disbelief that your home will be a forever place. Deep down in their psyche there’s a voice saying, “They won’t stick around. You won’t be here forever. They’re going to leave you like everyone else!”

Love Through Fear. 

We don’t tolerate our son’s out-of-control behavior. In fact, he spent 18 months living in a residential facility because of his extreme behavior. But one thing we have learned to do is love him through his fear. It’s not easy. It’s extremely difficult and unbelievably exhausting. But, it’s worth it. The hardest thing you may have to do is stay consistent and firm even when your child is pushing every single button and challenging every single boundary you have. We’ve been through this and have the battle scars to prove it.

That night, in our bathroom, I ended up sitting on the side of the bathtub, for an hour, holding my son close. He tried to push me away but I stayed until the walls came down. It wasn’t easy, but it was a sacrifice I needed to make. I realized that night that I needed to stop fighting against him, and start fighting for him.

We know how hard it is to parent a child from a traumatic past. We have navigated attachment issues, violent outbursts, and exhausting meltdowns, time and time again. Choosing love is the hardest thing to do in those moments. Choosing to fight for your child may take the life out of you. But, it’s worth it. Your child was given to you for a distinct purpose. You were meant to be their mommy or daddy. Somewhere, somehow, their life will change, and so will the future, because you chose to stay, you chose to fight….you chose to love!

Question: Have you adopted or fostered a child from a traumatic past? What have you learned? Share your story with us in the comment section. You can leave a comment by clicking here.


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  • Brian N Jennifer Rhodes

    I can’t begin to speak for the children or foster/adoptive parents who are living through situations such as the one you speak of above. But of this I am sure. You two have become a voice. A voice for all those who have felt unheard, unloved, thrown away…..your family has become a voice for others who experience this same reality every single day and keep it hidden out of shame or guilt. We adopted both of our children from birth, had the hospital experience alongside the birthmother, and brought them home. We are the only parents our children have ever known. Situations such as these seem slightly foreign because we haven’t experienced it for ourselves. But YOUR voices give faces and names to the forgotten. Your voices beckon us all to pray and do what we can to help. Thank you for speaking on behalf of those who feel like they will never be heard. I pray God continues to expand your platform in ways you never imagined, simply to bring Himself glory while bringing hope to the hurting. Thank you for using your voice!!! God Bless!!

    • Hey Brian, thanks so much for these kind words. They mean the world. Our hope is that our story impacts thousands of others. Thanks so much for your encouragement!

  • Gloria R.

    Yep. I totally hear you. Our son is, as his therapist puts it, severely traumatized. Only after about one and a half year was he able to open up in therapy. From spitting on himself, biting himself, pushing me away to jumping on another child’s neck, I have seen it. Hiding under the bed, behind the couch, under the table. Becoming smelly, entirely unresponsive, very oppositional. It is very hard because it does bring on guilt on me, “I am spending more time with him than with my other children. He’s using all of me… How about my other kids?” – It is so important to know that other foster parents experience similar thoughts and battles. It helps to know it is all normal and part of the process. I will be sharing this post on my facebook page because there may be others who need to know they are not alone 🙂

    • Gloria, thanks for sharing so openly and honestly. We completely understand what you are going through with your son. We have been there with ours. Hang in there. We are in your corner.

  • Carrie

    You guys, I just discovered your blog after hearing you speak at Refresh this past weekend. THANK YOU so much for your words and for sharing your story. It was incredibly impactful. This post met me right where I am with my son – he was adopted a little over two months ago at age 16. Trying to recognize fear in his responses has been very helpful in helping me have empathy toward him rather than frustration. Thank you.

    • Carrie, it’s so great to connect with you. Thanks so much for coming to our session. Glad it resonated. And, awesome that you were at Refresh overall. Such a great experience. We think you’re awesome! Have a great week ahead. Let us know if you need anything.

  • Cindy Gebhart

    My daughter is adopted and she came from a family where the mother neglected the children and the step dad sexually abuse my daughter who is special needs. And now over the past 8 yrs have dealt with aggressiveness outbursts, I often get hit or kicked. Plus she hates being touched by anyone and if she is touched it sends her into a rage of anger and throwing things at me. She is in counseling and it does help. We do breathing exercises to help calm her down. But reading this story has helped me to understand her more now. Thanks alot.

    • Cindy, so glad our story has helped you! It’s our pleasure.

  • Maria Wilkes

    This is wonderful, thank you for sharing. I work at a non-profit called The Adoption Exchange in Utah and I would love to share this on our facebook page. Would that be alright?

    • Hey Maria, absolutely. If it’s over Facebook would you mind tagging our Facebook page “Confessions Of A Parent?” Thanks for sharing it!

  • Nora Matthews

    I’ve learned that trauma is processed and expressed in innumerable ways, and a lot of times that expression is misread. I’ve had a kid who would rage at me with words that sounded eerily like those an abusive man might say to his victimized girlfriend– he would scream until I cried and then get in my face to say “that’s what you get!” I realized with horror that this otherwise adorable first grader was re-enacting how he had seen men express anger towards women. I’ve had a kid who barely expressed affection in months of living here and another who declared his love upon meeting me without the slightest acknowledgement of his loss as he entered his third foster home and fifth caregiver in a year. They were all shattered, but the expression of that trauma did not look like a Lifetime movie and outsiders– even therapists– often did not perceive the damage playing out in subtle ways.

  • Jessica Newell Hanson

    Thanks for being real about how you felt, but not staying there…pressing through, fighting for him. It is powerful and encouraging to know others have been through this and have felt frustrated, exhausted, angry..And yet, there is hope. I do believe that God knows what He’s doing when He puts children (the lonely) in families. It is not by chance. I have often said it is quite a compliment that God thought we could handle triplets with a traumatic past…there are days I don’t agree with God, but His grace is sufficient.

  • klf113

    IMO MOST if not all adoptions are traumatic – they do, after all, begin with loss….but even pre-verbal trauma can affect children’s adjustment…….even babies adopted from a good foster home, have experienced loss multiple times and there are effects – ranging from raging & serious violence to night terrors/nightmares, irreasonable fears, etc. My dd was adopted in China at 10-1/2 mos…..from a loving foster mom (as far as I could tell; I met her) and has had issues over the years that were not helped by traditional therapy; even through Int’l Adoption Clinics. ART therapy, learning about trauma (parents learning), therapeutic parenting are the things that helped my dd, now 10 & doing SO much better. Have a son born to me (older) and my dd – you should NOT expect to be able to parent them the same way. Neuroscience has proven that early trauma actually changes – physically! – the brain, and also that chromosomal alleles determine resiliency. So some kids may adjust & heal quickly; others may have a much harder time and be at risk for issues……even violence or suicide later on. This is 2016 & we should know better. Educate yourself if you are planning to adopt! I don’t judge and religion may be a very helpful tool – but that in itself is NOT enough. Love is not enough, for every child.

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  • Interesting observations

  • Lynna Martin Hastings

    The awful thing is, none of the adoption records nor the workers with information will tell you if or how the child has been abused, not even after the adoption is finalized. When the child falls apart and the new family is spinning horribly out of control, the social workers will express amazement, scorn, and probably start a child protection file–on the new parents.

  • Chris Tina

    What a wonderful post, thanks for this! I have four adopted siblings with FAS and I totally get these tantrums. It is hard sometimes to get past your own anger as you describe. But you are absolutely right. It is NOT their fault. They are the most vulnerable members of our society and they didn’t ask for any of the crap that had been their life prior to coming to us, and they suffered terribly at the hands of those who were supposed to love them. They tell me they can’t even recall ONE hug from a parent, ever. Not even one….So yup, this is hard stuff…but it is SOOO worth it! Love, even when it hurts. Love, all the time…THANK YOU of this wonderful post!