Secondary Trauma: How Your Child’s Special Needs May Be Affecting You.

We know that children who have come from difficult places experience trauma, but what about you and I as parents? How do we handle the secondary trauma we experience as a result of the day in and day out battle of parenting them?

Missing family in new flat

“Listen, you’re blood pressure is just too high. You need to lose some weight, eat healthier and get some exercise. Getting out for a workout will lower your stress level too. I know you can find just a few minutes in your day. On your way out, stop by the front desk and schedule an appointment for 6 weeks. I don’t want to scare you but we really need to keep an eye on this.” The doctor shut the door as my friend pulled her gown a little tighter around her hoping to hide how exposed she was feeling from the inside out. She quickly dressed and told the front desk she would have to check her schedule and call back about the appointment.

She called me in tears as she drove to pick one child up from school and another two from the sitter. She had to make it home in time to relieve the afternoon nurse from caring for her daughter. I could barely understand what she was saying as I answered the phone. “IT WILL ONLY TAKE A FEW MINUTES!” she repeated. “He has no idea, he doesn’t know anything about my life. He doesn’t know what I have time for. I’m already late to get the kids. I know I need to eat healthier but I haven’t really been to the grocery store in two weeks. We’re down to a head of questionable broccoli and half a loaf of bread!” Even without clarification, I had begun to piece enough of the story together to understand that she was experiencing extreme stress! Her well meaning doctor had just added the final straw.

She is the mom of one biological child with medical special needs and three children who carry with them the trauma that often comes with adoption. She is in a constant fight to care for her children. She often feels like she falls short for her children and with her own health in jeopardy she struggles to find the time to deal with her own needs. She is the picture of most adoptive and special needs parents. She is not caring for just one child, she is caring for many. She is not just managing one special need but an overlapping array of diagnosis, traumas and difficult pasts. She is one of the strongest women I know. She is also a human and no human can live this lifestyle alone.

As a mom of children with special needs, I know too well the feeling of being completely overwhelmed. The feeling is a pressure on my chest and shoulders that I swear everyone around me can actually see. My eyes are puffy and my forehead bares the defined lines of worry. I see it in my husband too. As parents of children who have suffered trauma we are now experiencing secondary trauma.

One of our children was malnourished as an infant. He worries about food constantly. For years, he carried a backpack filled with appropriate snacks. The presence of the backpack curbed his desire to steal and hoard. The temptation is still there and our child will take food even if it is something he is highly allergic to. He will also take more food than is humanly possible to eat in one sitting. Consequently, we grocery shop every day only buying the foods we need for the next day. We pack snacks everywhere we go in the hopes we will have something appropriate to eat if the food available is something that could cause him harm. We are hypervigilant around food. The mere suggestion of a pot-luck or party causes my anxiety to rise.

One of our children was physically harmed as a small child. This child is constantly in a state of “fight.” If anything does not go as expected, he melts down or lashes out. He ducks and throws his hands over his head if someone comes too close. Our hearts go out to him and our desire is to create a feeling of safety for him. We are not always able to create a peaceful and pleasing environment. When things become stressful, he may throw the nearest object. We find ourselves accessing every room and every situation for the quickest possible route to safety.

Recently, I’ve been sleeping on the couch. Truthfully, “sleeping” is not really an accurate description of what’s happening. I’ve been lying awake staring at my outdated popcorn ceiling every night for a week. I lay there, eyes dry and bloodshot, wondering how in the world I’m going to get through the night. I’ve positioned the couch right outside my teenage son’s door. We discovered a week ago that he’s been sneaking out the window at night and going to a friend’s house. My son experienced trauma before he was born. He was exposed to drugs, alcohol, violence and mal-nutrition. He doesn’t understand the danger of sneaking out. He doesn’t connect actions with consequences. He knows he is disobeying but lacks the impulse control to make a better choice.

I’m exhausted. My health is failing. My diet stinks. I never sleep. I’m living in trauma too. This isn’t what I expected when I began to love a child who had been hurt.

Do you love a child who is hurting? Are you managing a schedule filled with doctors, counselors, IEP meetings? Are you struggling with feelings of hopelessness and exhaustion? You are not alone. Let’s face this secondary trauma together. I commit this week to find someone to lean on. I will tell the truth about this feeling. I will let go of some of the emotional weight I carry. Will you?

Question: Are you currently living in secondary trauma? Share your story with us in the comment section below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Get our latest eBook for FREE!


Let’s be honest: parenting is exhausting. You feel worn out, foggy & can’t remember the last time you got a full night’s sleep. That’s why we’ve put together a FREE guide with easy-to-apply, rest multiplying hacks for busy parents. You’re just 9 days away from feeling rested, refreshed & reenergized!

We will never share your info with anyone! Powered by ConvertKit

Please note: We reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Allisonm

    It’s not the meetings and appointments that do me in. It’s the hyper vigilance necessary to keep my children safe; the number of keys and combinations needed to open the locks on everything from medications to the paring knife used to cut an apple to our bedroom door; the endless, rolling crises; trying to keep up with sanitation and laundry in the face of large child urine and hidden hoarded food. It’s the attempts to prevent the frequent plundering of my personal items, personal space, and person by children for whom healthy boundaries–or any boundaries at all–are aspirational goals that wear me out and grind me down. It’s the feeling of hopelessness that comes when another professional, family-member or well-meaning friend (or stranger) tells me I need to do just one more thing to take better care of my family or myself that sends my sleep-deprived brain and body into overload. The same people who tell me I need to take more time for and better care of myself are the ones asking me how I let “this” happen when one of my kids slips the net.

    We were well into our seventh year as a family before we had our first full day without a crisis. Now, over eight years in, we have crisis-free days at least once a week and our crises are usually on a much smaller scale. Not as many things are locked. The urine stopped awhile back, though the food hoarding is still going strong. My personal items are often retuned upon request and my bubble space is usually respected. All of my kids are now taller than I am, but we need far less staff to keep everyone safe. Yet the long-term exhaustion and hyper vigilance are slow to go away.

    • Carol Kohlberg

      They hyper vigilance is exhausting. Totally agree.

    • “Hyper-vigilence.” What an accurate statement to describe this life. Hang in there Allison. 🙂

    • Reonna Faller

      Allisonm, I could have wrote your words myself.

    • Heidi A

      Yes, yes, yes. Exactly what you wrote, though our urine terrorism is not quite eradicated. I find that while there is less staff needed, the problems are more serious. I hope hope that someday when the kids are moved out, I can get back some of my health and sanity. This journey has drastically shortened my life, I know.

      I am thankful that, after 14 years of feeling alone, my husband now supports my efforts to lock things up and hold people accountable for thefts. That helps.

    • Kristin Berry

      I agree!

  • Carol Kohlberg

    We adopted three boys, biological siblings almost 8 years ago. I too have secondary trauma. I have had a headache for months and if the day is stressful the pain is off the charts. I have one child with RAD, FASD, PTSD, ADHD, combined type, Anxiety etc… He is in a constant state of motion, impulsivity issues, no filter, tries to con everyone, cheats,steals, and lies all of the time. Huge lies. Recently he is going through puberity and he hurt one of his siblings. We had to involve another agency, and now he is in in Residential Treatment. The center is doing there best buy my son acts out and they call me to see if I cn help.
    That is not the only issue with him.
    This particular agengy that I won’t mention right now, does not like being told no, or for parents to be proactive. So because I yelled and got a bit hystericl at one meeting, I am now the enemy. And for almost 9 months now they have made my life a life a nightmare. They have triggered my on childhood trauma, and have re-traumatized our entire family. I too have said I feel like someone is standing on my chest. I sleep on the couch, I don’t sleep much.
    That was just one kid. My middle son, not only battles with PTSD, Attachment Issues, pre exposure to drugs and alcolohl. He has Terminal Brain Cancer. The constant worry, Dr. Appointments, Chemo, Radiation day in and day our. On Monday the 20th he is going in for his 10th Brain Surgery in less than 4 years. After this surgery there is no more treatment we can do. He is in maintenance mode. There is nothing worse in the world than losing a child.
    My youngest son, a few of the same diagnoses, FASD, PTSD, and Anxiety, ADHD. Plus add the recent trauma. He works very hard, but his behviors have regressed. Meltdowns, trouble at school.
    How much more can you take? I plow though everyday, with IEP meetings, medical appointments,therapy,family therapy and now therapy for myself and my husband, surgeries, radiation appointments etc.. Truth I don’t have a choice. But that doesn’t mean I don’t hurt. I can’t even find the time to get to the doctor. I am a stron mom, I advocate for my boys. I make sure that I get what they need. How do I get what I need?
    It is easy for peopleto give the well meaning praying for you, or look on the bright side or at the good things you have. Makes me want to scream and come right out of my skin. On a scale o 1 -10 I have t least two 12’s. Which way am I supposed to look? There is not much good to see. I always grit my teeth and laugh when someone says “You chose this.” Of course I did, that doesn’t mean I have any feelings
    I happed to have a wonder group of like kind parents, but they don’t want to listen to me droan everyday. They have their own stuff going on.
    I am actufally at a loss right now. I have a wonderful therapist and that is a start. But when I am back in the mix, I am triggered all over again. This is not an easy life or one for the taint hearted. I love my kids,and I will always advocate and fight for them. But now I need to fight for me. If I only knew how.
    Thanks for listening.

    • Carol, totally get it. Sounds like you have the “alphabet soup” of diagnosis in your household too. We are in that trench. Hang in there. Keep your head up. You are not alone!

      • Carol Kohlberg

        Thanks Mike. It is nice to read what others have to say. I don’t relish in there pain, lol. It just stops making you fee insane. 😉

    • Allisonm

      You are in a really tough place! Just because we chose to be the parents of seriously ill and injured children doesn’t mean it’s not excruciatingly difficult. The grief by itself can be overwhelming. We are almost always better advocates for others than for ourselves. I’m even a formally educated, trained, and experienced advocate and do a great job for my kids. But I have learned that I have to get others to help me advocate effectively for myself. I’m just too close to my situation and can’t see the forest for the trees. When I’m overwhelmed, I can’t figure out what anyone can do to be truly helpful. What respite care do you have in place? If it’s not enough, who can help you get more? Respite care got us through some very hard years. So did in-home skill builders and behavior coaches. They supported us as parents as much as they supported our children. We do not have a child with cancer and I can’t imagine how much more difficult that makes things for you as a mom. I will pray for you, Carol. It is the one action I can take on your behalf.

      • Cody Stephens

        It is so hurtful and frustrating and counter productive when people say things like “you chose this”. Obviously you chose it. We all choose things, but that has nothing to do with life being hard and needing compassion from your peers. I hope things look up soon!

    • Kristin Berry

      Wow Carol,
      You have so much going on! I can’t imagine having a child with cancer on top of everything else! I know what you mean when people say, “you asked for this.” That’s such a tough one.

      • Carol Kohlberg

        People have said that to me since our adoption. It is the one comment that can get my goat.

    • sheluvskids

      Carol I am praying for you. I am in MN too.

  • Sustainable Sanctuary

    How sad, how true… and just think when all of those things happen to one child… I am starting to believe I have a bit of ptsd… hugs to all! K

  • TLoudermilk

    We are 3 months into our first foster placement. We followed God’s leading, signed up for a Treatment Foster Care program, and took a 9-year-old at Specialized Level of Care. That’s the highest level available in our state, and is assigned to kids with severe medical and/or behavioral issues. This kid has been in foster care for years and has never had a family that was willing to keep him or deal with his issues.
    He’s diagnosed with a mood disorder, ADHD, bipolar disorder, possible autism, and mild mental retardation. I’m starting to think every one of those diagnoses is off-base. After seeing his hyper-vigilance, intense violent reactions to slight perceived offenses, and almost complete inability to connect appropriately or be wary of strangers, I’m going to start talking to the therapists about PTSD and RAD. His reaction to anything that isn’t super fun or what he wants to do is intense anger and violence. This weekend, we had 2 separate episodes where he attempted to punch, kick, throw things and hurl threats and obscenities at my husband for 45 minutes at a time. It would have been me too, but my husband takes the brunt of it so I can run interference and call for help, and to keep his own protective instincts at bay. The day we didn’t have a breakdown, the kid spent another 45 minutes grunting and hiding from his ABA-trained tutor because he didn’t want to do a math problem. This was while I was literally locked in my bedroom with the dogs because I knew he was on edge and “keeping the dogs in line” (which he sees as his job because we can’t convince him that we can control them, even though they’re both over 10 and incredibly docile) would have been a frustration that could have put him into another meltdown.
    All of this was ultimately triggered because a judge required that he show up in court last week even though parental rights have been terminated for years, and he got it in his head that his bio brothers were going to move in with us. Sad to say, our son is the least difficult of the 3 brothers, and their history together has already determined that they probably won’t ever be able to live together again. But his age-9-but-developmentally-age-6 brain can’t begin to comprehend that. So he’s mad and feeling betrayed and figures, “I’ll just get them to kick me out. That always works.”
    Tired doesn’t begin to describe how I feel. This kid deserves a fair chance to experience family. We WANT to be that family. We KNOW that God called us to this. But I’m literally facing a choice to promise “forever” to a child who may not ever be able to truly love me. To a child who will probably always fight when he is hurt or scared or angry, whose behavior may always be so extreme that we won’t ever be able to have another child in the house. The choice to pour every ounce of love I can muster into this kid and PRAY that he comes to enough healing to be able to navigate the world on his own. To give up my dream and prayer for a big family so that one kid can hurt a little less.
    We’re only 3 months in – I literally have no idea how we’ll make it years.

    • Allisonm

      The choice about whether to keep fostering this child is so hard and one only you can make. We accepted three siblings as an adoptive placement, having no way to know what we were really signing on for. Eight years later, we are still a family. Life has been nothing like we imagined it would be. I don’t regret being my children’s mother. Not for a second. If I’d known early on what was coming, there is no way I would have thought I could do it.

      • TLoudermilk

        Allison, thanks for your comment. I was thinking about this today, and wanted to share a realization I had about it all… I’ve heard many parents of special-needs kids say they wouldn’t give it up and don’t regret it. But also that it’s never how they imagined their lives would be. I keep coming back to that – “this isn’t how I imagined it.”
        But then, God whispered something to me – “but what if it’s how *I* imagined it, my child?” That got me in the gut…
        All my life, I’ve come up with great plans – very clean and beautiful. And easy, always easy. God has often swept in at the last minute and upset every last apple in my cart, replaced my entire plan with something else completely, and really made me mad in the process. But in hindsight, every one of his plans was more perfect, and more elegant than anything I ever dreamed. But harder, always harder. His vision for our lives is so much more than we can dream. The hard is what makes us lean on Him, and know we’ve got to give Him the glory when we get through it!

    • Susan Mell

      Hang in there! God called you to this and He will see it through. Romans 8 is a great chapter to cling to during this time. March 2015 We took in a bit who at age 8 had been in 7 foster homes in less than 3 yrs. June 28th, we adopted him. Had it been rough? YES! He clings to the father who abandoned him. He has ADHD, PTSD, ODD and anxiety. We discovered that in 4yrs of school, he had been in 8 different schools. We’ve had the screaming fits in the corner, the throwing things, the kicking holes in our walls, the peeing on the floors and the sweet hearted little boy in school and when there’s company. All they really see is the boy who rarely plays with others but cleans up after the everyone. They don’t understand the anxiety that he’s cleaning because they’re making a mess. When we vent, “we’re just dealing with typical boy behaviors”. He has calmed in the year and the fits are lessening, he’s able to not only hug but ask for hugs. Even though he’s adopted he still does not call us mom and dad to our face. He does when he talks to someone else about us. It is a ROUGH road. Cling to the fact that God has called you to this, that will help you through the trenches. God called you and He will equip you. Make sure you take time for you and God. That’s what has helped me.

  • Danae

    My son is a teenager. He is biological. But I am a Trauma Mama. My son has autism (HFA), but finally made a “best friend”. They were inseparable. Only I did not know that his friend was sexually assaulting him. My son’s innocence was robbed. 6 months later he developed auto immune issues from the stress. He now has Type 1 Diabetes and is completely bald from Alopecia. And he has become addicted to porn and deviant sexual acting out, including self-harming behaviors. He is also angry, and anger manifests in rages. Currently he is in a residential placement because we can no longer handle him at home. My heart grieves. I had been so exhausted from constant vigilance. For a month I’ve been able to breathe. But I know that this RTC is not permanent, and I am concerned for the day they decide he’s “healed” enough. How sad is that? And then, after those thoughts, the guilt begins. This is not how I envisioned my life. At all.

    • Allisonm

      How heartbreaking for you all for your son to have finally had a friend who turned out to be a predator. I started out feeling guilt over needing respite, but soon realized that the guilt was making me less able to meet my kids’ needs and was wasting the value of time away. Ending treatment before everyone is ready to function together in a healthy way does no one good. I see no logical reason for guilt over wanting treatment to continue until your son and family can do more than eke out survival. But my tendency to feel guilt often defies logic and I doubt I’m alone in that.

    • Kristin Berry

      I am so sorry to hear that you are going through that and that your son had that experience.

  • Clare Koontz

    I have adopted My RAD FASD,ODD, ADHD.+ a little on the Spectrum children 2 guys from Foster system. It has been no picnic,But have learned to cope pretty well/ the help of therapy,Meds.,Cameras,to keep them safe. They have come a long way,but other than time for them,or /them,keeping them safe, I have little time for anything,or anyone else. These children were my choice,so my complaining is pretty much some venting here.Recently after a fire from our hot water heater,we have had to move,Change is pretty difficult for these kids/ pretty much no help,My plate has become overflowing. I take it one day at a time and try to make them know,home is Us. Not a house or place.The Ins.process really is awful,even thou I had very expensive coverage,which has now gone up to $3,100 a month for an empty,house. I’m cleaning and clearing out the mess,because of so much breakage by Ins. Co.This wasn’t a $ making thing! I’m donating lots of our excess things to charity. Because less is easier.

    • Allisonm

      So many comments from people going through particularly hard times. Our journey with our kids has been a bit calmer lately, for which I am very thankful. Two years ago, I took up quilting and vegetable gardening as things to help me stay creative and hopeful. While I am sewing and sowing, I pray. I will be praying for the parents responding to this blog from a place of distress this month.

      • Clare Koontz

        I had ordered some beautiful things for our garden,they came in the mail,right after this incident,Even tho we were and are in the middle of a crazy thing. We planted everything in our old houses’ yard.They are thriving.Just like I pray We will. Just have to pull ourselves up the best we can,+ be glad we are alive to do so! I understand everyones stress,the years keep teaching me its lessons,they seem no easier! : >)

        • Allisonm

          I’m so glad your garden is thriving–a reminder that you are thriving, too. Things would be even harder if you weren’t. In tough circumstances, thriving can look pretty messy and rough, but the fact that you haven’t lost your perspective on where everyone is stress-wise tells me you have a great deal of strength and resilience. I will continue to pray for your deliverance from your current distress.

  • Susan Thalhofer

    So I finally have a term to define our pain and stress. Secondary Trauma. Ok. Last year we had to remodel our home. Although our adopted 16-year old said she’d kill herself or us if returned home – the state said “she’s your child, home it is”. So, we punched through a wall to make a new door and were able to lock off her room from the rest of the house at night while she could have an outside door exit. We almost encouraged running away, but that she won’t do. Now, since she is adamant that she will kill herself if returned home, she was put into foster care. We are in the legal battle of our life (we feel) because the state is demanding $1262/month for her care for at least 2 more years. Oh, by the way, the child support enforcer says that me staying home is just a choice. Since we are mitigating the support, they may add on “what I should be making” to that amount. So, we sit and wait for our attorney to help us out of this mess. Paying for someone else’s damage. Meanwhile, I look at the younger half-sibling (9) who has attachment disorder and trauma problems and wonder if I will be facing the same thing when he is older.
    I discovered that I have been unable to attach and bond with these children who cannot love me back. It makes it difficult for me to continue to be a mother to them. I feel like I should have known before we took them but we never knew these children could have these problems. I feel trapped.

    • Allisonm

      Such a difficult place to be. All of our children, now 17, 16, and 12, have severe PTSD, RAD, fetal drug and alcohol effects, etc. It was hard for me to bond at first. The children fought us at every turn. They were terrified and it came out as almost constant rage. We went to a couple of years of attachment therapy so I could learn how to bond and become attuned to my children and start meeting their needs. They couldn’t change themselves, so I had to change into a mom who could bond with children who weren’t able to give anything back. It was hard going and I felt really stupid a lot, but I learned how to give my kids an environment in which they could start to feel safer. It was all counterintuitive for me, but as my kids felt safer, they started changing their worldview. Their behavior communicated less distress. We had–and needed for years–a lot of in-home help from mental-health workers who understood our children and our determination to move beyond mere survival and into thriving. We have had and still have excellent therapists and case managers who have been dedicated to our success as a family. We passed on those who were unable or unwilling to help us all heal.

      At first, everything for me was complicated by my grief over the difference between what I imagined our family would be like and the reality we were facing. After awhile, I realized that I had become trapped there and had to make a concerted effort to move past that if I was going to meet my children’s needs. I had to nonjudgmentally set aside everything I thought I knew about parenting and family life so I could be open to gaining a very different set of skills and perspectives. It’s been slow and I’ve made countless mistakes, but today I am able to love my children despite that I don’t know whether my older teens love me back. My youngest is home with me almost full time, since he can only tolerate eight hours at school each week, up from four hours a week last year (woohoo!) That means that I can’t work outside our home. He has attached to me, though the attachment is full of anxiety for him. But he and we are getting better all the time now and have fewer safety issues than we used to.

      I’m telling you these pieces of my story because I want to offer you hope and encouragement for a happier and more satisfying future with the children you want to be able to love and bond with. Having difficulty establishing a bond with your children is such a deep, deep pain–one I know too well for myself. But it is not too late to try again, perhaps less overwhelmed with grief and sadness. Therapeutic approaches have advanced a lot in the eight years we have been our children’s parents and the prognosis for children with trauma and attachment challenges is much more encouraging than when we first began. When we first started, we were given little hope for our children’s futures, but that is no longer the case. I found that I could learn what did not come naturally to me with my kids and that it has become ingrained in my being and deeply satisfying.

      • Susan Thalhofer

        Thank you for sharing. Few people around us understand our struggles. I haven’t wanted to do therapy because I haven’t wanted to allow myself to bond, knowing it might not be returned. But, I appreciate the hope that we all need healing and it truly would be the best thing for all of us. (Actually we DID do therapy for 2 years, but all she really did was talk therapy, and we didn’t get anywhere, so we’ve been reluctant to start up again.)

        • Allisonm

          Having now bonded with my children, I feel much less concerned about whether they reciprocate than I imagined I would. I want them to be able to be in healthy, reciprocal relationships because that is what will be best for their futures, but my greatest satisfaction comes from loving them. I rarely think about whether they love me back. It just doesn’t come up often.

          There are attachment therapies specifically aimed at helping parents bond and children attach, regardless of the child’s chronological age. They are typically not focused on talking, so much as on activities that help foster the parent-child relationship on a more fundamental level. A lot of the things we did were fun and helped us all learn how to let our guards down and relax with each other. We planted the seeds of trust and came to understand and empathize more fully with our children. They became our children, rather than children we were living with and caring for. I found it scary at first–I was afraid I would fail!–but as I got the hang of it, it became exhilarating. I felt like a real mother, all the way down to my toes. I still do.

          I hope to have been an encouragement to you.

      • Kpainter

        I read this post and it’s like I’ve written every word you typed! For some reason this post showed up in my inbox this morning even though it’s old… and I think it was solely to read your comment. I’ve been struggling … a lot lately … a lot doesn’t even begin to cover it … it’s almost consumed me. How, if you don’t mind me asking, were you able to move past the fact the love might not ever be reciprocated? That is my main struggle right now. We’ve had our son and daughter for two years now … he’s 4.5 and she’s 5.5. Our son has attached and our daughter has not, in fact it’s almost like she goes out of her way not to. We’ve searched and searched for a therapist and finally found someone we like, trust and agree with methods on … only issue is she’s 6.5 hours away from us, so it’s not feasible to meet on a consistent basis. I own every book that’s been written on the subject, at least it feels that way. I’m EXHAUSTED to say the least and recently it’s like I’ve been slammed into a brick wall and I don’t even have the energy to try and pick up the pieces. I’d be interested in speaking with you if you’re willing … because I know it’s selfish of me to expect love in return and it’s something I want to work on, but I feel so lost right now. Thanks!

        • Allisonm

          Sorry I haven’t been online a lot in the last several days. I know that brick wall very well. We are well into our ninth year with our children. You are not selfish to want to be loved in return, just maybe premature. And you may have to learn the language of your daughter’s heart to be able to hear her expressions of love. Your daughter sounds like she has a strong desire to survive and thrive–and what you are offering her must be pretty attractive to her. Otherwise, she wouldn’t need to protect herself so vigorously from being taken in by one more person. Take that as an “I love you, Mom.” She probably doesn’t yet know that you are trustworthy, so the long game is to show her your love by becoming attuned to her emotional needs and meeting them first, over and over, before expecting anything from her. Easier said than done, I know.

          My children’s behavior communicates the level of their distress. The more outrageous the behavior, the worse the distress. Our oldest has struggled with guilt over being unable to protect his younger siblings and with taking the brunt of prior abuse. After more than a dozen homes/families, it’s been hard for him to believe that we love him and will stick by him. He’s always waiting to get somewhere else before he invests in his life. His expressions of love can be hard to interpret, but they are there. Our daughter was similarly insulated from more heartbreak. She now allows me to express affection for her by asking me to braid her hair or check her back for acne. That’s what feels like love to her, so that’s the language I speak. Our youngest has been the most challenging, simply because he had no emotional regulation for years. He overtly loves me, but fought me and everything else in life for a very long time–usually physically. He’s relatively peaceable now, if we keep his stress level manageable. Can you message me through Disquss if you want to talk more?

    • Carol Kohlberg

      I am so sorry.

  • I would actually argue we are experiencing both primary and secondary trauma. The roads we walk as we care for our kids are traumatizing. Secondary trauma happens when you are traumatized by someone else telling you their story. Primary trauma happens when you live it. When my kids tell their stories, it can be traumatizing to think about humans having to live through those things…secondary trauma. But when there aren’t groceries in the house, you haven’t slept in days, and you’re the parent victim of child rages, that’s primary trauma.

    • Allisonm

      I can see your point. Lacking the ability to just tell it outright in words, my children show, through often horrifying behavior, what happened to them and how they felt/feel about it. Behavior is their primary means of communication. I am affected not only by my own reaction to the trauma they are communicating to me about, but by the direct affects their means of communication have on my physical body, my emotions, my executive functioning, and my spirit. One more good reason that treatment should be available to embrace the whole family.

    • Carol Kohlberg

      I have secondary trauma. Not because of my kids stories. That takes it toll no doubt. When I was 15, I was assaulted. I had many things happen in that event. Today we are battling a system that has turned on me because of my son’s actions. It is hard to give specifics as we are still right in the middle of this. But they are victimizing me all over again. What they have done to me personally triggered my past trauma. I have relived that event, in many ways including flashbacks.

    • Cody Stephens

      I agree. We often face both primary and secondary traumas.

  • Elisha Heffner

    Mom to five bio kids all with special needs and issues. Three have ptsd two are autistic. It is so hard we have no outside help. Family members just think the kids are undisaplined. I can’t make friends because the kids needs take up all my time. What makes it harder I think is that my kids are not adopted there’s not alot of support out there when the kids are your bio kids.

    • Allisonm

      And yet trauma and attachment challenges can affect biological families just as much as adoptive ones. It’s just more common among adoptive families. A lot of the best resources for treatment are found in the public sector because it serves foster and adopted children. As lonely as it’s been for me, at least we have had access to competent help and an identified community of adoptive parents. It pays to focus on our similarities rather than our differences. When we do that, our community gets more inclusive.

  • Laurie Hetherington

    Yes. Yes. Yes. If I say more I will burst into tears. I am 110% understanding your exhaustion.

    • Sounds like we’re in the same trench eh? Hang in there. 🙂

  • Laurie Hetherington

    Why there is a profile pic of a man I do not know is kinda frightening me right now!!!! What???

  • Pingback: Mensiversary – Cave to Cliff()

  • Sheila N.

    We only have one child with special needs that we adopted and I feel like we are barely managing to keep it together. Exhausted all the time as she doesn’t sleep well. Worry about finances because someone needs to be not working and at home to be available for appointments and for her if she needs to be picked up from school. I know I need to exercise and to eat better but putting that plan into motion is difficult. Things need to get done around the house but it is overwhelming at times. I want to end this with some positive statement etc but I am too tired to come up with anything.

    • We understand this completely. Especially the not sleeping well. Hang in there Sheila. You are not alone.

  • Jacqueline Billups Grant

    Yes!!! I also suffer from secondary trauma. Adopted 3 boys. Twins from one family and now a 13 year old from another family. My husband is a pilot who is only home 15 days out of the month.

    13 year old RAD, FAS, Opiates, depression, some other not diagnosed. God only knows what else from previous foster family. Lies, steels, impulsive, manipulating, cons, copies, a follower, trangulates between mom and dad, mom and other son…Etc

    Twins ADHD, IDIC 15, autism spectrum, Anxiety, depression, Chiari Malformation, premature birth 2 months. I could copy what other moms have noted. Neurological disorders, learning disabilities etc etc

    I feel helpless, lack of spouce support and family support.😟😢

  • Pingback: Secondary Trauma: How Your Child’s Special Needs May Be Affecting You. –

  • Stacy Willoughby

    Yes, we are struggling. Foster/adopt parents 18 years but just adopted 3 teen boys that would really rather be somewhere else if they could.
    They are never happy or thankful. And we do not even get the privalage of being called mom or dad. They all are hurting. But instead of loving us back, we get all their anger, frustration, & unhappiness.
    We knew this going into it. They all had lived here over a year already. Adoption did not make things easier. So far, things are harder. Yet we still hope for brighter days. And we do see them occasionally.
    Respite is a necessity, & we are thankful for others who also love our kids.
    Pray for us. The stress load is heavy right now.
    We do monthly respite, vacations sometimes alone, & have a great church who supports what we do. But it is still hard most days.

  • Kaci Jackson May

    Simple, short, false accusation by adopted child led to report to child protective services. It’s the law in SC to report every accusation. I would like to see laws changed to expect reasonable reporting, after minimal investigation, applied common sense so children with history of trauma and lying are not holding family hostage. Cycle of trauma is perpetuated, power is transferred from parent/adult to child when they learn they can create accusations and report stories to avoid being held accountable, ultimately further damaging relationships, harming otherwise healthy units if investigations are enforced by agencies. I could go on and on.

  • Beth Wilkison

    I have canceled a few doctor’s appointments recently because I know that she will say exactly what is quoted in the above article. I know my blood sugars are higher than normal and that I need to pull myself together- as I am sure you can understand, I was doing well while my youngest, FASD, RAD trauma kiddo was doing OK, and then he spiraled down and so did I. (Thankfully my oldest son, also adopted, doesn’t have the same issues. He has orphanage related issues and food issues, but they are manageable and do not impact our lives daily.) I am going to see my doctor next week- do you know of any quick to read resources outlining secondary trauma that I could offer her to read? I might print out your blog post to hand over…. 🙂

  • Gina Gentile

    I’m a mother of two sons- one is 25 years old and one is 5 years old. I began foster parent (as a single parent) 3 years ago. I had two children that came from extreme abuse and neglect of all types. The older child had been abused all her life (10 yrs) and the little boy was 2 and was completely shut down and didn’t talk. I had the girl for 11 months and it was soooo hard. I love the little girl but she was very verbally abusive to my 5 year old and when the 2 year old started talking and having a personality she started being verbally abusive to him as well. She was at times destructive of household items and kicked in a door, frequently had yelling fits at me, etc. She did improve alot, but she got to a point where she didn’t improve anymore and the caseworker moved the older child to treatment foster care. I kept the 2 year old, and he turned 3 and has been with me for 16 months. Then within two months of the older girl leaving, I got a call to take three more children (that there were no other open homes for these children.) I took them in December and now have a 12 month old, 2 yr old, 3 yr old and two 5 yr olds. This is almost as hard as the difficult older girl I had. I love the children, but they each have their own issues, and together is so hard to keep peace and harmony. I have gained weight, I don’t eat as I should, I’m sleep deprived and it’s nearly impossible to keep my house tidy. Also- I work full time and that has been a huge stress as well. I’m not sure what the solution is, because I love these children. I hope to adopt the 3 yr old. The sibling group of 3 are going home, possibly in a few more months. If there is any problems with their family, I know I will want to take them back. I’m also being encouraged and even made to believe if I don’t adopt the older girl (who has PTSD, and a variety of other diagnoses as one would imagine after a lifetime of being abused) that I once had, I won’t be able to adopt the 3 yr old. That is a stress also. I love the girl, and have tons of sympathy for her, but I’m not sure about adoption. 🙁 I keep trying to get healthier with my diet, but when I’m stressed I crave bad foods. I”m borderline diabetic, and have slightly elevated blood pressure and a huge family history of heart disease. I”m 50 yrs old and I really need to get a healthy lifestyle. I have alot of anxiety and I may be getting a little depressed. I get upset easily and I’m thinking this is secondary trauma. That’s my story.

  • Bonnie

    I never thought that this would be my life right now. We adopted two girls about seven years ago. And the adjustment period was smooth and seamless; we jumped into parenting and asked the girls felt more at home they started to tell us of the things that they had experienced in the foster home, as they were too young to remember the abuse, neglect, malnutrition, starvation, and exposure to drugs that they have received their biological father. We’ve gotten them into counseling, we received several diagnosis between the two of them 80 HD, post medic stress disorder, reactive attachment disorder or, oppositional defiance disorder, anxiety disorder, and they plethora of educational problems like speech and language problems may be a learning disability and one that they’re watching for autism spectrum disorder. When I read this article it’s spoke directly to me; in fact maybe about me. Except I didn’t realize that I could be having stress from getting them help for their issues. I pulled my daughters from public school this school year because my littlest one was being bullied until she was throwing up at the very thought of going to school and my oldest one was being pushed through – given A’s and B’s even though she couldn’t do the homework alone or write a paragraph. so now I’m homeschooling for the first time and that was quite an adjustment. But we have a routine now and it’s getting better. We had four boys before we adopted, only one remains at home with the girls. But that doesn’t mean my older sons are not a great means of concern and worry for us. Drug use, child out of wedlock, severe depression after my mom passed in Nov 2015 and maybe even a metal illness; trying to help everyone that’s grieving when I’m still grieving myself. My husband and I are also self-employed and run our own business from our home. So, if I’m not teaching, going to a therapy appointment, speech, geneticist, or any other specialist; I’m working on the business. If I get dinner on the table I consider it a good day. I rarely sleep, my husband barely sleeps either. We are always thinking about what’s going on with our children. We pray, we go to church, we ask others to pray for them/ us, but our hearts are just broken. I feel like I’m losing all hope. It takes all my energy just To keep it together each day. I cry a lot. And I wonder if my children will grow up to be successful, independent Adults, Will my husband and I have to care for most of them for the rest of our lives? Who will care for them when we are gone? My mind races with all of these questions that I have no answers for. My heart races and I feel palpitations often. I’ve even landed in the hospital on more than one occasion with an anxiety/ panic attack. I can see the stress weighing on my husband, and I worry about him, as he was recently diagnosed with an illness that affects his ability to walk every day. And of course I worry about that. What if he becomes disabled? how will I possibly care for my family physically and financially if he does? I can’t tell you how many times I wish my mom was here with me. She didn’t always have the answers but she always gave me encouragement and a hug. How I long for those hugs. I’m considering therapy or perhaps family therapy. I can tell the kids are stressed as well about what’s going on with their brothers. No matter how we try to keep it from the kids who are at home, they hear it, they see me cry. They’ve seen the police come when my son threatened suicide. They’ve had enough trauma in their young lives, they don’t need to see more, but I feel I can’t protect them from it. I don’t know what to do , but I know we need help, I just don’t know where to get it.
    Worried momma

  • Terry Marcie Arthur

    I have only one child. She has special needs. We adopted her at 2 years old. Before that, she lived in an orphanage. She was likely abused there. She has PTSD, ADHD, LD, and is probably on the Fetal Alchohol spectrum, although on the mild side of that. She also has a number of physical issues, although none that would, at this point, qualify as a disability. Taking her to therapies, medical tests, doctor appointments, etc., can be quite overwhelming. Occasionally, I go into denial about her issues. I’m sure it’s a coping mechanism, a way to take a “vacation” from it all. It doesn’t last long before reality hits me in the face again, with a new diagnosis or difficulty. And I think, wow, if I feel this way with only one child, what must it be like for those with a child with more severe disabilities, or those with more than one child? It is downright HARD, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

  • Helen Hutchinson

    Last night I reached a point I never ever wanted to reach… In all seriousness I wanted to end my life! Living in the constant deep hatred combined with verbal abuse coming from my 14yr old granddaughter (with RAD) who I have been raising, became far too much! Combined with her older brothers with Autism that have been with me for 20yrs, there was just one too many vitriolic words from her & I had had enough! I don’t have a family support network,on my own & in my 70’s. I consider it primary trauma for the carers!

    • Oh, Helen!!!!! Hold on, friend. Hold on. We are here for you. You are not alone in this even when it seems you are. We are here. I highly recommend becoming a member of Oasis Community. Check it out and let me know if you are interested and we’ll get you set up with a month to try it out.

      • Helen Hutchinson

        Is it Australian?

        • Not sure what you mean. It’s an online support group with lots of resources and you can chat live with someone. So it works from anywhere.

          • Helen Hutchinson

            Ah Michelle, all the great helpful information I am getting is from America & I am in Australia.Also,as a ‘senior'(grandmother) carer, my technology skills are very lacking plus am usually too exhausted by days end to even think of trying to communicate the turmoil life has become with a 14yr granddaughter with severe RAD &ODD. Please excuse my ignorance & I will look up Oasis asap! Thank you so much for caring!

          • Michelle Sackett McKinney

            You are most welcome!! Hang in there! You are doing a great job!

  • Pamela Harnden-Wilcox

    I have c -ptsd from my childhood and my son has as adhd&autism.. I am so stressed all the time that I lay awake thinking I am having a heart attack. I have zero patience for my partner, and just want to be alone, when my son is at school or settled for the night.