When You Understand Trauma, You Understand A Whole New World.

It took us a while to get there, but after years of parenting children from traumatic places, we finally had our eyes opened up. It became a game-changer for us, and our parenting.

Light at End of Tunnel

There are only 3 things I would go back in time and change if I had the power to do so. The first was field day in 6th grade. The event was cancelled due to rain and all students who decided not to come to school were excused. But I didn’t know this so I got on the bus anyways. Fail! The second was when I began my first real job after college. I wish I could go back and tell my young self to save as much money as possible. The third was in 2004 when we first began the foster care journey. If only I could go back in time and tell myself everything I know now about parenting children from trauma.

It’s true that hindsight is 20/20. You see so much more clearly when you’re on the other side of something. And that’s a shame. If only we could reverse that. But that’s just not the nature of life (most of the time). I remember the night I finally saw my son’s behavior for what it truly was….trauma!

He was cowering next to the claw-foot bathtub in our upstairs bathroom. He was so aggressive and agitated that he was trying to push the solid antique 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. Kristin and I, however, were dealing with this!

I’m going to be completely transparent and vulnerable here: The logically-thinking human being in me wanted to throw him out 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. We were exhausted, because meltdowns like this had become a daily hourly 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, I thought. I didn’t sign up for this! The more I let these thoughts run free, the angrier I became. But then, through the tangled mess of my frustration, a thought crossed my mind- “He’s afraid.” I tried to shake it off, and refocus my thought process so I could retain my anger. My attempts failed. My anger was overtaken by compassion. That was the first night I saw my son’s behavior in a completely new light.

I’ll Never Understand That Place.

I replayed everything that had led up to that point and realized, this was a fight for survival. Even though he was never deprived of major needs in all the years he lived with us, he fought for survival. Deep within him there was a belief that he wouldn’t have what he needed. Enough food, enough clothing, enough blankets on his bed, enough time, enough permanency, you name it. This fight came from a place I would never understand in a million years. Before his birth mother gave birth to him he was deprived. Then, after he was born, he was again deprived….of food…of affection…of care. You could ask him, years after, and he couldn’t recall it consciously, but sub-consciously, it was there…whispering to him like a demon. Prodding him to fight, and fight, and fight some more.

While he certainly made choices that were conscious, the root of his behavior was derived from a place of darkness….a place of fear. When I finally came to terms with this my mind was opened, and my heart changed. Even though I had a job to do as a parent, I could do it differently, with way more direction and much more compassion than I had been parenting him with.

Walking Into The Light.

It was a whole new world of understanding for me. Really, for our entire family. It changed our reaction, and our reaction time. We went from abrupt, snappy responses and consequences, to slower, calmer responses and consequences. For my son, who suffers from Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, we learned the power of remaining calm. We discovered it was the difference between a speedboat and an aircraft carrier in how we responded to him. A speedboat can turn on a dime. It can be quick, abrupt, and without warning. An aircraft carrier, on the other hand, requires a lot of time and a lot of space to turn. Because of the trauma he incurred in the womb, and even after his birth, he’s incapable of changing course abruptly. It causes him to fight because he’s simply trying to keep up in his mind.

As our good friend, Karen Anderson puts it, “We’re raising 10-second kids in a 1-second world.”

A lot of the battles we faced with our son over the years came from this misunderstanding. If only we had known how valuable patience, more time, and a calm response would be, years earlier, it would have changed the game for us. When you fully understand trauma and how it manifests itself through our kiddos on a daily, if not minute-by-minute, basis you understand a whole new world. More importantly, you see your children in a much different light. A light of compassion.

My son still pushes me to the edge (and beyond sometimes). I still struggle to keep my composure and my patience at times when he’s out of control. But I’ve learned to look past the exterior fight and straight to the scared child within. I’m learning to sift through the chaos of his trauma and see a human being who’s gone through darkness I can’t imagine. I’m learning to see the son I love deeply.

Question: Are you parenting a child from a traumatic past? How have you learned to navigate these tricky waters? Share your story with us. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Gonzalez Carmen

    This is so well written, describes in a very soft way how is the battle in those moments when your mouth shout “who do you think you are? This is unacceptable, you do not rule this family” but, our heart cry out seeing the darkness of those souls trying to cop with a painful past. God provides His grace in our daily-hourly journey for our kids and us as parents!!! Thank you for your encouragement!! Merry Xmas! ~Carmen~

    • So glad it resonated with you Carmen. 😉 😉

  • I want to know “how?!” Do you have book recommendations or techniques or anything more specific to direct a parent to handle the tantrums, outbursts and meltdowns?? My husband and I have four precious children we have adopted and they have all had traumatic beginnings. We are making progress, but sometimes, as I’m sure you know well, I’m tired and want the drama to end!

  • Mindi

    Newly licensed – no kiddos yet. I am reading as much as I can and practicing as often as I can to be prepared for these situations. Just curious, do you ever use the nurtured heart approach? This site is a wealth of great information. Thanks.

    • Hey Mindi, that’s wise to study and research as much as you can. I wish I would have done that back in the day….;-)

      We’ve never heard of that approach but sounds awesome. Thanks for sharing.

    • Allisonm

      We used the nurtured heart approach early on in our parenting, but ultimately were more influenced by the works of Heather Forbes (Beyond Consequences, Logic and Control) and Karyn Purvis (The Connected Child). The nurtured heart approach as we were introduced to it seemed more suited to an inpatient or residential treatment setting than our home with two working parents. I’m now a stay-at-home mom and the approach might work well for us now. I haven’t kept up on it in the last eight years, but have gone with other probably similar approaches since then. Anything that helps us understand our children and respond helpfully is a good thing!

      • Mindi

        Nurtured heart is the discipline model that our foster care agency recommends we utilize for our kids. I have found it to be quite helpful in teaching faith formation class to 1st graders. The focus is on recognizing positive behaviors and basically giving no energy to negative behaviors. I need to practice more, but I think for high energy or impulsive kids this might be a great tool.

        • Allisonm

          Now I remember why we had so much trouble implementing it. Our difficulty when our kids first came was that the negative behavior was all there was and would escalate instantly to physically unsafe conditions when we gave no energy to it. We didn’t have enough staff in our home to maintain safety without intervening on the dangerous behavior. The severity of our situation was off the charts, though, so this approach may be helpful to others. We found that our children needed our presence and calm energy all the time until they started feeling safe enough to be able to access their executive functioning and associate actions with consequences like the withdrawal of energy. Until they got to that point, the strategic provision of our energy, attention, and affection, however well intended, just seemed capricious and unreliable to our children, causing them more fear and anxiety. We encountered the same difficulties with Love and Logic–an approach that so appealed to my pre-trauma-parenting mind and personality.

          I use nurtured heart-type strategies a lot now that our children are so much more stable and can make connections between their behavior and my responses without panicking that they are losing me. But I have to be really attuned to where my kids are emotionally at the time so I don’t deny them my energy when they really do need it to keep from detaching from the family or decompensating completely.

  • Donnajean

    What you have described is so similiar to how our son gets when things don’t go his way. I have been so puzzled and asking why he gets violent and destructive. Although i dont think he has FASD, yur perspective on trauma may be the answer I’ve been looking for. I will approach the next meltdown so differently and with more compassion now. Thank you!

    • I’m so glad to hear this post helped. Hang in there. 😉

  • Vince Crunk

    OK different trauma (physical abuse as an infant) then years of mis-diagnoses (current Asperger’s with PTSD and more …) Your post resonates but the big question is how? Our therapist has us read “The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog,” as she feels the early childhood trauma has rewired our child’s brain as in PTSD. JD Vance talks about ACE or Adverse Childhood Events in Hillbilly Elegy. I understand it but unsure how to deal with it. Your wife’s 10 second thing sounds good, I try to think and slow down but it is not often possible. I mentioned to my wife recently that often it seems like a line has been drawn in the sand before things even start. The default mode is a defensive response often before words are spoken or action taken, just based on the context or situation. Anyway would appreciate guidance to any other resources that might be helpful in similar situations. Thanks.

    • Allisonm

      Our children experienced both abuse and neglect beginning very early in life and have PTSD, etc. They are always on the defense. This makes no sense to us if we look objectively at what is happening now, but makes complete sense when we realize that they view the world through a very different lens–one in which they have been so threatened that they are always in fear for their lives. As parents, we strive to help our children be both objectively and subjectively safe. Until they feel safe long term, their brains won’t wire up differently from their existing always-ready-to-fight-for-their-lives wiring. It’s a slow process that has taken us years. The brain is amazingly resilient and can compensate for or develop new pathways, given enough time and safety. My kids won’t ever be what they would have been if they hadn’t experienced abuse and neglect, but they can heal in significant ways and build on their many strengths. There are a number of people in the treatment community offering practical perspectives and approaches to helping our children move forward. I’ve mentioned some of those we have found particularly helpful to us in previous comments.

    • Hey Vince, check out Kristin’s post from earlier this year on remaining calm and firm… http://confessionsofanadoptiveparent.com/how-calm-and-firm-wins-with-fasd/

  • Allisonm

    Nine years ago, we met, then adopted three school-aged children who had experienced lifetimes of trauma, starting before birth and continuing through their many years in foster care. We are our children’s eleventh parents. We’ve been through a lot as a family. The first six or seven years were very, very challenging.

    All of us are so fortunate to live in a time when so much research is being devoted to trauma and how to compensate for its effects. The works of Bruce Perry, Karyn Purvis, Daniel Hughes, Heather Forbes and others have given us a much richer understanding of where our children are and how we can help them heal and grow. (I’ve benefited enormously from the practical suggestions of Karyn Purvis and Heather Forbes.) I learned that my children’s behavior wasn’t the problem, but that it was communicating to me about the problem. I learned about brain development, function and stress processing. I learned to go to almost any length to help my kids regulate–recognizing that they might be functioning as infants at times and need that high level of co-regulation from me. I learned about the value of rhythmic activity in helping support regulation and incorporated that into every day. I learned how not to squash my kids’ attempts to regulate and get their needs met, despite that they were aggravating and socially unacceptable, and instead how to support them while slowly striving for better. I trained and disciplined my language to align with the new perspective. I said good-bye to the life I expected as a parent and started thinking way outside the box that my siblings’ and friends’ children seemed to thrive in.

    But knowing the information is only the beginning. The anguish, frustration, and despair Mike described so eloquently can still reappear–when I’m tired, worried, distracted, or just plain selfish. I forget. I revert to old thinking. I let other people’s expectations and the desire to fit in with typical parents lead me astray. My kids aren’t the only ones who can turn as slowly as an aircraft carrier. I’m so thankful for God’s grace and forgiveness. They let me pick up the pieces and live to love another day.

    • As always, we love your perspective Allison. 😉

  • Alison Baggett

    We are dealing with this, but with trauma from physical abuse. It’s our first year with her and I have to remind myself how far she’s come already. We are trying to navigate what is PTSD, what is attachment disorder, & what is developmental delays. Kind of lost some days, honestly but thankful for community we can depend on and rely on for help and encouragement.

    • Allisonm

      We see this mix of trauma, attachment, sensory deficits and developmental delays in our youngest, now 13. At first, I tried to parse it all out and target the disorders individually. Over time, I saw how, in my son, they were so deeply intertwined that I couldn’t. His therapist recommended that we start with fundamental emotional regulation, without which we simply couldn’t move forward. The more I have focused on helping him feel safe and getting and staying emotionally regulated, which includes a huge sensory piece, the fewer symptoms he shows of any of the disorders. He couldn’t develop solid motor skills or learn academically when he was dissociated all the time due to terror. Now that he is better regulated, he is much more agile, has learned to read and do math, is mastering coping and social skills, and has a solid, if not always secure attachment to me. He is still behind academically, but is progressing more and more rapidly. Four years ago, his neuropsych eval said he would never be able to learn even basics or function in society, so I’m thrilled at the thought that my son may one day become able to live independently.

    • Yes, sometimes the quiet reminders to yourself can help you on the journey. Thanks for sharing.

  • Cherí Howard

    We are in those moments you describe now, although our older son has fewer meltdowns the longer we’ve had him. But there are some days when it seems like the meltdowns will never end. 🙁

    One of the things I’ve learned to do during his meltdown is to practice slow breathing, pray in that very moment and remind myself that he doesn’t understand why he’s melting down any more than we do. We are at the beginning stages of the diagnostics to see if he has FASD (which we strongly suspect). In the meantime, we are educating ourselves and trying to practice the techniques we learn.

    • Cheri, I love this. We actually talk about the importance of breathing in our parenting course, The Resting Place. It’s a game-changer. Thanks for your comment. 😉

  • Thanks for this. Needed to hear this today!

    • You are most welcome Adam. Glad it helped. 😉

  • Shelley

    This so closely describes my feelings and experience as the single parent of a 14 year old child with an extensive trauma background from birth through foster placements. I’m going to share this with his school as they think he’s being oppositional and just needs to “try harder”. People think because he’s been in a stable home for 11 years he should be able to manage himself now. Thank you for validating my experience and helping lessen the issolation.

    • It’s our pleasure Shelley. So glad you can use the content to better your situation. 🙂

  • Murray Coulter

    We’ve had both of our boys since they were very little. Our youngest came when he was a day old. Yet the description of trauma matches what we see on a regular basis. Does in utero trauma have the same impact?

    • Dawn Goebbels

      Yes, Murray, a lot of experts believe that not only does in utero trauma count (think of all the mother’s stress hormones bathing the baby and the baby being conscious of loud voices and beatings in domestic violence), but many believe that the baby’s brain is wired to attach to the mother who has carried him for 9 months and being separated from her, even into the arms of loving parents, causes a primal wound. Then of course there are the in utero effects of drugs, medication, and alcohol. I know of a little one born after a stressful pregnancy with domestic violence who showed stressful, jerky movements in her sleep from the very beginning and would pinch her parents from a very young age. This child now has RAD.

  • My wife and I have 5 children, three from her previous marriage, 2 from mine. One of my children was adopted when she was 3 months old and had experienced a good deal of trauma. I, too, wished we had know more about the long-term effects of trauma when we were raising the children. Even seemingly “normal” upbringing as some degree of trauma. And it isn’t just the kids. My wife and I realized that we had experienced trauma growing up ourselves and our kids seemed to trigger some of what you had experienced, though much of it was outside our awareness for many years. Learning about healing inter-generational trauma can be life-saving for all.