Why Loving Your Child Through Their Trauma Isn’t Enough.

As much as we wish we were super-humans with the power to export the trauma out of our children’s lives, we’re not. How do we love them through the darkness of their past, but also help them grow?

Father and child,cute little girl resting on her father's should

We were excited to take our two brand new sons to Florida for the first time. Although they were foster placements, we were going to be their forever home. They settled in with us just 2 weeks before the trip. When their case manager asked me what we were planning to do with them when we went to Florida, without hesitation I answered, “Take them, of course!”

My reason was simple- they were mine. Even though I barely knew them, I saw my sons every time I looked in their eyes. So, we packed up our 12-passenger van, filled up a trailer full of luggage and necessities for taking care of babies, and headed south. The trip was magical…until we reached the beach. In retrospect, I realize that, until that moment, Kristin had never put the younger of the two boys down. For 2 weeks she had carried him everywhere. He had just turned 1 but had not begun to walk. The moment she bent down to place him on the blanket we had spread out on the warm sand, he freaked out. For the next hour he flung his body across the blanket, tossing and turning as if he were on fire. His screams alarmed other sun-bathers, who haughtily looked sharply in our direction.

We finally gave up and went back to our vacation house. Every night for the next several months he screamed in the night. Car rides were also coated with tirades. Cereal bowls were flung across the room, Kristin’s hair was pulled, her arms scratched. There were even bruises up and down my legs from ongoing kicks. We suddenly began to realize the depth of this little boy’s trauma. After glancing through the files given to us by the Department of Family Services, we caught a glimpse of his journey. He was separated from his birth mom early on, and every visit with him ended early because of constant screaming. The trauma deepened as he moved from his biological grandparent’s home to multiple foster care placements.

We hadn’t even scratched the surface of his story. “No problem,” we thought. “We’ll love him through this.” But in the process, we discovered this just wouldn’t be enough. We needed more.

Love was never meant to stand alone.

As much as we wanted to be Superheroes who could snap our fingers and change the story, we weren’t. We couldn’t just pick this child up, hold him closer, and make his fears, anxiety, and stress go away. We’d all like to believe that we possess the power to transform a child, who we’ve brought into our care from a traumatic past. But the truth is, we don’t. Sure, our love must be unconditional, with no strings attached, but it cannot stand alone. For the first several months that our son was in our care, we ignored resources, because we believed that all he needed was to be loved through the darkness of his trauma. We also felt like we would be failing as parents if we used the help of therapists, or state-provided resources.

We were wrong.

Depending on our love, alone, puts an unfair burden on our shoulders. You and I were never meant to fight through this alone. Love must be the blanket that you wrap around your child’s entire journey. Within the blanket of love, there’s you, your spouse or partner, the resources you have available to you, and this precious child.

Look at it this way: If you were driving down the road, and suddenly one of your tires blew out, you wouldn’t continue to drive, ignoring the reality of your situation would you? Sure, you love this car and you want to believe you’re a good enough driver to get it to a service station, but you’d cause more damage by trying to do this. Instead, you’d stop, pull out your tire iron, jack, and spare tire, and change the flat. Or, you would call roadside assistance for help. These are all resources you have available to you to keep the car you love from sustaining more damage.

The same is true for your child. You must connect your love to action and partner with resources available to you to change the circumstances. You aren’t taking action in-spite of your love for your child, you’re taking action because of your love for your child. Doing this consistently will bring healing over time.

Love in partnership heals all wounds.

Connecting love with action, resources, and consistency will heal the wounds of trauma. Maybe not in a few months, or even a few years, but it will happen. We brought our two sons home to live with us in March of 2009. For years, our little one threw tantrums, went into screaming fits that caused us to leave public places. We fought to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But we refused to give up. We kept pursuing resources- trauma informed counselors and therapists, online courses and videos, specialists in the areas of disorders sustained by children who’ve come from difficult places, and much more.

We wrapped our unending love for this little boy around all of this. Today, more than 7 years later, our son (who is now 8) is healthier than ever. He is one of the most joyful kids we’ve ever met. You wouldn’t believe that he’s the same little boy who screamed at the top of his lungs for hours on the beach in the spring of 2009.

If we’ve learned one thing it’s this: love does heal. But love on it’s own when it comes to healing a child from a traumatic place, is not enough. It was never meant to exist on it’s own. It was meant to stand in partnership with the resources we’ve been blessed with.

Question: Are you raising a child from a traumatic place? What are your biggest trials? Share your story with us. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Abby Palmer Mandella

    “But love on it’s own when it comes to healing a child from a traumatic place, is not enough.” This is so freeing to read! I think a temptation for foster/adoptive parents to lose heart is because we pour out so much love with the best intentions but are still met with so.much pain. Realizing the love needs to be partnered with actions and resources relieves that burden and allows you to love more effectively, and see true healing. I wish there was more training at the beginning to prepare parents for the trauma….instead of having to figure it out when you’re up to your eyeballs in emotions. Thanks for the encouraging post and ways you are coming along side of us to offer hope!

    • Hey Abby, I am so glad this hit home. It was written from the heart of someone who is in the same trench as you! We are glad to be connected to you!

  • I wasn’t sure where you were going with this but I stuck it out and felt relief. I’m actually not a foster parent, so idk why I cared. LOL. But what I have found, though, is that a lot of the resources for my audience are not reliable or accurate. The “resources” are actually more damaging sometimes. The help isn’t helpful. I would love to see a list of some resources you have found to be invaluable in your journey, as there is some overlap in origin of what you write about and what I write about (recovering from trauma). Great post. 🙂

    • Hey Jade, thanks so much for sharing. I love your honesty. The primary resource we recommend is the book The Connected Child by Dr. Karyn Purvis, and the Empowered To Connect Conference. I definitely know that some resources make things worse. We’ve had to say bye-bye to a few therapists in our time because it was going more harm than good. But after seeking for a while we found diamonds in the rough. 🙂

      • Allisonm

        Our children and family have benefitted so much from the resources you named, as well as other similar ones. EMDR has been helpful as a trauma therapy, especially for our children who cannot speak about what happened to them. Strict behavioral models and token economies have not been helpful for us. The things that have worked have been focused on the relationships developed with our kids. Our therapists have had to be willing to experiment enough to find a way to connect with each of our children, instead of giving up when our kids didn’t respond the first time. It can take a long, sustained effort to develop a helpful relationship with children who have experienced the trauma, neglect, losses, and numerous placements our children have. We have to meet their needs before we can ask them to change their behavior. They can’t learn when they don’t feel safe.

      • Allisonm

        I would also add that “more than love” or “love in action” includes engaging resources to help support us as parents. Respite care is vital, whether through the mental-health system or through supportive and able family and friends. We cannot go full tilt 24/7 indefinitely. This is a marathon and we can’t sprint forever without meaningful rest.

        It should also include marriage strengthening activities or supports for a single parent’s primary adult relationships. We go to marriage counseling from time to time–not because our marriage is in trouble, but because we know that a high percentage of marriages of parents whose children have special needs do not withstand the stress and ultimately end in divorce. We get services to help us keep our marriage strong and resilient. Neither of us wants to do this alone. We joke with each other that our marriage is divorce-proof because whoever busts up the marriage has to take the kids with them. In reality, it takes a consistent and affirmative effort to keep our marriage on solid ground in the face of the severity of our children’s special needs.

        More than love also means examining ourselves to discover any old wounds, traumas, attachment challenges, or other difficulties in our own past and present lives and getting whatever therapy or other help is going to enable us to heal, recover, and move on. Trying to stay regulated in the face of our children’s extreme dysregulation is next to impossible if we are also carrying a load of our own unresolved challenges and triggers. Our children’s trauma often raises issues we either didn’t know we had or thought we had laid to rest. There is no reason to feel guilty or ashamed of still having issues. We just need to take care of them so we can be more effective for our children.

        Love in action may also mean recognizing that we are being traumatized by our children’s special-need-driven behavior. It is wise to acknowledge when this is happening and get help with dealing it.

        Taking good care of ourselves is vital to being in a position to give our best to our children.

    • Linda Miller

      I am a foster care parent with a child from Russia with RAD and PTSD and FAS and every oher diagnosis because of abuse and neglect. The “resources” we have fall into your category of more damaging sometimes. And those who mean well have not lived it. He is 17 now and we’ve come farther in the last 3-4 months than we (and he and others before me) have in years. Sometimes just accepting that this may be as good as it gets (through no fault of anyone’s) gets me through the day. And Karyn Purvis. I was disappointed that she wasn’t able to be at the conference this year, until I heard of her passing. She really was a child whisperer and her books are great – I coincidentally received a copy of her book in the mail today, a gift from someone who knows – just prior to checking facebook – but I must say that watching her is so much more helpful to me. I would suggest anything you can SEE. The conference was sponsored by ShowHope and I believe they have snipets you can watch/download. At Finally Home’s workshop last month they also had a slide that showed how different people see your child and you and how they would fix the “problems”. They see chemical problems, and behavior problems and parenting problems and learning problems and think they can be fixed with chemicals and parenting techniques and education and sometimes tough love. I have learned that what the kids need first and foremost is safety. And we don’t get to say what that is for them.

      • Allisonm

        I was at this conference by simulcast. It was really beneficial for our family and I would commend the Empowered to Connect resources to anyone in our situation. Many brief and helpful videos are available to watch online at the empoweredtoconnect website.

  • Jennifer Shaw

    Thank you for this post! We brought home a similar one year old, who is now three. We have blown through most resources locally & are headed to Seattle. Hearing that your son is doing so much better is incredibly encouraging, especially as we feel like we have been at this forever (I know we haven’t really…) with barely any improvement. I am pulling my Connected Child book back out right now!

    (Hey- any idea why there is a picture of some random guy next to my name?)

    • Oh you are most welcome. The Connected Child is an amazing book. So glad you are re-reading it.

  • Lindsey

    I needed this today. Thank you.

  • Casey Alexander

    We’ve been through much of the same; ours came to us at age 5 & 7 with RAD and PTSD. We also took ours to FL about a year before the adoption finalized; some of our family was moving cross-country, so we all planned a big family trip to Disney. In the middle of summer.

    Ah, our naivete, pairing the “happiest place on earth” with two very traumatized kids. We lost the boy for a terrifying 90 seconds (he saw Buzz Lightyear and zipped away). The weather was horrible but the park was packed. We managed to get on three rides all day, thanks to the lines and crowds. As we left the Magic Kingdom, he asked, “So. When will we get to Disney World?”

    Looking back, that question was the theme of our first three years…for all of us. “I thought having kids(or in their case: parents) was going to be fun. When do we get to Disney World?” Five years and many hours of counseling and therapy later, we’re all still alive and most days are fun. 🙂

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  • Tricia L Ellinger

    I have adopted 3 young children, a sibling group, I’m a single stay at home mom and they have been with me almost 4 years. They each have a varying degree of trauma history, definitely no inutero bonding for any. Each has an array of disabilities, some intellectual, speech, and so forth. The biggest hardship is never knowing when the crazy will surface. I attend or transport to about 10 service providers a week and that doesn’t include the ones that transport for me. I love them without fail, I’m consistent, stern, predictable and yet…and yet there are the days and times they traumatize each other. And I in turn am traumatised. Structure, routine, predictability and utilizing treatment resources is a way of life. I just hope I survive it.