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.

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