Healing From Your Own Trauma To Help Them Heal From Theirs

You know the saying, “everyone is a perfect parent before they have a kid?” I exemplified that saying. I didn’t try to come across as arrogant or “holier than thou”. I really, truly thought I would have this adoptive parenting thing in the bag. I was all set to be an attentive, hands-on, attachment-driven, trauma-informed mama to whoever came through my doors through foster care or adoption. It wasn’t totally just my arrogance speaking. I had a psychology degree. I had attended classes. I read books on the topics of attachment parenting and adoption for fun. I asked for them for Christmas gifts years before we would actually ever foster.  I attended seminars and sat in discussions. I was ready. (Please, hold your applause. Or laughter. whatever.) 

This certainty that I was going to be the “best mom ever” disappeared the second actual children were in my home. I don’t mean, like, theoretically. I mean I actually seemed to forget what a child was, what they liked, how to hold a baby, how to make a bottle, and what toys are age-appropriate for 8 and 9-year-olds. I felt like my brains fell out of my head and got stepped on. I was simultaneously trying to calm a fussy newborn, direct children to their new room, hold a conversation with a caseworker, and sign documents. As soon as the caseworkers and friends left us alone, just my husband, baby girl, and two traumatized little boys, I looked my husband in the eyes and uttered the words, “Wait. They left us alone with three children that we are now in charge of. What were they thinking? What was I thinking?” I am quite certain that was the fifteenth mistake out of hundreds I would make in the next months with the kids. The boys, now with confirmation that we had seemingly no idea what we were doing, went wild.  

Some background on me: I was raised in a very “no-nonsense” kind of household. We were expected to know what we could and could not do long before the ages of 8 and 9. I internalized a lot of negative dialogue. Much of that was just me being a very sensitive kid. Some of it was because my own parents had been brought up in less than ideal situations and our behavior often managed to trigger their fears, worries, anger, and depression. My mom, bless her soul, is a screamer. I have discovered late into adulthood that I have sensory processing issues; I have potentially been dealing with ADHD, anxiety, and clinical depression for most of my life. So, I would, not knowing what I was doing wrong, trigger my mom’s anger. Mom would scream because “we should know better” or we made a mess that made her anxiety spiral (I know the feeling mom. I get it now). My daddy is a sweetheart. He is kind and gentle. He is also an enabler and is prone to retreat when conflict is involved. I internalized all of it and carried it into adulthood and marriage.

 My husband is a sweetheart and a saint. He is calm, brilliant, and kind. He is also … messy. However, he is only really tolerant of his own messiness, no one else’s. He doesn’t mean to be that way, just like I don’t mean to be. His dad is also a very particular person. While my father-in-law himself is often disorganized, he is very upset if his children do something the “wrong way”.  Tools need to be put back exactly in the right place. Papers go in a certain place. There is a time and place for certain behavior, and there is most definitely not a time or place for silly or irreverent or disrespectful behavior. My mother-in-law is a yeller. She is also very opinionated. She is unafraid or unaware of being offensive. It isn’t always a bad thing, but it does set an example.

I adore my mom and dad and my in-laws. However, as my husband and I became parents, we began to see things in each other that had never had a reason to surface during 14 years of marriage. Who cares what your expectations for children are if there are no children? Do you see where this is going? 

I had read several books, blogs, and papers on attachment parenting. I had seen the research about how yelling at a child, especially a traumatized child, causes their cortisol levels to skyrocket and their brains go into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. I’ve seen papers outlining how kind, gentle parenting is the absolute best for children who have experienced trauma. How kids are still learning but they are little people with opinions and feelings that should be listened to, not automatons there to do exactly what we say. I knew what kind of behaviors to expect in a kid from a hard place. Trauma is not an unheard-of challenge to face. What I didn’t know was how, in the heat of the moment, patterns that had been worn into me for decades would surface. I don’t like yelling. I don’t like when consequences outweigh the crime by double. I don’t think it is fair to a kid who is just trying to navigate their way in a strange world. Do you suppose though, that after 18 years of “do as I say, this instant!” parenting from my mom and dad and my husband’s mom and dad, we were able to just turn that off? We were not. Thankfully, we were with an organization with very intelligent, helpful caseworkers who know their stuff. They recognized the signs of fatigue in our faces the first visit after placement and helped us to figure out how to ask for help. They also encouraged us towards counseling. 

I had been to counseling before, and it had helped me work through my feelings about my parents and my life and trauma I had faced. I am very pro-therapy. So when someone I cared about mentioned it, I was there for it. It was so worth it for everyone. My kids got to experience an adult who listened to them and didn’t judge what they were saying. I got a listening ear and an adult who completely understood why I felt like yelling to just eat the dagum spaghetti–no we are not going to get McDonald’s, oh my goodness.  I also attended several trainings and meetings with other moms who were in the same stage as me. It was so healing to hear others describe the same struggles and affirm that I wasn’t alone. I also learned new strategies to take when things were becoming too much. I learned when I needed to tag out because I was going to cause emotional harm. I learned breathing exercises that help both my kids and myself calm down in the heat of the moment. 

I would never have had the desire or strength to continue our foster and adoptive journey if it hadn’t been for wise counselors who helped me learn how to heal and even forgive some of the trauma I had been through with parents, past friends, people I knew, the kids in my house, and even hurts my husband had unknowingly and unintentionally caused me. I then in turn could speak more into my kids’ lives. Their trauma has been excruciating. They have lived through living nightmares. Even the youngest has trauma she needs to work through. I have learned the only way I can help any of them is if I myself am okay.  How do I do that? 

Ideally, somehow I would have figured all of this out long before kids came into the picture. Unfortunately, there is a great deal that you may not know about yourself as a parent before you are in the thick of it. I find myself constantly needing to apologize to my kids and my husband for the way I acted or something I said. I’ve learned that for them to see and experience that is healthy. I often saw the fights or was the victim of my mom’s anger without ever hearing an apology. My kids are learning how to forgive and how to ask for forgiveness. I wish I didn’t need to but we are a work in progress. 

Another thing that helps me is that I wrote down the signs I and my friends need to look for if I’m going into a depressive funk. Knowing the direction I’m headed before I get there can sometimes avert the actual big depressive episodes. Sometimes. Sometimes I just have to ride the wave, give myself grace, and pass off responsibilities to the people around me. I am still present for my kids, even on bad days, but admittedly, I am much less hands-on. I see a therapist who is familiar with parenting kids from hard places and kids with mental health issues. It is important to me to speak to someone who “gets it”. One particular therapist that I visited three times was sweet as pie but had absolutely no idea what to say when I described one of my daughter’s tantrums. Her eyes went wide, and she stared at me. I was sobbing and describing how much it hurt that a 4-year-old could be so ugly with their words and actions. She was a new mom, her child was biologically hers and her husband’s, and she seemed to come from a “normal” family. I was a horror show to her. She tried not to show it but she had no idea what to say. She told me she was open to letting me come and talk to her, but she didn’t know how to help. I appreciated her honesty and went elsewhere after amicably parting ways. 

I finally went to my doctor and described the absolute despair I was feeling after a particularly bad event with one of my older sons. I wept openly. Thankfully, my doctor is also my friend and is very wise. She recommended an antidepressant which I had been previously hesitant toward. I am usually the meds-for-everyone-else-but-I’m-fine-thanks type, but I agreed out of desperation. I also got a psychological evaluation done. There had been one done for all of my kids to rule out or diagnose certain issues (some associated with trauma), so I figured it wouldn’t hurt for me to have one. It was there when a great deal of my life came into focus with a diagnosis of anxiety, depression, and ADHD. I got on medication that worked for me after a very brief trial and error period. All of a sudden, I didn’t feel annoyed or angry at my kids half so much. I woke up happy to see them not annoyed at their existence or a mess they made. I am a better parent because I took the time to do for myself what I would encourage anyone else, even my own kids and spouse to do. I took care of myself, and now I can care for them so much better. 

I have learned to recognize the signs when my kids and spouse are overwhelmed. I am better at spotting it in them, but it also helps me recognize things in me. “Oh, it’s too noisy and overwhelming in Walmart, that’s why you’re freaking out right now.” It makes me think about all the times I left Walmart feeling exhausted, frustrated, and overwhelmed just getting some groceries. I try not to go into large, noisy department stores if I can help it now. It is sometimes just too much. Even things they enjoy, like parties, sometimes have to be ignored because of the level of upset that will come afterward. I would have never gotten my brain slowed down enough to recognize these very important things about my kids if I hadn’t taken the time to see a doctor for myself and address the challenges and trauma. 

Maybe your childhood was idyllic. Maybe your mom and dad always got along, modeled healthy parenting skills, and you are a completely mentally-well person. Maybe you don’t think you experienced trauma. You may still want to see a counselor to see if you are as alright as you think you are. Don’t be afraid to ask for help in healing–especially healing from trauma. It isn’t a weakness, it is a strength.

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