Dear Struggling Mother,

I know it can be hard when our fantasies about parenting a child clash with reality. There is so much I want to say to you about hope and healing and humility and love. There is also so much I want to say to you about the very real damage past trauma can do, about how the way we’ve always parented just won’t work, and how it is not what our children need. This can be a tough pill to swallow and I know you don’t want to believe that trauma is a very real thing, but please, bear with me as I tell my story.

I’ve learned quite a few things since becoming a parent. I know that absolute silence from a child’s room is not always a good thing. I’ve learned that if a child eats grass while pretending to be a horse, it will make him throw up. I can pretty accurately gauge a temperature with my hand on a child’s forehead. I also thought that I knew what I was doing. My first five children had learned how to sit at the table and eat politely, to come to me when I called them, to speak politely, and to follow the household rules. I was a good parent.

And then we brought our sixth child home and my world turned upside down.

My good parenting of which I was so proud no longer worked. They say the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again expecting different results. If this is the case, then I was insane, because that is exactly what I did. Over and over and over I tried the same parenting techniques, waiting to see the fruits of my labor. The trouble was, I was seeing the fruit; it was just fruit of a different variety. A sour, ugly fruit that affected both me and my son. I just didn’t realize it. It wasn’t until years later, after a crisis of potentially disastrous proportions, that I finally realized that something had to change. And that something was going to have to be me, because my son couldn’t.

I wish to save you the same wasted years that we experienced. That fruit that I was so busy and dutifully cultivating had many undesirable traits, not the least of which was making me and my son into opponents. We were combatants in a war to see who was going to win. Was it going to be me? Was he finally going to acknowledge all I had done for him and was doing for him? Was he finally going to acknowledge the fact that I loved him? Or was he going to win? To finally show to the world that nothing ever, ever worked out for him, that everyone and everything was against him, and that he never, ever felt loved? Every single interaction became a battle of wills. For me to give in, to not insist he do what I wanted him to do, would be to lose. I would have to turn in my ‘good parent’ card.

What I didn’t realize was that I was wasn’t fighting the battle that I thought I was. Instead of gaining my son’s obedience, I was losing him. Losing the chance to show to my son, in a real and tangible way that I loved him, that I understood him, that I was willing to sacrifice for him. As a result, I was pushing him even farther and farther away. It has taken a couple of years working with a therapist and working on changing my parenting paradigm to get us to a better place. We are still very much a work in progress, but by focusing on trust and loving my child in a way that he can begin to feel, we are finally making progress. We are now on the same team.

This shift did not happen easily or without a lot of soul searching. First I had to acknowledge that trauma is a very real thing and makes very real changes to a person’s brain. I wouldn’t expect a child who had lost a limb to go on using that limb, but that is the equivalent of what I was asking my son to do. I was asking him to use his brain in a way in which it wasn’t capable of functioning. Every time I fought with him, I was merely reinforcing what his brain already knew. He wasn’t safe. The world is a scary place. No one loves him and he doesn’t really know what love feels like.

But, you say (pick one):

My child was adopted as an infant, so he never experienced trauma;

My child was in a very good living situation where she was well cared for, not some atrocious orphanage;

I have other adopted children and they are just fine; I didn’t have to change how I parent for them.

Any of those may be true, but they don’t negate the impact that trauma can have upon the brain. Even in utero, the mother’s stress can affect how the baby’s brain processes events. We cannot minimize the pain that our children have been through or the effects that pain has upon them. While some children navigate the losses of adoption well, the fact that they do so does not mean that these losses do not impact other children. We do not have cookie cutter children and must vary our parenting techniques according to their needs.  I think it is the rare adopted child who does not experience some effects of trauma.

Parents want to do nice things for their children. Even in the face of negative behaviors, we still try to be good parents. We give them good things and expect reciprocity in return. But our children do not operate in a cause-and-effect world. Their brain is compromised by the negative things that have happened in their lives. It doesn’t matter how many good things happen to them, they can only focus on the negative.

For example, a sibling receives a new toy, even though the traumatized child received something the day before, all that child sees is that the sibling got something new and they did not. It starts a spiral of thinking along the lines of, “I’m not getting anything. They must not love me. No one has ever loved me. I must be in danger. Panic! Panic! Panic!” The child may then demonstrate the well-known behaviors that so perturb the parent. The parent, annoyed that the child cannot allow the sibling to have something new without melting down (“What a spoiled brat I have!” the parent thinks), responds in a harsh way that merely confirms the panic already running through the traumatized child’s brain. The child completely melts down, ruins another moment with the family, and everyone goes to their corners angry, upset, and hopeless. “All over a toy!” the parent mutters. “I can never do anything right and everyone hates me. I knew it all along,” the child mutters.

This is all too familiar to some of you. Please look for the second half of the letter where I will move into more positive territory.