Helping My Child Cope Through Trauma

It was the perfect day, the kind of day you would want for a birthday party. The smell of fresh flowers filtered the air and the sun was finally shining high in the sky after what seemed like a long winter. The children we were fostering were attending a birthday party. My heart swelled as I watched them jump in bounce castles, swing, and play with other children. These brothers that walked through my door carrying an unknown amount of weight now played freely without a care in the world.

This was a very successful outing in my mind. 

Then came the presents, something I wish I had former knowledge of how to deal with situations like these. As the brightly colored bags and packages started to pile up in front of the birthday girl, I could see in my little boys’ face that something was not right. He started to become flushed. I pulled him aside to see what was the matter, and it was like a volcano blew its top! 

Tears and screams echoed as everyone stared in disbelief. I had no other choice but to pick him up, call for his brother, and carry him back to the car. At this point, there was no talking him down, he was mad. I racked my brain for what could have happened, did someone say something to him? Was he triggered by something? I buckled the two brothers in, and we drove. I gave him space to work through his emotions. 

When we got to the house, he collapsed in my arms and cried. I wish I could say we had this deep conversation and I knew all the right words to say. Yet, he was only 3 and he had no idea where the tantrum came from.

The Whole Brain Child, by Daniel J Siegel, explains trauma like missing puzzle pieces in the brain, our brain can’t relocate why that missing piece is causing pain and unwanted feelings, but if we can relocate that puzzle piece and put it back, it helps bring healing.

That afternoon, the puzzle piece wasn’t found; but about a month later at his own birthday party, he asked me if he gets to keep all of his toys or if I was going to sell them. The lightbulb went off in my head. That is why it was so hard to see all those beautifully packaged treasures, because in the past, his presents were sold. We were able to talk through it, I reassured him, his presents were his to keep. He ended up having an awesome birthday. After that, we would leave the future birthday parties before the opening of gifts; on the car rides home, we had the opportunity to talk through his emotions.

The first event of the major meltdown, the puzzle piece wasn’t found, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t help him process through his emotions. When a child is raging, it’s important to remember there is an underlying issue under the surface. Do not match their emotions, but be the calm in the storm. Get the child to a safe place where they can let out their emotions in a safe manner. Then, you can note what may have triggered that child for future reference.

If the child is old enough and can process through it, you can help them put that puzzle piece back.

Another important thing to remember when navigating trauma is adding tools to your toolbox. For example, accredited books, podcasts, trainings and conferences are great resources. A few that have helped me through the years is  the book, The Whole Brain Child and The Connected Child.

A great podcast is Empowered Parent podcast, Real Mom podcast, The Instamommas, and The Forgotten podcast. All of these podcasts have great episodes about adoption and foster care. You can also look into Trust Based Relational Intervention: a great tool when it comes to understanding children with trauma backgrounds and how to help them through it. They even put on conferences throughout the year that I have had the privilege of attending. A parent and their child can only benefit from continuing education in trauma.

Back when I was in college, I worked in a group home. I quickly learned the hard relationship some of these kids had with women. I would often be name-called, bitten, and—even in one situation—I was attacked. Fortunately, the foster family I worked with gave me the tools to navigate these behaviors. It was important to hold the children accountable for their actions but not take offense to what was said or done. Meet each child with forgiveness and remember you are not the victim, the child is. 

If it’s Mother’s Day and the child doesn’t bring their mom flowers or make them breakfast in bed or even acknowledge her, it’s important for that mom not to take it personally. The child could be dealing with a lot of loss missing their biological mom or even dealing with anger and resentment towards her. It’s important to give that child room to grieve. 

The mother gets to set the tone in her home how she wants to be honored, she can still take herself to the salon to get pampered or order out her favorite dinner. She can take the pressure off the child to give her this perfect day, but she still gets to have some fun. Raising children with trauma backgrounds is all about flexibility and not being disappointed when our own expectations are not met.

When we as parents who’ve adopted or foster a child from trauma, we have to remember we are not just committing to raise them, but we are committing to be there for them in their healing and in the depths of their sorrow caused by trauma. It means setting aside our image of what a perfect family looks like and getting right into trenches with our kids. 

This all seems very daunting and overwhelming, but when I see my child reach healing and milestones we never thought possible, it makes the sleepless nights praying over her, asking God for wisdom, and reading through credible resources worth every day in the trenches.