What I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Developmental Trauma Disorder and Attachment Disorders
I am a trauma mom. I adopted a child after he was placed with me through the foster care system. My child was neglected as an infant and experienced trauma. He was exposed to drugs and alcohol in utero. He was not properly cared for during his first two years of life, and because of the abuse and neglect he suffered, he has an attachment disorder and developmental trauma.
While I was fostering, I was told often that he just needed consistency, love, and stability. I was encouraged to get him on a schedule and to stick with it. I was led to believe that a family environment with no fear of abandonment or neglect would heal him from the trauma. Love can conquer all, and we could do this!
Sadly, this isn’t the truth. Severe neglect and trauma lead to disorders. The child’s brain actually develops differently than a child who grows up in a normal, loving environment.
But, he was only two years old! How much damage could have been done? Surely, there is enough time to fix what has happened. I mean, he can’t consciously remember what happened in those first few years of life.
True, he may not consciously remember, but his brain does. His body remembers the trauma. He is forever changed, even at the tender age of 2 years old. Oh, the things I wish I had known then. I wish the social workers had been more informed to tell me more accurate information.
It has now been 9 years since we have had the placement of our son. It has been quite an eye-opening situation. It is not easy. It is sometimes utter chaos. Our entire household suffers from anxiety disorders. Depression is also something most of us struggle with at this point.
The mood swings we deal with are extreme. We feel anxious all the time never knowing when there will be an outburst. We are bullied by our child. Our children are bullied by their sibling. We struggle.
We have some moments of calm. They are few and far between. Sometimes, we feel like a normal family and can enjoy a family activity like any other family. Sadly, when this happens it is usually followed by days of hellish behavior. A child with these disorders who has experience this trauma does not want to connect or feel like a part of the family. They feel like that is a threat, and it makes them feel unsafe. It sounds absolutely crazy, I know. And one of the hardest parts is that nobody will believe you if you try to explain the way it is.
In an effort to find some help, I scoured the internet for support groups. I was able to find a few. It is extremely helpful to simply feel validated and not crazy. While it is sad to know others deal with similar circumstances, it is also a bit of a relief. These groups allow parents like me to vent my frustrations without judgment and can offer some advice or encouragement.
Recently, in one of the groups I belong to, a post was written by a member that sums up what many of us who are parenting children with developmental trauma or attachment issues are feeling. I reached out to the author of the following list and was given permission to share it, with the condition that it be done anonymously. The following are not my words, but I relate to all of this, and think other parents in this situation will too.
The list is as follows:
1. You are now a special needs parent.
2. You have been chosen or are choosing to be a special needs parent of a child who through no fault of their own has a form of Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD) which causes misguided thinking, mental impairments, and dysfunction as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury and may present in extreme behaviors.
3. If you suspect or are beginning to suspect a child could be presenting this way, nothing can prepare you for this upside-down world.
4. And even with a severe warning such as this, you too will disbelieve it can get the best of you before you get the best of it.
5. In the context of this disorder, who you are, what skills you have, and what you have accomplished in your life so far will count for next to nothing, usually; regardless of if you have trained for or been a mental health professional or not.
6. Everything you have set up in your life to this point in order to function productively will become unglued, unmoored, and untenable to hold on to.
7. You will be a parent to someone who has psychological special needs especially in the areas of mood, nervous system regulation, and attachment issues combined with terrible impulse control and other diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health issues.
8. You are not qualified. You will not be given enough information about the reality of this new position.
9. The behavioral challenges will be constant and adaptive. You are not smarter than this disorder. And at some or many points you may acknowledge that you are powerless over it.
10. You will not be able to learn fast enough to simultaneously understand their needs psychologically and parent effectively or in new ways.
11. You will not have access to sufficient information, effective training, or qualified support people.
12. You will not have access to current scientific information needed to understand why they are doing these things and how to work with the challenges effectively.
13. And even if you have access to the information, and read it, you cannot possibly absorb it, change yourself, and put it into practice immediately.
14. You will not have access to or be able to afford effective treatment for them for a long time, maybe ever. Or effective treatment might not be available in your area.
15. And if, or when, you figure out what effective treatment might look like, they will adamantly and aggressively refuse it.
16. You will constantly be advocating to get help for someone who refuses to acknowledge they need it, while explaining to people who cannot see or understand the problem.
17. This child will likely gravitate toward one parent.
18. The unpreferred parent may be systematically, and purposefully bullied, terrorized, rejected, refused, reviled, and abused in a variety of head-spinning ways: emotional, verbal, and physical.
19. You will not get to choose which parent the child clings to or targets.
20. For a variety of reasons, the other parent may not be able to help bridge that gap and instead may widen it.
21. The parent that breaks away from all ideas of traditional parenting, recklessly embraces positive parenting principles with shared power in the form of negotiating, bribing, and or giving in for every little action requested in the face or aftermath of complete chaos and mayhem, still offers bottomless, unrelenting, unconditional love, with love words, and soft eyes MAY be the chosen one, or not.
22. The child’s ability to effectively triangulate adults can boil relationships down to a stadium-style throwdown showdown between parents, stabbing with words or worse, while the spectator looks on with glee because the winner of the fight takes them out for fast food and frozen yogurt then sits next to them on the couch watching their favorite show.
23. The loser is often alone. Unless they are with their abuser.
24. The winner gets to entertain, take care of, appease or negotiate with the spectator-dictator from dawn and far beyond dusk until they crumble in exhaustion.
25. Of course, if it’s gotten that bad, positive or therapeutic parenting may not work at all anyway, or it may not work without a team to help stabilize your family first.
26. To get to stabilization is still not easy to live with and could take a year, more or less, with all the official scrutiny that entails: if everyone participates, if the professionals know what they’re doing, if it works, if it sticks.
27. If both parents have jobs, it is likely one of you will leave or lose their job in order to caretake the child, advocate and manage the services you will need to support them, and keep them and others safe.
28. You won’t get to choose who that will be.
29. Eventually everything you enjoy in and about your life now could become unavailable or slowly destruct: relationships with self/family, marriage/romance, your home, meals, sleep, rest, pets, hobbies, friends, your confidence, your physical health, your sense of safety, your brain health, etc.
30. You will not have any predictability in your life. You will not be able to plan for the basics of life.
31. The other parent, or the same parent, will handle a constant barrage of contact with officials from school administration, teachers, health and mental health support, Child Protective Services (CPS), police, parents of other children, etc. probably weekly, but possibly daily, or worse.
32. Many of the officials and other people, including your partner, family, and friends will believe that you are the problem.
33. You will not get any respite. Or if you do have respite, it may make the situation worse.
34. You will have to write reams of documentation for anyone especially yourself to understand what the hell is going on. But no one will read it.
35. You will search endlessly (years) for people to help and understand only to find, there is no magic help button.
36. Even while being vocally and or physically rejected, for your sanity, you will continue to learn, educate, and solve an impossible problem ALL at the same time.
37. You will live in disbelief and confusion for a long time. Acceptance, not resistance, of your new reality can take a long time, much longer than you imagine.
38. You will not be the same person who started this journey.
39. You may not recover from this.
40. And, despite all this, despite the personal costs to you and those around you, you will likely keep showing up to advocate and fight for change for as long as you can.
41. Sometimes one or all of you change and things get somewhat better, eventually, over a long period of time with many forwards and backwards.
42. Or they don’t. And one day they leave you on their own (so I’ve been told), are forced to leave by law enforcement, a mental health provider, or some other less desirable way.
43. Or you continue living with it all.
44. You may not have a choice. I hope I am wrong about your specific situation. I hope this doesn’t happen to you. I want you to find help sooner, and a way forward without the high cost to yourself. I want there to be advocates for the caregivers as well as the children. I want to be able to do more than attempt to do no further harm. I want healing to happen and caregivers to be supported in that. To forge a new path and make change, parents and caregivers need radical acceptance, sharing of hard truths, strong allies, and public advocacy.
May it happen sooner rather than later.
This is not a hopeful piece of writing and I struggle with the fact that it is quite bleak. An optimistic view with solid strategies is not coming out. But this is where I’ve been and may still be, and I’m writing about what that feels like. I’m not out the other end free and clear so I don’t have complete hindsight.
Wow. Just… wow. This writer really hit the nail on the head with this list. I research constantly trying to find effective parenting methods. My marriage has been in jeopardy a few times simply because I am the stay-at-home parent who deals with the behaviors and my husband didn’t believe things could be as bad as they were. Oddly, Covid isolation life has really helped in him understanding how wrong he has been and how lonely I have felt over the years. As teen years approach, I am becoming more concerned. Trauma-based treatment centers, inpatient and outpatient often do not accept insurance and can cost more than our annual salary. Many families have downsized, sacrificed their retirement funds, and spent the money they have saved for their children’s education to get treatment. I refuse to go this route. I will not sacrifice what my other children deserve or what we have worked so hard for. I will continue to try to find feasible help that doesn’t financially ruin us. Sadly, that just doesn’t seem to be available.
Many families will suffer through false CPS allegations. In many instances, the only way to get treatment at these expensive facilities is to relinquish their rights to their child to the state resulting in abandonment charges themselves. Can you imagine the only way to get help for your family would be to allow yourself to be charged with child neglect or abandonment and face criminal consequences because you chose to adopt a child who was, in fact, abused or neglected before you were their parent? The absurd nature of this seems impossible, but many live this sad reality in order to try to get help for their family.
I remain hopeful. My family has ups and downs. As the list said, I will continue to try to advocate while exhausting myself physically and mentally doing so. I will continue to wonder if I am doing the right things to parent through the trauma. I will continue to struggle with wondering if I am hurting the rest of the family in trying to help my challenging son heal his trauma.
Thankfully, I am not alone. After a few years of triangulation, disbelief, and nearly separating, I now have my husband on board fully to help me with everything.
I wish to thank the anonymous writer of the above list for allowing me to share it. It rings true in so many ways, and I know anyone else dealing with these disorders will feel the connection to it as well.