I live with a lot of children who have experienced a lot of trauma. This means that at any given time, at least one child is working through some of the hard parts of their life. Since it is such an ever present part of our existence, I sometimes forget that not everyone realizes this is a process and not a one-time event.
When prospective adoptive parents or new adoptive parents hear about trauma, I’m afraid that all too often they see it as something that they will help their child work through, and then, because they will be living in a healthy and loving home, that will be it. Everyone will be done with the trauma, and life will move on. I cannot tell you how much I wish that trauma worked this way. My children’s lives would be so much easier if that were the case.
What follows is my own personal take on trauma, and helping a child heal from that trauma. You need to know that I am not a therapist. I have no formal training. Children severely, or even mildly, affected by trauma need the help of a trauma- and adoption-informed therapist to work through some of the past hurt and pain. While good, connected parenting will always help, sometimes it is not enough. Please, find a therapist if you have said more than two or three times, “I think s/he’s getting better.”
Now, on to my personal take on raising a child affected by trauma.
I find it helpful to think about trauma like an onion. A great big stinky onion, that makes your eyes sting and tear. Your child has been growing layer upon layer upon layer of hurt before you met them. The longer the years of trauma, the larger and more layered their trauma. You’re not going to make that go away all at once. It’s going to have to happen layer by stinky, painful layer.
When a child first comes home, you may not notice the trauma. After all, an onion in its papery skin doesn’t stink or make your eyes water. That skin kept your child safe, not letting anything in and not letting anything out. As your child begins to trust you and feel safe, that skin will start to come off. You will begin to have a sense of what lies beneath. Many parents mistake this initial encounter with the effects of their child’s past hurt to be all there is. Often, all they are seeing is the very beginning.
As time goes on, more layers will need to be peeled away. Some layers will be thin; just blips in terms of what it will take to navigate them emotionally. Some will be much thicker and more difficult to get off. Some will have started to rot. Their rottenness sticks to everything and seems impossible to remove. Carefully, carefully you will support your child as they peel back each layer to expose what is underneath.
Sometimes, it will seem as though you are doing the same thing over and over again. This, too, is like an onion, with one layer looking remarkably like another. If you do not see the big picture, you would think that each layer is exactly the same. Yet, taking a step back, you can see that while they may look exactly the same, they are actually getting smaller. Your child may seem to be doing the exact same emotional work that he was a year before, and you may be correct. When we were in the space, it seemed we would never get out of it. The same behaviors, the same hurts, the same fears kept happening over and over and over. If I carefully looked back, though, the magnitude of them over the course of time very slowly diminished.
The place where this analogy breaks down is that at some point, if you are peeling away the layers of an onion, you are left with nothing; there is no onion left. For some children, the effects of their past trauma may be so great that it is something they will have to navigate for the rest of their lives. It may be small, like a little center of an onion that just doesn’t go away, but for others, the initial trauma was so huge, that there is not time to reach the very small center.
For one of my daughters, this peeling back layer by layer often looks like her having to learn over and over and over again that her mommy and daddy love her no matter what. That we love her when she is good. That we love her when she makes mistakes. That we love her when she is angry. That we love her when she is sad. That we love her when she is deep in the throes of adolescent hormones. That we love her because of who she is. It sometimes feels like an eternal cycle of finding a hiding, angry, unpleasant child, figuring out where life got off track, and then reassuring her that yes, we do indeed love her. If only it were as easy as telling her we love her and she being able to understand that with her whole being all at once. But it’s not that easy. Instead, we peel and peel and peel, and wipe our stinging weeping eyes, because we do indeed, love her.