The 4 Best Things We Learned from Karyn Purvis

On April 12, the woman I credit with saving my son and my family died after a battle with cancer.

Elizabeth Curry May 02, 2016
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On April 12, the woman I credit with saving my son and my family died after a battle with cancer. While I never had the chance to meet Karyn Purvis personally, her reach and influence were so profound that without her, I’m truly not sure where we would all be today; our situation would certainly be far more distressing. I know I’m not alone in thinking this. Her influence on the post-adoptive parenting world is enormous.

What did she teach us?

She gave us understanding and compassion.

“Sad kids act angry and scared kids act crazy.”

She didn’t finish her undergraduate degree until after she had raised her three children, but that didn’t stop her from pursuing further studies, earning her doctorate, and doing significant research on the effects of trauma on the brain.

A brain that experienced trauma, even trauma in utero, is different. Our children are doing the best they can and they are not behaving badly on purpose. It is so easy to fall into the thinking that our children are acting the way they are because we have not parented them well. Instead, Dr. Purvis gave us the science to understand what is going on in their brains.

By focusing on how our children from hard places view and experience the world differently, we can begin to understand why traditional parenting practices do not work with—and can even hurt—our children. By changing the parenting paradigm, we could be on the same team as our children instead of in constant combat.

She gave us tools.

It is one thing to understand that our children have been hurt and they are doing the best they can with their changed and hurt brains, but it is another thing completely to know what we can do to help them heal. Dr. Purvis was generous with her time and her information. She helped us understand how to meet our children where they are and show them love in a way they can feel and understand it.

Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) allows us to connect with our hurt children and meet them at a place where they can begin to heal. These tools, while simple, are not always easy, as much of it goes against conventional parenting wisdom, but I can tell you they are effective. Once we had the humility to change what we thought we knew was right, we saw huge differences in our son and our relationship with him.

She trained others.

Dr. Purvis was the founder and director of the TCU Institute of Child Development. One of the things that the Institute of Child Development focuses on is teaching, specifically teaching others to help hurt children. Therapists from all over the country have trained at the institute with Dr. Purvis and thus have allowed more families access to appropriate therapeutic techniques for hurt children. This is another way our family has benefitted from her work. Our therapist is one of those who trained in their methods, and it has made all the difference to our son.

These three items are all great. They have made a tremendous difference in the lives of many families and children. There is one thing, though, that I would name as Karyn Purvis’s greatest legacy to hurting children and their families.

She gave us hope.

I can tell you from personal experience that when you are in the depths of despair, thinking that your child will never heal enough to live a normal life and that your family will be forever shattered by the experience of living with that child, even the smallest glimmer of hope is a huge blessing. I would sometimes sit and watch her videos with tears streaming down my face, not necessarily because of the information she was imparting, though that was good, but because she was offering me hope. Hope that things could change. Hope that things could get better. Hope that my son could heal. There were periods where I would cling to the hope that she offered like a person drowning, which in some ways I was. If what she said was true, I could keep going for just a little bit longer.

I deeply regret that I never had the chance to tell Dr. Purvis about the role she unknowingly played in my family’s well-being. We are at a point now where I feel as though I could write her a letter and thank her for that glimmer of hope that gradually grew into something that is tangible. My son is changed. My family is changed. I have seen a boy who was never happy and was always angry and fearful become a generally cheerful and likable boy.

This will have to suffice: Thank you, Dr. Purvis. Thank you for your work and commitment to hurt children and their families. Thank you for believing that beginning in a hard place does not doom you to a life of fear and unhappiness. Thank you for holding out a ray of hope when so many of us have felt so alone and hopeless. Thank you, in essence, for giving me my son.

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Elizabeth Curry

Elizabeth Curry is mother to 12 children, five of whom were adopted: two from Vietnam and three from China. She hopes that by sharing the experiences of her family she can encourage others in the trenches. When she is not taking care of children, Elizabeth writes, home schools, sews, teaches piano, and loves reading. You can follow along with her loud and crazy life at her blog, Ordinary Time.


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