Before I became a mom (to a preschooler…overnight), I was used to making major life decisions more or less on my own. Sure, I might ask for advice from a few close friends, but people did not stop me in the store to give their two cents on which career would be a good fit for me, or which home I should consider buying.
My transition to parenthood was abrupt. No swollen belly to announce an impending family expansion. No baby shower. No cute maternity photo shoot. No gender reveal announcement on social media. Just me showing up one day alone and the next day with a charming little girl in tow.
And suddenly, magically, everyone had an opinion. I was new to this parenting thing and the noise was overwhelming. I felt like I needed to hear it all and give everything a fair try. And so I took a lot of unsolicited parenting advice to heart.
But here’s the thing. Parenting a child who experienced early trauma is not like parenting a securely attached infant. It’s just not. What works well for a child who has always known unconditional love might send a child who is just learning it into an emotionally charged tailspin.
Over the past few years, I’ve learned a lot about adoption, trauma, attachment and brain development. I’ve also gotten to know my daughter really, really well. And when I hear well-meaning strangers (or acquaintances) say these things, I’ve learned to smile politely (most of the time) and just ignore them.
“You’re too strict.”
Lots of kids who experienced early trauma struggle with emotional regulation. They thrive on structure and predictability and changes in their routine (even happy changes) can be really hard. Sometimes what looks like strictness is just a safeguard against disaster. Our kids need to know exactly what to expect in certain social situations and also need an appropriate “escape plan” to use if things get overwhelming. To the untrained eye, this might look like micromanagement at the expense of fun. In reality, it is likely an attempt to set a child up for success in a social situation that is very stressful for them.
“You’re not strict enough”
Ironically, I’ve gotten this one too. Much of what is perceived as strictness in my parenting is preventative. I am working overtime to help my daughter regulate her emotions and behavior. Obviously, this is not always successful. We have our moments, and sometimes they happen in public places. When they do, snooping eyes do not always see the swift and stern consequences that they expect to accompany the misbehavior. There are lots of reasons for this. Sometimes safety is an issue. Sometimes an eight year old is regressing and their toddler-like tantrum requires the type of response you might give a toddler. Sometimes a parent is working hard to help their child save face and move on from the incident. In all of these situations, a child who experienced early trauma needs connection with a caregiver more than they need any type of imposed consequences.
“(Insert parenting strategy here) always worked for my kids”
That’s great. Really. But adoptive parenting is sometimes different. Parenting children with trauma in their past is different. Parenting children who are still learning trust and attachment is different. Lots of traditional parenting techniques seem to backfire. Imagine the message that time-out sends to a child who has experienced abandonment. Imagine trying to take away possessions to teach a lesson to a child who has already lost so much more than a favorite toy. It just doesn’t work. And that’s ok.
Parenting is hard. Parenting children who have experienced early trauma is really hard. Most people mean well, but they are not walking in your shoes. Become an expert on trauma and attachment and brain development. Most of all, become an expert on your kid. Do what works for them. Do what works for your family. And when someone offers unsolicited parenting advice, feel free to give them a polite smile and just ignore it.