Parenting a child with a history of trauma: how is it the same or different from parenting a biological child? Many children suffer from anxiety or fears at different times in their lives. Sadly, children from hard places can be quite prone to serious or chronic anxiety that can impact their lives in a big way.
My husband and I have biological children, and we also have children of adoption that have undergone extreme trauma.
I will say, some parts of parenting both types of children are the same. You love them, you meet their physical and emotional needs. They do their school work (we homeschool, so this looks different for us than for lots of other families), you get them to and from activities, and they sometimes struggle, for lots of reasons. Biological and adoptive children can both struggle with a bully, a tough season in life, issues with schoolwork, whatever. As a parent, you have to teach them how to care for themselves, stand up for themselves, how to be a good friend, how to give back to society, the list goes on. But, for kids with trauma, it can often feel like the next big crisis is looming just around the corner. I want to use an example from our family, today.
Our daughter went through severe trauma in her past. She has extreme anxiety due to the things that have happened, some of those being medical interventions she underwent in order to save her life. She has unfortunate memories of being held down, and painful medical procedures. It was so necessary, and the doctors and nurses were doing what they had to do, but her trauma brain doesn’t know that. It just remembers the fear and the desire to flee.
When we were at the pool a month ago, the power went out. She had a panic attack. Although I could not have anticipated any of this happening, I did know that how I managed this child was going to be different than our other five kids. Some of the other kids were nervous or getting up to no good in the dark—Little One was screaming, hyperventilating, and basically losing her mind. I had to think fast, and use all my skills to help her get through this while also looking after my other five kids.
Fast forward to two weeks ago: we are at the pool again. Little One is nervous. The power could go off again, right? Her trauma brain is in control. She is hypervigilant and jumps at the smallest sound—someone running past her in the water, someone dropping something on the pool deck across the room, the lifeguard blows the whistle twice due to suspected poop in the pool (it wasn’t, thank goodness), and the intercom is on the fritz, making weird, loud sounds. My Little One cannot handle this and is curled up, in the water, rocking, crying, and covering her ears. I hand the baby to a friend, entrust the toddler to my teen, and hold her. The lifeguards think she is hurt – I explain she is having a panic attack. The other kids think it is unfair if we leave early—”We just got here!” I explain that this is not Little One’s fault. Her brain is on alarm due to her past. She doesn’t feel safe. The other kids, adoptive and birth, think she is being embarrassing, and silly. I feel like I am validating their frustration while protecting my Little One’s tender heart.
She is also embarrassed by her own behavior. I use all my tools: asking her to look at things, smell things, tell me something red that she sees. Every time she is almost calmed down, another noise does her in. We stick it out for a bit, but I eventually have to ask all the kids to get out. I carry Little One to the changing room. She is a sobbing, exhausted little girl. One of the other kids who has RAD, FASD, a mood disorder, and is at-risk for conduct disorder, is angry. I think, “Why does she do this to us?!” My teen is trying not to roll his eyes. I asked him, “Could you give her some grace?”
I talked to all the older kids about anxiety, again. I buy the kids lunch, play soft music, and decide to head home instead of going to the friends house we were invited to. She is disappointed but understands. I didn’t think that Little One could handle a visit today. I left a voicemail for Little One’s counselor to explain what happened. We made a plan.
Little One wants to stay home, all the time. She wants to color quietly in her room. It is safe there. Nothing unexpected. Mom and dad are close by. We all agree, we cannot let her live in her room. Her birth dad is a missing person with a criminal investigation undergoing; her aunty just committed suicide. The world does not seem safe to her. We agree that Little One needs to get out of the house, with support.
Our biological children have never needed this kind of support to do something simple, like go to the pool. Our other adoptive children don’t have this level of trauma impact. That is ok, you parent to the needs of the child, always. And I am happy to do that—blessed to do that. We make a plan: Little One is too young to stay home alone, like she requested. So, when we go to the pool next, she can sit on the pool deck and read where she can see us, or she can join us in the water. She is not happy, but agrees.
Today was the day. We go to the pool, and she is angry. She is yelling at us. She wants to sit in the van alone “not allowed,” I say, “You’re too young, it is not safe;” there are things I haven’t told her, things we haven’t talked about. Oh, so many heavy things. I will not let Little One out of my sight. We do not have this concern with any of the other kids. Little One cannot sit in the lobby where it is quieter. I cannot see her there. She is so angry that the plan is for her to sit on the pool deck, where it is loud. She makes a scene. Stomps her feet. It is the trauma talking. She sits on the sidelines, crying. I try to be brave. My husband plays with the other 5 kids.
The counselor talked with us about not enabling this beautiful child, and encouraging her to use her tools. I blow her kisses, and make eye contact often. She sits with her head cocked to one side trying to cover her ears. She finds any noise too loud when she is in a state of alert (I forgot her hearing protection. Darn, darn, darn. That helps keep panic away). She comes to the poolside. She wants to swim. I go to help her change—NOPE—too scared. She starts banging things around, getting loud. I soothe her, tell her that her options are on the sidelines, or in the water. I don’t engage in the argument. I seat her, tell her I love her, and that she knows the options. I remind her she can see me at all times.
I go back to the pool. Brave Mama steps…it’s hard to walk away, but I know I can’t engage in her anger. She comes to the poolside. She is teary. She wants to try swimming again. I say yes, of course, I am here, I want to help you try. And, she does. She gets into her swimsuit. She swims! No panic attack. Lots of questions. What is happening? What is that sound? What she is actually saying is, am I safe? Are you here with me? And Tyler and I answer yes by rocking her like a baby in our arms, but smiling at her often, by keeping her within reach, and by making eye contact.
She is 8. Most children do not need this type of reassurance to get into the pool. Little One is not most kids. That is ok. She is exceptional in every way. We love her for who she is, and we are committed to helping her deal with her anxiety. We are committed to helping her siblings understand how her trauma in her past has led to this anxiety. We are committed to parenting our biological children in the way they need to be parented and we are committed to parenting our children of adoption in the way they need; in some ways similar: reminders to grab goggles and bathing suits and towels; in some ways, so different: modeling deep breathing, giving deep tissue pressure to ground, playing eye spy to keep her in the moment, rocking our 8-year-old in a public place as if she were an infant while keeping nosy people out of her circle while assuring others that she is safe, she just needs a moment.
This is trauma parenting: biological child to adoptive child to another adoptive child. Each child has their own needs according to their trauma, background, and experiences. This is adoptive parenting.