Kids with early trauma are like onions. There are layers and layers to peel back before you will fully understand and see how trauma has impacted their lives. We fostered a little boy who taught us this lesson in such a profound way that it has made us better parents. He had a long history of being disruptive at school and in his foster placements. At only 7, he packed a punch and would leave destruction in the wake of his rages. It was actually quite impressive how much damage this little one could do. Something at school had triggered his rage and he was in full blown melt down mode by the time I got to the school. As he pummeled his room, I remember thinking about how “small” the issue was that had caused this particular rage. It was trivial in my adult mind and certainly he was just being “bad”. Boy was I wrong. I sat down next to him, as he was kicking and screaming and out of nowhere he exclaimed, “I (BLEEPING) hate the cops! I said hi to one and then he arrested my mom all because I said hi to him”! And there it was. His rage wasn’t based on something trivial that had happened at school. It had been triggered by the loss and guilt he was feeling about his mother’s arrest. He couldn’t understand that he wasn’t responsible for that
Find a FABULOUS Therapist. Our therapist is our most valuable player. He listens without judging or criticizing. He teaches our daughter (and all of our children) important skills and he teaches us how to manage behaviors, open communication lines, and how to survive this journey called adoption. He has extensive experience working with kids from hard places and I value him. After 65 foster children and 4 adoptions, I can say without hesitation that a good therapist is incredibly important and vital to a successful adoption. (And if you live in the Treasure Valley, I’m happy to share his information with you.)
Stay calm — it’s not about you even though it definitely feels like it. I’ve been called things recently that I wouldn’t dare to repeat. We’ve been spit at, kicked, hit, hated, and hurt so deeply that I literally thought I couldn’t go on. This is completely normal for a parent who’s child is raging. It will feel like you are the target and that you can’t go on one more moment. Trust me, you are not the target and it is these times when your child needs you more than ever. When they feel the least lovable and when you feel the least amount of willingness to give love, that is when you need to give it freely. Trust me, I know that is so hard. When someone is yelling ugliness an inch from your face, the last thing your mind is telling you to do is stand there and take it. It is easy to lash back, prove a point, hurt back. Take comfort knowing that this isn’t about you and while right now it is painful and ugly, those onion layers are peeling back and your child is most likely lashing out because they feel vulnerable to you. Be brave and strong. You can do this and so can your child.
- Don’t push them to “talk” during a rage. This rarely works and often will exacerbate the situation. They are already having troubles articulating all of the pain, fear, anger, sadness, confusion, and then asking them to be even more vulnerable will make things worse. Be patient. As you get to know your kiddo, you will begin to see that point when the rage is over and communication is possible. Often in our eagerness to help/solve/survive it, we push our kiddo deeper in to it.
- Hold them accountable. Recently during a family birthday, our daughter was raging. A big fat ugly one. Dressers were dumped, clothes were ripped, perfumed body spray was all over the carpet and permanent markers were used to deface a sister’s bedroom. As Ben walked out of her room, she threw something at his head. To say that it was hard to keep walking out of that room is an understatement. Not only did she need help to get through the rage, but there also has to be consequences for the disruptive, ugliness that is pervasive throughout a rage. And there is a fine line between enabling and holding someone with this level of trauma accountable. We had friends coming over for cake and ice cream. By the time of their arrival, she had calmed considerably. But, one of the consequences of her rages is that she must “fix” anything broken if possible and clean up the spaces that she has made messy. She didn’t want to. When it came time for cake and ice cream with friends and family, she could not join us. This was hard for me. Hard for her dad. And hard for her. But in the end, she did clean up, apoligized to her dad and sister and now she’s earning money to replace an expensive item that she broke. Don’t be afraid to help them understand that their actions have consequences and then help them feel better about themselves by owning those consequences. And yes, sometimes tough love combined with empathy is required.
Find the triggers. This is tough. It’s different for every child. For the little boy I mentioned earlier, his was seeing a police officer. For our daughter, it is fear based — fear of being made fun of, fear of new things, fear of not being in control. Once you know the trigger of the behavior, you can help your kiddo learn coping skills to dampen the trigger and potentially stop the rages altogether. Typically, kids from hard places haven’t been taught to work through the trigger before things implode. What an amazing thing it is too watch a child solve the problem before it even begins! And in some cases, you might have to avoid those triggers for a while until you can peel back enough layers to teach those coping skills.
Make sure you have people to lean on. We have been blessed with an amazing group of friends and family. Some are walking this journey with us — they are strong enough to carry part of our burden; brave enough to see the underbelly of adoption; and loving enough not to judge our children, our parenting, or our family. How blessed we are to have them!! We also have amazing church leaders who are open to learning how to work with kids from hard places, a fabulous therapist, and an adoption worker who is walking this road with us. The loneliness in adoption is something that is rarely talked about, especially when it gets hard. You will be disappointed and hurt when some friends and even family, disappear from this group. This group of people that stays with you will be a huge blessing to you and your family. They are the group you can be “real” with. I would caution about posting the “realness” of what you are walking through on social media however. It is easy for the person reading about your story to judge and/or misunderstand what is going on. In their effort to “help”, they can sometimes make things much worse. The folks in your support circle should be trust worthy, honest, and willing to not share certain things with those outside of your circle. And be sure to thank them for walking this rough road with you. It’s not easy for them either.
If you are reading this, odds are you are tired and feeling a bit beaten down. I know this feeling. I have cried myself to sleep many times. I have watched as it has impacted our entire family in ways I never could have imagined. I have asked myself the same tough questions you either have asked yourself or will ask soon. And I have felt the guilt for asking those questions. I know it is hard but keep going. Be strong. Be patient with yourself and when you are overcome with grief, pain, and exhaustion, PRAY. He loves you. He asked you to tend to this sheep because you are strong enough to do it but He doesn’t want you to do it alone.
From the Land of Chaos,