Over the years of talking with and listening to hundreds of adoptive parents, I’ve noticed that most parents fall into two basic categories as they travel their parenting journey:
- TRADITIONAL PARENTS: Parents who spend most of their time trying to gain control over challenging behaviors, who often feel like their child is the enemy.
- TRAUMA-INFORMED PARENTS: Parents who understand that their child’s trauma is the enemy, and who are working with their children to grow and heal through a compassionate, connected relationship.
I can tell the difference right away, based on the kinds of comments they make and questions they ask.
The parents in the TRADITIONAL PARENT group will say things like this:
“My child is so DEFIANT AND STUBBORN! She never listens to me when I ask her to do something, and she refuses to take no for an answer!
“What can I do to GET MY CHILD TO…. do his homework? …. brush his teeth? … stay in his bed at night? …. behave nicely when we go to my mother-in-law’s house?”
“My child is SO MANIPULATIVE! She constantly steals, lies, and does sneaky things! I’ve installed cameras and locks all over the house because I just can’t trust her!”
“My RAD did it again last night … kicked the dog, hit his little sister, and then smashed three glasses on the floor. It’s like I’m a hostage in my home. I’M AT MY WIT’S END!”
The parents who are TRAUMA-INFORMED will say things like this:
“My kiddo is still getting anxious and dysregulated when I set limits on screen time. Is there a way that we can ease that transition for her to avoid a meltdown?”
“Wow… last night my child was able to fall asleep much better after I spent about an hour in his bedroom rubbing his back and talking to him about his favorite movie character. I also left the light on in his room. I think he really needs that time with me to feel safe, and I know he’s scared of monsters, so the light helped, too.”
“I can tell my child is really scared because she is still having a hard time asking me for more food when she is hungry. What can I do to help her trust me so that she doesn’t feel the need to steal and then lie to me?”
“I’ve noticed that the length of my child’s meltdowns is decreasing! When I stay calm myself, he is able to calm down a lot faster!”
Why do parents in the traditional parent group so often feel like their child is the enemy? Why do they continue to resort to control battles, rewards, and consequences that simply do not work to change behaviors in a child with early developmental trauma?
We all have good and bad days, and I am certainly NOT a perfect parent, by any means.
Parenting children with developmental trauma is HARD work, for sure, and sometimes feels like it can take superhuman strength just to get through a day. There have been stressful moments on many days when I have started to think of my kiddo as the enemy… I have found it’s so important to learn techniques to release that negative thought and dig deeper to find the TRUTH….
My child is not GIVING me a hard time, he is HAVING a hard time. With just about everything some days. And that is stressful for both of us!
But… the parents who are trauma informed who finally understand the real damage trauma has caused in their children’s brains and nervous systems and have processed this knowledge on a deep level also know that they have to work hard EVERY SINGLE MOMENT OF EVERY SINGLE DAY to stay focused on transforming trauma rather than controlling behaviors.
It’s ok to fall back into traditional parenting from time to time when we are off our game due to exhaustion or overwhelm, as long as we don’t stay STUCK there.
But if at any point we find ourselves complaining about our kids and going into parent groups just to “vent” instead of looking for solutions and support, then I believe we need to take a courageous look inside to see what is really going on.
I believe there are basically four reasons why some parents stay stuck in traditional parenting and never find their way into trauma informed parenting:
- NEW PARENT, OR LACK OF KNOWLEDGE: They might be new adoptive parents using old, ineffective strategies, or maybe they just don’t yet fully understand the nature of Complex Developmental Trauma and how it affects their child. They may be parenting their children the same way their parents raised them – with strict rules, punishments, and fear-based methods of control. For these parents, it’s lack of education about the reason for the child’s difficulties, and they need to read some books and talk to some trauma-informed parents, coaches, or counselors with more experience and success. I am a parent educator and coach, and I may be just the right person to help you because I have been in your shoes. I also make referrals to others in the field when I believe there is a specific need that is best served by another expert. The point is that if you need help, GET HELP! It doesn’t have to be me, but it needs to be someone who is familiar with trauma.
- STILL LEARNING AND GROWING: They DO understand the basics about trauma, but in the heat of the moment, they are having a hard time remembering that their child is unable to function like a “typical” child would when under stress. These parents just need a lot of practice, support, and strategies for parent regulation and using compassionate, connected parenting. I found myself in this situation for several years until I had lots of experience and found great coaches and other experienced adoptive parents for support.
- OVERWHELMED AND HURTING: They are exhausted and depleted because they have a lot of their own personal triggers, anxieties, and needs that are not being met. Some kids have very extreme, aggressive, and violent behaviors. These parents need to focus on self care, self compassion, and resolving past trauma so that they can rise to the challenge of parenting kids with complex needs. They may even need to get time away from their children – hopefully on a short term basis if this can be done safely – for respite and recuperation.
- ANGRY AND BEYOND HOPE: Sadly, I find that there is a large group of parents who spend wasted time in a few unhelpful parent “support” groups where the members continually focus on all the “bad” things their child does and commiserate with other parents who see their children as the enemy, too. Anyone who calls their child “my RAD” has begun down the slippery path of depersonalization and despair. When I have offered my family’s personal stories of hope and healing to some of these parents, they have lashed out in anger because they have convinced themselves that there is no way out and their situation is far worse than mine ever was. These parents and their children are living in a desperate situation and if they are willing, they truly need immediate, intensive intervention to break the cycle and turn things around.
Always remember….Your child is NOT the enemy!
You and your family may just need some effective strategies and support to get from traditional parenting into trauma-informed parenting, where growth, healing and transformation CAN happen!
You may also need a very detailed SAFETY PLAN, which can include times of separation for more intensive therapy and respite. Nobody is asking you to put yourself in danger for the sake of your child, and a good safety plan will help tremendously with all the “what ifs” that go through your mind during an especially aggressive meltdown.
I want to be sure that I’m also clear that this is not a “parent blame and shame” post. If your child experienced trauma because of something outside of your control, then many of these challenging behaviors are not your fault!
Even if you DID participate in causing trauma in your child’s life, whether because you didn’t know any better at the time, because of another family member, a medical issue/treatment, or even if you are an adoptive parent (because the adoption process itself is very traumatic for many children), it’s not helpful for anyone if you stay stuck in shame and guilt.
However, if you are a parent, you need to be as strong as you can for your child. Despite what happened in the past beyond your control, you are NOW responsible for how you respond to the child and the behavior, no matter how bad it gets. If you are parenting a child with trauma, then the behavior is communicating unmet needs, lagging skills, and unsolved problems.
If you are responding to these by blaming and shaming your CHILD on a regular basis, then it’s time for some self reflection… and an attitude adjustment.
And if you continue down that ineffective, traditional parenting path, then the behavior is only going to get worse.
Speaking of an attitude adjustment… I learned how to do this from my mother, who almost died at age 44 from a brain aneurism that caused her to be permanently paralyzed on the left side, resulting in her losing her job and using a wheelchair for the rest of her life. She and my dad went to some stroke support groups early on, but she stopped going because she said everyone was so negative and depressing there, and she didn’t want to be part of the “Ain’t it awful!” group.
My mom wanted to have hope and courage to face life with an optimistic outlook. She was my biggest champion and an amazingly supportive and fun person to be around despite her extremely challenging disability.
Because of the lessons I learned from from my mom, I want to maintain an optimistic view of my child as much as possible, so I do that by steering clear of the “Ain’t it awful!” group, too!
Many parents who started the journey as traditional parents have done the hard work necessary to educate themselves and heal their own trauma so that they can focus on the support and strategies needed to help their children heal, too.
And ALL of us have moments when we fall back into traditional parenting because of an especially stressful day or something our child has triggered in us.
That’s why it’s so important to have a good support system and get regular self care to be able to recover and repair from those moments quickly.
There is hope and healing available… even when it seems hopeless. It’s not a linear path, but if we focus on growth, we will see evidence of change and transformation over time.
As one of the members of my VIP Community said so eloquently tonight…
“Kids heal in relationship. That’s a fact.”
It is possible to make a change! If you are losing hope, read my family’s story.
Our family experienced some terrifying episodes of aggression and violence. We had police in our home over 20 times as a safety presence, and my son was hospitalized 9 times in the first three years home for out of control psychiatric episodes.
Many people told me that it was impossible for him to change, but I refused to give up. Our family has transformed in so many ways, and we are now doing so much better because of a strong relationship, regulation skills, and problem solving skills.
That’s why I believe there is a THIRD option, beyond just being a trauma-informed parent:
3. TRANSFORMING TRAUMA PARENTS: These are the parents who are not satisfied to accept the status quo with their child’s trauma behaviors. The are committed 100% to do whatever it takes to help their children overcome trauma and CHANGE old habits, negative behaviors, and maladaptive coping skills with courage, strength, and resilience.
This is the group that I want to be a part of — the radical group of parents who are working hard to make a huge difference in the life of children every day.
YOU CAN TRANSFORM TRAUMA, TOO!
If you find yourself feeling confused, overwhelmed, and discouraged about where you are in your parenting journey right now, I encourage you to read books, join groups, and talk to a parent educator/coach for support before you end up in the “angry and beyond hope” camp.
For those of you who understand that you and your child are fighting the battle against trauma TOGETHER to promote growth and healing transformation, you might enjoy joining my VIP Community & Book Club (for Very Inspiring Parents), where we are cheering each other on and providing daily encouragement to stay the course. It’s easier to do this very hard work when you are with a group of moms who GET IT!
Remember that the TRAUMA DRAGON is not the CHILD, it’s the behavior that comes from those early childhood adversities they experienced when the brain was developing. They are hardwired for fear and survival, and it takes years of patient support to make a difference.
Don’t be the parent in the “Ain’t it Awful!” group, who thinks only of their own sacrifices and suffering, looking to others to validate their status as “victims of a thankless child.” It’s perfectly ok to ask for SUPPORT and share challenging experiences, but there is a way to do so with humility and grace that doesn’t demean and blame the child.
Instead, be the strong, patient parent who refuses to give up and sees their child with a compassionate heart of empathy and connection, no matter how ugly the behavior gets.
Remember, they are CHILDREN. They haven’t had time to figure it all out yet. It’s our job to help them. Be the champion your child needs. When you look back on all the growth and healing, you will be SO glad you did!