I will never forget the moment my mind was fully opened to the reality of what our children have experienced and why they do and say the things they do at times. It was Christmastime, six years ago. On a cold December night, something triggered our child, who has a trauma history. We were popping popcorn, pulling out blankets, and settling down in our family room for a family movie night. For reasons that remain a mystery, he wasn’t having any of it.
The movie was the wrong movie, the popcorn was too salty, his sister looked at him, he thought movie night was stupid, and he wished it wasn’t Christmas break so he could go back to school. On and on and on until finally he lunged at his younger brother and tried to punch him. In our home, when someone displays behaviors that become unsafe or threatening, we step in, and lead them to another room to cool down. One of us will spend time alone with them one on one.
I was frustrated and couldn’t see the full reality of our son’s behavior that night. As he lay facedown in our upstairs bathroom, screaming obscenities, I fumed. I opened my mouth to say, “If you don’t knock this crap off, I’m gonna…” but was suddenly stopped in my tracks. In that moment my eyes were fully opened, and the veil was torn away. I realized he’s wasn’t a bad kid being bad. He was a scared child voicing his unmet needs through behavior.
That night changed the way we approached our children and how we saw their world. Suddenly we saw what was really going on with them. We realized they were voicing something we couldn’t understand. Understanding how chronic trauma plays out in a human being’s life gave us a brand-new perspective. And boy oh boy, did the adoptive journey change for us.
Fully understanding chronic trauma and how it changes the brain can transform your entire journey. Here’s why:
- You’ll respond to the world around you in a new way. That child in your neighborhood who bullies the other kids. The little girl in your son’s class who hangs upside down in her seat. Suddenly you start to understand that this may not be a bad kid behaving badly, but rather an unmet need being voiced from a place you know nothing about.
When I learned that chronic trauma hinders the use of logic and reasoning and instead propels the person into survival mode, I saw many everyday interactions in a new light. I can now see people with compassion and understanding.
- Your heart will break. Annette Breaux, a bestselling author and sought-after speaker, wrote, “Nine times out of ten, the story behind the misbehavior won’t make you angry, it will break your heart.” So, so true! When you understand how trauma impacts your children, you become compassionate. That has changed the way we interact with our son.
- You will parent differently. I used to respond angrily to our son’s outbursts. I was annoyed when he would impulsively ask the same question over and over again. My own anxiety would heighten when he quickly jumped from one thing to the other. I’ve learned to respond differently now. Once I understood what his past trauma did to his brain functionality, I began to respond calmly, understanding that my heightened emotion would also heighten his.
I also use to struggle to understand how, even after being in our home for a long time, some children still melted down over what I considered “normal” things, such as our daily schedule or household rules. A child who’s gone through chronic trauma, even at a very young age, has learned to function from a place of survival, often absent from logic or reasoning. If they’ve gone through this neglect over a long period of time, it may be years before they learn to trust and connect in a healthy manner. This knowledge helped me adjust my expectations with my own children.
- You will move into action. I believe understanding and knowledge can lead directly to advocacy. When my heart breaks, my feet move. Over the past four years, I’ve grown to fully appreciate how our knowledge of the way trauma impacts our kiddos can change the world.
If you have been in the dark like I once was, it’s okay. Step into the light. Look at your precious child in a new light. Now take one step in front of the other from this moment forward.