Secondary Trauma: How Your Child’s Special Needs May Be Affecting You.

Author of 4 books, podcaster, parent trainer, wife and mother.

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We know that children who have come from difficult places experience trauma, but what about you and I as parents? How do we handle the secondary trauma we experience as a result of the day in and day out battle of parenting them?

“Listen, you’re blood pressure is just too high. You need to lose some weight, eat healthier and get some exercise. Getting out for a workout will lower your stress level too. I know you can find just a few minutes in your day. On your way out, stop by the front desk and schedule an appointment for 6 weeks. I don’t want to scare you but we really need to keep an eye on this.” The doctor shut the door as my friend pulled her gown a little tighter around her hoping to hide how exposed she was feeling from the inside out. She quickly dressed and told the front desk she would have to check her schedule and call back about the appointment.

She called me in tears as she drove to pick one child up from school and another two from the sitter. She had to make it home in time to relieve the afternoon nurse from caring for her daughter. I could barely understand what she was saying as I answered the phone. “IT WILL ONLY TAKE A FEW MINUTES!” she repeated. “He has no idea, he doesn’t know anything about my life. He doesn’t know what I have time for. I’m already late to get the kids. I know I need to eat healthier but I haven’t really been to the grocery store in two weeks. We’re down to a head of questionable broccoli and half a loaf of bread!” Even without clarification, I had begun to piece enough of the story together to understand that she was experiencing extreme stress! Her well meaning doctor had just added the final straw.

She is the mom of one biological child with medical special needs and three children who carry with them the trauma that often comes with adoption. She is in a constant fight to care for her children. She often feels like she falls short for her children and with her own health in jeopardy she struggles to find the time to deal with her own needs. She is the picture of most adoptive and special needs parents. She is not caring for just one child, she is caring for many. She is not just managing one special need but an overlapping array of diagnosis, traumas and difficult pasts. She is one of the strongest women I know. She is also a human and no human can live this lifestyle alone.

As a mom of children with special needs, I know too well the feeling of being completely overwhelmed. The feeling is a pressure on my chest and shoulders that I swear everyone around me can actually see. My eyes are puffy and my forehead bares the defined lines of worry. I see it in my husband too. As parents of children who have suffered trauma we are now experiencing secondary trauma.

As parents of children who have suffered trauma we are now experiencing secondary trauma.

One of our children was malnourished as an infant. He worries about food constantly. For years, he carried a backpack filled with appropriate snacks. The presence of the backpack curbed his desire to steal and hoard. The temptation is still there and our child will take food even if it is something he is highly allergic to. He will also take more food than is humanly possible to eat in one sitting. Consequently, we grocery shop every day only buying the foods we need for the next day. We pack snacks everywhere we go in the hopes we will have something appropriate to eat if the food available is something that could cause him harm. We are hypervigilant around food. The mere suggestion of a pot-luck or party causes my anxiety to rise.

One of our children was physically harmed as a small child. This child is constantly in a state of “fight.” If anything does not go as expected, he melts down or lashes out. He ducks and throws his hands over his head if someone comes too close. Our hearts go out to him and our desire is to create a feeling of safety for him. We are not always able to create a peaceful and pleasing environment. When things become stressful, he may throw the nearest object. We find ourselves accessing every room and every situation for the quickest possible route to safety.

Recently, I’ve been sleeping on the couch. Truthfully, “sleeping” is not really an accurate description of what’s happening. I’ve been lying awake staring at my outdated popcorn ceiling every night for a week. I lay there, eyes dry and bloodshot, wondering how in the world I’m going to get through the night. I’ve positioned the couch right outside my teenage son’s door. We discovered a week ago that he’s been sneaking out the window at night and going to a friend’s house. My son experienced trauma before he was born. He was exposed to drugs, alcohol, violence and mal-nutrition. He doesn’t understand the danger of sneaking out. He doesn’t connect actions with consequences. He knows he is disobeying but lacks the impulse control to make a better choice.

I’m exhausted. My health is failing. My diet stinks. I never sleep. I’m living in trauma too. This isn’t what I expected when I began to love a child who had been hurt.

Do you love a child who is hurting? Are you managing a schedule filled with doctors, counselors, IEP meetings? Are you struggling with feelings of hopelessness and exhaustion? You are not alone. Let’s face this secondary trauma together. I commit this week to find someone to lean on. I will tell the truth about this feeling. I will let go of some of the emotional weight I carry. Will you?

Are you currently living in secondary trauma? Share your story with us in the comment section below.

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Mike and Kristin Berry are the Co-Founders of The Honestly Adoption Company and have been parents for nearly two decades. They are the authors of six books, and the host of The Honestly Adoption Podcast.

Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is the executive assistant to Mike and Kristin Berry. And she is the best in the land. In addition to providing a warm and friendly response to the many emails our company receives on a weekly basis, she also manages Mike and Kristin’s speaking and meeting schedules, and makes sure that team events go off without a hitch.

Nicole Goerges

Nicole Goerges is a Content Contributor & Special Consultant for The Honestly Adoption Company. She works with Mike and Kristin as a recurring co-host for the Honestly Adoption Podcast, and co-host of Kitchen Table Talks, exclusive video content for Oasis Community, along with Kristin. She is a fellow adoptive mom, and former foster parent.

Matt McCarrick

Matt McCarrick is the Content Production Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. If you’ve loved listening to our podcast, or enjoyed any of the videos trainings we’ve published, you have Matt to thank. He oversees all of our content production, from video edits, to making sure the tags are correct on YouTube, to uploading new videos to Oasis, to hitting publish on a podcast episode, he’s a content wonder!

Karen Anderson

Karen Anderson is the Community Engagement Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. She spends the bulk of her time interacting with, and helping, people through our various social media channels, as well as providing support for Oasis Community members through chat support or Zoom calls. In the same spirit as Beaver, Karen is also passionate about connecting with parents and making them feel loved and supported. Karen is also an FASD trainer and travels often, equipping and encouraging parents.

Beaver Trumble

Beaver Trumble is the Customer Care Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. Chances are, if you have been in need of technical support, or forgotten your password to one of our courses, you have interacted with Beaver. He is an absolute pro at customer care. In fact, he single-handedly revolutionized our customer care department last year. Beaver is passionate about connecting with parents and making them feel loved and encouraged.

Kristin Berry

Kristin Berry is the co-founder of, and Chief Content Specialist for, The Honestly Adoption Company. She spends most of her time researching and connecting with guests for our podcast, as well as direction, designing and publishing a lot of the content for our social media channels, blog and podcast. She loves to connect with fellow parents around the world, and share the message of hope with them.

Mike Berry

Mike Berry is the co-founder of, and Chief Marketing Specialist for, The Honestly Adoption Company. He spends the bulk of his time and energy designing and building many of the resources you see within our company, as well as social media and email campaigns. His goal is to use media as a means to encourage and equip parents around the world. He is also the co-host of The Honestly Adoption Podcast.