I will never forget the moment my mind was fully opened to the reality of what our kiddos have gone through and why they do and say the things they do at times.
It was Christmastime, fours years ago. On a cold December night my oldest son, who is diagnosed with Alcohol-Related-Neuro-developmental-Disorder (commonly called ARND, a diagnosis of FASD), was triggered by something. We were popping popcorn, pulling out blankets, and settling down in our family room for a family movie night. For reasons that still remain a mystery, he wasn’t having it. 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, he hated this family, he wished it wasn’t Christmas break and he could go back to school. On and on and on until finally he lunged at his younger brother and tried to punch him. We have a rule that when someone displays behaviors that become unsafe or threatening, we remove them from the room and one of us spends time separate with them.
Now let me be fully transparent with you- that night I was the furthest thing from Trust Based Relational anything! I had even sat through an Empowered To Connect conference a year or so earlier, and listened to Karyn Purvis in person. I should have known better. But my blood was boiling. I just wanted to watch a movie with my family for crying out loud! Instead, this was what I was dealing with.
Even though I was supposed to know how to respond and what was going on, back then, an opaque veil covered my eyes. I couldn’t see the full reality of my son’s behavior. As he lay face down in our upstairs bathroom screaming obscenities at me and Kristin, and pushing our heavy clawfoot bathtub up with his head, 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. Call it a miracle, or the movement of the Holy Spirit (as I believe it was), but in that moment my eyes were fully opened, and the veil was torn away.
A voice echoed in my mind- “He’s not a bad kid being bad. He’s a scared kid, voicing his unmet need through this outburst.” I may be paraphrasing the voices in my head, but that was basically what I heard.
That night forever changed me. And it changed us. In fact, it changed how we approached our kiddos and how we saw the world around us. It even changed how we viewed kids in the past, who were in our youth group. So many children we just chalked up to being out-of-control, defiant, or rotten to their core. Suddenly we saw what was really going on with them. We realized that they were voicing something that we couldn’t understand. Even everyday moments, where we thought someone was being a jerk, or nasty for no reason, changed, and our irritation was replaced with compassion. 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.
And it will for you too.
Here’s how fully understanding chronic trauma and how it changes the brain, can transform your entire journey…
- You’ll respond different to the world around you. That child in your neighborhood who bullies every other kid. The little girl in your son’s class who often hangs upside down in her seat and routinely disrupts the class. The kid who everyone casually files under “weird” or “annoying.” Suddenly they have a different storyline to you. Suddenly, you see what’s happening with them very clearly. 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 came to the understanding that chronic trauma causes a human being to stop functioning from a place of logic and reasoning, and instead function in constant survival mode, I saw many everyday interactions in a new light. I could pinpoint the root of the way someone was behaving, or the reason behind the things they said or did. Now mind you, this is not a license to diagnose, this is simply permission to see people with compassion and understanding.
[shareable cite=”Mike Berry”]This is not a license to diagnose. This is permission to see people with compassion and understanding. [/shareable]
- Your heart will break. Speaking of compassion, I came across this quote recently, by Annette Breaux, that said, “Nine times out of 10, the story behind the misbehavior won’t make you angry, it will break your heart.” So, so true! And there’s a lot of breaking to be had when our eyes are finally opened, the blurriness from our vision lifts, and we now see situations, and moments in a new light. When you understand how trauma impacts your children, you become compassionate. Your heart breaks and you grieve their great loss. Plus, it helps you parenting them very different than you did in the past (more on this in a minute). We interact with our son completely different now.
- You will parent differently. I used to respond angrily to my son’s outbursts. I was annoyed when he would impulsively ask and ask and ask the same question over and over again. My own anxiety would heighten when he would jump from one thing to the other in a 5 minute time frame. To be quite honest- there are times I still struggle with this. But I’ve learned to respond differently nowadays. Once I gained a full understanding of what his past trauma did to his brain functionality, and why he constantly seems to be in a fight for something, I began to respond in a much more calm manner, understanding that my heightened emotion would also heighten his (Truth!). I also use to struggle to understand how, even after being in our home for more than 10 years, he still melted down over what I considered “normal” things that he should understand- routine, household rules, or a schedule that we followed religiously. But (as I said earlier) 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. When a child has had a natural human need like food, safety, nurture, or connection disrupted or unmet, they operate from their brain stem which is entirely survival-based. This doesn’t disappear quickly. 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 helped me to re-gear my expectations as a parent, even 10 years into him being a part of our family.
- You will move into action. I don’t know how you feel about this, but I believe understanding and knowledge lead directly to advocacy. When my heart breaks, my feet move. When my heart is plucked I begin to speak up and speak out. Over the past 4 years (and yes, admittedly, that’s all it’s been even though I’ve been an adoptive parent for 16), I’ve grown to fully understand how our knowledge of the way trauma impacts our kiddos can change the world. Thus, the reason you are reading this blog. We are dedicated to spreading the light we’ve discovered.
Understanding and knowledge lead directly to advocacy. When my heart breaks, my feet move.
Can I just encourage you with this- don’t beat yourself up. I say this because I know you and your heart. I have the same heart in me. We are fully invested in this journey and in loving our kiddos. We carry a lot of guilt and shame for the things we’ve done, or said, in the past to our kiddos. We wear the weight of misunderstanding and even when someone tells us it’s okay and we can take it off, we keep it on. We feel like this is burden we must bear. It’s not. If you have been in the dark like I once was, it’s okay. You don’t know what you don’t know. Step into the light. Feel the warmth of the sun on your face. Look at your precious kiddo in a new light. One step in front of the other. From this moment forward.
Have you recently learned the truth about trauma? Share your story with us in the comment section below.