Wednesday, January 16, 2019

When Your Child's Trauma Causes Parental PTSD

Trauma. What comes to mind when you hear that word? In the world of adoption, we automatically tend to think separation from birth parents, neglect, possibly abuse, and a loss of what is known and familiar.

There is more and more information and awareness being spread about this topic, but we don't hear as much about what trauma does to a family. This is probably due to the guilt factor felt by many of us who parent a child with early child hood trauma. We think, "My child has lost so much, how dare we complain about how his trauma affects us???" If you are like me, you bottle it up. You know it isn't healthy to do so, but what are the options, especially when the layers of trauma are deep and complex.

We, like many families who began fostering before there was much training on attachment and how trauma affects a child, felt that love and supplying a child's physical needs was all that was needed for said child to grow up to be an emotionally, stable individual. Thinking back on our training, I am sure we touched on this topic although it certainly wasn't front and foremost as it should have been. Instead, we learned how various drugs affect the body and how an individual who is using them, may present. We learned how to prepare our homes to pass the safety inspections, how to fill out monthly reports and that type of thing. We didn't learn what to do if a child refused to eat for days because he was mad at mom. We didn't learn how to care for a child who screamed all day, every day, nor did we learn about building an attachment with a child who had experienced the loss of all he held dear, or worse yet, never learned to attach to anyone.

With that huge gap in our training (and I am not blaming the caseworkers, they had little more training than we did) we became foster parents to children who had been exposed to drugs and alcohol, children who had been neglected, babies who had soda in their bottles rather than nourishing formula. We had children who didn't feel pain, children who didn't recognize their birth parents even though they supposedly lived with them. We had children who rocked themselves to sleep, banged their heads on the floor and ate dog food at every opportunity...and we tried parenting them in the same manner as we did our biological son. It didn't work. Time outs didn't work, ignoring the negative behavior while praising the behavior we wanted to see didn't work, we tried every type of parenting in the book, nothing worked.

Our toddlers became preschoolers and the behaviors only intensified. We added lying, stealing and manipulating to the mix and as they grew and became school age, their behaviors only became more complex. We learned about therapeutic parenting but that only brought minimal changes. We tried therapy, but had little success. 

Our children were coping in the only way they knew how,  which was by striving to be at the top of the pack by what ever means necessary. It is called survival. Someone who is struggling to survive is not worried about relationships, he isn't thinking about how his choices affect the future, he is thinking one thing only: stay alive no matter the cost to self, or anyone else. I think we have a tendency to forget that even though our child has been with us _____ years, until they heal from their past trauma's and can truly feel safe in our home, they remain in survival mode. Several of our children have been with us for nearly a decade and they still struggle in this area.

Using traditional parenting methods with children who have experienced foundational trauma, for many reasons, only intensifies the behaviors. We have a child who struggles to stay dry, consequences are not going to help her because we know it is rooted in trauma (although I have yet to figure out exactly how, although we do know traumaversaries intensify the problem). Disciplining a child for a behavior they cannot help, does not promote bonding. Another child struggled with sticky finger's, we finally realized that we had to be proactive and check pockets, shoes etc after we had been away from home because this child truly wasn't getting that taking things was wrong. He saw it and his survival brain said, "Take it." Unfortunately, it took us years of trial and error to realize that we need a different approach and the rage and irrationality that resulted from our unsuccessful methods added another layer of trauma to our family. The child who took things, just became sneakier, we became less trustful and things snowballed.

Many of our children battle mental health issue's due to their trauma. While medication's can be very useful and even absolutely necessary, they can also have undesirable side affects behavior wise that add still more trauma. These behaviors often feel as though they are directed at you, the parent, and if you respond in the wrong way it can easily cause yet another layer of trauma.

 Our children feel safest with us, even though it certainly doesn't feel that way most days. We all let our "big feelings" out with those we know will love and support us through our worst moments. This means your child may present well in public but be a handful, to put it mildly, at home. We have one child who is a master at putting on a good front. People tell me how well this child is doing and I think, "You have no idea have no idea how much effort my child is putting forth to appear put together, the meltdown's and drama are going to be tenfold in the coming days." It's enough to make me want to crawl into a hole or become a permanent hermit. The well meant comments made in my child's hearing compound her trauma as well as mine. She knows she is presenting as someone she is not, while I remember how another child's similar actions helped lead to a CPS investigation. And guess what we get? More trauma.

Eventually we as parents develop secondary PTSD because we become traumatized by our children's trauma reactions. We dread waking them in the morning because we know we will be yelled at and have abuse heaped upon our heads. If we do something nice for our child, the behaviors will intensify tenfold..so we back off, then feel guilty for steeping back from our child when their negative behavior is clearly showing they need us. But trying to build a bond means that we are subjecting ourselves to more negativity and we begin to feel resentful. Therapist's have told me time and again, "Separate the child from his actions. Love the child but not the actions." I have yet to figure out how one does that while actively building a relationship. 

Self care is a buzzword we hear about everywhere, but when you have children with severe developmental trauma/attachment disorders it is tough. I think you need to begin practicing self care when a traumatized child is placed in your home, not when the child has been with you for years and you are hanging onto your sanity by the skin of your teeth and know that any self care on your part is going to come with a price tag, behavior wise from your child, that you simply do not have the mental and emotional stamina to pay. 

You see yourself becoming a person you never intended to be. You see bitterness, pain, grief, loss, irrational responses, fear and pain. In fact, if it were possible to look into a mirror you would see you too are a victim of trauma. You are bound by the same trauma reactions that have your child reacting negatively to everything and everyone that crosses his path.

And then there are the siblings, "What doesn't break us makes us better," according to one quote, but the stakes are high when there is constant backlash from the siblings who's very existence is built on trauma. Siblings build walls and fight battles in order to protect what they love and hold dear, but trauma knows no bounds causing further erosion in already shaky relationships. Sometimes I look at my family and shake my head in wonder that we are still standing, other times I shake it in despair because the reality is, while we have made progress, we have a loooong way to go and I wonder, "Will we make it?"

Thankfully, there is more training becoming available all the time for both parents and therapists. Training that can help children heal, training that can prevent parents from using wrong methods which only cause more trauma for everyone involved. To all you parents in the trenches of parenting a child, who for whatever reason is making your life difficult, hang in there you aren't alone! Having other parents who understand that I don't hate my child when I vent my, "Big feelings," has been a life saver. Knowing if I call a friend in tears, she will assure me that I am not a failure, that the mistakes I made are redeemable and not all is lost, is such a blessing. Knowing she will sit and listen and not judge or condemn because she too has walked this path and knows it isn't as easy as giving another consequence or standing my ground, gives me the strength to get up and try again. 

" Alone we are strong, together we are stronger"

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