Going and Growing through Grief and Loss: Parenting Traumatized Adopted Children
by Dee A. Paddock, M.A., NCC

Dee Paddock is a psychotherapist, consultant, and adoptive mother of three who specializes in "Families With a Difference"® issues-including those related to adoption, foster care, infertility, infant loss, and parenting children with special needs. She runs a private psychotherapy and consulting practice in Denver and speaks to many groups and organizations both inside and outside the U.S. This summer, at the NACAC conference in Toronto, Ms. Paddock is scheduled to present an institute and two workshops.

Ten years ago when I was 30, life was good. I'd met the right man, I'd made the right plans, I was pregnant after a painful struggle with infertility. I had been a good girl and, like all good girls, I was going to achieve what I pursued.

Then our baby Sara died at birth. The trauma of losing Sara with no warning brought me to my knees...and changed my life forever. During the past decade, I thought I'd taken care of recovering from this loss with therapy and support groups and my work. But when the TWA jet blew up in the sky last July and people died in a shocking tragedy, I was retraumatized. I couldn't stop watching the news, craving more gory details than necessary and unable to concentrate on much else. I realized it was my old trauma activated by something beyond my control "out there."

This reaction happens to your traumatized child every day.

"Fight, Flight, Freeze"

Dr. Bruce Perry, a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine, studies the impact childhood trauma has on the emotional, behavioral, cognitive, social, and physical functioning of children. He has studied child survivors of the Waco disaster and found that traumatized children can be sitting calmly in a group, talking about something benign like the weather, yet still be in a hyper-aroused physiological state. Although they appear outwardly calm, their resting heart rate may be as high as 140-160 beats per minute. They may experience the rush of adrenaline and a hyper-vigilant, heart-racing, breath-racing reaction of "fight, flight, freeze" in response to non threatening situations at almost any time.

Perry's work shows that, over time, traumatized children may lose the neurological ability to regulate their body's stress response. So even when traumatized children "look" normal, they may be reacting to normal life events as though they are in imminent danger. This hyper-aroused, hyper-vigilant state interferes with a child's ability to pay attention, to learn, and to develop normal relationships.

What Causes Trauma in Adoption?

Many adopted children have been traumatized by the people who gave them birth, or by others entrusted to care for them and love them. And many are traumatized in foster care systems because our culture values the genetic connection between parent and child over all other ties. In our society, parents may abuse or neglect their children repeatedly, but because they are "blood," we trap them in foster care to try to maintain these relationships. This causes even more trauma for children.

Other adopted children may experience trauma when they have the ability to understand what adoption means. Around age seven or eight, children begin to see that belonging to their adoptive family means they lost something very significant-their birth family. They may process adoption as: "My parents didn't keep me. They didn't want me. They hurt me." Children often focus on their birth moms, asking, "Why didn't she want me? I cried too much. I ate too much. I was worse than my brothers and sisters. Is that why I was given away?"

They Can't Tell Us

Everyone wants to have smart kids who are verbal and can tell us what they feel, want, and need. But traumatized children hold so much inside...because it's not safe to tell it, or because they don't know it themselves, or because of what Dr. Perry is discovering. His research shows that children who have been traumatized show abnormal brain development and that some parts of their brains simply aren't available for use. So it's no coincidence these children have learning disabilities, and no surprise they act out. They're in pain; acting out is the only way they can show how much the world hurts them. Their behaviors can tell us a great deal about their internal experience of being traumatized and terrorized.

When my husband John and I started to see that our son Cody, adopted from Korea at age four, had problems, we went to professionals who said, "You just need to love him more." Love him more? I just wanted him to go far away! We had learned quickly that a traumatized child's acting out can make parenting hellish...and totally dispel Going and Growing through Grid and the adoption myth that love heals everything. Cody acts out because his experiences taught him that the grown-ups who were supposed to love him hurt him. John and I are the stand-ins for a birth father who was abusive, drank too much, and hurt little children. Cody is not intentionally trying to hurt us--but he acts out in his young life to create distance between himself and the grown-up world.

What Triggers Acting Out?

Even when family life is relatively calm and safe, traumatized adopted children can be triggered into the alarm state of "fight, flight, freeze." Cody steals when he is triggered, and he can be triggered by fear, exhaustion, pain, nightmares, medications, or by thinking about traumatic or emotional events. The first time Cody stole money at school, it was from a teacher who loves him and got close to him. Because he fears getting too dependent on people emotionally, he took five dollars out of her wallet as a way to create distance by betraying her trust.

It's also easy for parents to get triggered by a traumatized child. Every time the phone rings during the school week, I get that "fight, flight, freeze" feeling too. I feel physically sick when Cody's school teachers call because they seldom call to say what a great guy he is. But Cody steals because he gets triggered, and he gets triggered because he was traumatized as a very young child. Parents of traumatized children have to become detectives—you don't know what the triggers are until you put on your Sherlock Holmes hat and watch your children carefully. They'll leave lots of clues about what triggers their trauma response.

Trauma Triggers Grief

Now that I understand what Cody has been through and am more realistic about who he is, I grieve about not being able to fix this. Like many other parents, I'm grieving the loss of the "perfect" child. And I grieve for the innocent child that someone hurt, irreparably.

Our traumatized children need to grieve too.

As parents, we must teach our children to say therapeutic "good-byes." In this culture, we don't always teach our kids to learn how to deal with losses that are final-like adoption. Traumatized children have a lot of mourning to do so they can do some living. And the more mourning they do, the more room they have in those broken hearts for love. As an example, in our family we have a ritualized "good-bye" to the teachers at the end of every school year.

Because many of our children will never have contact with their birth families, we must teach them to live with the loss and ambivalence that are normal in adoption. These are tough feelings to tolerate; they make traumatized children feel helpless and powerless. To stop such feelings, traumatized adopted children split the world into good and bad--they can't deal with the idea that the woman who gave birth to them has hurt them or abandoned them, or placed them for adoption. They split off their rage at being abandoned, hurt, or neglected, and put it sonewhere else, usually on an adoptive parent!

Cody was a master at showing me his rage and making me the "bad parent," as if he were saying, "Every time you get close, I'm going to sabotage that." On the other hand, he would show his dad a lot of sweetness- proving to the "good parent" that he was really easy-going and happy to be in our family. We were experiencing our son's traumatized feelings and behaviors in two very different and conflicting ways. In the face of this splitting behavior, John and I thought we were going insane and knew the stress Cody was creating could easily turn into a couple's brawl.

But when parents fight, traumatized children are quietly satisfied because they have put their rage and misery out there where other people can handle it for them. It's a coping tool they use to survive. If our family is on the verge of splitting down the middle, then Cody gets to say, "That's what always happens. It happened in my birth family; it's happening here; it always happens." Then he feels powerful-he's able to get the grown-ups to act out his pain—and he doesn't feel so unbearably helpless.

Put the Adults in Charge

Our initial goal as parents should not be to have traumatized children fall in love with us; we first need to help them feel safe. When children don't believe that even their basic physical needs will be met, there's no room for love and trust. "To be rooted is probably the most important and least recognized need of the human soul," writes author Simone Weil. Our kids have had their roots torn; they haven't been watered or fed. Children like Cody have no idea what normal life means...what love means, what trust means...because of their early experiences.

So we must start immediately to contain the acting-out behaviors...and stop worrying so much about how our traumatized child "feels." Bad behavior is not okay because it makes people pull away from our children. Parents should create a more rigidly structured environment that is predictable and consistent. My generation was raised to have a lot of choices, but traumatized children often can't deal with choices. They're desperate to know that adults are strong and brave enough to take charge, but they're going to test your determination every step of the way.

We have to teach traumatized children how to be more verbal and how to negotiate with adults for what they want and need. For instance, they may steal things because they believe that's the only way they'll get them, or become aggressive because they don't know how else to express their anger. So push your children to tell you what they want and need. Reward the words, rather than the behaviors. Tell your children that they will not get what they want by acting it out. Be sure to reward the verbal expression of wants, needs, or feelings, even if you can't grant the requests.

Parents must become skilled at decreasing the trauma response in traumatized children. Give your children small, manageable elements of daily control that will increase their sense of mastery and competence. Give them therapeutic information; teach them a normal response to life's stresses each time they act out a trauma response. And most important, don't lie to your traumatized children. Don't lie about their past, don't lie about the trauma, and don't lie about the challenges of healing from trauma.

Intimacy Scares Them

In our family, we use the "sit-out" to contain bad behaviors and don't ask,"Why are you acting out?" The goal we emphasize is stopping the behavior. Sometimes John and I will speak about our son in the third person because it makes the conversation less personal for him. "Is Cody going to have a good day?" or "Cody seems angry." Actually, traumatized children often feel soothed when we step back and behave as caretakers rather than parents for awhile. Why? Because the intimacy of family life terrifies them. You see, they fear that if they fall in love with you, you'll leave them or hurt them. They will do everything they can to prevent that from happening.

"The elevator to success is out of order. You'll have to take the stairs, one step at a time," says author Joe Girard. As parents of traumatized children, we want successes to be quick and impressive so they reinforce our belief that we're doing the right thing. But in reality, we have to hang in there as long as necessary. We also need occasional respite from our traumatized children so that we can nurture ourselves and our other relationships. Remember, change takes time.

Expect to experience deja vu during this change process, just like I had deja vu when Cody stole from a second teacher's wallet. And expect that the more you work to contain the behavior, the more your child will act out initially. By anticipating that you will take two steps backward for every step forward, you won't set yourself up for disappointment and failure. And be sure to celebrate progress-Cody may have taken a five dollar bill from his teacher but he left the twenty! That showed some empathy on his part and we want to celebrate progress.

Growth Comes out of Grief

When Sara died, I thought my life was over. I couldn't get out of bed because I didn't see the point. I decided I would only be okay if I could know where Sara was, and that she was okay. In their own ways, our traumatized adopted kids try to make sense out of their losses too.

I eventually waltzed Sara was ahead of me on life's journey; that she knows more than I do. Nietzsche wrote, "That which does not kill me makes me stronger," and we must teach this to our traumatized children every day.

As a result of Sara's death, I have been given many gifts: my adopted children, my work, and the considerable honor of helping parents and traumatized children live a better life together. Traumatized children need our patience, support, understanding, and yes, our love, so they can begin to find the gifts in their lives. You cannot undo what happened to them in the past--you can't even make it smaller. Someone once said, "Sooner or later you have to give up the hope of having a better past." So focus on what you can do-you can help your traumatized children learn to count on you and make the rest of their lives bigger. ~

From Adoptalk, a publication of the North American Council on Adoptable Children, 970 Raymond Ave., Suite 106, St. Paul, MN 55114-1149; 612-644-3036


 

 

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