I know my child was a victim but…now I have become a victim too.
When a fellow mom wrote this comment in an adoptive parents’ support group message forum, I cannot tell you how much this resonated with me.
We are raising children who experienced early childhood trauma. That trauma leads our children to act out with many intense, destructive behavioral issues. Please understand that most children who are adopted are well-adjusted with no behavior issues stemming specifically from their adoption, but there is a sub-set of children who because of early child abuse, neglect, or for other reasons, act out with aggression.
Training and understanding about the long-term effects of early trauma and child abuse is helpful. With understanding, we have learned:
- Early childhood trauma changes the structure of the brain
- Children develop PTSD (similar to what soldiers experience)
- Early trauma affects attachment to parents, which requires long-term, specific therapy for healing
Yet understanding something and living with it day after day are completely different things.
Living with a child who rages, steals, lies, destroys, manipulates, and hoards means family members become victims themselves.
It’s not so much that the child is “out to get” the parents or other family members (although it sure feels like it some days!) as that the child is in self-destruct mode.
People who are in self-destruct mode become a swirling vortex who take down everything and everyone around them.
The vortex is fear. Fear does incredible damage in this world, and I believe fear is one of the most damaging forces in existence.
As a therapist once (ahem) graciously said to me, “Sh*t rolls down the hill.” Someone in my child’s past caused harm to my child. My child is causing harm to the people around him.
When I say, “I have become a victim, too,” I do not mean I have become a victim of my child.
Together, my child and I are on the same team dealing with the wounds of his past. Our whole family is hurting because of his past trauma. Keeping this perspective is at times amazingly difficult, but I do my best to keep this at the forefront of my mind.
The way to stop the madness is to heal the hurt. This is easy to say but oh so complex. We are doing our best to work on it, but it takes time, effort, and sometimes there is no perfect fix.
I have become a victim too.
Family members who live with a child who has experienced early childhood trauma or child abuse often develop Secondary PTSD. Click here to learn more about Secondary PTSD.
Living day after day with someone who has the symptoms of PTSD (hyper-alertness, paranoid thoughts, high levels of anxiety) is super-stressful. Family members of victims experience their own issues similar to the primary person.
Add to that the real trauma that is sometimes inflicted on family members. This isn’t secondary, this is actual trauma. Child-on-parent abuse is a real thing and much more common than many people realize, because a child or teen knows they are able to hurt the parent physically but the parent would not hurt the child. Parents are embarrassed to admit their child has hurt them because they feel like a failure as a parent or do not want to get their child into trouble.
Out of control children and teens often victimize younger siblings as well.
Unfortunately, those of us living in these circumstances quickly discover the resources available post-adoption are greatly lacking. I often spend as much time dealing with insurance and case workers as I do caring for my child.
The state system that supports adopting a child in need will harshly turn its back on a family that is struggling to hold itself together with a child who is acting out with violent or deviant behavior.
The attitude of case workers and judges is often “you adopted, so deal” instead of “let’s work together to find a solution”. If I hadn’t lived it myself, I would not understand the depth of pain this harsh judgement inflicts.
When I think back to some of the toughest years of my child’s behavior, it’s not the painful moments surrounding my child’s behaviors that bring the most bitter memories, but the times of sitting in meetings or in court where I was looked down up, cast aside, and treated as a less-than-good-enough parent by those in the state system.
As the parent of a child who experienced early childhood trauma or has attachment issues, how do you begin to survive or even thrive?
An incredibly tenacity is required of those who live and work with children with these behaviors. You have to be so solid with yourself and who you are that nothing your child does phases you.
This doesn’t mean checking out totally, however. Continuing to offer love and support is absolutely critical to the child’s healing. You cannot expect to receive love in return, at least at first. In any relationship we want to feel reciprocity and mutual enjoyment, so this requires a huge attitude adjustment.
I’ve learned that I must continually work on my own issues, far more deeply than is at times comfortable. Past childhood hurts, minor annoyances, spiritual issues, personality quirks – these are all prime factors for causing roadblocks in my child’s healing. This does not seem fair but it’s a reality of raising a child who has attachment and early trauma issues.
Parents of children with attachment issues must take care of themselves. At times it seems impossible because respite is so hard to find, yet we need self-care the most. For years I lived burning the candle at both ends, feeling sick from exhaustion. Now I have learned to step away and take care of myself, whether it’s as simple as using a fidget cube or the more complex logistics required for going on dates with my husband or going for a run.
Finally, you have to be a bit crazy. I’ve noticed people who take on this work are all just a bit off the beaten path. Working with these kids requires outside-the-box thinking. A strong sense of humor is a must.
How to Support Families with Kids Who Are Adopted and Struggling
Again, not all kids who are adopted have these issues. Lots of kids are well-adjusted and do awesome.
But there is a sub-set of kids who struggle so let’s talk about those families. These families might be some of your friends and they don’t know how to reach out for help.
I get it. Either families of these kids have withdrawn over the years and don’t have many friends, or many have loving family and friends who DO reach out and don’t know how to go about asking for the needed help.
When your child spent 2 hours raging last night — screaming, crying, hitting you, biting you, kicking holes in the walls, knocking things off shelves, breaking toys, and throwing food, only to end up sobbing under his bed for another hour, it’s a crazy life.
You feel like people will think YOU ARE THE CRAZY ONE if you try to describe it, so it becomes easier to stay quiet.
These are some ideas of ways to help families:
- Home cooked meal or a gift card for pizza
- Meals for the freezer
- Offer to steam-clean the carpets
- Listen without judgement
- Gift card for a massage
- Read a book about attachment and trauma to understand what we experience
- Gift card to Home Depot (house stuff is forever needing repairs)
- Take siblings on an outing
- Take child on an outing (following specific guidelines)
- Ask if advocating help is needed (emails, phone calls)
- Transportation help
When an adopted child is struggling due to early childhood trauma and attachment issues, often parents end up saying, “I have become a victim, too.”
Children heal within loving families, and families heal within supportive communities. This is how all of us come together to stop the cycle of child abuse.
Will you be a part of the solution by partnering with those who parent hurting children? We need you.
Foster & Adoptive Parents
*Helpful printables for you to use immediately.
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