A trauma-informed approach and self-care can make a big difference for resource parents

by Bob DeMarco
When we were completing our home study and identifying the characteristics the child we would foster would have, we were thinking about a child with physical disabilities. My wife is a physical therapist specializing in pediatrics, so it seemed like a natural fit. We wanted to help a child or children who would otherwise not have a chance at a family. At the time we didn’t know what we were opening ourselves up to or how much it would impact our comfortable world. We soon got a crash course in Childhood Trauma 101.

Our Crash Course Begins
For the first few months our kids were in our home, we were confused, exhausted, frustrated, and overwhelmed. We weren’t used to kids acting the way these kids were: refusing to do simple things; speaking disrespectfully; having temper tantrums at 5 and 7 years old; acting wild and aggressive; being unsafe; and doing everything possible to create chaos.

By our son’s second day of the school, the principal assigned him to “home-bound status,” which meant he could not go to the school for several weeks. When he did go back, he would attempt to run away when my wife dropped him off in the morning. My daughter spent more time acting like a cat than a human. It was surreal.

We were in way over our heads. Not knowing any better, we tried to meet the behavior with discipline (time outs and taking away privileges), but these kids had survived far worse. The more we tried to tighten our control, the more they amped up the behaviors. We read parenting books, sought the council of friends with kids of the same age, and spent a lot of time in prayer.

Light Dawns
It wasn’t until someone gave us a copy of The Connected Child, by Karyn Purvis, that we found someone who truly seemed to “get” our kids. In her book, Dr. Purvis described our kids’ behavior to a “T” and it was there that we discovered the impact trauma has on the developing child. Her research had shown that the brains of kids from “hard places” (as she called them) were different from other children. We learned about brain chemistry and the effects of too much adrenaline coursing through the body for too long. Our kids were clearly in “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. They literally thought their lives were in jeopardy.

We read everything we could find about childhood trauma. In the works of Karen Purvis, David Cross, and others we found great insights into traumatized children and how to respond effectively to their behaviors.

Seeing with a Trauma Lens
About the same time we took a free class offered by the Center for Child and Family Health (https://www.ccfhnc.org/) called Caring for Children Who Have Experienced Trauma (https://bit.ly/2nwkuDK). There we learned to look at our children’s behavior through a “trauma lens.” This transformed our parenting and took us from a place of hopelessness to a place of hope.

Using a trauma lens is looking at a child’s behaviors in light of the trauma they’ve endured and seeing what underlying thoughts, fears, feelings, beliefs, or memories might be driving the behaviors. Seen through the trauma lens, a child who behaves in a way that is stubborn, disrespectful, and conniving may be revealed as a child who is fearful, resilient, courageous, and resourceful.

Don’t get me wrong: my wife and I haven’t changed our definition of acceptable behavior. But viewing my child in this way helps shift my perspective. I see myself not as someone dealing with a difficult child, but as someone partnering with a child who struggles with difficult behaviors. Instead of battling my child, the trauma lens allows me to come alongside my child so that together we can battle the demons that haunt him.

The trauma lens also helps me take things less personally. I understand my child is not attacking me because he hates me—even if that’s what he says. Rather, he may be protecting himself from getting too attached or directing at me the anger he feels at his birth parents. Seeing my kids through the trauma lens helps me to look past behaviors, use them as clues, and ask “What does my child need?”

Let me be clear, this is really tough stuff and requires commitment, patience, and unconditional love. It can be immensely difficult to see little Johnny as a hurting boy when you find he destroyed the walls in his bedroom because he was mad, or to be empathetic with little Suzie’s plight when you find out that she dipped your toothbrush in the toilet…yesterday. Even if you aren’t dealing with behaviors as extreme as these, it can be very difficult to find the real need driving your child’s behaviors.

Prioritizing Self-Care
This is a good place to talk about the essential discipline of self-care. Helping a traumatized child heal is exhausting and takes a long time; it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Unless you selflessly find and do whatever it is that helps you recharge your batteries, you too might become a casualty of your child’s trauma history.

On airplanes passengers are always advised that there may be a need to use an oxygen mask. Should that occur, we’re told, we must put on our own oxygen mask before helping others. Why? Because you can’t help someone else if you’re dead!

Resource parents can get into trouble if we aren’t intentional about caring for ourselves. We can experience secondary trauma, emotional exhaustion, marital disharmony, guilt over the impact to our birth children, difficulties at work, or a host of other maladies. If we don’t take the time to intentionally unwind outside the chaos, we can be overcome by it.

This nearly happened to us. After four years of trauma-informed parenting, my wife and I were struggling. We had different ideas about how to respond to our children, and learning new ways to help them seemed like the only thing we had in common. Our communication was reduced to difficult topics or the business of running our household. There was no relaxation, joy, or laughter. We were sinking. Fortunately, our faith held us together and we have others in our lives (a.k.a. a support system) who helped us see we were in trouble and needed to make changes.

If you’re a resource parent, your child has experienced maltreatment and lost their birth family. This will impact them throughout their development. Looking at that impact through a trauma lens will help you help your child. Looking through the trauma lens with well-rested eyes, a clear head, and a long fuse will help you help them more effectively and with greater endurance.

For us, self-care involves ballroom dancing lessons once a week. It is far more enjoyable than I expected! I take my wife in my arms, we look into each other’s eyes, we move in unison in the same direction, we laugh when we mess up. We follow up with coffee at a local cafe where under no circumstances do we talk about the children or family business. It all lasts only two hours, but we’ve disconnected from the difficult and connected with each other in an enjoyable way.

The impact on our home is palpable. There’s less strife. We smile more. We’re affectionate, more of a team, and more patient with the kids and each other. In short, we have a healthier, happier home and are better equipped to take on whatever gets dished our way as trauma-informed parents.

Bob DeMarco is an adoptive parent in North Carolina.