Vol. 20, No. 2 May 2016
Together in the Trenches
To give our best to our children, resource parents need support from each other
by Bob DeMarco
When children have experienced trauma, we sometimes need to parent them differently. This can make all the difference for our kids, but it can also lead us to isolate ourselves from those who can support us.
Whether our motivation is to protect, teach, or prevent, often our go-to solution includes limiting social interaction in some way. Left unchecked, this can lead to ineffective parenting and a generally unhappy home.
Really, social interaction is a lifeline for resource parents. Spending time with others who have also given of themselves through fostering and adoption can be a significant source of rejuvenation and fuel in your parenting "gas tank."
Parenting a traumatized child is akin to running a marathon. We might be able to go the distance alone, but our chances of finishing well dramatically increase when there are people handing us water along the way and we are invigorated by the energy that comes from those cheering us on. Who knows? If we run with friends, it might even be fun!
Understanding the Problem
Why do we foster, adoptive, and kinship parents isolate ourselves?
Understanding the profound effect of early trauma helps us see the frightened child behind the sometimes maddening behaviors we experience. This understanding affects the way we respond to the child. But those who are less informed about these things are often not so understanding. Knowing this, to protect our kids we may pull back from family, friends, and neighbors.
Regulating their bodies, emotions, and behaviors is challenging for our kids. As a result, "normal" child's play can often become chaotic and it is hard for our kids to settle down from play. Knowing we're likely to pay a heavy price afterwards, we decline the invitation to that sugar-saturated birthday party with the bounce houses. We pull back some more.
A child's response to trauma can manifest in undesirable ways, including impulsivity, aggression, inappropriate talk, and poor judgment to name just a few. As a result, we need to be alert to prevent harm to our kids, their peers, property, and pets. Since we can't control what happens when they aren't with us and because other parents may not be looking out for these kinds of dangers, we tend to keep our kids close. And so we pull back still more.
Over time, without even realizing it, many small decisions like these can leave us isolated.
My Family's Experience
My wife and I are working to dig ourselves out of the isolation pit right now. In an effort to protect our kids, ourselves, and/or others, we stopped hosting dinner parties, stopped attending social functions, and stopped trying to share our burdens with those who can't relate to them.
And while our reasons for this can be easily understood, we've come to see that isolation is unhealthy for us individually, for our marriage, and for our interactions with people outside our home. Most ironically, it interferes with our ability to effectively parent our children.
It wasn't until we attended a weekend conference by Empowered to Connect (http://empoweredtoconnect.org/) that we realized just how much we had missed engaging other adults in an affirming way. This regional conference was attended by about 1,400 parents and caregivers all struggling to love their children in the face of the same difficult circumstances we were. It was such a relief to see we were not alone and to share our fears, failures, hopes, and successes with people who knew what was at stake.
We were infused with hope when we heard the keynote speakers share their success stories and felt sadness and empathy when they shared their failures. We laughed and cried with the rest of the audience at some of the crazy stories we heard. We were encouraged and our strength was renewed when we heard about effective new strategies we could put into practice in our own home.
Between the mix of emotions, the validation of our methods, and the new ideas we got, we left feeling energized and ready to stand tall beside our kids. We resolved we would never again allow ourselves to become an island, and that others needed to hear about the strength and healing we found in uniting with others who are working toward the same goals we are.
When we came home we reached out to acquaintances who were struggling. We began meeting monthly to support, pray for, share, and grow with one another. Coming out of that group we found some close friends who we still get together with regularly.
Friends Who "Get It" Matter
Last spring was pure chaos in our home. For some unknown reason, two of our kids lost their sense of safety and so they began to act out in an effort to gain control. They ran away, found and used matches, stole and hid kitchen knives, had tantrums, and hid from us.
We had the police visiting us, we had hospitalizations, and we missed work due to school suspensions and meetings.
My nerves were frayed, my fuse was short, my blood pressure was high, and I wasn't sleeping well.
During that time we were hanging onto God, our friends, and each other for dear life.
Having close friends who "get it" provided a much needed outlet to express our anger, frustrations, secret thoughts, fears, and plans. And, since our trauma-informed friends were not as close to our situation as we were, they brought an informed and more objective viewpoint as we struggled for calmer waters at home.
The storm eventually subsided for us, but now our friends are in the storm, and we are able to support them as they struggle to stay afloat.
Our Kids Need Our "A" Game
Parenting the trauma-affected child can sometimes be hard and tiring work, but our kids need us to bring our parental "A" game, even when we're tired. When we attempt to carry the load alone, at best we'll not be as good as we could be and at worst we'll burn out spectacularly. On the other hand, if we allow others to pour into us and help carry the load, we'll be in the best possible position to give our best to our children.
If social media is your thing, you might find the "Parenting with Connection" Facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/parentingwithconnection/) helpful and interesting. It's a closed group so you'll have to request to join to see the posts, but I recommend you do it. I think you'll find it a valuable resource.
However you choose to plug into an informed support system, do it today. You'll be invigorated by the energy that comes from the crowd cheering you on as you run by. Who knows? It might even be fun!
Bob DeMarco is an adoptive parent in North Carolina.
~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~