The following is a guest post by Cindy Cramer, foster mother for 24 years, adoptive mother of six and our Family Support Coordinator. It is the first in a series of posts designed to help foster and adoptive families understand the roots of their children’s behavior.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned through my years of parenting experience is that children who have trauma histories are victims of their intense fears. This is not fear as we (that is, adults without early trauma histories) usually understand it. We tend to equate fear with our feelings of anxiousness, which we can overcome by thinking good thoughts, taking deep breaths, or telling ourselves that logically, there’s a low probability that the anxiety-provoking event will ever really happen. Our anxiety is the fear that something horrible might happen. Traumatic fear is knowing that something severe, even life threatening, may happen…again! Traumatic fear can only be resolved by consistently repeated positive experiences which serve to balance the brain and give hope of safety. This takes years (yes, years) and progress can be derailed by sensory experiences, common situations, or certain triggers. I’ve learned that children with trauma histories experience many opposite-but-coexisting fears: fear of success and fear of failure; fear of having no control or too much control. These conflicting fears place the child in “Fight, Flight or Freeze” mode, where they instinctively react instead of responding or making a conscious choice of how to behave. Just like when your doctor checks your reflex by tapping your knee with the little hammer: You have no choice but to react.
Let me tell you about one of my sons. He came into care after his parents were arrested for physical abuse; his last view of them was in the back seat of a police car. He arrived at my home at 4 AM on Thanksgiving Day. Thanksgiving is never an ordinary day, but I also was doing respite for another foster parent, which meant four additional kids, extra noise and increased chaos. Looking back, the best way I can describe him that day is as an observer. He looked like tears could flow at any moment, but he did not cry. He did not allow himself to share the most basic of emotions. Several months later when we discussed that day, he shared that it “felt like everyone was wearing a mask and [I] could not tell who was safe to trust.”
My Thanksgiving Day Son fit into our family well – he played with the other children, took on the big brother role, and was a leader who could influence his younger foster brother. Despite that, he continued in his detached observer role for about a year. I noticed that my Thanksgiving Day Son was rarely in trouble, but his foster brother was exhibiting new behaviors that were not like him. My Thanksgiving Day Son would watch me intently as I corrected the younger child, as if I was on trial. I soon realized that my Thanksgiving Day Son was concerned for his safety – which made sense, since his stepfather’s “discipline” had been harsh and physical, requiring a sibling to be hospitalized on at least one occasion – and so he needed to see what direction my discipline approach would take. My Thanksgiving Day Son was even willing to “set up” my younger foster son so that he could watch my response. I began to change my approach by responding to both boys with the same consequence. Over time, he realized that my consequences were never severe and began to relax, even venturing out and making some “mistakes” of his own.
One night, he woke up screaming because he wet the bed. Inconsolable and on the verge of a full-blown panic attack, I held him, rocked him, talked softly but nothing helped. After about an hour, I said, “Your stepfather will never come to this house. I will never let him in.” That statement was the only thing that helped him calm down. I was relieved but, for four nights in a row, he wet the bed and I continued to reassure him in the same way (remember, repeated experiences). I came to learn that his stepfather had placed his brother on a space heater because of a wet diaper, causing second and third degree burns to his hands, legs and buttocks. His little brother was just eighteen months old.
In her book The Connected Child, Karyn Purvis writes about “felt safety.” For those of us without significant trauma histories, “felt safety” is a difficult concept to understand – after all, if we are safe, then we feel safe, right? The difference is that we have a foundation of trust so that even when things are bad we believe that they will go back to being good again. But our kids with trauma histories don’t have that foundation to return to. They may literally be safe but their instinct tells them they cannot feel safe. Again, it’s not a conscious response, but rather a reflex, a reaction truly rooted in survival. Their fear is that if they are unable to manage their world, they may die. Death is everyone’s greatest fear, and for these children, it feels like a constant reality.
The “Empowered to Connect” program gives this example: If you’re walking in downtown Indianapolis at 2 PM and you hear a rustle in the bushes, you’ll assume that it is just a squirrel gathering nuts. If a car drives by slowly, you may assume they are sightseeing or trying to navigate the downtown streets. You might change your plans or your path or you might not. The point is: you wouldn’t feel threatened. But if you’re walking in the same place, hear the same sounds, and see the same car at 2 AM, you’re more likely to leave and go somewhere that you feel safe and protected. In much the same way, our kids are “2 AM” kids…all the time. They’re hypervigilant, always looking for a way out, figuring an escape route, or trying to protect themselves (remember, Fight, Flight, or Freeze).
The first time I heard this, it made so much sense, and I shared this insight with anyone who would listen. But just learning about “felt safety” wasn’t enough – that was “head knowledge.” I needed to embed this knowledge into my heart and actions, and how I approached every child. Around that same time, I participated in a training called C.H.A.N.C.E.S., which focused on how the brain is changed by trauma and how we should look beyond the behaviors to the huge emotions and unmet needs that trigger it all. By recognizing the need and finding a way to meet it, I was able to change the dynamics — which brought hope for healing and behavioral change. The damage was not done to these children with a single episode but several. Similarly, healing and behavior change also take time, much effort and many trials. I had to learn to think a new way, review my plan and start over every day. I had many days when I was frustrated or discouraged but I slowly began to see progress and growth. I believe that progress can be understood as a spiral that extends upward with both ups and downs. We evaluate progress by measuring the intensity, frequency and duration of the undesirable behaviors. If you can trace the bottom of the spiral, you will see that the change is moving in a positive direction. That gives us – or at least, gives me – continued motivation and hope for the future.
Fear may always be the foundation of how our children see the world. We need to work daily to communicate a message of safety and give them the tools to move toward that feeling of safety on their own. Some of those tools include how to identify and communicate their emotions and needs. Another tool is to teach problem solving skills for various situations before they happen, so that they can be prepared for the next time that scenario does occur. This takes (a lot of) time, (even more) energy, and the ability to think outside the box. Our job as foster and adoptive parents is to give our children comfort, security and connection. It’s not easy – but keep trying…because it is so worth it.