In 2009 we adopted our first child from Ghana. She was almost 3 years old at the time. She is now almost 10 years old. She has given me permission to talk a little bit about my experience being the first time mom of a child who lived through terrible trauma. I will not be openly discussing what that trauma was, that is her story to tell should she choose. But, it should be said that as a now vastly more experienced mom, I have learned that for my internationally adopted children when I go to their homeland to meet and adopt them, I now assume that they’ve endured horror. I assume that they have large amounts of trauma in their past. I assume that their brains will react differently then my children who were adopted at birth and lived through less significant trauma and are secure in their attachment to me as a mom. I not only assume that, but I tell other parents to assume that too. Please go into this assuming that you are adopting a child who is coming out of hell. If they aren’t, that is wonderful, but please approach them as if they are.
You see, I didn’t assume that. I ask people to learn from my mistakes. When we brought our sweet little girl home I did everything in the world wrong. I had learned to parent one way, the way I had been parented. This involved a lot of love and logic. The techniques were excellent. I was parented beautifully, but dismissively. I was told to go to my room if I was flipping my lid the way all kids do. It wasn’t a bad way to parent, not at all. I was encouraged to self-regulate. It worked well for me. Actions led to predictable consequences in my childhood. I was never abused, not even close. I knew I was loved, always. My reactions were that of a typical child. My siblings and I could all be parented the same way.
I applied those same loving but logical, and slightly dismissive principles, to my first four children. They came to us nearly at birth from domestic adoption placements. Our first son was the oldest at placement. He was only four months when he was handed to us. He had been with his birth mom up until we became his parents. She is an excellent mom. She loves him. She loves all her kids. Joe and I didn’t understand why he cried so much at the loss of her. After all, he was so little, that kind of loss couldn’t matter that much, right?
We were SO dumb.
It mattered a whole lot. But, we fumbled through. We did all the things we should have done, without really knowing why we should be doing them. They seemed natural. He SCREAMED endlessly, so we rocked him endlessly. We didn’t leave him with anyone else for a good long time. We wanted him to learn to love us because we were first time parents. We wanted to be adored. Selfish motivations, turned out to be good for him too. He’s almost 14 years old now. He’s a sweet, social, securely attached young man.
Our second, third and fourth children came to us straight from the hospital. The trauma was less, but still present. We, yet again, ignored any impact it might have, but they attached to us securely. The first four Full Plate kids were all parented the same way: predictably, but lovingly, actions always led to the same consequences. We fell ass backwards into parenting that way because it was the way we were parented. It’s a solid way to parent and operates on this core principle… If you are our child and you scream and have a fit, we leave where we are, no matter how inconvenient it is to us, we go home, you go to your room, you’re sad you missed the fun, you never have a fit again because you learned mama and daddy don’t play. We hugged them, told them how sorry we were that we missed all the fun, we bonded, they felt loved.
Done. It was all magical.
Then our Ghanaian daughter burst onto the scene. Oh my gosh. I loved her guts, y’all. I still do. She was magical too, just like those babies. She was an adorable, apple cheeked, red haired (from malnutrition), brown skinned, doll. But, she was so hard to deal with. Her behaviors made it so very difficult to like her. Nothing she did made a damn bit of sense to me. I could send that child to her room until the cows came home, she would just make my life harder. We did all the same things we did with the other kids. Our reactions were predictable. We ignored the fits. We sent her away to calm down. We hauled her tiny behind out of so many fun events that we thought for sure there must be something so wrong with her. She just wasn’t ‘getting it.’ And it wasn’t because she wasn’t smart. She was smarter than any other 3 year old I had parented. She knew exactly how to push all my buttons. And, she really enjoyed physical violence and physically disgusting behavior in those worst moments. She hated women, so all those behaviors were ALWAYS directed at me. Joe never quite understood why I found her so amazingly difficult to work with. She was, often, an angel for him. Occasionally the cracks would come and he would see those behaviors too, but she never, ever slapped him across the face or peed in his lap. Never.
I remember Joe coming from work one night after I had been with her all day and my screaming at him,
“WE RUINED OUR FAMILY! WE RUINED IT BY BRINGING HER HERE! WE’RE ALL RUINED!!!”
We had already committed to bringing home her two first cousins from Ghana, to keep them all together, because we adored them all. I loved them. I wanted SO badly to be their mama too. But, their adoptions would make the number of children in our home seven under the age of eight years old. The paperwork was in process. We were set to go back and bring them home in the next few months. They were two and three times her age. If we couldn’t do this for her, what in the hell were we thinking adding more children to our family?
Joe and I began to wonder if maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t our newest daughter’s behaviors that were ruining us? Maybe, just maybe, it was the way we were dealing with them? Or, in our case, not dealing with them. So, we took ourselves to a therapist. In fact, we took ourselves to SIX therapists. Not kidding. Six. None of what they said made ANY sense. They diagnosed our sweet girl with all kinds of stuff that wasn’t congruent, at all, with what I knew to be true of her. She did NOT have ADHD. She did NOT have bipolar disorder. She was NOT a sociopath. Yes, someone actually suggested that. She was capable of loving interactions. We had seen them, they just came at times that seemed completely unpredictable to us.
So, in a way that would mirror what I would do for Tess just a four years later, and Gigi in the present day, I began to search the world for answers. I read everything I could about Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). It only brought me to a darker, even more hopeless place. It was incurable, or so they said. The more I asked other people, the more everyone seemed to know someone who knew someone who had adopted a kid from Eastern Europe. That fictitious kid, the one they had ALL heard of, was always a mess, someone no one could even deal with.
I was heartbroken.
Then someone we had traveled to Ghana with happened to mention a book someone had recommended. It had been published just two years earlier and was written by this doctor in Texas who was working with ‘those kids’, the ones that were like mine. I read the book cover to cover. Maybe this could help? This other mama, whose daughter was from the same place, was working with this doctor and her team. This mama was a teacher. The strategies made sense to her for all children in her classroom who came from trauma. So, we took a chance and we wrote to this doctor. We sent her team endless videos of the behaviors occurring in our home. We asked her what we could do?
She replied with hope, a gift from heaven.
We began the coursework from Empowered to Connect. It was life changing. Oh my gosh. We had been doing it all wrong, which we knew, but didn’t know how to change. We learned what attachment is and how much our sweet little girl had missed out on. She had never had one adult in her life to help her with any of this.
She was floundering at everything in life because she had to fight just for the basic necessities, and felt like she STILL had to fight us, even when we were her new safety net.
All of the sudden, unpredictable reactions became totally understandable. The spitting in my face, understandable, and suddenly, not her fault. It was no one’s fault now. It was all circumstance, circumstance that could be overcome.
All of the sudden, there was hope.
Now, as my sweet girl moves toward adolescence, and gets ready to take the world by storm, it’s time to go back to the classroom. That classroom is located at my dining room table first, and then I will take all that acquired knowledge and head to Fort Worth, Texas to the home of Texas Christian University, to meet the team that saved my girl.
It is my hope that by learning even more about Trust Based Relational Intervention I can help other mama’s who think that Complex Developmental Trauma isn’t curable. I want to bring hope to others now. And, I would love to take what I know to other countries, to stop some of the trauma from occurring in the first place.
TCU has given me the first of many assignments over the last two weeks. I have to look at my own past now, examine my own attachment style and see how it effects my children as I work with them, and all the children I hope to help in the future.
I’m learning about my own triggers, and what to do about them. In my next post I’m going to talk a little about how I examined my own attachment style, and why doing that is so sad and painful, and why it led me straight to finding another therapist, this time, for myself.
The doctor who started it all, who gave us answers for our sweet daughter, is now with the God who she took her strength from. She died after a battle with cancer earlier this year. Her team carries on though. I am so grateful for them. I’m grateful for all they taught me about PTSD, for all the information they gave to me that helped the amazing professionals at Juliana’s school work so successfully with her, how we all worked together to give her a 504 plan for this HEALTH diagnosis, a 504 plan she now no longer needs.
Yes, you read that right. Our daughter has learned to successfully self-regulate her fears in a way that makes her 504 plan at school unnecessary. This doesn’t mean she is “cured.” These early life experiences shaped who she is. She will always have these fears. They’ll creep up at the most unexpected moments in adolescence and adulthood. We’ve talked about the feelings that having her own children will likely bring about, but she expects them now. She knows them like a diabetic child knows what precedes a blood sugar low, like a child with epilepsy knows happens to them before they experience a seizure. These feelings have become predictable for her. She is empowered to control them now.
She is in control now. That was the whole goal all along.
–FullPlateMom, who couldn’t have asked for anything more for her daughter than for control over her own emotions, fears and reactions.