I was fortunate enough to grow up with a safe and loving home life. My family was by no means perfect, but my parents stayed together and were both nurturing and attentive to my siblings and me. But now that I have a family of my own, I have experienced a bit of life on the other side of that fence.
My husband and I adopted our oldest son when he was just 10 months old. To most of the world (and to us, initially) that young age would be an indicator that nothing too bad could have happened to him, and that he could still live a carefree life. After all, he couldn’t even remember anything that had happened before his adoption, right?
What we have come to find out is that trauma can mean hundreds of different things. Trauma might mean an elementary school-aged child who is physically abused by his stepdad. But it can also mean a baby whose mother is so clinically depressed that she gets fed and changed, but never held or talked to or tickled. Trauma certainly includes sexual abuse, but did you know it also includes losing a parent through a messy divorce or imprisonment? Even not having enough food to eat for an extended period of time can be a form of trauma, especially for a child. These circumstances–and many, many others– can have a serious effect on a child’s brain development. Many struggles that we have as adults can be traced back to childhood trauma if we take the time to stop and look for the root cause.
But the good news about trauma is that to a vast extent, it’s reversible. It just takes a lot of work and seeking help. We have been in therapy for two years with our son, and not just for him but for my husband and myself as well, because overcoming trauma is sometimes an ugly business and brings out the worst in all of us. The constant strain of managing behaviors that we don’t understand, navigating fears that to us seem irrational (but that are very real to him), and having to completely avoid certain social situations have often produced in us explosions of anger that we never expected in parenting. But our son is a loving, joyful, kind person and deserves all of our best efforts, imperfect as we are. Addressing trauma and its effects is not for the faint of heart, but it’s worth it because the healing brings so much more happiness than staying dysfunctional ever could.
Through the process of understanding all of our internal workings, I’ve noticed that even in my own sheltered childhood there were certain things that continue to impact me negatively still today. For example, my father is a highly educated person who loves to debate and enjoys a friendly disagreement. But as a child growing up I never felt on par with him, so I became debilitated at the slightest hint of a disagreement. Now as an adult, I have to do a lot of self-talk when I disagree with someone, taking deep breaths and reminding myself that we can discuss it in a civil way with mutual respect. That’s just one example in my own life, and my husband and I have both become aware of others in ourselves. But by recognizing those things and how they trigger reactions from me as an adult, I can stop the cycle from re-occurring and be a better mother to my children and wife to my husband. So instead of seeing healing as something that just our son is in need of, we now see it as something that we’re all moving towards together.