Family Camp means different things to different people. For the children, it can mean the company of others whose journey parallels their own. For parents, it can mean the very same thing. But for some, family camp can be a reality check.

AZAFAP provides these Foster/Adoption/Kinship family-friendly get-aways twice annually (a third is rumored). The fall camp is held in Prescott at Friendly Pines, affectionately described as one board above the dirt. Winter camp is held in Williams at Lost Canyon, not 5 star accommodations but really lovely and comfy. Both are well attended and loads of fun.

I’m often invited to speak to parents at these gatherings. As in these blogs, my subject matter usually focuses on self-care strategies that enable one to bring their best game to the task of caring for a child who has a history of chronic trauma. Lost Canyon this year was heavily attended by first timers so I had to credential myself more than when the group knows me better. This life review is pretty emotionally exhausting but very important. This year was no exception. In earlier blogs I have written about the path that brings me to a place where I can speak with authority about being a child with a trauma history and parenting such a child. I invite you to review the AZAFAP archive of earlier blogs if you are curious.

This year, as I reflected on my presentation at Lost Canyon, I realized that I said a few more provocative things than I had in prior years. At the end of my presentation this time a woman approached me to say that she wished someone had warned her sooner about using caution to build a large family from the foster system. I realized that what I feared saying had been exactly what she wished she had heard sooner.

A houseful of teens with unresolved trauma histories will likely exceed the capacity for empathy of even the most loving parent. They are strong, they are fast and they are mouthy. This is the person who can find your soft spot and use it against you like no one else ever has or will so remind you of the person who did, you want to exact the revenge now you couldn’t get back then. This is what the woman was talking about when she wished someone had warned her. She was exhausted and as much as she cared, she was out of resources to bring to the situation.

Our understanding about the long term effects of chronic childhood trauma has grown tremendously in the past 10 years. Dr. Bruce Perry and others have been able to ferret out the neurological consequences of such experiences and what they have to tell us is that these children deserve and need more than food and shelter; they need a person committed to their healing with all the resources both personal and communal necessary for remaining calm and rational when the child in their care isn’t yet capable of the same. These children need us to deeply understand that it isn’t that they won’t cooperate with the life we are offering, they simply can’t. Check out https://azcouncil.com/neurosequential-model-for-caregiving/ for an excellent resource from Dr. Perry.

When I was invited to join with AZAFAP in their endeavor to reach out with training and support for foster, adoptive and kinship families the first phrase that came to mind was “What does love look like?”. Since then I think I’ve mistakenly drifted away from that idea. I know that many of you reading this firmly believe that the love you have to share will be enough to overcome any historic pain that holds your child back. Dr. Perry helps us see that love must be trauma informed to meet the needs of these hurting children. Their brains just can’t accept the love we have to offer. Their experience has taught them to be alert to any sign that things are about to get ugly. Unfortunately, a clenched jaw or the slightest tension in your face is enough to light up the part of their brain that warns them to beware. When this happens, reason is not possible. This is why we must stay curious, not furious and need to connect before we correct.

You are and will remain the most important person in this child’s life, not the caseworker, the counselor or the teacher. You have to put on your oxygen mask first. You have to figure out what it takes to keep you calm and nurtured so that you can bring your best self to the child in your care. You have to figure out which rhythmic, patterned, and repetitive movement best helps regulate your child’s brain (e.g. music, dance, basketball, etc.). You have to find a way to communicate respect for the people who brought this child into the world no matter what tragedy befell the family subsequently or why it happened.

Finally, don’t be fooled by promises of counseling and special education. There is a place for trauma informed counseling and trauma informed education but you have to first inform yourself about what it takes to parent a child with a trauma history before you can judge whether these others are behaving accordingly.

Love is the beginning. Love is what brings you to the place where you invite this stranger into you home. Love will get you through sleepless nights. But love must also motivate you to learn enough about the long term consequences of chronic trauma so that you can make sure the child you have committed to loving gets what they need from you, your home and the community.

Thanks for listening. Take care of yourself.

Cathy