I cleaned out a storage unit recently. When I closed my house in Phoenix and built my little cottage in Flagstaff, I had to downsize in a big way. I let the furniture go when I finally accepted that it wasn’t smart to be paying to store it, but it took another 5 years to face all the books and art supplies that had been sitting idly for so long. Part of this delay can be chalked up to just wanting to avoid the dust but, now that it’s done, I know there was more to it than that.
It’s hard to give up what defines you. I’ve never been a great student, but my education has always been important to me. I’m a naturally curious person, always interested in all kinds of random stuff. Those books represented my education and that curiosity. When the local used bookstore didn’t even want them, I was genuinely sad about it.
I think there’s a parallel here with these kids from trauma. Living with people for whom lying and stealing have become the only way to survive requires that we, as caretakers and parents, rethink what to do with some of those values that have been so important to us: Honesty is the best policy; Respect other’s privacy and belongings; Stealing is wrong. I don’t mean that we become thieves and liars, only that we have to stop judging our parenting and their progress by whether or not these behaviors persist. I’m certainly not advocating becoming resigned to this, either. I just know that until a kid from trauma feels safe with you, all the punitive teaching about morals and ethics will fall on deaf ears. As a wise foster parent said the other day, “Ignore the lie, not the child”. He was quoting Brian Post (https://youtu.be/rHlJEr4ebM0). Letting them see how disgusted you are certainly doesn’t facilitate a sense of safety. Embracing the idea summarized by saying “You are safe with me. I hope you will someday trust that you don’t have to tell me lies or take my things to get what you need from me” does exactly that.
When my grandkids lie about whether they brushed their teeth or put away their shoes, they are just testing the boundaries. With them, I have an opportunity for discipline and a teaching/accountability moment. When kids with trauma histories do the same thing, the stakes are much higher.
I’ll use a few anecdotes to try to illustrate what I mean. A young friend recently told me that it was very important that her husband NEVER know she was once a smoker. She was so afraid of his thinking less of her for a behavior that was long in her past that she swore her friends to secrecy. I think it’s something like, “I want your respect/approval so desperately and I’m so sure I don’t have it, that I’m willing to hide my true self to assure it.”
A mom on a support call recently described the aftermath of placing her 14-year-old foster daughter in respite when she had to travel out of state. She had gone so far as to arrange visits with the respite provider several times in advance of the trip. In spite of her best efforts, this sweet child was clearly surprised to see her at the door upon her return. While in respite care, this child had reverted to her infantile way of communicating and coping, exhibiting behaviors not seen for many months. She was simply convinced that another adult had lied to her, abandoned her, and left her in the care of a stranger.
We want to be good parents. That’s a good thing. We err, however, when we expect our kids to reflect the quality of our parenting in the world. When this happens, they aren’t allowed the consequences of their own actions. We then sometimes work harder than they do just so we are spared the world’s judgement, as if every error in judgement made by a kid was the direct result of poor parenting. Some parents lie for their children, intimidate school personnel to adjust grade reports for their children, insist that their kids are innocent of any and all wrongdoing, or even scarier, never let on that they doubt the load of junk they are being fed by their “good” kids. Remain skeptical, keep a good sense of humor, and respect that this kid whose early life was hard beyond your imagination is doing their very best with very few resources and genuine terror about being found out and hurt again because of it. Remind them that they are safe with you.
1. Check out the AZAFAP Event Calendar at https://azafap.gnosishosting.net/Events/Calendar.
2. Our Friday night Happy Hour and Tuesday afternoon Coffee Chat continue. Some find me and a single other participant; others find a conversation among 4 to 6 people. The topics range from the silly to what hobbies have us in their grip to what life has thrown in our path. If you ever find yourself wanting a bit of grown-up conversation, consider joining us (check your email for the unchanging link).
3. NEW! Parent Mentor Partners: AZAFAP has trained volunteer parents as mentors who are ready to help support foster, kinship and adoptive parents through one-to-one conversations. Interested? Fill out the form at https://www.azafap.org/family-support-services/
4. Registration is also open for new, regional Circles of Supportive Families. Reach out to find another parent who understands.
5. Though pressures are easing, this pandemic continues for those of us who understand what is at stake. We are all weary of it. Reach out if you need an ear: email@example.com.
6. I encourage you to check out what Dr. Bruce Perry has to offer. Find his thoughts at https://www.pcaaz.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/B21-Insightful-Caregiving-Intimacy.pdf and at https://www.neurosequential.com/covid-19-resources
Thanks for listening. Take care of yourself so you can take care of others.