when words are triggers (adoption/foster)

words can be triggers
Risa’s daughter, Ashley, screamed every time she said, “Sit down.” It didn’t matter if it was dinner time, snack time, bed time, or movie time, Ashley broke down.

The question could be asked, is this simply defiance? If it’s in several areas, it could be, but if a child’s experienced trauma, their behavior won’t fall in line as some would expect. There will be defiance from a traumatized child.

In Ashely’s case, the breakdown usually takes place when certain statements are made, like, “Sit down.” If Ashely were able to define how she’s feeling, Risa could ask her what’s going on. Chances are she’s done this, and she’s not getting a response. There a few reasons for this. Either Ashley’s too young to verbalize how she feels or she can’t put it in words because she doesn’t understand. Or, she has repressed the memories that are triggering the fear of the words, “sit down.” Or, those memories are too frightening and she does everything she can to bury them, therefore she’s not able to talk about them.

It’s impossible to know everything that happened to our children before they came to us.

We don’t know if they were with their birth mother at all times, if all of the workers in the orphanage were kind, if Grandpa yelled, if their birth father was abusive, if their mother left them with strangers. So, we don’t know what happened to Ashely before she arrived at Risa’s home. Maybe someone screamed, “Sit down!” before they abused her. Maybe those words surrounded something that happened to her brother. Maybe those words are the culmination of all the fear she experienced in her former home.

If your child is responding similar to Ashley, there are some steps you can take to help them work through this fear.

First, use other directives instead of those trigger words. Risa knows that the words, “sit down” create fear. Whether Ashley shows fear in her face when they’re said or not, something is brought up in her mind that causes anxiety in her. We don’t want Ashley to feel this way, we want to build trust, so Risa would use other words like, “Have a seat,” “It’s time to eat,” or, “Pop a squat.” Whichever works.

Second, try to find out what happened to trigger that fear response. Above I listed a few reasons why Ashely may not be able to express her feelings. Maybe your child is doing the same as Ashely, so here are links to some posts that will help you create trust with your child so they can open up to you.

tips on bonding with an adopted or foster child

These posts will help your child open up to you:
emotional balance begins with us (feelings: part 1)
name those feelings (feelings: part 2)
be available (feelings: part 3)
just deal with it (feelings: part 4)

Third, remember that your child’s been through trauma, whether they’re an infant, a toddler who lived in a foster home in a foreign country, a child who was “well taken care of” in an orphanage, or a child who had great foster parents before joining your family. All of these children have been removed from their birth mom or birth family, all of them experienced trauma. And with all of them, we don’t know the WHOLE story.

Although we don’t know the whole story and need to have compassion, we still need to have expectations and consistency. Ashley has a meltdown each time Risa asks her to do something. Notice, Risa isn’t supposed to say, “You don’t need to sit to eat dinner, you can walk around and do whatever you want.” She still has expectations. These expectations need to fit reasonably within what your child can actually do, but they need to be present. Risa also needs to be consistent by following through with what she says.

Does your child break down at certain times? Have you been able to nail down the cause? Do these tips help you make a plan to reach your child and reduce anxiety? I love comments, so please share your thoughts.

I hope to see you next week. You can receive every post made to Lovin’ Adoptin’ by subscribing in the upper right corner. You can also follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest for more helpful information and links. Feel free to share this with anyone who would benefit. Have a great day!

Santa’s big secret: to tell or not to tell (adoption/foster)


Our daughter’s been asking the question since she could talk, “How does Santa get in?” With no chimney protruding from our roof, our answer was, he’s magic. That response would appease most children. Not Payton. “Will he use the front door? Will you leave it unlocked?” Well, we didn’t want to cause worry, having her think that anyone can just pop in whenever they want, packages in tow or not. So we stuck to, “He’s magic.”

Every year she’s had questions about this Santa guy, the Eater Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. A few years ago we threw out magical flying food for Santa’s reindeer (oats mixed with glitter, an idea my husband’s sister shared with us when they visited with their daughters). Her girls loved it and didn’t have questions. But you could see the concern gnawing at Payton when we tried to feed some poor starving trailblazing deer. “How will they find it?” The oats and glitter had fairly disappeared in the snow or the grass, whichever it happened to be each year.

I had a feeling the Santa front wasn’t going to last long. Because all the afore-mentioned and because I am horrible at keeping secrets. Yeah, it’s really bad, mostly when it comes to gifts and not blurting aloud what we bought the kids, when it was supposed to be from the good ole jolly guy.

This past week I was in Payton’s room, she had called to me after she went to bed. I could hear a little fear etched in her voice, and I wondered what it could be. “How will Santa come? I’m always awake at night.” I asked if she was scared of Santa, and she nodded her head. I asked again just to make sure. Yep.

Decision time had come. Do I let my daughter continue to believe in Santa and be frightened of the big man in the red suit totting an extra-large beard or do I tell her the truth and crush any sort of child-like fantasy? Some parents scoff at me because they’ve always been honest with their kids about these fairy tale characters; the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, and Santa. My husband was one of those kids that didn’t have the chance to dream about the great Claus because his parents were the honest ones. I, however, came from a family of liars. Well, not really unless I want to be added to that category because I let Payton believe the same.

I remembered what it was like trying desperately hard to fall asleep on Christmas Eve, waiting to hear any creak in the floor, or a thump as Santa left something for my brother and I. I remember the flight to my parents room as soon as my brother woke me (yes, I always slept later than he), begging them to go to the living room and SEE. I remember the thrill of eyeing the presents under the tree, waiting for us. They are still very special memories, and I wanted my daughter to have the same.

Problem being that my daughter didn’t come from the same background I did. Although she’s tremendously better now, worry has always been a part of who she is. She’s also very intelligent. She is able to think through things and figure out that Santa + no chimney = no Santa. Or, if Santa did come down the chimney, he would surely break a bone, if not several. Many of our kiddos who come from difficult places are highly intelligent, even if you don’t see it, it’s likely there beneath the surface, or you are being fooled.

When Payton told me she was scared of Santa, I told her to wait a minute and I went to chat with Justin. This is a two person decision if you are married, so I told him what was going on (he knew she had been concerned before about a strange man entering our house), and he agreed that I could tell her Santa isn’t real.

That was hard for me. Really hard. I was sad to tell her the truth, but then it felt kind of strange knowing that I had lied to her about Santa and the others. I then had to make sure that she knew Jesus and God ARE real, yeah, think I’ll need to work on that one for a while. She actually smiled and thought it was kind of funny that we’d been the ones to fill the Eater baskets, fill the Easter eggs and hide them, and put out presents from Santa.

Our kiddos have a lot of worries, many come from scary places. We need to think about adding to those fears, whether they have a conscious memory of their past or not. You can tell if your child seems overly fearful or worries more than he should. Maybe it would’ve been better for us to have begun this thing differently, no Santa, no Easter Bunny, no Tooth Fairy. If it had been up to Justin, that would have been the way it was done, but I got my way, and I’m seeing that it probably wasn’t the best.

Does your child have an unusual fear of Santa? How have you dealt with it?

the magic word (adoption/foster)

What’s the magic word? Well, truth be told, there isn’t one. Sure, “please” and “thank you” are magic words that might get you what you want, but when it comes to parents trying to convince their adopted children that they will never leave, there is no magic word. Parents try to tell their children, “I won’t leave you,” “I’ll always be here,” but do those words sink in? We wait for them to, but it never seems to go beyond that top crust where it washes off in the bath.

Our children’s experiences have taught them so much more than what our words ever can, and those first experiences shape their mind, literally. Maybe your child was left with strangers, or the one they trusted most beat them, or their mother deposited them on the steps in the freezing cold. The stories can be listed by the thousands, but they all have at least one common thread, and that is, they learned their mother/primary caregiver couldn’t be trusted. Whether that mother knew better or not, it’s what our child perceived from their experience.

As a writer I constantly hear the words, “Show, don’t tell.” We are supposed to show our readers, especially in fiction, what is happening, not tell them. The same thing goes for us as we help our kids form attachments. Our words will mean nothing to them, we have to SHOW them with actions that we’re there and will never leave. A great time to do this is at bedtime. They will SEE that you are present. It won’t be your words (which they have difficulty believing), it will be your actions showing them day after day that you are present.

We still use our words every day, we don’t leave them out, we just have to pair our actions with them. As I’ve said many times on this blog, my daughter has made significant bonds with us, yet she still has a hard time believing us, and we  make great efforts to stick to what we say. It’s still lingering though, this inability to completely trust that mom and dad know what they’re talking about.

Most children pop out of the womb thinking their mom and dad know everything, but our kids find this nearly impossible. Is that because they weren’t able to trust their first caregiver?

Because it’s difficult for my daughter to believe everything I say, I make sure and kindly point it out whenever I’m proved right. It’s not an ego thing, it’s that I want my daughter to see that she can believe in her Mommy. Last month I needed to take my daughter to the dentist, and prior to leaving we had a discussion about this fluoride they put on the kids teeth. I knew that she could eat afterwards, but she wasn’t supposed to brush her teeth that day. Payton believed that she wasn’t able to eat or brush her teeth after the fluoride treatment, and no matter what I said, she wouldn’t believe me. In the end, guess who was right? I made a point to kindly say, “See, I was right.” I’m sure the hygienist thought I had an ego complex the size of Texas, but I just needed to point out to my daughter AGAIN that she could believe me, and I could be trusted.

As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. We must have actions to pair with those words. One overwhelming concern our children have is that they can’t trust anyone. We can help them by being there for them, listening to their worries, and being present at a time that matters most to them; bed time. They are laying there awake, their mind is wandering more than ever, they don’t have anything to distract their brain. It’s dark, they’re lonely, and they are scared. No matter how old your child is, be sure that you meet them where they are. If you sense that they don’t want to be alone, one way to begin proving that you are committed is to be there for them at night. (See the links at the bottom of this page for helpful tips to use at bedtime.)

I would also encourage you to find other ways where you can physically show your child that you are trustworthy. Some ideas include keeping consistency between what you say and do (stick to your word as much as possible). Being calm when they are out of control, or have negative behaviors can help them see that you are different from the other adults in their life. Sharing with them how you keep them safe will produce a feeling of security for them. Hold hands if they are willing. Give hugs consistently. Have family time with every member of the family. Sit down for meals as a family.

If we continually pair our actions with our words, our children will eventually trust those words. They will recognize that they can trust us because we’ve proven ourselves. Remember that those first months and years of life transformed their brain, and they are on guard against all outside influences. They are protecting themselves. Really, it’s quite amazing if you think about it.

You may find these posts helpful in showing your child you will be there for them when they need you:
the lies hurting children believe
why “good nights” are illusive (sleep issues part 1)
no really, good night (sleep issues part 2)

How will you work to have continuity between your words and your actions? How will you SHOW your child he/she can trust you beyond using your words?

If you have more ideas about how to instill trust in your children, please share them. I’d love to hear from you!