Much has been written on the best way to express love to another human being. I’m not going to rehash it all here, except to say this: to truly love another is put his or her needs above your own. This means I may need to make some changes in the way I communicate, behave and react in order for the person I love to truly feel loved. This is especially true when parenting a child who has come from a traumatic situation and into your family. Children who survive trauma do not process or perceive love in the same way in which a child with a non-traumatic past does.
Children who have been abused or neglected are understandably wary. Not only have they been betrayed in the past by those charged with their care, but they have now been uprooted from everything familiar and placed into a new family where they feel no guarantee of safety, or predictability and they are definitely not wired to expect loving care. So how do we best love these little survivors?
1. Notice what matters to your survivor.
Every child is different, and every survivor has different triggers and fears. If your child came from a situation in which food was scarce, ensuring that food is always available will be a vital part of helping your child feel loved. A child who has survived sexual abuse may not feel comfortable wearing shorts or skirts. Providing pants or overalls for your survivor will help alleviate fears and allow your survivor to feel loved. By noticing what triggers your survivor, and eliminating those triggers as much as is possible, you are demonstrating that you truly see your child and that his or her concerns are important to you.
2. Give your survivor control.
Children who enter your home as foster kids or as toddlers or children newly adopted have had everything with which they are familiar taken from them. You may argue that this is a good thing for a lot of these kids, and you’d be right. Except that such massive change inspires feelings of loss, fear, and uncertainty. Imagine having to leave all that you know, good and bad, to go and live with people you have never met who may not even speak the same language as you. You’d be looking for a little bit of control, too. For children, control can be provided with choices. Do you want cereal or toast? Blue sheets or red? Sandals or sneakers? Do you want to hear a story or color a picture? Provide as many opportunities for your survivor to be in control of his or her own life as possible. This may result in peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast or plaid shorts with a striped shirt, and that’s OK because it also results in children who feel increasingly comfortable and confident in themselves and their new lives.
3. Love like you’re a grandma.
Have you ever been watching a movie and had grandma come tuck a blanket around you or hand you a cookie? When mom would say, “Go get your sweater”, grandma says, “It looks chilly out there, here’s your sweater.” Be like grandma. Notice what might add a little extra happiness or comfort and provide it. Go out of your way to do and say little things throughout your day that demonstrate to your survivor that you are putting them first, that their comfort matters to you, and that you think about how to make them feel loved. At first, this way of demonstrating love may be received with confusion, doubt and even hostility by children who are afraid to trust that life can be better and people can be good. Don’t give up. Keep loving like grandma does.
4. Love enough to acknowledge that love is not enough.
Our survivors need help. They need help processing their trauma. They need help adjusting to a new way of thinking, acting and living. They need help learning to trust. They often need help managing anxiety, depression or other mental health issues. This help does not come in the form of love. It comes in the form of doctors, therapists and medications we provide because we do love these kids. It comes through countless meetings and conversations with teachers, social workers and other parents. It comes through role playing social situations until your survivor learns to behave in a manner that is socially appropriate. Seeking out and accepting help with and for your survivor is vital to the success of the child, the relationship and the family.
5. Don’t forget about yourself.
Raising a child with the intensity of need these little warriors have can be exhausting. Don’t let yourself get burned out. Take time, even if it’s just a few minutes, every day to do something you enjoy. Exercise, eat right and get some healthy adult conversation. Go on dates with your spouse. Find and utilize the social supports and programs available to you. Join an online support group. Get your own therapist. Do whatever it is that you need to do to ensure you remain emotionally healthy and well during the inevitable challenges arising from raising your survivor. And do all of these things without feeling guilty for taking time for yourself.
Loving these kids is hard, and easy and humblingly magnificent. As one who has been walking this road for many, many years I can promise you this, you will be better for your experiences and your ability to love with increase beyond that which you can possibly imagine. So take a deep breath, and just keep moving forward.