Loving a child who has survived trauma is different. It isn’t better. It isn’t worse. It’s just different. A trauma survivor comes with a lot of baggage, and you have no idea what’s packed into that baggage. You might think you know. You may even know most of it, but I promise you, there are going to be some pretty ugly surprises jumping out of that baggage from time to time. As the parent of a child who has survived trauma, one of your jobs is to help your child release the baggage. After all, it’s only baggage if you carry it around.
When you love a child with a traumatic past, the first thing you learn is that your love may not be reciprocated for a very long time. That has to be OK. Placing the demand for love on a child who has survived trauma is unkind and unrealistic. It may be that the first adult(s) your child has loved are the reason for his or her trauma. It may be that your child came from an orphanage in which love didn’t exist. Whatever your child’s past, he or she needs the type of love that is a gift, free and clear of the expectation of reciprocation.
It isn’t easy. It isn’t easy not to hear “I love you” spoken in the sweet voice of a child. It isn’t easy to wait however long it takes for your child to trust you enough to love you. It isn’t easy to build up a survivor of trauma until they are brave enough to attempt love. It isn’t easy to do without hugs and kisses. It isn’t easy to continually reassure and label emotions for your child. It isn’t easy to watch every other child on the playground jump with joyful abandon into the waiting arms of a parent, while yours still approaches with caution. It isn’t easy to see behaviors in your child and know that those behaviors are a result of lingering fear, doubt, uncertainty and mistrust. It isn’t easy to hear stories of abuse, neglect and intentional cruelty. It isn’t easy to know that this little child who owns your heart has suffered so many scars to his own. It isn’t easy to realize that there are some things you can’t fix. It isn’t easy to watch your child be misunderstood, ostracized, and rejected for behavior that makes sense once you know why. But loving through all of the hard things remains your truth.
The wary wonder in your child’s voice when you tell them to pick out a candy bar at the grocery store, “Just for me?” The cautious request for help with homework. The first time she lets you help her tie her dress in the back. The first time he lets you snuggle in for a bedtime story. The moment she calls you, “Mom”. The awe in his voice when he opens the refrigerator and asks if there’s always this much food at your house. The first play date. The first friendship. That first time your frightened child cries out for you in the night and your heart thrills in the knowledge that your child finally has faith that you will be there to help whenever you are needed. The first time he doesn’t flinch when you hug him; and, oh, the incomparable joy of the first time he actually hugs you back. The moment you realize that your little, battered survivor has become your personal hero.
No. Loving a child who has survived trauma isn’t always easy. It isn’t the same. It isn’t less, or more, better or worse. It’s just different. The challenges are great, as are the rewards. The parenting can feel counter intuitive and conspicuous. There is no such thing as an easy recovery from childhood trauma, but there most certainly is recovery. Over the next three weeks, I will cover some of the tips and follies I picked up while parenting my own little survivor; but above all, know this: It is possible, you can do it and you are not alone. Please leave your own tips, stories and experiences in the comments as they can serve to build another parent who is just starting to walk the path with which you are now so familiar.