How To Understand Your Child's Trauma

Written by Chrystal Smith, B+W Photos by Joy Prouty

Written by Chrystal Smith, B+W Photos by Joy Prouty

I used to view trauma as a singular event or season- and once a traumatic event had passed, I assumed that trauma was essentially in the past as well. The thing I’ve come to learn, though, is that once trauma walks into our life (at any age or stage), it demands a seat at the table until it is fully recognized and, hopefully someday, overcome. Even when our memories don't recall trauma, our bodies remember. Every foster/adoptive parent, person who has experienced dark times, and science can confirm this.

Actual safety doesn't always mean one feels safe. Anniversaries of traumatic events can feel like a freight train of emotions plowing through out of nowhere. Subtle reminders can trigger a flood of painful responses to perceived threats.  Even without the cognitive memories, even in tiny babies, even in children years removed from the traumatic events. Trauma is sneaky and pervasive like that. And often it hides behind its favorite cohorts: rage, fear, detachment, anxiety, hyperactivity, withdrawal, and physical ailments to wear like a protective mask over the root of pain underneath.

It’s easy to convince ourselves that behaviors should line up with one’s current state of safety and security. But trauma has a way of demanding that we recognize that sometimes, despite our best efforts, the past carries into our daily lives and those scars need to be tended to for longer than we (and the world around us) think is necessary.

Our journey through foster care turned me into someone stronger yet so much more fragile, especially in how I approach trauma. Someone who can’t unsee or unknow all of the darkness and the generational devastation that trauma leaves in its wake. Someone more aware of my own deep trauma that I had yet to unpack and work through. Someone who understands the critical importance of connection in how we navigate healing from trauma. A weary, grittier, more vulnerable version of myself, unable to ever go back to the comfort of ignorance.

With that lack of ignorance and greater understanding of trauma, came a deeper sense of compassion. The root word of compassion means to suffer with. It's the hard and holy middle space where trauma and healing can co-exist. As it turns out, the only thing worse than suffering, is suffering in solitude. All of those sleepless nights rocking my daughter, the river of tears shed from caring too much, the supernatural connection between unlikely mothers, the lessons in empathy, the invisible battle wounds, and the unbreakable bonds... proof that we suffered with, together. And years later we continue to do the dance of healing with, together. Together in the brokenness, piece by piece, slowly but surely, growing into something more whole than we were before. And on the days when the suffering creeps back in and trauma has the loudest voice at the table, we bend and break and meet one another in it again. We know it’s only temporary, as we draw real safety closer to felt safety. Every one of our caring, exhausted tears whispering “I’m here. You are not alone. You are safe. In suffering, in healing, and in overcoming... I’m with you”.

I've heard it said that trauma happens in relationships, therefore healing can only happen in relationships. For us that looks like pulling in when we feel like pushing away, steadfast patience, grace passes, playful engagement, time ins, redos, belly breaths, therapy, tenderness and patience, baby-wearing too big toddlers, new definitions of self-care, and connections over corrections. Every sacrifice a down payment toward redemption.

Compassion opens our eyes, the scars begin to fade, trauma moves closer to the door as play and connection pull up seats at the table, and safety slowly steps up as the host. We heal layer by layer… together.

Follow Chrystal on Instagram: @ChrystalSmith_ & her foster care organization too: @FosterVillageAustin!

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