Adopting a traumatized child is not like a short-term missions trip to an orphanage where all the children are slightly unkempt but ever so sweet and want to be held and play games and tell stories.
In fact, nothing is really like that in reality. (Not even the orphanage you might have visited.)
This kind of adoption is more like a bloody, exhausting, sometimes horrifying, battle.
Not against your children, of course (though it feels that way at times) but against the trauma and loss they carry with them—and the trauma and loss that you carry with you.
Oh, you didn’t think you had any before you adopted a traumatized child? Bet you were wrong.
Nothing digs out the sensitive parts of our stories quite like dealing with someone else’s trauma.
And if you really did miraculously arrive at adulthood without scars and wounds in your past—you’ll be carrying secondary trauma soon enough.
That’s right, secondary trauma is much like secondary smoke. You might not be the one holding it—but if you’re in the vicinity, you’re going to be breathing it.
There are different terms, sometimes it’s labeled as a form of PTSD, or vicarious traumatization, or compassion fatigue—but it’s a real thing.
It’s real for you and anyone else that might be in your family or living in close vicinity to a child healing from trauma.
So, dear mama, stop feeling so guilty for needing help.
I’m serious. Once you’re a few years into trauma and therapy and attachment parenting and triggers and all the prayers and hope for healing and growth—you’re going to need help because you’re going to be hurting too.
We were two years into our second adoption when I was faced with a situation that dredged up some pain from my own story. We were sitting in the car, trying to talk through an issue before moving on—my husband was calmly asking questions and trying to help our child navigate through the problem, and as our child explained the details of the situation, I had a full blown panic attack.
Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think. Literally stumbled out of the vehicle, knelt down on the gravel driveway and dry heaved.
For a while I felt guilty. I should be strong, I thought. My child is the one with the deepest needs here. I should be helping him, not pulling my husband away to help me.
But I was wrong.
My trauma mattered. The hurts I was forced to navigate were real. And there was nothing wrong in acknowledging that I needed healing too.
You, dear mama– your healing matters.
In fact, choosing to walk through the steps of healing for ourselves can renew our compassion, our understanding, and our hope for our children.
In Psalm 107 the author is sharing about the Israelites return from captivity in Babylon. “Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and burst their bonds apart.” (Psalm 107:13-14)
This is the same God we serve. He’s going to hear you when you call to Him, just like He heard me that night when I knelt outside my vehicle with stones biting into my knees and my heart clenched in fear.
Trauma is not the end of the story. Not for the children of God.
There is hope that is stronger than any story. Stronger than any trauma. Stronger than any fear.
“He turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water. And there he lets the hungry dwell, and they establish a city to live in; they sow fields and plant vineyards and get a fruitful yield.” (Psalm 107:35-37)
Jesus really does heal the most shattered of hearts and the most broken memories. He brings fruit from barren wastelands.
Don’t hide from your own trauma, dear mamas.
It’s okay to acknowledge that you can be triggered– whether from your own past or from living with a child who has hurt you or from the stories your child has told you of abuse or neglect or loss.
Don’t hide from the anger and frustration and fear and exhaustion. Name it. Call it what it is. Get the help you need.
And remember: God is just the same as He was all those years ago when He led the Israelites out of captivity. He is the Living Water we need to survive and to prosper. And what was said about them CAN and WILL be said about those of us who turn to Him in our distress: “He sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them…” (Psalm 107:20)
You don’t have to be strong enough to shoulder your children’s trauma and wrestle down your own. You just need to know what to do with it.
How to talk through your own triggers, your own fears, your own losses—even when those things were brought to you via your traumatized little ones.
How to call out to the Lord in your distress.
How to trust others enough to let them help you.
How to take deep breaths and cry real tears and find out that the world won’t fall apart because you do for a little bit.
All my love and a thousand blessings,
For more encouragement:
These letters are not exhaustive. They should not be used to diagnosis, and they only show the viewpoint of one person. While I share some of our personal story—some details may be purposefully vague or altered slightly for privacy. Thank you in advance for being respectful and trustworthy with the stories shared here.
This letter is part of a series titled “Dear Adoptive Mom”.