Friday, August 6, 2010

Traumatized Children

Every time I hear an account of a feral child or read or hear about a news story or book about children who were raised in truly heinous conditions- (any book by Torey Hayden or Dave Pelzer, for example) I am immediately fascinated and horrified at the same time.

My first instinct is to try and distance myself from any unpleasant emotions which may be stirred up inside of me and look at things in a purely objective manner as a social scientist would. Perhaps that is why I studied sociology rather than social work in college- it’s somewhat akin to someone who is fascinated with the human body immersing themselves in physiology and anatomy courses but shying away from anything having to do with First Aid for fear of ever having to get any blood on their hands.

So when I attended two classes at the Families Supporting Adoption National Conference last week- one on Adopting Older Children from Foster Care and the other on Trauma & Brain Development I found my head saying things like “Fascinating research.” “Interesting case study.”

My problem is that I never succeed in staying fully objective. In fact, most of the time I fail quite miserably. Why? Because each “case study” is not just a case study but an actual person and because I’m human, when I hear about other humans in their most fragile form (children) who are suffering I can’t just easily dismiss their experiences and pretend to be disaffected. When I hear about somebody else suffering a little piece of my heart aches, too. Perhaps I sound a little too sensitive or melodramatic, but that’s the way I honestly feel. And although many times I wish I could be more logical and rational and less emotional maybe it’s not such a bad thing to acknowledge my feelings. After all, if I had never listened to my feelings in the first place I wouldn’t be a foster parent today.

With that preface, let me share a couple of things I learned with my head and my heart from the classes I attended on Adopting Older Children and Trauma & Brain Development.

Heidi Naylor did a wonderful job sharing her family’s story of adopting children though the foster care system. I had read her story before, but hearing her share it in person and watching tears form in her eyes as she showed the “before” picture of her three year old son high on methamphetamine (before he was removed from his home and entered foster care) and the “after” picture of a smiling, healthy little boy who is now part of a her family, in addition to her three other children who joined the Naylor’s family through adoption and each of whom have special stories of their own, all I can say is WOW.

In her presentation on Adopting Older Children, Heidi brought up some common challenges and characteristics typical of older children in foster care including drug exposure, ADHD, lying, stealing, hoarding and gorging, aggression, defiance, lack of eye contact, and attachment issues. Makes you want to sign up and be a foster parent right this minute, huh?!

If I’m like some of you reading this right now I’ll admit that just hearing that list can scare the crap out of me. Perhaps that is why many adoptive couples prefer to adopt newborn babies with a “clean slate” rather than an older child who is more likely to have “baggage”. But Heidi brought up a very good point: She asked “If your child was born missing a hand would you still love them?” Of course! NO child is perfect and even children who haven’t been adopted or been in foster care or children who have been raised by terrific parents can have problems.

I think the most important thing to keep in mind when thinking about and dealing with foster children’s possible behavioral “problems” is this: THESE CHILDREN ARE NOT “BAD” CHILDREN. THEY ARE SIMPLY REACTING TO THE ENVIRONMENT IN WHICH THEY WERE RAISED.

Which leads me to the topic of Liz Rivera’s class: The Effects of Childhood Trauma and Brain Development. Let me first give you some background on Liz Rivera: she works for the Utah Foster Care Foundation training foster parents and she has worked in the child welfare system for over 16 years. She is pursuing a doctorate degree and has done extensive research on how early trauma (beginning as early as in-utero) can affect a child’s developing brain. By trauma I mean anything from malnutrition, exposure to drugs, abuse, and neglect. Needless to say, she knows her stuff.

Liz’s presentation was a condensed version as it was only an hour long and it is usually three to four hours. The “jist” of what she had to say was this: Early childhood trauma creates physiological changes and responses in a child’s brain. The part of the brain which focuses on “survival” and getting immediate needs met is the most developed part of a traumatized child’s brain whereas the areas of the brain which require “higher functioning” and deal with regulating emotional responses or censorship are less–developed.

The two most important bits of information I came away with from Liz’s class were that:
  • The prime directive of the brain is SURVIVAL. How does this apply to dealing with the behavior of a child with special needs? It is important to remember that the child is acting out of survival and to ask yourself: What purpose is this behavior serving? Which is a much better approach than labeling a child as bad or delinquent and being annoyed because their behavior happens to be inconvenient or embarrassing.
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is NOT a disorder, but a natural response. I couldn’t agree more. I think that many times people are labeled as having a “disorder” or being “mentally or emotionally ill” when in reality their responses are quite rational given the circumstances they’ve experienced. (However, I do think it’s important to recognize such a debilitating condition so the “disorder” part of the name is just a technicality so that it could fit somewhere within DSM classifications)
I’ll use the example of a veteran of war since PTSD was first used to diagnose soldiers suffering from what is sometimes called “shell shock”: If I were sent off to war and lived in a combat zone and then had to come back to regular civilian life I would be surprised if I didn’t suffer from nightmares and flashbacks interrupting my nights and days or if I didn’t become hyper vigilant when I heard certain sounds or sights or smells, which would certainly make it hard for me to function. It’s a wonder to me that all veterans who have served in war zones don’t have a hard time adjusting to “normal” life.

On the same note, when a child has been raised in an environment of abuse and neglect- a virtual “combat zone” within their own home- and then they are removed from that familiar environment and placed into a new, unfamiliar environment away from their regular caregivers is it any wonder they have a hard time attaching or that they literally “act out” what is familiar to them? This all goes back to what Liz Rivera taught in her class: the prime directive of the brain is SURVIVAL, so these kids may not attach for fear of being abused or abandoned and they are thus labeled as having “Reactive Attachment Disorder”. Or they may be skeptical of trusting others in authority since the authority figures in their lives have disappointed or betrayed them in meeting their needs; thus they are labeled as having “Oppositional Defiance Disorder” or “Conduct Disorder” . Or they steal and hide food because they are unsure if they will be fed consistently and don’t know if they’ll have another meal which seems like a strange and foreign concept to people who have never had to worry about starving, but which is a very common compulsion and survival method for those who have faced starvation.

In the case of hoarding food, Heidi shared the example of when her daughter was first placed in their care: She would literally have eaten so much that she would have thrown up (if her new parents would have let her). When Heidi brought it to her doctor’s attention he said that this little girl was simply “catching up” from not being fed. Heidi addressed the problem by having a shelf full of easily accessible foods- apples, bananas, fruit snacks, etc.- that her children could take anytime they felt the need (with the exception of right before mealtime) so that they would know that there was always enough food in their home and they would never go hungry.

I guess my point in all of my ramblings is that yes, children who have not had their needs consistently met- especially during the first few years of their lives when attachment is CRUCIAL- are more likely to have some issues and behavioral problems as a result. However, one of the “myths” about foster care which Heidi explored in her class was that “Foster children have been abused so much that they’re really beyond repair”. I think that same myth exists about children who have been raised in orphanages in terms of neglect and their ability to form healthy attachments. But Heidi ended her presentation by saying “Love, acceptance, consistency, ownership, accountability, structure, guidance, & security can & do make miracles happen!”

Very encouraging and inspirational.


Michelle said...

Good info! This is one reason I am so passionate about fostering infants, as we can do so much during those first months or years with them, by nurturing healthy brain development, and this will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

On another note, I am not sure what state you are in, but here, Wa, I just found out that any guy can come forward and say they are your foster child's father, and the dept. must immediately offer visitation. They don't even require proof, like a dna test. It really makes no sense to me. Have you heard of this?

Mary said...

Michelle, I'm in Utah and the fact that anybody could come forward claiming to be a foster child's father in WA sounds a bit scary- I've never heard of that!

Good for you for fostering infants, you are absolutely right about healthy brain development benefitting them for the rest of their lives. I've been reading up some more on the subject.

Felicia said...

I do believe that some children can heal when offered all those things that Heidi speaks of. However, unfortunately I have also seen children that could not heal. I have wondered what allows one child to heal and not another.

Has Liz Rivera written any books? I have been researching on what effect early neglect has on the developing brain. My son never had anyone talk to him until he came into care at 2 1/2 and now years later we still struggle.

Mary said...

Felicia, I don't think she's written any books but she recommended "The Boy Who Was Raised as A Dog" by Dr. Bruce Perry which I just finished reading over the weekend.

Never having anyone talk to him till he was 2 1/2? That is HEARTBREAKING and quite understandable that there are struggles. I don't know what to tell you other than HUGS to you and your son. Most of what I know about RAD is in theory and not through personal experiences but I have heard from a few foster or adoptive parents how difficult it can be to raise children who were severely neglected during their formative years. Another book I've heard of but have not yet read is When Love Is Not Enough.

Keri said...

Have you read any of Heather Forbes books? Just wondering, as your post sounds like you have:) Just found your blog and am excited to catch up.
(FYI, I'm a mom to an older adopted child with RAD and PTSD.)

Mary said...

FaerieMama, I've never read Heather Forbes- I'll have to look into that!