Monday, June 14, 2010

Parenting Child Survivors

I've hesitated to write about this topic for fear of exposing confidences. But this blog has deliberately been made anonymous, I don't share it with people who interact with us firsthand, and I want it to be a place where other parents of traumatized kids can find some common threads. So I'm going to try to address this.

I want to share some thoughts about parenting a teenage survivor of sexual abuse. I think there is way too little said about this issue, given the sheer number of people (one in three children, by some estimates) who are survivors of sexual abuse. Frankly, some of the training we got as we were getting our license to foster/adopt was misleading and barely touched on the things a kid like T. goes through.

Like many children who weren't adequately protected growing up, T. was subject to multiple forms of abuse not only by his primary parent, but also by other adults who surrounded her. Her parenting skills were so compromised that he was unprotected and therefore vulnerable to many misfortunes.

His history of sexual abuse didn't appear anywhere in his (already harrowing) case history and he never shared it with a social worker or foster parent. (I would advise potential foster/adoptive parents of children coming from severely traumatic backgrounds to assume there is a lot that isn't in the child's official record.)

I think the number one thing a kid like T. is checking for as they gradually disclose what happened to them is: Will you feel differently about me because of this? Do you think I did something wrong? He is also looking for compassion as he struggles through the aftermath in the best way he knows how. He is saying "I do the things I do for a reason, and I need you to understand."

Knowing what happened to him helps us better understand his physical boundaries. We let him come to us and dictate how we would share affection - tickling and bear-hugging contests were his earliest solutions to how to get close without giving up control. Grooming is also very important - helping each other touch up a hairline, for example. Those are respectful, manageable ways to be physically close, things that he associates with care. He is working out how and when he likes to touch at his own pace. Lately, he flops on our bed at night when he feels like chatting. Coming into our room and lying down on our bed is a big step and you can see in his eyes that he is experimenting with this new lowering of boundaries and find that it's not only safe, but very fun and funny to boot. He tests intimacy and physical affection like a scientist, making studied experiments and processing data before returning for more forays into family life.

Knowing what he's been through also helps us better address other parenting issues, like substance abuse. I think all parenting is a balancing act between guiding behavior and nurturing underlying needs. I find that in grappling with substance abuse, it's easy to become all about policing behavior. As we've learned more about his past, we've been better able to understand why he's drawn to numbing experiences and things that help him relax and dissociate. It's not too hard to understand why, when nobody listened to him as a child, he eventually grew into an adolescent with a weakness for anything that will help him forget. He is very brave for actively remembering now, and sometimes it's overwhelming and he retreats to old unhealthy behaviors that nevertheless feel like familiar friends to him.

A certain type of person reminds him of a perpetrator, and we try to gently redirect him when someone triggers a trauma response, stepping between him and someone who makes him feel unsafe. We've learned that means taking a stronger hand in determining his teachers, among other things. We never question why he wears three layers of clothes in even the hottest weather - there are good reasons for that. I make sure his clean laundry always includes all three layers - he has rules about what he wears on top of what.

I think adolescent boys sometimes process the experience of abuse and its aftermath through the lens of their emerging masculine identity. I see T. fretting over whether he is strong, whether he should have done more to stop what happened to him and his younger brother. I see that he feels unspoken anxiety about sex and at the same time, he feels pressured by other boys and men to express sexual confidence. He wonders if what happened to him "changed him" in some way. By way of helping, I try to be very straightforward, positive and informative about sex, to balance some shame and confusion that linger for him. We try to be proactive rather than reactive, chatting often about issues like consent, safe sex, and intimacy. The car is our Camp David for sex talk.

The adoption process itself can exacerbate his struggles. T. really wanted to be adopted, but he was told by social workers that he probably wouldn't find adoptive parents, because people want babies and younger kids. He is smart, and he understood that potential adoptive parents are looking for kids "without problems." That played into his shame and guilt about what happened to him. It caused him to suppress his child-like tendencies and put himself under enormous stress as he tried to hide all his "problems" in order to get adopted. What a hideous thing, to be made to feel like you have to mask your pain in order to be a "desirable" child.

Parenting an older child (we started the adoption process at 15) with this kind of abuse history, is beautiful and rewarding. My partner and I are the consummate amateur parents. Aren't all parents amateurs? I believe in the power of amateurs. A child like T. knows the difference between a professional who is paid to treat him and a volunteer parent who just loves him like crazy and does their best for that reason.

There is also tremendous grief in parenting him and I imagine that is to be expected for any parent of a traumatized child. I feel deeply sad that I wasn't there earlier, that I can't do anything to take away the pain of what already happened. Although it's not rational, in some sense I feel like I neglected him by not arriving in his life on time. It's part of the crazy bottomless love of being his parent. I feel hugely sad that there is no perfect thing I can say or do when he confides in me to make it go away. It's not that I don't see the value in listening and responding with compassion. But I'd be lying if I said that I ever feel like it's enough. When he mourns, I mourn.

Lest anyone who is thinking about adopting an older child be deterred, I can also say that the conversations I've had with T. about his history have been the most honest and profound in my life. Kids like T. have shouldered incredible burdens, and survived shocking things. Surely, sometimes their minds and hearts break under the stress of what they've endured and professional help can be critical. But they are not a clinical problem to solve; there is so much more than that to be done and so much reward in doing it. Becoming a "chosen family" together makes me aware of the better parts of being human like never before.

I love the Hemingway quote "The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong in the broken places." In part because of what he's been through, T. is deeper, more considerate, more articulate, more emotionally intelligent than any teenager I've ever met. When he decides to tell us something that he thinks we need to know, his self-possession and introspection take my breath away. I never feel "sorry for him" - his greatest fear. I always feel awe, and a great deal of humility and respect. There are lots of kids who, in clinical terms, are "healthy" whom I find materialistic, narcissistic and boring. T. struggles with depths of pain beyond what most adults I know have endured and, among other things, it produces in him an extraordinary wellspring of compassion and soulfulness.

I think as a culture we have strange ideas about childhood, and we tend to feel frightened by children who have been hurt and who have special needs as a result. But a child, like T, who has been hurt and still seeks and builds relationships with adults who will listen and understand is the most wonderfully innocent child in the world.


GB's Mom said...

T is what we used to call a "survivor" that is, he has an enormous capacity for overcoming. Now it is called resilience. I am thankful he has the right parents to provide back-up as he travels his path.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this. I'll be forever changed by similar conversations I had with Rowan while he stayed with us and I hope I rewarded his trust with something that he found useful.

Ashley said...

Thanks for sharing this- I have really appreciated your blog. I'm finding I can't learn too much before my husband and I get to the end of our homestudy and can adopt. I've gleaned a lot of wisdom from you. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Lola, you are so right on as usual. Kids reveal these things when they finally feel safe. In part to test, I think. I had to read this post a few times. You said it all exactly right.

michelle said...

I'm so glad to have found your blog. I just completed a home study to foster a teen, and I'm amazed at how few resources there are, and how much folks look at me like I have three heads, and can't possibly know what I'm doing. (I work with at risk teens. As much as anyone can know what they're doing, I do)
I'm sitting here reading every post you've put up. Thank you.

Jenny said...

Wow, that was beautiful. Really. I love the bit about the "power of amateurs." I've wanted to adopt an older child for a long time and it looks like my husband is now feeling more comfortable with the idea too. But I'm always discouraged when I look at the photolistings and it says "an experienced parent" would be best. Since our only child is a 20 month old toddler, we probably don't qualify as "experienced parents."

marythemom said...

Have you thought about EMDR therapy? It's used by soldiers, rape victims, and other victims of trauma to help them process traumatic events without having to emotionally relive the trauma. You don't even have to tell the therapist about it. You can just think about the event(s)while the therapists talks.

I had a doubletake when I read about the three layers of clothes. My Bear does this too. We know it's about sexual abuse, but it's so hard to let him do it when I know he's not washing any of the layers and this is Texas in the Summer! Most of the time he wears jeans and shorts over his boxers, and 2-3 shirts over his undershirt.

I love the relationship you have with T. I envy you that.

Mary in TX

Liz said...

This is beautifully written and felt.

Thank you.

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