Healing Childhood Trauma

This week on CatholicMom.com, my column deals with the signs parents should watch for in their children that may indicate they are experiencing trauma and need professional help. The source of the trauma varies from child to child and from family to family: divorce, death, separation, neglect, abuse, financial stress, the list goes on. For children touched by adoption or foster care, unresolved trauma from the circumstances that caused them to be separated from their birth families can affect them into adulthood, even if they are loved and supported by their new families. Love, in and of itself, does not always “conquer all.”

What I wish someone had thought to mention to us when we first got our children, is that unresolved trauma can lie dormant for a time — only to bite you in the glutes as the child approaches adolescence. So parents need to keep a watchful eye, especially in children who have been diagnosed with “invisible disabilities” such as autistic spectrum disorders, ADHD, ODD, attachment issues, and so on. And parents of children with a history of abuse and neglect must never let their guard down entirely. Sneakiness and deceit — even with children who are otherwise good and truthful — is part of the disorder.

Another thing I wish had been pointed out to me is that trauma affects parents, too. After years of dealing with acting-out behaviors, your parent brain may not catch the more subtle signs of “something is not right here.” Not only do your kids need help in healing . . . You may also need help in dealing with the stress.

This week’s Gospel, in which Jesus gives dire warnings to those who cause one of his “little ones” to stumble, predicting millstones and a watery destruction, also provide a faint hint of hope to those who hear with the ears of faith. For the Christian, “death by water” has an entirely different connotation than it does for those who have not experienced the “dying with Christ” and “rising to new life” that baptism represents. Through our baptism, we do have all the graces we need to complete the journey. The path is not without suffering, for we follow in the steps of the Savior who suffered and died for us. But as we travel the road together with our children, we can persevere in faith, trusting in the perfect healing that is to come.

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Kudos to “Dear Carolyn” — Advice for Caregivers of Disabled Adults

While I don’t always agree with the advice columnists dish out, I was touched by this letter in the “Dear Carolyn” column in AnnArbor.com.  For those who care for developmentally disabled adults, having a support structure in place that is not dependent on the exclusive efforts of one person is truly a prudent choice.  Here’s the letter….

Dear Carolyn:My wife has five siblings, one of whom has developmental delays. We are in our 50s and 60s. In June 2008, I was asked to assist in obtaining benefits for one of the siblings (paperwork isn’t this family’s forte). In the process, I became friends with my brother-in-law.

We are in contact often regarding his progress, and I have come to realize he has had to traverse too many complicated and confusing things alone. I think the family may have assumed he understood much more than he actually did. My brother-in-law may not have expressed his confusion, wanting to appear “like everyone else.”

After 18 months, I have not had one request from any of the siblings for an update. If I dropped dead tomorrow, not one of them, including my wife, would have a clue where to pick up the fight for multiple benefits. Does this sound odd, rude or ungrateful to you?

— Nebraska

It’s unfortunate, I’ll grant you that. Without knowing anything about the road this family has traveled, though, I’m not going to judge the condition in which they’ve arrived.

Instead, please consider achieving your moral ends through relentlessly practical (if burdensome) means. Document everything you do for their brother, and draw up clear instructions — updated regularly — for someone to pick up wherever you leave off, should you … “leave off” tomorrow. Invite your wife and/or any remotely cooperative siblings to look over your shoulder, too, so you can teach them what you’re doing. Don’t wait for them to show interest; they may never. Just encourage and equip them to care.

What I appreciate most about this response is her intuitive understanding about this DD man’s family, who have doubtless been coping with his disability all his life. And doubtlessly are relieved to have someone who is willing and capable (the combination is a goldmine!) of handling the minutiae. It’s not that they don’t care. It’s very likely that they’re simply worn out.

It’s a thankless job at times … and one that perhaps this brother-in-law might wish he were getting more appreciation for doing. He’d be in good company — much of the work involved in tending to those with special needs is thankless, hidden, unrelenting effort.

It isn’t easy. But it is important.

If you are feeling overwhelmed and unappreciated today, know that you, too, are doing important work! It might not feel like it at times. And there will be times when you wish you could be doing ANYTHING other than what your hands are doing right at that moment.

It is your task to find the gift in all the unpleasant wrapping. Yours to find the cause of your joy, just for today. Just in this moment.

What is God asking of you right now, at this point in your Lenten journey?