Let me paint you a picture. It's a little simplified for where we're going with it, but maybe it could help.
Your family decides to adopt a dog. You don't want a puppy from a pet shop; you want to maybe find a dog that's gone through some stuff. So you go to a shelter. The dog you bring home is so sweet and loves to snuggle up to you and your kids. There's a big problem, though. The dog keeps peeing all over your house!
This dog isn't a puppy, and you assumed it would be house trained. Nevertheless, you decide that you'll keep it and work through the issues, because it's a cute dog and your kids like it.
You have to figure out an approach that will work for this dog. You hire a trainer to come in and work with your dog to help her stop wetting the floor. The methods the trainer uses are standard and you've used them with other dogs in the past; but they're not working for this dog. In fact, the more the trainer shows up, the worse the dog gets. So you cancel the trainer.
What's your next move? You realize that this dog must have gone through some stuff before coming to you. The trainer's style was firm and direct. You try treating the dog with gentleness, thinking that maybe there has been some abuse in the dog's past. You find a trainer with experience in this area and the dog grows by leaps and bounds. As the dog feels safer, she starts using the bathroom outside. Hooray!
I don't know if there are really trauma trainers for dogs. But do you know what I keep hearing? That there really aren't trauma "trainers" for 3-year-olds.
We have been to so many specialists with Baby S. He's got a diagnosis, although we've questioned the validity of it from Day 1. He's been to the places that are hard to get into, and we've sat in rooms where they've told us about "kids like Baby S" and what to expect.
But the problem is, his behaviors never fit in. There's always a qualifier. "Oh, he doesn't do that? Usually kids like Baby S do..." or "Oh, he's been succeeding at this? Huh, kids like Baby S usually don't."
So let's think about this. We're grouping Baby S into a broad category that we know doesn't fit him. Then we're getting resources based on his label, NOT the behaviors. We know he doesn't fit into his category - so is it right to assume that he fits in to these programs?
One of the top specialists for "kids like Baby S" (note: that phrase makes me catch my breath every time) told us that they "treat the symptoms the same way, no matter why the symptoms appeared." This was in direct response to our questions about his past and how that plays into his current situation.
Did you catch that? They diagnose him with a label, then treat kids with that label the same, NO MATTER WHY THE BEHAVIORS STARTED. (Can you tell that this bothers me?)
That's like telling the owner of that dog in my silly example that of COURSE all dogs need to be trained the same way. Just keep scolding it in a firm voice. If the dog isn't responding, it's probably you, or else your dog just isn't trainable. If that was your dog, people would say that, and you'd look at them like they were nuts. This dog was abused, you'd think; of course we can't treat her like a puppy just being house trained.
But this is our child. And that is essentially what we are being told.
There's no trauma treatment for a child Baby S's age. There's no trauma therapy for a nonverbal child. There aren't resources that adequately address his delays in combination with his other areas of need, because kids his age aren't supposed to act like this.
I am consistently shocked by how often trauma doesn't even factor into the analysis of his needs. Wrapping him neatly in a couple of labels and shipping him off isn't even beginning to acknowledge the depth of his needs.
I'm having my rant moment because I want to help people to understand that children don't fall neatly into categories. Trauma is very, very messy. It can surface and then hide for a while and then resurface. Schools need labels to give services, and labels take time, but trauma doesn't pace itself with the school's systems.
Trauma comes in all different forms. I'm going to be so bold as to say that ALL children who have been fostered or adopted have some form of trauma. Trauma can happen before a child is born. It can be exposure to drugs and alcohol in utero, or mental health issues of a mother before birth. It is the separation of a child from its birth mother, even if it's instant. It's the loss of everything familiar. It's being shipped back and forth between birth parents and foster parents. It's living in a high-stress environment without permanency. It's not knowing whether you'll finish the school year in your current school, or whether you'll be able to live with your biological siblings again. It's being torn between two realities that can never exist together. It's moving back with a birth parent and losing a foster family, or staying with a foster family and losing the birth family. It's a million little moments that are constantly stacking up.
It's being treated like a "normal child" despite all of this. It's being punished for not paying attention in school, when you're spending the whole day worried because today is court and your judge might be sending you home today. It's struggling to work hard in school because you don't know if you'll still be here in a month, anyway. It's being put in a class for children with special needs and hearing the teachers tell your foster parents you'll never catch up, even if you've just been too busy trying to get your emotional needs met to grow in other areas.
Treating trauma like "normal" is rarely helpful, and it often makes things worse. I don't know the answer, but I do know the frustration of trying to advocate strongly for your child and hearing over and over that the resources just don't exist for "a child like that" because they're "not supposed to experience these things" at such a young age.
It's true. Baby S shouldn't have these difficulties to deal with. But he does. And we're doing the best we can to help them cope.
Now a moment of encouragement for all of my teacher friends. Do you know what keeps us moving? Teachers and therapists who "get" children like Baby S. Who install an extra lock on the door so that he can stop fixating on escape and start enjoying his environment. Who have his favorite toys in the classroom so he can have "preferred activities" to look forward to between the moments of pushing and stretching him to grow. Who advocate loudly with us for adequate labels, adequate services, and extra help. Who take the time to explain Baby S and what makes him tick to the people around him so that he's getting loved, appreciated, and pushed in all the best ways for him. Who tell us directly that their resource isn't right for him, but it's the closest to right that exists, so they're going to fight to make it the best environment possible for him.
You guys are our heroes. You make so much more difference than you can possibly know.