The Inner Emotional Life of the Traumatized Child
by Kara Lucas, MSW
As a young MSW student, I was taken by my supervisor, a maternal, sunny Jamaican woman with a lilting accent to the site of my first internship: a clinical support counseling position at an inner-city Head Start in Compton, California. There on the playground, some little boys were playing the classic game of cops and robbers. As I neared closer, however, I was surprised to discover that in this game, the cops were the bad guys and the good guys were the children pretending to be their parents, hiding the drugs and trying to escape. As a product of middle-class suburbia, I was stunned, but as time went on I began to realize that my reality, my life paradigm, was infinitely different than that of my young clients. As I became a more seasoned social worker, I came to understand the value of checking in with your clients, to see if you are both on the same page when it came to words, experiences and values.
Just recently, I was sitting at the table of one my adoptive families, and we were discussing the small details of their two children’s impending adoption finalization. Carrie*, a vibrant, adorable six-year-old who had been in the home almost a year, sat at the table and colored as we talked. I asked her if she had any questions about her adoption day, and casually described what an adoption looks like, what kinds of things the judge may say, and who will be present. “Will there be any policemens there?” Carrie asked me, her eyes wide and innocent. “Why yes,” I told her, and proceeded to describe the bailiff, how nice he was, and how even though he was in a uniform, he would just be there to make everything official. That got me thinking. “How do you feel about your adoption, Carrie?” I asked. She looked down at her coloring book. “Scared,” she replied, in a small voice. The adoptive mom and I exchanged a glance—this was not the response either of us had expected. After all, young Carrie and her little brother Ethan* had blended beautifully with this family. By all accounts they had bonded well, and were thriving with the love and consistency their prospective adoptive parents had provided. “Can you tell me what makes you scared?” I asked. Carrie hesitated. “The policeman might take my mom to jail.”
Later I discovered that Carrie entered the system when her birthmother was arrested for drugs. Undoubtedly, she witnessed some conflict between her birthmother and law enforcement, and undoubtedly, these frightening images stayed with her for years after the fact. Carrie’s prospective adoptive mom and I gently assured her that the bailiff at her adoption would by no means be arresting anyone, and we made plans to be sure to be extra sensitive to Carrie’s emotional state on adoption day.
I have found that images and symbols that the average person finds benign or even comforting: police cars, government buildings, people in uniform, even American flags—can produce feelings of anxiety in a child who has been a part of the system. I have always observed that many fost/adopt children appear more anxious when their county social worker comes for monthly visits than when I, their adoption agency worker comes. Most adoptive parents noticed this as well. After thinking about it, I came to see that often what induced fear were certain symbols associated with the county worker: the clipboard, the badge they wore, the government car they often drove. These images were undoubtedly a part of the memory of when they were initially removed from their birthparents. The anxiety is not a conscious one, but more of a part of a deeper muscle memory.
Holidays can often be a very negative experience for adopted kids, because they are forced to remember past holidays with their birth parents. For a child struggling to overcome from sexual abuse – changing clothes, bathing, and physical affection may trigger certain anxieties. It is important for adoptive parents to learn to check-in with their children, and find out what symbols and images resonate with them, both negative and positive.
Here are some simple things we can do to help our adoptive kids to work through some of these scary feelings:
- Check in with you child. If you notice a situation giving them anxiety, ask them why are feeling that way. If they are not able to tell you, pay attention to the trigger points and remember them. Get your child to expand her “emotional vocabulary.” Does she feel angry, scared, sad, nervous, embarrassed, excited, frustrated? Oftentimes it will be a combination of emotions. Once a child knows that it is okay for her to have her emotions, it will be easier for her to work through them. One picture book I really like to read to my kids is Today I Feel Silly and Other Moods that Make my Day by Jamie Lee Curtis. It is funny and readable and at the back has an emotional “wheel” where kids can move it to describe how they are feeling.
- Affirm their feelings. In Carrie’s case, I sensed that she was feeling guilt for her fear over her adoption, as her adoptive mom and I were so happy about it. It is okay for kids to have mixed feelings about being adopted, especially if they know you’ll love them anyway. It is okay if they don’t like Christmas. It is okay if they are afraid of policemen—for now.
- Try to help them through the memory. I like to have children draw pictures as a way to express their feelings. Drawing is also a way to bubble forth some of the subconscious thoughts they may be having. Ask about the picture. Why is the little girl inside of the house? Why is she crying? How does the little girl feel right now? And also—you can help them change the story: “Do you think the little girl would feel happier if she has someone to talk to? Can we draw a picture of someone nice who can be her friend? When a child gets older, writing in a journal can be a great tool for expressing herself. I knew of a mother and daughter who employed a “shared journal”—the preteen girl would write in her journal, then would leave it on her mother’s bed. The mother would then write back, and this became a beautiful way for them to communicate thoughts and feelings that otherwise might have been more difficult to express verbally.
- Find a good therapist. The legacy of having been adopted is a life-long state of being, and I try to encourage all of my families to view therapy as a revolving door situation. If your child has been to therapy, or is currently in therapy, be open to having her return anytime she feels like she needs it. If you see certain fears, such as a fear of policemen or being bathed, persist, then perhaps this issue is something to be addressed sooner rather than later.
A mutual goal – as a social worker and a parent – is to help children improve their emotional health. We want them to make connections with others, and to replace sadness, anxiety, anger, and frustration with happiness, peace, and hopefulness for the future.
Regular “Check ins” are an important stepping stone within this process.
*Names have been changed to respect privacy.