Parenting multiple traumatized children

Parenting multiple traumatized children is not easy, nor is it just 1x the number of other children. Learn what to watch for.

When parents decide to enter the foster and adoptive world, they have great expectations of the joy of giving a child a new start. Some may willingly overlook the child’s history in order to have that child join their family. Their natural empathy for needy children may urge them to add more children to their family with little considerations for the possible problems involved. This can be compounded by our court’s preference to keep siblings together.

Sadly, what this can sometimes add up to, is a situation wherein a very difficult task like providing a healing home is compounded past the point of being doable. The purpose of this writing is to make families more aware of the difficulties that can present in these circumstances and give a few suggestions to promote success.

The writing is divided into three parts: 1. Children’s interactions, 2. Parental interactions, and 3. Parental actions. We will write from the point of view that there are two traumatized children, even though many families we have worked with have sibling groups of 3 or more and other foster/adoptive children.

Children’s interactions: We will explore the interplay between two traumatized children and the erupting behaviors, and children’s interaction with the parent.

Jim and Brittany adopted Sarah who is 6 years old. They continued to foster and added Susan, who is 8 years old.

Having two traumatized children in the home is saying there are two brains that have traumatic experiences, histories, and disrupted relational experiences.

Emotional worlds will easily mesh because their core beliefs will reinforce each other in opposition to parent’s beliefs.

Sharing a Negative Internal Working Model (NIWM), makes it easier for the traumatized brains to link their understandings of motivation and meaning. Children with early trauma have a NIWM with beliefs of: “I am bad, my caregiver can’t be trusted, and the world is unsafe.” This is usually in opposition to the parent’s belief that: “My child is lovable, I am trustworthy, and I will make the world as safe as possible for the child.” Parents will work more than twice as hard to disrupt the children’s belief system. When the home has two children with NIWMs, parents have to work more than twice as hard to disrupt the children’s belief system.

For instance: Brittany gives the consequence of loss of dessert for failing to eat dinner. Because she fears Sarah is not getting adequate nutrition. Her goal is to increase the quality of her child’s caloric intake. Unfortunately, Susan immediately blurts out, “She don’t like it when you don’t eat her food. Stupid.” Now, Sarah has an easier (because of NIWM) interpretation for both mom’s fear and her motivation for applying the consequence. Sarah’s will find it easier to believe mom is angry (NIWM—caregiver can’t be trusted) because she did not eat her cooking and is now punishing her…and she is being called stupid (NIWM—I am bad), too. Mom’s attempt to encourage more healthy eating habits is likely to be completely ignored in the face of Susan’s more easily accepted interpretation of events.

Emotional responses are different, one child folds (appears to be a good kid) while the other goes into fight (appears to be the bad kid).

The presence of the NIWM predisposes the traumatized brain to experience fear in every circumstance. There is no guarantee, however, that any two traumatized brains will respond to that fear in the same way. Limbic brain responses to fear can roughly fit into the following for categories.

Fight, flight, freeze, or fold

This means our efforts to narrate our children’s inner experience can become drastically more difficult when trying to match and redirect two opposing presentations at the same time. The children themselves will have difficulty understanding how two completely different behaviors can both be responses to the same fear trigger. The tendency between family members to compare and contrast responses can be almost irresistible.

One will be up when the other is down (behaviors).

Traumatized brains often come from chaotic environments. They have learned strategies to feel comfortable in those environments. Many times, the origin of observed problematic behaviors can be attributed to the brain’s desire to feel the comfort of this “familiar” level of chaos. What this looks like in our families is the never-ending parade of disruption. One child will present a disruptive behavior which generates a level of chaos in the family system which is calming to the other child. About the time the first child is calmed and the system begins to restabilize, the second child begins to feel uncomfortable with the calmness and begins a new disruptive cycle.

Align with one parent against the other—increased opportunity for split the parents’ relationship.

The tendency of the traumatized brain to alter presentations based on who they are interacting with makes parenting two or more traumatized children at the same time much more difficult. It is common to find a child aligning with one parent against the other. Generally, traumatized children are more resistant towards mothers, rejecting the nurture and emotional attunement they offer and aligning with the father. Fathers may not experience the depth or intensity of behaviors mothers do, thus they may grow to see the children differently. This increased conflict is disruptive to the family system. Because this conflict is experienced as comfortable by the children, they often continue to widen that gap. Painful as both children aligning against mom is, one child aligning with mom and one with dad, can be just as painful and disruptive.

May have learned to comfort each other, there by rendering adult comfort unnecessary

One of the most profound goals of parenting traumatized children is to get them to co-process fear with the new trustworthy adult. Children from abusive and neglectful environments have learned a variety of maladaptive strategies to deal with fear without adult participation. When two such brains are brought together in a family system, they may initially find their maladaptive strategies work much better together than the new, more effective strategies, being presented by the parent. This has the effect of decreasing the motivation to acquire the new strategies, and frustrating the parental efforts to co-regulate fear and sadness.

For example: Susan got an “F” on her report card. She feels afraid of how Brittany will respond. On the way home from school, Susan discusses the problem with Sarah. Sarah held Susan’s hand and told her she will be ok. Sarah felt better knowing Susan shared her fear of Brittany. When the girls walked into the kitchen, Susan slammed the report card on the table and stomped out of the room. Brittany was angry and disappointed that she could not comfort Susan. She canceled the pizza and ice cream night she had planned to help Susan with the fear of failing.

Increased possibility of parentification

In emotional abusive or neglect environments, a child may become the caregiver to their sibling(s). Even in the new home, this child may be triggered when anyone is in distress. The resultant efforts to co-regulate the other’s distress will often interfere with the parent’s goal to do the same. The cared for child may be more likely to accept sibling care, as it may match the child’s historical experiences. In any case, this will minimize the child’s need for a parent to intervene with comfort and care.

Triggering effect on one child when the other begins to heal… sequential healing

As mentioned above, there is a tag-teaming that occurs when multiple traumatized brains are in the same family system. This “teaming” may present as one child with multiple problematic behaviors and another with few. This presentation may go on for long periods of time with one brain creating enough chaos in the family system for the other traumatized brain to feel relatively comfortable. The calm brain manifests the ability to fly beneath the radar and avoid many problematic limbic behaviors. Unfortunately, it does not indicate that healing has occurred. In fact, as the parents begin to adopt the Trauma Lens Paradigm Shift and see the behaviors as a symptom of the trauma, the child’s need for those disruptive behaviors will decrease. As this occurs, the child, who had been under the radar and whose brain had been calmed by the chaos, will feel increasingly anxious. What often results is an increase in problematic behaviors designed to reestablish a comfortable level of chaos. Parents who previously thought they were only dealing with one traumatized brain are now jarringly presented with a second…

Parenting interactions

Parent’s brain outnumbered to combat 2 NIWMs

Remembering that our homes become a “war zone” between the internal working models of the children’s traumatized brains and the internal working models we want them to instill in them. The more traumatized children we have in our homes, the more opposition to the new models we will encounter. This is especially true when we consider the possibility that the children’s traumatized thought patterns may be able to work together better than our own, as discussed above.

Parenting is more complicated because each child’s TDC impairments may be different

Remembering early trauma disrupts every child’s development, the Trauma Disrupted Competencies we see in each child can be different. Even within sibling groups, the disrupted competencies may be radically different. This forces parents to go through many varying responses and, sometimes, therapeutic approaches stemming from each child’s need in a given event. For instance: One child may be hypersensitive to noise and the other, hyposensitive, during a family movie one child may be calmed by the loud scenes and the other fearfully dysregulated. They may even be annoyed in different directions by sound levels in the middle. When we are in the thick of things, striving desperately to be the family regulator of fear, this can be very difficult and draining.

The parents experience the children as healthy or traumatized based on limbic brain presentations

When families have more than one child with a history of early trauma, unintentional comparisons ensue. Parents tend to compare the children’s frequency, intensity, and duration of dysregulations. As mentioned above, it is not uncommon for one child to have more behavioral presentations that the other (then they may switch). The child with less disrupting behaviors will then be classified as healthier, more compliant, and well-behaved. Sometime, parents will minimize that child’s traumatic experiences. The other child will be seen as unhealthy and disobedient. Before a parent makes these determinations, please review the above writing on emotional responses. Just because a child seems obedient, does not mean that child is not reacting to fear. The child may be folding to authority—threat as a means to manage the internal fear.  

More difficulty finding respite

Parenting multiple children, much less traumatized children, can be energy draining. Foster parents may be offered the service of respite. Other times, family and friends may provide periods of relief for the parents. With multiple traumatized brains, problematic behaviors can be more frequent. Finding providers capable of dealing with those behaviors while maintaining a safe and healing environment becomes more difficult. Parents must be vigilant around respite providers who are unaware of the complications of working with more than one traumatized child.

Problematic interactions between siblings come about quicker in short term situations. Stability in short term respite situations (short periods of time) is often based on the child’s desire to appear perfectly normal (honeymoon period). However, when two traumatized brains are trying to share a respite, that honeymoon period can be drastically shortened or, even, eliminated. Each child’s attempts to appear healthy while at the same time, manipulate to get their needs met can interfere with the other’s. Frequently, the result is an escalation of frustration as they get in each other’s way.

© 2022, Jeff and Faye. All rights reserved.

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