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Empathy, Please. Those of Us on the Other End of Developmental Trauma Parenting Need It Too.

Updated: May 6


Empathy, Please. Those of Us on the Other End of Developmental Trauma Parenting Need It Too.

 

Last week, I had an important work meeting. I entered the conference room on the top floor, surrounded by glass windows and incredible views and took my seat at the long, shiny table. Other important folks took their seats. As we waited for everyone to arrive, a colleague tried to make conversation, asking “What are your kids up to these days?” 




“I don’t know,” I answered, embarrassed. “They don’t keep in touch.” 

“That must be hard,” he said, clearly shocked.  

“It is,” I answered solemnly.  

Thankfully, the final person arrived, and the meeting could begin.  

“How are your kids?” is a question I get a lot when I come off the mountain we now live on and visit the town where we used to live. Our jobs are still there, but we work remotely most days.  


To be fair, I'm sure these folks know nothing about developmental trauma or reactive attachment disorder. Children with the disorder reject nurturing at all costs. Due to the impact of early trauma on their brains, they are terrified of attachment. Most people don’t understand the struggle and pain we experienced parenting children with this affliction. But the lack of knowledge doesn't make the feelings of judgment any less painful.


I used to be a social person. I used to have friends. I used to love living near people with lots of things to do. But after our adoption journey ended in a complete meltdown of our lives, I emerged from the ashes a different person — an odd hermit. We moved to the middle of nowhere, our closest neighbors are moose. They look in on us with their big prehistoric heads like we’re their personal fish aquarium. “What’s up with them?” Mr. Bullwinkle might ask Mrs. Bullwinkle. “Developmental trauma,” she might answer, if she’s familiar.  


Most people don’t understand the struggle and pain we experienced parenting children with developmental trauma/reactive attachment disorder. But the lack of knowledge doesn't make the feelings of judgment any less painful.

Those of you who read my blogs already know our story. I’d always wanted to adopt from foster care. Our kids moved in at 9 and 13. Our son, the youngest, was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder at 14, after many years of wrong turns and escalating struggles. When he was nearly 16, we relinquished custody. After high school, things with our daughter also deteriorated. I felt she was only using us and didn’t want an actual relationship, so I created strong boundaries. She didn’t want boundaries, so we no longer hear from her.  


Now I’m in an odd limbo. When we moved to the mountains, I told people we fostered for a while but don’t have any biological children. It helps me avoid explaining why our kids aren’t in our life. But our continued connection to our old town still kicks up dust in the form of unanswered questions and painful reminders that quicken my heart rate and keep me up at night.  


Where are they? What are they doing? Are they safe? Are they happy? What are they saying about us? What rumors have they spread? When I see a colleague, have they already heard what a mess our family is? The mountains only partially hide my shame. The moose see right through me.  


Need help navigating developmental trauma and the frustrating systems that go with it? Consider support memberships.


Triggers pop up every few months. Recently our old therapist said she saw our daughter working at the liquor store. Our daughter appeared dirty. Her hair was green.

She pretended not to recognize the therapist she knew.  


I try not to look our kids up on social media. It always leaves me with more questions than answers. For that reason, I deleted my social media accounts. But last week, since I was already triggered, I figured I’d look. It was a mistake. Our son has three Facebook pages — one with our last name, one with his guardian’s last name, and one with his birth father’s last name. I can’t get his latest profile picture out of my mind.  


The best way to describe how I feel is an amputated limb. It’s a phantom limb now. My kids are a missing part of me that I always feel, even though no one can see it. 


I tried talking to my non-adoptive friends about how these recent sightings made me feel. One offered to contact the kids and see what they’re up to. No, thank you, I said. I have a million reasons for this. The other said, “Don’t people know by now not to tell you anything about the kids?” She doesn’t ask for this same reason.  


Neither response was remotely satisfying. I wished I hadn’t tried talking to them about it. What did I want them to say? I asked myself afterward. After some thought, I realized I just wanted them to empathize.  


The best way to describe how I feel is an amputated limb. It’s a phantom limb now. My kids are a missing part of me that I always feel, even though no one can see it. 

But the dictionary definition of empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Both these friends have neurotypical biological children. They do not understand or share my feelings. As we all know, they can’t. Unless you’ve been through this, you have no idea. It’s so complicated, so twisted, so heart-wrenching, they cannot understand.  


I know they’ve judged me. Heck, I’ve judged them on things. Humans are a judgmental lot. I guess what I would have liked them to say is that they were really sorry I was going through this. And I would have liked them to ask, “What would be helpful to you right now?” 


A wise woman named Cindy taught me that when our friend, Moira, was dying of breast cancer. The cancer had spread throughout Moira’s body, including her brain, making her bedridden and with a limited ability to communicate. She was on hospice with only a few weeks to live. I took my last chance to see her and poured my heart out, telling her how much I loved her and how much she meant to me. The visit was so upsetting to Moira that her sister didn’t let anyone visit for at least a week afterward, except Cindy. Cindy was a comfort. So I asked Cindy what she did on her visits. “I ask her what she would like me to do, like rub her feet. I ask her what she would like to talk about, like horses or music.” Cindy made it about our friend; she didn’t make it about herself.  


Unless you’ve been through this, you have no idea. It’s so complicated, so twisted, so heart-wrenching, they cannot understand.  

Cindy was like my own personal Yoda. That was a lightbulb moment that happened over a decade ago, and I’m still learning to apply it to my life. When my friends are upset about something, my default is to give advice from a standpoint of what would be helpful to me. I’m making it about myself. I don’t know what they need because I didn’t ask. Some people like to hear “solutions” or to be made to “feel better.” Neither of these are empathy.  


My phantom limb, my missing kids, will always be there. It’s no solution to pretend it’s not there. It can’t be fixed either. It’s something I have to live with.


I spoke about these feelings with COO Heather Houze of RAD Advocates, a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of families parenting children with developmental trauma/reactive attachment disorder. She shared that I am not alone. "I've never worked with a person who went into their parenting journey with the expectation of anything other than a forever family," says Houze. "Whether they are a grandparent raising their grandchildren or an adoptive parent, they have all done everything possible to keep their families intact. Sadly, developmental trauma wants the opposite. It's a sad and cruel disorder for everyone involved. These parents mourn and deserve the same condolences as anyone else experiencing a loss."


Whether they are a grandparent raising their grandchildren or an adoptive parent, they have all done everything possible to keep their families intact. Sadly, developmental trauma wants the opposite. It's a sad and cruel disorder for everyone involved.

What parents like me need from you, world, is empathy. We need you to realize you don’t know what we’re going through or how to make us feel better. But you can ask.  



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4 Comments


I am so sorry to hear all this my heart goes out to you. We have 2 adopted girls who aren’t RAD but definitely on the attachment spectrum as well as a whole list of other issues. They’re both in wilderness now and will be transitioning to boarding schools. We always say no one understands unless they are living it. It’s nothing we would’ve chosen and it’s harder than I ever could’ve imagined. We just wanted a happy normal family and this isn’t it 😪

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micaela
micaela
May 09
Replying to

Thank you for reading the blog and for commenting. I'm so sorry about your girls and all that you've been through. :(

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Empathy is definitely lacking with RAD. Condemnation is more the response. My son with severe RAD was in and out of placements from the age of seven. Much of that time was spent trying to get therapists and other professionals to see RAD was the issue, not my parenting. When my son ran away from a treatment home at 16, a home he had been in for three years and was able to do pretty much anything he wanted, no one asked how I was coping with the loss of my child. Despite several major holidays, and his birthday, passing, no one asked if I was OK. Everyone expressed how hard it must be for my son who wanted to…


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micaela
micaela
May 09
Replying to

Thank you. I'm so sorry for all that you're going through and the lack of support and understanding.


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