The myth that love is a cure-all for trauma is harmful and we need to stop believing that.
On a television show the other day, a group of women sat around a table sharing their opinions on the latest news. They were especially excited about a kid who invited his whole kindergarten class to his adoption. It was one of those feel-good stories about foster care that makes it look as though the adoptive parents are heroes and the kids are grateful to be saved from their pasts. This is a crock and a harmful portrayal of what it’s like to parent a child in the system.
I became a foster parent to care for one child in particular. In the process of taking the mandatory classes, I learned that Latino kids are over-represented in the system. At the time, there were less than a dozen bilingual homes in my state. That horrified me. I was still naive about the ins and outs of foster parenting and all I could think about was that these poor kids were being re-traumatized by being placed in homes that did not speak their language or know their culture.
Indeed, one of the kids I parented spent three days barely eating anything all because he couldn’t communicate in English and his caretakers at the shelter did not speak Spanish. He didn’t eat what he couldn’t identify on his plate. His skin was faintly yellow, his eyes were sunken in and he hardly had the energy to tell me about himself. The case worker told me that if he didn’t eat in the next 24 hours, I should take him to the hospital for an IV.
It took almost two hours of being with him before he trusted me enough to tell me that he was hungry and wanted oranges and shrimp. Weird combo but after three days of barely eating anything, I can understand. We went to the grocery store together and he picked out what he wanted and I prepared it exactly as he asked. He ate every last bite and then asked for pancakes. I made them and an hour later he was running around my house, hands together in the form of a gun, saying the only phrase he knew in English, “Get down.”
Needless to say, the IV wasn’t needed and when the case worker came for a visit two days later, she couldn’t believe the child in front of her was the same fragile boy she had seen at the shelter after they removed him from his home after a drug raid took his parents away.
On the surface, that sounds like the making of a hero’s story. I saved a child from starving and he thrived and lived happily ever after. What that worker didn’t see was how the child took to my husband and wouldn’t let him out of his sight. It was cute for a minute, but the separation anxiety quickly became a problem when the child threw tantrums when he had to go in my car to the baby-sitter’s house. He slapped and kicked and fought me while I tried to tie him into the car seat. He threw whatever he could find at me while I drove. At the babysitter’s house he latched to my leg and it took several minutes of bribes and distractions to get him off me so I could go to work. I was late for work almost every morning for over a week and my stress level was through the roof. When my husband took him to his child care provider it was even worse. The kid made himself throw up and threw a toy at another kid’s head. I got called to pick him up and was afraid he wouldn’t be allowed back and we needed the child care.
This went on for a few weeks until he trusted us enough to know that we would come back for him every time. I don’t blame him. His whole life collapsed in front of him. He was tucked in bed when cops busted in his apartment with guns and dogs and turned everything upside down. He saw his parents laying face down on the ground with guns drawn to their heads while his home was ransacked. A stranger picked him up and took him to a shelter full of strangers that didn’t speak his language. Before I came along, no one could answer his questions about where his parents were, if they were safe and when he could see them again. He couldn’t ask to call his mom or his grandmother, acts that when in my home, brought him immense peace and joy and became a regular ritual.
It wasn’t love that got us to a place where the child could sleep without my husband rubbing his back for hours; where he could stay at daycare without a scene; where I could sit next to my husband without him squeezing his way between us and giving me the death stare until I moved away. It was patience, understanding, discipline, routine and lots and lots of communication with therapists, case workers, other parents, his birth mother and my support system of friends and family.
When I heard the women chatting about the adoption story and saying how they would consider adopting because all these kids need is love, I turned off the television in anger that they were perpetuating this lie that has been harmful to me in my experience as a foster parent.
The little boy was just one of 8 foster kids I parented in the six years I was a foster parent. I didn’t do it with the intent to adopt, but the situation of the little girl that originally led me down that path turned into an adoption case and for reasons I discuss in my other piece, “Male Biological Clocks are a Thing,” I ended up adopting her. For purposes of her privacy, we’ll call her Sam.
In the first three years of Sam’s life she was removed from her biological extended family; taken in by people she had never seen before; experienced times of neglect and want when left with her birth mom and later placed in my home. While on the surface she seemed like a happy kid, unaffected by all that upheaval, she wasn’t. She had night terrors even while napping. I was called out of work on numerous occasions to go to her pre-school during nap time to comfort her as she cried out in her sleep. She never woke up from her cries, but it required me holding and rocking her to lull her back to calmness so she could finish her nap. She’d wake up fine and interact with her caretakers and the other kids as if nothing had happened. She didn’t even know I had been there or that she had been crying in her sleep.
She had an irrational fear of washing her hair. For the first few months of her living with me, I had to get in the shower with her and hold her with one hand, and use the other to wash her hair. Sometimes she would squirm and kick and she almost always buried her head in my neck, making it difficult to wash her hair one-handed. By the time she was clean, I was out of breath, my arms were sore and I was frazzled and tired.
Having been told to call her mom’s past boyfriends dad, she had no real sense of the word and developed a distrust of men. That meant that ninety-nine percent of the time, no matter what she needed, she would ask me to do it. Sam would refuse to let my husband comb her, read her bedtime stories, or help her choose her clothes for the next day. That meant that even when I was tired from a full day of work, I had to do every parenting-related thing, even though I had a willing partner who wanted to be hands-on. When he’d try, Sam would cause such a scene that I had to take over plus console him from her rejection. I wanted him to be more involved but in the end, it made more work for me having to mend both their feelings.
I spent a lot of time believing that I could love her through her fears and that love would help shape her into an empathetic child who felt worthy of love after so much neglect. Trying to make up for those years of pain she experienced before living with me was emotionally and physically exhausting and expensive. I tried to win Sam’s love with service, gifts, attention, time, and other love languages. After years of this, it became harder and harder to distinguish what was genuine love and what was me going through the motions of this harmful sequence that bred resentment and discontent when she didn’t respond in love or develop compassion.
It has taken years of therapy to realize and accept that love cannot cure trauma. All the love in the world cannot re-wire Sam’s brain to understand how to accept and give love. She had no foundation for it. The only love she knew from conception to three years of age was conditional. She could not rely on her mother to provide her basic needs so she learned to get them from others, manipulating if need be to get what she needed. This form of survival is common in kids in the foster care system. It manifests in different ways from stealing and hoarding food, to showering adults with kindness to get what they need and then completely rejecting that person until the next time they need something. Their intentions aren’t to be cruel, it’s how their brains developed for self-preservation. The kids quickly learned that they needed another set of skills in order to procure what they were not getting from their main caretakers. For those of us caring for them, it meant we were constantly tested to prove that we would provide for all their needs, no matter what. In psychology circles, this condition is called reactive attachment disorder (RAD).
RAD and other attachment disorders develop when a child has not consistently connected with a parent or primary caregiver in the first three years of life. When their physical and emotional needs aren’t routinely met during this time, they experience trauma and stress. Since this is when most connections are formed and the foundation of a person’s trust is established most profoundly, it affects their relationships with anyone providing care or playing a regular role in their life. Treatment options include counseling and sometimes medication as depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders often go hand-in-hand with RAD. This clinical interference with Sam’s ability to fully experience relationships gave her a negative sense of self-worth, causing her to look for proof of my love on a daily, sometime hourly basis. While love motivated me to go to therapy, create a stable home, surround her with examples of positive relationships, and open dialogue about interpersonal interactions, it was by no means a cure to RAD.
Assigning love as the remedy to actions that are associated with mental health issues diminishes the severity of what the affected child is going through and what they really need. Believing that love alone would fix all that needed attention in my parent-child relationship created an unrealistic expectation that wrongfully negated the more important need for creating structure, an environment of reliability and the stability it takes to combat this serious trauma-induced condition. There are tons of studies about how trauma informs brain development and plays a role in shaping a person’s outcomes. As a foster parent, I was up against nature and all the nurture in the world could not prevent the side effects of what was wired into these kids’ brains long before I met them.
In order to arm myself against nature’s role in Sam’s evolution, I had to take care of my own mental health. Aside from family therapy, I needed my own therapist. I relied on family, friends and other foster parents for support and encouragement, which meant opening up the uglier parts of parenting that lots of my friends had not experienced since they had never tried raising a child with RAD. Many hours were spent self-soothing myself after rejections and setbacks. Ultimately, it led to getting respite care to get an emotional and mental break from the everyday struggle of connecting with my daughter. If I relied solely on love to get us through, neither one of us would thrive.
Thinking that love is all you need to parent through trauma is like believing you can love away a hurricane. Love is strong but nature is stronger. While love may be what drives someone in the work of foster parenting, the message needs to be that love is the base but the work is in the details that show that love over and over again in unique ways that can often look like you are not making any strides at all. Love is many things but alone, it is not an antidote for trauma and we need to stop positioning it as a fix for what nature inflicts on kids in foster care.