Nothing breaks a parent’s heart more than the death of a child.
Regrets, guilt, shame.
There wasn’t a place to share one last memorable experience. There wasn’t an opportunity to express deeply intimate words. And frankly, there wasn’t time to emotionally prepare.
After a decade on raising six children adopted from hard places, my perspective about death changed.
One of my mine could tragically pass.
Their hard-to-understand behaviors, at-risk choices and all-too-common predicaments are a disaster waiting to happen. Luck could surely run out one day.
Adding to the perfect storm is their incredibly slow acknowledgement of mistakes. Then learning from them – if at all. Meanwhile, consequences rarely have an effect; and, if used, they must be applied delicately.
But let’s be brutally honest. The root cause of my children’s dysfunction and emotional dysregulation is the early trauma in their lives. It started in the womb and continued in their critical first years – with devastating effects.
An innocent life lost forever.
Brains permanently damaged from alcohol exposure during pregnancy. Brains underdeveloped by neglect or abuse – now called developmental trauma. And as a result, brains different from the average teen or young adult.
An invisible disability that too many people still do not understand – much less accept. And please don’t take the easy route and blame me for a problem that I didn’t create.
And let’s not sugarcoat the challenges. My children’s maladaptive behaviors run the gambit –which isn’t uncommon in trauma, FASD and mental health circles. I remember instant panic when these “surprises” began years ago.
- Jumping out the car door of a fast moving vehicle.
- Disappearing without a trace after school on Friday and suddenly reappearing Sunday night.
- Using fists in the heat of the moment over something trivial. Fighting as if their lives depended upon it. Drawing blood.
- Walking alone on unsafe roads in the early hours of the morning.
- Hopping in a stranger’s car without a second thought.
- Overdosing on Tylenol because of a headache.
- Believing a smooth talker and then being robbed at gunpoint.
- Loaning money to everyone. Helping anyone. Misreading social cues over and over.
- Injecting drugs because new acquaintances claim to be friends.
- Falling prey to sex trafficking.
- Losing one job after another – unable to handle coworkers.
- Accepting jail as a fact of life, a place to be safe.
- Smoking anything available to numb the emotional pain.
- Being sentenced to prison and existing within a violent sub-culture.
- Living on the streets.
- Trusting no one.
No doubt, the odds seemed stacked against me. Same goes for many families parenting children with a traumatic past.
In spite of therapy. In spite of connected parenting. In spite of wonderful teachers and extended family. In spite of natural supports. In spite of deep faith.
That unimaginable phone call could eventually come one day.
I’m sorry. Your child is dead.
Ironically, I’m an optimistic person. I always see the glass as half-full, never half-empty. I constantly model acceptable behavior to my children.
But after countless, sleepless nights in which my overwhelmed mind fought my exhausted body for control, I forced myself to live in reality. No longer the fantasy of a perfect family. Not even one that is consistently functional.
Just a family trying to cope, trying to survive, trying to work through the endless challenges.
Now the surprises don’t affect me as deeply. I’ve accepted them in raising a traumatized child.
Frankly, the cycle is viscous.
Regardless of my ongoing efforts to love my children – and remain attached, they routinely wonder if I truly care. Are my feelings fake? The ignorant comments from their peers about adoption left an indelible mark in middle and high school. At work. Around the bus stop. Inside the drug house.
Why do so many people want to know about their “real” family?
Over time, my children questioned their worth as human beings. More often than not, they lived in fear.
Fear of being misunderstood. Fear of not being heard. Fear of being marginalized. Fear of being themselves. Even fear of being abandoned – again.
Whereas fear usually causes individuals to proceed cautiously, it drives children like mine – who one day became young adults – in the opposite direction.
One of my mine regularly says, “I’m not afraid to die.”
Several others frequently comment, “I have nothing to lose.”
All reply, “I don’t want to live like this forever.”
Interestingly, my children are followers who truly desire leadership. Yet they’ve never been given the chance to prove themselves – within a supportive environment.
Without question, the right supports make all the difference in the world and prevent triangulation – which further erodes family relationships.
What am I supposed to do?
Although I can’t control my children in their hour of need, I can always control my response.
I can carefully pick my battles. Otherwise, I would nitpick all day and further drive a wedge between us. I do my best to balance every concern with some type of compliment or praise.
I can validate their negative thoughts with a hint of encouragement. Their feelings are real. Actively dismissing them only leads to more of the same.
I can be mindful and create a sense of peace at the end of the day.
And I can continue my trauma-sensitive response, when the cycle repeats the following day.
Too much push from me produces instant pull from my children. A game where they are determined to be last one standing. Relentless in their pursuit of something less-than-appropriate. Even sabotaging any chance of meaningful success.
Nevertheless, I stand ready when they need to talk. I pray for patience on both sides.
At the same time, all of my children have good hearts from living in a nurturing environment for most of their lives. They’ve seen the best in people but haven’t been able to internalize those feelings on a regular basis. But I have hope.
One day they will. Some have already started.
My two oldest (now 27 and 28) have gained a more mature perspective – after years of being stuck in the past, unable to forgive themselves or others.
“With age comes maturity and the ability to self-reflect,” says my daughter
“The change starts with me,” adds my son.
Thankfully they are no longer hanging on the cliff – but safe on the other side of a deep and treacherous ravine. Yes, truly safe. After years of uncertainty and self-loathing, they finally found the courage to jump from their past. In hindsight, the actual leap turned out to be rather simple. But the decision had to be theirs, not solely mine.
When they were ready. When they accepted the truth. When they placed their trust in me or other valued adults.
And with that leap of faith, the pace of their healing accelerated.
With four additional young adult children still in the wings, I’m not done. I must endure the next five to ten years. Hopefully they too will “jump” and find the same inner peace as their older siblings.
Unfortunately, two of my sons remain far too close to the edge.
A tragic fall waiting to happen.
I want no regrets. I need to be emotionally ready.
Therefore, I take nothing for granted with my children. I celebrate every moment in their lives. I hug them tightly, when possible. I freely say the words “I love you.” In person and in text.
I will never give up on them.
And in the darkness of my room each night, I fall asleep more easily. DCP
Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special: Working Smarter Not Harder to Raise Every ONE
To follow Craig’s journey in raising his six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love
To follow my son Andrew’s inspiring story, “Like” his special Facebook page Andrew Peterson Athlete & Advocate
To watch Andrew’s amazing ESPN 14-minute documentary, click here. Andrew Peterson ESPN “Respect” Documentary