We had another anxiety attack yesterday. Sometimes my insides clench up because I know that this is going to be a two hour endeavor. But it’s necessary.
Anxiety is one of the most common, if not the most prevalent result of traumatic experiences. That’s for anyone. Expecting a foster child, or former foster child, to come out unscathed is ignorance at its finest. I worry sometimes that the majority of adults in this world don’t fully understand what it looks like, much less what it feels like. Worse yet, many adults know all too well what it feels like but do not recognize it for what it is.
It’s scary to think that a new foster parent, or any parent for that matter, not be aware of the cause and effect relationship that their child might endure if anxiety isn’t addressed head on.
Anxiety is Unyielding and Sneaky
Let me back pedal enough to say that awareness is growing. People who have experienced a more severe level of anxiety are starting to speak up. That’s huge to me. It’s much too complicated to fully educate people on mental health via tv ad campaigns and billboards. No, I’m not suggesting they are “bad” things. It has its place. I’m saying it goes so much deeper than a sporadic feeling that someone experiences once in a while.
It’s even more difficult to realize that a child is suffering from it.
Children, no matter the age of the child, are already vulnerable. The baseline role of a parent is to provide, protect, and prepare them for life. Yes, it is to love them first and foremost, but that is assumed here since these provisions are a direct result of sacrificial love. Kids are not born with the ability to care for themselves and certainly don’t understand their feelings or emotions. As adults, do we even fully grasp that?
Let’s Walk a Mile in Their Shoes…
So, imagine yourself in the shoes of a foster child. You instinctually trust the adults in your life to make sure you are fed, clean, clothed and free from danger. Then they don’t. You went 2 days with no food. Your mom allowed her “friends” into your room at night. Your dad hit you. They forgot you were there. As a child you don’t realize it, because regardless of these things, you still trust them, but your brain does remember. You may file it away….but it still remembers. Subconsciously, you recognize danger for danger, but your instinct tells you that these adults will care for you.
Not all children get help, but you were one of the ones who did. Although, you don’t see it that way. A social worker and a police officer have “stolen” you from your family. Now what do you do? Instincts don’t tell you that other adults will care for you. You think “your” adults will come get you. They never do. You knew other foster kids that went home to their family. Their family fought a hard won battle to have their kids returned home. So where are yours? You learn later from your caseworker that your parents have disappeared. They aren’t coming. That’s a hard pill to swallow. Now you have to change foster homes. Who can you trust? Everything is spinning out of control….or has it always been out of control?
Now the child is realizing that nothing is the way it was supposed to be. And they would be correct. In a perfect world, their parents would have stopped drinking, got off the drugs, and prioritized their children. But we live in a fallen world. Let’s be clear that not every child in foster care loses their biological family. In fact, a lot of hard work and dedication goes into reuniting families (from the bio family, foster family and social workers). But here we have painted the worst case scenario. The scenario that is a reality for many.
Many of these kids lose everything. They have walked through unimaginable traumas. Just because their situation is better in their future, does not erase everything that happened up until that point.
Their first step forward is realizing that things are not going to go back to the way they were. That’s how it was with our kids and it unleashed an overwhelming mix of emotions all at once. Good and bad. If I were creating a visual for you, that is the first, largest, and most difficult hurdle in moving forward. No one will come out of it without wounds, especially not the children.
“Children Are Resilient” they say..
There is a cliche phrase that circulates that “children are resilient”. I don’t really like that phrase. In one way it is true. They are resilient to an extent, but probably no more resilient than you and I. Honestly, I find their forgiveness is what starts out stronger.
The reason I don’t like it is because I think it makes adults complacent in considering how they are handling their children’s circumstances. It’s incredibly hard for us, as adults, to walk with them through some of these things. If our belief that they are more “resilient” than us, combined with their ability to tamp down their emotions results in neglecting their healing, we might make the process harder. I’m speaking from experience!
I remember when we figured out what was going on with our seemingly perfect, well behaved daughter. She never got in trouble. Never acted out. Never engaged in the same behaviors as her siblings. That should have been a massive red flag for us. But we were new parents to three older kids and barely keeping our head above water with the other two. We CHOSE to believe that she was fine.
But One Day, My Husband Recognized the Monster….
She blew up one day. We were blown backwards. She started yelling, crying…and her breathing became shallow and labored. Personally, I had no idea what had happened. Whatever was going on seemed completely random and misplaced.
My husband recognized it as the same monster that he tries to protect me from. She was having a full blown panic attack. At that point, he stopped talking to her, stood up and moved next to her. He put his arm around her and after a few seconds of half-hearted resistance she relaxed into him. They didn’t say anything. She just cried and tried to breathe. After several minutes she calmed down.
He told me later that it was the breathing that gave it away. Garrett said, “You hyperventilate and your breathing becomes choppy when you have anxiety attacks, so I thought that must be what’s happening to her. I just sat and waited for her breathing to go back to normal.”
Once we realized what was happening we knew we had missed it. That every one of these kids would probably suffer from anxiety in one form or another. At least now we knew how to help them fight. I know what it feels like. Learning to recognize it for what it was is how I began to heal. Now we have to figure out how to teach that to our kids.
Different Attack, Different Daughter
So when another daughter had an anxiety attack yesterday, we recognized it immediately. We have become really good at that. So we walked the same road, talked about the same steps and repeated some of the same things that we have countless times before. Anxiety doesn’t just stop. It doesn’t just go away because someone wills it to.
Teaching our children to recognize it and address it is the only way they will be able to take a step forward. After we teach it to them once, we will need to teach them again…and again…and again….and again….until they are finally able to do it on their own. If it’s hard for me, an adult that has had severe anxiety for years….imagine how difficult it is for a kid!
During this time, she said to us, “I just can’t forget the past!” We told her, “Forgetting it isn’t possible. You don’t have to forget it. And hiding from it isn’t possible either. You have to accept that it did happen. Then you need to recognize what triggers your anxiety and reteach your brain that you are safe and loved NOW so that you can move forward. No more tamping it down.”