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The Legacy of Family Trauma: Part 3

further-notes-on-trauma-and-development-1Look at that grinning girl on the right up there! That’s Eddie Lou Young, 8 years old, taken in the mill where she’d been working since her father died a little over a year before. Joe Manning, whose wonderful research inspired this series, didn’t track down the child on the left but it was Eddie Lou’s charismatic little face that led him to discover the Young family. It’s also what led me to click through to her story before I clicked on any of the others.

It’s her smile that illustrates another protecting factor in family trauma: temperament. Some of us are simply born with a more resilient temperament than others.

Temperament, as defined by researchers Stella Chess, Alexander Thomas and Herbert Birch, is made up of the building blocks of personality. We are all born with certain temperament traits. How we live out those traits (nature) will depend on our experiences (nurture). There’s some flexibility and adaptability in our responses but we all start with traits that influence how we experience the world and — importantly — how the world experiences us.

Some of us are naturally more negative (cautious, careful, looking out for potential problems) and some of us are more positive (open, careless, ready to take risks). In some circumstances having a more negative emotionality will keep you safe. (If you cheerfully assume that all the cars will stop for pedestrians, you may not be as diligent about looking both ways before crossing the street.) But when it comes to drawing people to us, positive emotionality is the way to go.

Babies and children have two ways to get people to meet their needs: crying and whining is one. The other is being so appealing that people want to take care of you. It’s not hard to guess which way Eddie Lou leaned.

In the pictures that Manning shares of an adult Eddie Lou she is always smiling. This is in stark contrast to her  older brothers and sisters who kept the same serious — even dour — expressions as they aged. It’s no wonder then that her daughter-in-law says, “It’s my understanding that when Reese Parker [Eddie’s adoptive father] first saw her, he immediately fell in love with her. He could’ve adopted a boy, who could’ve helped on his farm, but instead, he chose Eddie Lou.”

That charm that got Manning’s attention and got my attention got Reese Parker’s, too. It got her out of the orphanage and into (by all accounts) loving home and it stayed with her for the rest of her life. Eddie Lou’s daughter-in-law describes her as “a very loving person” and “one of the happiest people I ever knew.”

Research tells us that resiliency is built out of three protective factors:

  • Attachment and Relationships: Our connections to the people around us (and our ability to sustain those connections)
  • Initiative: Our ability to identify our needs and take action to get them met
  • Self Regulation: Our ability to express emotions in healthy ways

From what we can tell, Eddie Lou was naturally likeable. Her children describe her as being very involved in her church and in her community, which addresses not only the relationships but also her initiative. Finally the good cheer her family ascribes to her speaks to self regulation skills.

In other words, Eddie Lou hit the resiliency lottery.



Parenting for Resiliency


"All of us who have been parents have

I know that one of our greatest hopes as parents is that we can somehow protect our children from the inevitable hurts of life. We cry with them when they fall as toddlers. We chew on our nails fretting about them when they don’t get invited to the birthday. And sometimes if our worry for them is too great to bear, we pretend everything is all right even as it’s all falling down around us.

When we do too much protecting we raise kids who won’t know what to do when they’re grown and gone and something bad happens. Those slings and arrows? Those are opportunities for your growth as a parent and your child’s growth as a human being.

I know, I know, some kids get more than their fair share and it’s all right to rant and rave and shake your fist at fate about it but then you need to get down to the task of dealing with it all.

So what then? What can we do when we can’t protect them from suffering?

We can give them resiliency.

      • You can listen to your daughter through her tears when her friend isn’t speaking to her;
      • You can answer his hard questions about divorce;
      • You can find her a grief group when a grandparent dies;
      • You can find him a book about moving when you sign the new lease;
      • You can give her time and space to run when her feelings get away from her;
      • You can give him tools like meditation or prayer to find his center when he feels lost;
      • You can give her a journal to write down her feelings;
      • You can find him a mentor when you feel overwhelmed;
      • You can invite friends or teachers or coaches or counselors to help;
      • You can break out popcorn and boardgames when everyone needs a break from grief or anger;
      • And you can model resiliency by taking care of yourself and your sorrows, too.

You don’t have to go it alone. There are community resources and counselors, there are web sites and self-help books. You may not be able to protect them but you can shore them up. You can help them build their strength. You can be there.

Kids who need more

I turned in the edits on the disruption article yesterday and then sometime later in the afternoon, I found a video of the “still face” experiment (I can’t remember where). I find this video kind of hard to watch because of the baby’s stress; I’ll just warn you that if you have a hard time watching babies cry, this might bother you.

Look how hard that is for that baby. You can see that if that still, unresponsive faces were that child’s reality, that she might have trouble being able to connect to other people once she leaves that environment. For a child who has depressed parents or is in an institution where there aren’t enough time or resources, learning how to accept and manage relationships might be a normal reaction. In this video that came up in the youtube related box, Dr. David Arredondo makes a distinction between “attachment” and “connectivity.” (I don’t know anything about Dr. Arredondo — I’m going to read about him more after I post this but I was struck by his distinction.)

So when we’re talking about narratives around adoption, the type that are perpetuated by some agencies where the kid comes home and wraps her arms around her new mommy’s neck and everyone goes to Disneyworld to celebrate Christmas, we can see that those stories are at best lies by omission and at worst outright falsehoods. Because it is normal for children to have long-term challenges when their early lives are deprived. It is NORMAL. It is not pathological for any child to have some serious struggles when they have experienced the kind of neglect that many kids in fostercare or orphanages may have experienced. It makes sense, you know? It makes perfect sense. It doesn’t make for bad kids anymore than calling a child who limps because of an injury a bad kid. Babies and children are certainly resilient (thank goodness) but resiliency can only go so far and resiliency can also include coping mechanisms that may not work so well outside the orphanage. It may take time to unlearn survival methods that make perfect sense in one environment when we are moved to another.

And when adoption agencies tell stories that leave out the reality, they clearly don’t give a damn about those kids and they don’t give a damn about the prospective adoptive parents either. Because they don’t give those parents a chance to properly prepare.

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