Young adults recover from childhood trauma through a combination of supportive relationships and self-reliance, according to a survey of 13 previous mental health studies.  The total sample size was small, only 277 young adults, but the small population allowed researchers to ask in-depth questions of the participants.  A very common factor that the young adults cited as helping them was encouragement from important people in their lives, whether family members or unrelated mentors.  Another important theme was that the young people made a conscious decision to stop living in the past trauma, but to move forward as best they could.

One cautionary finding was that, while self-reliance was an important and consistent factor, too much independence kept the participants from asking for help that they needed.  Sometimes, extreme self-reliance left them isolated from the important relationships that help build resilience.

The takeaway for those of us foster and stepparents who parent children with trauma is twofold.   They need to know that they can overcome their past trauma, but they need mentors and strong relationships.  We cannot ever replace our kid’s biological parents, but we can become important mentors and family.  It may not be easy, particularly with kids who don’t want us in their lives.  But we still have an important role in encouraging them whenever we can.  

We also need to encourage them to be self-reliant and independence.  As the survey mentioned, it is possible for our kids to be too self-reliant.  We don’t want them to become isolated from important relationships or help when they need it.  But we need to let them prove to themselves that they can find solutions and move past failures without us.  If we are too encouraging, i.e., if we bail them out of every mistake, then they will not learn that they are capable of being the adult in the room.  They will always need encouragement and will be unable to navigate life without it.

It is a delicate balancing act, like all things in life.  We need to simultaneously encourage self-reliance and encourage them to rely on healthy relationships.    Every situation will be different, and sometimes we will need to encourage one thing more than another.  Overall, though, we need to find that balance.  We need to encourage our children to develop important relationships, encourage them to help themselves without becoming isolated, and remind them that they are more than the sum of their trauma.  Childhood trauma is a difficult legacy, but it is not the end of their potential.

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Debbie Ausburn

I make my living as a lawyer, but what I do is take care of other people’s children.