“I can’t and I don’t have to,” my foster daughter announced.  “I have a diagnosis, so I don’t have to do all of my homework if I don’t want to.  I’m no good at school, and that’s just the way it is.  Your nagging isn’t going to change anything.”  

I have heard variations on this theme from many of my foster kids, and it never becomes less frustrating.  It’s an easy mistake.  When we as parents focus on accommodations and techniques for our kids, the more we risk making their trauma the central focus of their lives.  We have to actively work against that temptation.  The purposes of accommodations is not to give our kids excuses for failure, but to help them find paths to success. We have to recognize that it is possible to be too sensitive to our children’s trauma.  We need to be sure that when we are working to have everyone make accommodations for that trauma that we are trying to find ways for them to succeed, not falling into the trap of letting our kids’ trauma define them and their future.

I ran across a recent study that illustrates the importance of finding the balance of acknowledging a trauma without dwelling on it.  The researchers were trying to determine whether content warnings, designed to let people know that upcoming movies, literature, or class assignments might contain offensive material, help trauma survivors.  The study found no benefit, but the part that’s relevant to this blog post is the finding that “giving trigger warnings to trauma survivors caused them to view trauma as more central to their life narrative.”  Other studies have found that people who view trauma as central to their lives are more likely to have more severe PTSD symptoms. A recent literature reviewfound that well-intentioned trigger warnings can increase stressors and increase maladaptive behavior.   One study of sexual assault survivors found that people who view trauma “as a reference point for their future” may be at increased risk of PTSD.

That previous statement is key.  We need to avoid helping our kids make their trauma “a reference point for their future.”  We cannot control how our children think, but we can push back when we see them thinking of themselves as forever broken and unfixable.

We will see it in many ways.  The most obvious is when they explicitly think or say that they will never be able to break their bad patterns.  Those times are easy for us to recognize.  The more difficult times are when they lean on their trauma to avoid difficult work.  When, in my foster daughter’s phrase, they “have a diagnosis.”  They can become so used to having their trauma as an all-purpose excuse that they avoid learning the very difficult life skills that adults need to become resilient and successful.

This dynamic is particularly tempting in a culture like ours that encourage people to explore their victimhood.  When being a victim has currency, then everyone wants to collect it.  It’s hard to stop our children who have been actual victims from creating their own hoard of victimhood currency.  It’s particularly easy when we are working hard to make accommodations for them in school.  Nevertheless, we have to keep our focus on their eventual success and that accommodations are an avenue to success, not a way to avoid it.  We need to know and keep showing our children that they are much more than the sum of their trauma, and that their experiences do not define their future.  We need to constantly remember that our job requires acknowledging their trauma, but then empowering them to move past it.

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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.