I adopted a traumatized dog. I own a horse that endured abuse at the hands of a trainer. Lastly, I adopted several traumatized children. Trauma looks very similar across the board in all species, and yet there are some significant differences as well.
Recently I hosted a dinner party at my home, My guests and I celebrated the 25 year anniversary of an organization I started in the mid-90’s. The Attachment & Trauma Network (ATN) serves families parenting children with attachment or trauma-related behaviors and challenges. All three of my internationally adopted children exhibit many behaviors consistent with emotionally wounded children.
When I first began my journey as an adoptive parent, there were no resources available. If I happened to be in a “normal” support group for parents, and mentioned that my son tried to bean me on the back of the head with an ice scraper as I was driving down the interstate (on our way to the psych ward), the conversation invariably stopped. Most parents were struggling with how to get their kids to brush their teeth in the morning. My goal was to get one of my children to engage in life in any capacity, and the other one to quit making sexual advances to his siblings…
Out of necessity, I created my own support group. Although not my original plan, it grew into a national nonprofit organization. Under the leadership of my successor, it has become a major force in educating and supporting parents, teachers, CASA workers, social workers, and even traumatized adults. During my 15 years as Executive Director, I blogged about reactive attachment disorder and presented workshops locally, regionally and nationally to groups large and small. I created and managed a warm-line and often spent hours every day on the phone to a distraught parent. At the same time, I struggled daily with my own extremely challenging children. I published a newsletter and lobbied lawmakers for more funding and support for foster and adoptive families. Along the way, I learned a great deal about the impact of trauma and disrupted attachments on the developing psyche of a child.
The smooth-coat Border collie in the collage is my very own Leah. A private rescue group had found Leah tied to a tree, a mere 24 pounds, trying to nurse eight 4-week old puppies. The scumbags who once lived there had moved away, abandoning her and her pups with no food or water. Poor Leah was clearly a victim of abuse. She wouldn’t go into small spaces. She couldn’t make eye contact with anyone and she cowered continually. It took four full years for the majority of her trauma to fall away. To this day, a tall lanky man wearing a baseball cap puts her in another “zone” and she is quite likely to nip him on the leg. However, as I write this, she is asleep next to me in the loveseat… the ONLY dog of my pack who currently has this privilege.
My Arabian, Kadeen, which I write about often, is a complicated horse. He is not a horse you can make do anything. You have to ask. You have to have a relationship. He spent two years in reining training, and I don’t think there was much “ask” to the training. He was more horse than I was a rider when I bought him. We really struggled for the first few years. I didn’t have his respect and he had some baggage from past experiences. At one point I decided I didn’t have the right horse. However, I quickly came to my senses and realized that I was the problem.
When I was in the traumatized kid business, we had a saying. I often told parents they needed to be a “steel box with a velvet lining.” They needed to set boundaries and stick to them, but they needed to provide the nurturing component that MUST go with that. With traumatized kids, once a fair rule was put into play, it was absolutely necessary for the parent to enforce that rule every single time. These kids have had adults fail them time and time again. Consequently, every time a parent would say, “this is how it is” and then renege on that, it reinforced the child’s view that this parent wasn’t any different than the countless parents of the past. It is an incredibly draining way to parent, as the steel box component requires 24 hours a day vigilance.
Horses need an owner who understands how to be a steel box. One day a wonderful horseman opened my eyes and showed me how little respect I commanded from my horse. I needed to up my game and fortify my steel box. But with horses, one of the things I have learned is that it is okay to fudge the rules occasionally. When I first began my journey with Kadeen, I thought if I wanted him to do something a certain way, he needed to do it my way right away. I have finally figured out that sometimes it is okay to give him a little of what he wants, and then expect him to give me some of what I want. We can do this because we have a relationship. Nevertheless, some rules are non-negotiable.
When dealing with my kids, it was the relationship we were struggling to build. While there are many, many similarities to the impact of trauma on developing humans and animals, the human mind is far more complex. My three adoptees are all adults. One turns 35 today, as I write this. That is 35 years on the planet… he’s about 15 emotionally. The last communication any family member had with him was over a year ago. At that time he stated, “I have fewer homicidal thoughts when I am not in communication with the family.” Clearly both parties are better off if he avoids family contact…
At the celebratory dinner for ATN, several of the moms discussed the current status of their adult kids. All were struggling. Julie Beem, the current Executive Director, stated, “We all know that at 18 they go crazy. By the late 20’s some will come back around, some won’t.” That statement is not in conflict with my personal experience.
Many people are reluctant to adopt a shelter dog or rescue a horse because of fear of the “baggage” they will bring with them. I have no experience with horse rescue. Perhaps some of you that do would provide some input as to how it has worked for you? My four adult dogs are all rescues. One came from the shelter as a pup, but the others were adults. Clearly Leah was abused. All four are amazing dogs and all have put their pasts behind them. I often wish my kids would take a lesson from my dogs. Good things are available here, if you would only take what is offered…