How I Came to Understand the Impact of Trauma on My Child's Brain

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“I’m hungry!” she screamed as she tore through the refrigerator pulling out one thing after another.

She couldn’t stop. She couldn’t slow down.

I took a deep breath, calming myself and spoke only a few words, “Let me help you.” I offered a few favorite foods.

But she was too far gone. The rage was growing and she could no longer hear me.

Trauma impacted my daughter’s brain in her early years.

When she was hungry and deprived of food for long periods of time, she feared she would die.

Despite being in our family for years, despite having an abundance of food available, feelings of hunger triggered a deep fear of starvation.

It wasn’t logical, but this was not about logic. She was hungry. She feared she would die.

I understood this on an intellectual level. I studied early trauma and brain development, did therapy with my daughter and one of the best therapists in the country, and even traveled to TCU to learn from Dr. Karyn Purvis and her colleagues.

Yet, I didn’t fully grasp it until a terrible car accident shattered our lives and I experienced trauma on a level I never imagined.

My understanding of my children’s brains became personal.

Let me give you an example:

A few Sundays ago, my older son was driving the kids home from church. They were 20 minutes late when the thought flew into my mind – there is a shooter at church.

I could visualize people crouching behind desks and my son shielding children in the Sunday school room as a menacing form stood in the hallway with a gun.

The image lasted for a few seconds and was quickly followed by the thought, “this is not normal,” (and I need trauma therapy as soon as the kids are in school this fall).

Another (less disturbing) example:

Last week Russ took the boys to his parents’ house and they were two hours late coming home. The road home is a dark, winding, rural highway, known for having lots of wildlife, including moose.

I fought my fear they had been in an accident. When I heard the van’s tires crunching on our gravel driveway, I breathed a sigh of relief.

Since our accident, when the impossibility of losing a child in a car accident became our reality, my sweet spot of safety no longer exists. Tragedies seem highly possible to me.

Each time my family is late and then arrives safely home, my brain learns again that tragedy is rare. Over and over this pattern will repeat until one day the thought of disaster will come far less frequently.

Likewise, each time my child is hungry and I meet that need quickly, at the earliest signs, new neural pathways form, and I help my child overcome this fear.

Better still, I can run ahead of the need, and have a snack ready and waiting before hunger even hits.

We kept little bags of beef jerky in our daughter’s pocket and granola bars in her backpack so she didn’t arrive home from school already too hungry.

As children heal, they begin to realize, “I’m hungry – I am fed. I’m hungry – there is enough food. I’m hungry – I will not starve.”

Through this reinforcement, we give our children tools to help them cope with their fears, too. During an Empowered to Connect conference, Dr. Purvis told a story about a well-known actor who carried a candy bar in his jacket pocket to remind himself he never needed to fear hunger again.

As I wrote this, I looked back at old posts I wrote about Kalkidan and hunger/food challenges. This was an ongoing challenge for her, one I can say she made huge progress on through tremendously hard work.
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I’m so proud of her – she was my greatest teacher.

I don’t want to end this post without saying that the greatest healer of all is Jesus, who heals my heart and mind a little more every day. He holds on to me as I stumble along through this grief process. He also continues to be my greatest hope for healing my children from “hard places,” and my entire family as we walk the road he places before us.

You might also like:

My Learning Curve: Catching Hunger Early

Many blessings to you, friends.

Lisa

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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.

13 Comments

  1. Luann
    July 25, 2016

    <3
    I will never forget Kalkidan. God, the great Redeemer, uses her to teach us even now.

    Reply
  2. Joy Headrick
    July 25, 2016

    Beautiful. I have many of those thoughts and have not really been traumatized. Must trust the Lord when my DNA is wired to worry.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      July 26, 2016

      So true, Joy, we have to trust.

      Reply
  3. Lori
    July 25, 2016

    Thank you for this, Lisa. I miss your very personal posts. Having recently lost my son in a tragic accident, I very much relate to the anxiety that is so quick to come to the surface whenever something unexpected happens. Tragedy has a way of stealing your innocence; no longer are you able to skip naively along through life. Even the most joyous occasions now have a somber side. Life is still so full of good and grace, but it is tempered by the loss. I think that is a gift I am just learning to accept.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      July 26, 2016

      I’m so sorry, Lori, yes, every joyous occasion does have a somber side now – someone is missing. We feel this all the time. Loss changes us, maybe even more so when it’s the tragic loss of a child. I am praying for you today as I type these words.

      Reply
  4. Julie Garfield
    July 25, 2016

    And isn’t this how God patiently dealt with Israel, giving them food, water, and deliverance time and again, in spite of their lack of faith. Or how Jesus fed multitudes, or gave living water, or bread and wine, in spite of his disciples’ lack of faith. Or how our Father God provides our daily bread in spite of our lack of faith. But as you say, we are learning to trust little by little, as He demonstrates His faithfulness over and over, and our faith is growing. Thank you, Lisa.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      July 26, 2016

      Such good words, Julie. Thank you!

      Reply
  5. fairygodmother
    July 25, 2016

    I love the pictures of Kalkidan and you! Such beautiful women. Love you!!

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      July 26, 2016

      Thanks sweet friend.

      Reply
  6. Angela Stone
    July 25, 2016

    I appreciate the reminder that our traumas can help us better understand our childrens.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      July 26, 2016

      It changed so much for me in my understanding of my children. Thanks for commenting, Angela.

      Reply
  7. Paula
    July 26, 2016

    I’ve learned so much from you and Kalkidan. Our little guy struggles a bit with hunger issues, and I think about the posts you wrote on that a lot. They remind me to say yes to a snack when sometimes my automatic response would have been no. That little girl was a blessing to so many people, and the blessings from her continue.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      July 26, 2016

      Thank you, Paula. I saw a sweet picture of your kids on the water in front of your house and remembered our time visiting you. We have sweet memories.

      Reply

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