Raising Children of Trauma.

“When I used to get so angry it was like I was drunk and didn’t know what was going on.  Later I’d think, “What just happened?”  I didn’t know how I had gotten to the point of being out of control half of the time,” said my grandson 22-year-old Chad Dingle, co-author of Raising Children of Alcoholics & Drug Users.¹

It was crazy scary, frustrating, and always a long, slow process of talking Chad down after he got so angry that he’d punch a hole in the wall or scream mean hateful things at me growing up. We’d talk sometimes for hours, and sometimes a few minutes, depending on his age and rage. Things would then settle into a truce only to soon start up all over again. With the help of counselors, I was able to keep him and the rest of our family safe but it took a huge toll on everyone.

Both of Chad’s parents had problems with drugs and alcohol, and after age four I tried to shelter him from them most of the time; however, his past and their continuing choices, caused Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) triggers that took years to overcome.  Only recently did I learn that to these children, “stern warnings can become  louder and brusquer and discipline can seem harsher.”²

I always told Chad that regardless what his parents did, he was responsible for his own choices and actions.  Giving him consequences was tricky because I knew why Chad was the way he was…neglected as an infant and physically abused as a toddler but he had to develop self-control and a sense of right and wrong.

Alcoholics & addicts hurt their kids.

Why? Not because they don’t love their children but because their addictions override their desire/ability to get, and stay, sober.  They do things to feed their habit that traumatizes their children.  For example, the Adapt Report©, a diagnostic multi-discipline tool currently being field tested by Dr. James Kagan, M.D., scored Chad’s personal trauma history as “very high”.  In part the commentary read, “…experienced 6 out of a possible 10 traumatic childhood events known to be associated with poor mental health and developmental outcomes.”  It noted that his parent(s) were 1) incarcerated, 2) separated, divorced or deceased, 3) verbally, emotionally or psychologically abusive, 4) physically abusive, 5) struggling with substance use and 6) emotionally neglectful, unloving, or threatening abandonment or removal of child from household.

Why trauma-informed parenting helps.

Even young infants learn survival skills, such as not crying when hungry or hiding under the bed when dad’s mad, instead of relational or developmental. Research shows trauma changes brain response to real or perceived danger. The victims never totally relax even when when just awakening from sleep and they accelerate through the arousal stages of alert, alarm, fear and terror faster than a race driver shifts gears. 

How you parent greatly increases, or decreases, a child or teens’ anxiety and tendency to overcome inappropriate responses such as dissociating (withdrawing into themselves and even physically hiding to avoid a drunk dad or a strung out mom) or by hyper-arousal and aggression.  They need to learn from you skills to substitute for the missing checks and balances in their brains.  They have to learn social awareness, empathy, and how to self-sooth.

Basic parenting tips.

Always say what you are going to do, and then do what you say.  Be consistent, calm, and predictable.  Schedules are as important as rules and consequences; posting them helps.

Pre-empt challenges with choices.  “You can choose to do your homework now and go to the basketball game tonight, or you can choose to stay home and do it after dinner.”

Be nurturing and offer physical comfort to the degree they seek.  For example ask for, don’t demand, a hug and if they reject your attempt don’t make it a big deal, “I guess you’re out of hugs–well maybe tomorrow you’ll have one to give away,” or go for a fist bump or high five as your first step to establishing physical connection.

Incorporate frequent breaks.  “Want to shoot hoops for ten minutes?” or, “You’ve earned a break, what would you like to do for an hour?”, even, “Let’s get a snack, okay?”

Final thoughts.

I’m not a counselor.  I have no formal training in medical or mental health. I wrote this as a mom who adopted a traumatized grandchild and spent/spend time with professionals who generously share their time and expertise.  I always urge professional counseling.  What I’ve written is just a conversation starter.

Contrary to what you might think, the younger the infant or child is when subjected to trauma, the wider the impact and resulting problems. Infants cannot change their own dirty diapers or make themselves dinner…a five-year old can open a box of cereal or tell a neighbor they are hungry.  A one-year-old may learn not to cry, but they can’t go out the back door when dad staggers in the front door swearing.

Let your grandchildren talk about past experiences and emotions.  Emotions are facts and there is no right or wrong way to feel.  How emotions are processed and expressed is the issue.  Help them feel safe in talking with you and a few select others in their lives.

Teach them how/who they can contact (911, neighbors, teachers, etc.) to get help if a situation turns ugly.  Never tolerate actions that endanger you, other family members, or themselves.


¹Dingle, Chad.  Raising Children of Alcoholics & Drug Users. ©2015.


Children of addicts & alcoholics struggle to define love, bestow trust, and expect good things.

Kids who have been abused, abandoned, or adopted have holes in their hearts.   You can love them a lot, and they love you, but bottom line is sometimes deep inside they are afraid, and sometimes they act out.

It takes years for humans to figure out that holes often are filled with different emotions.  The connectivity between love and trust and hope holes are often the most troublesome.  


Little children instinctively think that anyone who says, “I love you,” means it. They accept words, not actions, as the proof.

jim's gd sayingAs children grow up, they also think everyone they love, loves them back in equal amounts. If that person is mom or dad and they don’t demonstrate healthy love by parenting responsibly then the child thinks it’s because something is wrong with them.  The functionalities in their brain regulating logic and emotions grow at different rates so counseling and stable parenting are necessary to help them sort it all out.


Living without trust is scary for them, but they don’t consciously know what is wrong, or why they feel so messed up and mad.  They may have the where-with-all to talk about “love” but trust is another issue.  Just by your being there for them, being consistent, and loving them their capacity to trust can be rebuilt. Again, counseling can help move the process along and gives them a safe place to vent.  It gives you a trained, professional outsider that can help you both move from where you are to where you want to be.


Whatever is going on in your grandchild’s life right now, hang in there. Remember their anger, sadness or withdrawal often masks pain.  A child of an addict or alcoholic needs you to help them become unafraid. To help them learn to hope and to separate what happened to them with what can happen moving forward. It requires they slowly let go of survival defensive reactions and become vulnerable–trusting you not to hurt them again.

Knitting together again love, trust & hope.

The journey back to what most children and teens take for granted–being loved and cared for–is crazy long but, “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.” (Winnie the Pooh).

Your reward is seeing a troubled child morph into a healthy adult who knows what each person in their life (including them self and birthparent if they around) is capable of giving and receiving. They have dreams, they have boundaries, they can overcome bumps in life.  They become good parents to their children.


Foster Kids & the White House

Good things are happening on the hill regarding foster children and those taking care of them. 

IMG_2818Last month, I was invited to participate on a White House panel exploring ways to prevent children from entering, or re-entering, foster care.  I have great empathy and respect for the many, many grandparents, aunts, uncles and other family members who step up–whether they do so in, or out, of ‘the system’. 

My thoughts are simple.  Give families the help they need, when they need it. Don’t ask them to sit in trainings that don’t apply, or be bogged down with regulations that are helpful in keeping kids in “traditional” foster care safe, but are an unnecessary expense–and barrier–for keeping siblings together. At the same time give kids, and caregivers (hate that term, but there you go) the life-skills needed sothey can get back to being self sufficient, independent, and happy families.

The deal is, most families need a little more help when things first go wrong and then just a boost if something pops up later.   For some grandparents who take over parenting (often due to their adult child being an alcoholic or drug user) it may be financial, for others it’s counseling for kids, and for some access to a lawyer who can help them become guardians or adoptive parents.  At the DC event child care agency leaders, family court judges, and multiple members of the Navajo Nation among others, emphasized that the needs, and timing, are different for every family.  Sometimes, it’s something as simple as a babysitter for two hours, and other times, as complex as providing medical, academic and life skills for a medically fragile infant who grows into a medically fragile adult–while their caregivers grow old…and then elderly.

I adopted my grandson, Chad, who is now rock solid and a typical 23-year-old, but he could easily have become another suicide, or prison, statistic if not for counseling at four critical junctions in his life:

-At age two, when he first came into foster care after a four-hour beating because he wouldn’t eat, by my daughter who was involved with drugs.

-Age four, when returned to my care after eight months with his birth father who, pre-placement, had been identified with anger and alcohol issues.  Post-return Chad was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress when the term was hardly known.

-In fifth grade when he hated his dad, and was constantly angry.  One session, with his old counselor, who knew Chad and who he liked and trusted, turned him around when she told him life is a puzzle and the pieces we each pick, or reject, form us.  She helped him identify what was good, and bad, in his birth parents, and what he wanted for himself.

-As a freshman Chad became suicidal and started cutting. I learned, that unknown to me, Chad had had frequent phone conversations with his birth mom. When she relapsed, after years of sobriety, he became obsessed with death. Counseling taught both Chad and I that depression often masks fear, anger, and other emotions. It allowed us to share things we might not have otherwise said, and gave us the skills to communicate more effectively going forward.

The first counseling sessions were paid for by foster and title four services, the last two by myself.  When Chad became suicidal, I called Oregon Post Adoption Resources, looking only for the name of a counselor who successfully helped other families like ours.  They couldn’t legally tell me because Chad hadn’t been adopted directly out of state care, but subsequently, after I watched my daughter spiral out-of-control.  As an author and speaker, working with grandparents parenting grandkids, I was blessed to have alternative connections and the financial resources (although my IRA was seriously tapped into) that many others do not.

Every family does have different problems, timelines, and breaking points. While some families continue to need the longer support that comes with being a licensed kinship or foster provider, many want, and need, only targeted information, or help.  Kudos to the dedicated people at organizations like Generations United, on whose Grandfamily Advisory Board I participate, and Casey Family Programs who work endlessly, without a lot of public recognition, to bring the issues and solutions to the attention of lawmakers, who in turn, make life better for families when they are most vulnerable.