What Trauma Is & Isn’t

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“Trauma” has become a buzzword over the last few years - and for good reason.  Our understanding of the impacts of various traumas has grown exponentially.  Parents, caregivers, medical staff, school staff, churches are all becoming more aware of the prevalence of “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) and how to approach the children in their care.  

According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, "A traumatic event is a frightening, dangerous, or violent event that poses a threat to a child’s life or bodily integrity. Witnessing a traumatic event that threatens life or physical security of a loved one can also be traumatic."

  • Physical, sexual, or psychological abuse and neglect (including trafficking)
  • Natural and technological disasters or terrorism
  • Family or community violence
  • Sudden or violent loss of a loved one
  • Substance use disorder (personal or familial)
  • Refugee and war experiences (including torture)
  • Serious accidents or life-threatening illness
  • Military family-related stressors (e.g., deployment, parental loss or injury)

Trauma also happens to babies in utero. Their brains are impacted by their mother having chronic stress or experiencing violence, exposure to alcohol or drugs, or a difficult pregnancy or delivery.  

We adopted our 16-year-old daughter four years ago. I had read the books. I talked with “been there, done that” families. I took the training. I could TELL you what trauma was and what to expect in our journey.  

I was wrong. 

Every child and family experience is different, but ours is the only one I can share from the inside out.

My daughter’s story is hers to tell regarding her past, but just knowing she has been adopted allows you to know that she has a traumatic past. We had been home about 6 months from adoption and I remember writing a mentor of mine and explained that I really believed that she had been unscathed by her past - that she had escaped the changes we know trauma has on the brain.  

I was wrong. 

You see, I believed trauma meant visible struggles. I believed it meant lashing out or not being able to adapt to the family and new life. I believed it meant she may not let me love her. I believed she may not be able to successfully navigate her studies in a new country and new language.  

She didn’t have any of that. She was doing beautifully in her new life and making HUGE strides every day, it seemed.  

But what I’ve learned is what trauma IS for her. It’s forgetting her address when stressed and filling out paperwork - even though she knows it. It’s worrying that her family will give up on her and somehow change our mind about our adoption. It’s fighting the thoughts of not being good enough when she struggles in school. It’s a daily struggle with social anxiety and worrying what others think. It’s a lot of invisible and hidden challenges.

We’ve both worked hard to work through the transition of an adoption and worked hard on our relationship with intention.  

  • We have spent MANY nights up late talking
  • I’ve had more manicures/pedicures with her than the rest of my life combined
  • We have watched every single episode of Jane the Virgin together (only the second full series I’ve seen in my life)
  • We've taken trips
  • We’ve cooked many meals together
  • I’ve braided her hair at least 200 times
  • She’s colored my hair religiously every 5 weeks with care and precision
  • She’s humored my love of Top Gun
  • We work hard to understand each other's points of view - with love, respect, and the goal of being closer and having a better understanding of the other. 

This girl is not free of the effects of her past, but she’s not defined by it either.  She has a family wholly committed to being her biggest cheerleader in the days and years ahead.  She is our daughter and sister and we could not be more proud of her! 

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Traci Mai


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