For the month of March, Tapestry is exploring trauma and the ways that it manifests in foster, adoptive, and kinship families. We know that abuse, neglect, and separation from the biological family are forms of trauma that our children face. Trauma impacts the whole child, including their brains and behaviors. But what about adoptive parents and siblings that are exposed to trauma behaviors or who become subject to aggression or anger?
In this interview, Lisa Qualls, writer of The Connected Parent and at One Thankful Mom, shares how trauma has impacted her and her family. In this interview, Lisa shares ways that she has experienced trauma as a birth mom, ways her family has experienced trauma because of adoption, and how she has experienced hope and healing through it all.
TAPESTRY: You have experienced adoption as both a birth mother and an adoptive mother. In what ways have you seen trauma profoundly impact you as a birth mother?
LISA QUALLS: The trauma of being a birth mother was so huge and the loss was so great and so unresolvable that when I had my next child 8 years later, I had flashbacks, a lot of anxiety, and grief that resurfaced. My experience of losing my son to adoption affected my choices about how and where I gave birth. While there are many reasons I chose to have most of my babies at home, a distrust of doctors and hospitals developed when my son was born and it likely contributed to the decision. I didn’t feel safe there. Losing my son to adoption also impacted my parenting choices; I kept my children very close to me. I chose to homeschool for many reasons, but again, my loss and trauma likely contributed to that decision.
TAPESTRY: How has the trauma of placing a child for adoption impacted your role as an adoptive mother?
LISA QUALLS: In a positive way, it propelled me to want to make connections with my children’s family, even though we were adopting internationally from Ethiopia. We made it a high priority to find them and make connections to them. I didn’t want anybody to suffer what I had suffered as a birth mother – not knowing my son or even knowing if he was alive.
TAPESTRY: You also have adopted four children from Ethiopia who experienced significant trauma. How have you and your children experienced trauma as an adoptive family?
LISA QUALLS: When our children came home (We added four children to our family in a little over a year), we already had seven children by birth. Due to trauma and neglect, our youngest daughter had severe behaviors. Our biological children were in shock because before these four new children joined our family, we had developed a normal rhythm and our house was relatively peaceful. The behaviors were extreme from the beginning. The bullying and control were what she used for survival in the orphanage but were devastating in a family. She raged, and I often had to protect my other kids. She didn’t sleep, and everyone in the family was affected by it. Every mealtime was filled with chaos. My children lost their access to me and Russ because we were consumed with caring for the needs of our daughter. They didn’t have us to turn to, but we didn’t fully realize that then. Even our older children suffered during this time.
Over time, we got a lot of help, and our daughter did heal substantially. But the result is that our biological children experience things now in their lives where memories of these difficult times will come rushing back to them, along with the wild emotions.
TAPESTRY: What is an example of a way that trauma impacted your biological children?
LISA QUALLS: One of my children was a camp counselor, and one of the campers melted down at camp one day. When this happened, she could only remember her sister crying. After she calmed down from the overwhelming memories, she was able to help this child to calm down. She used her past experience and was able to help another child. I have another child who cannot tolerate certain kinds of touch because of the physical aggression she experienced in our home.
TAPESTRY: How have you been able to pursue reconciliation with your biological children?
LISA QUALLS: There came a point where we realized that our older children were really struggling as teenagers and young adults. We took them out to dinner, had a family meeting, and apologized for the harm that was done in our family. They have been very forgiving, but we are still dealing with the deep impact of the changes our family experienced – in good and bad ways.
TAPESTRY: What tools and encouragement would you give to an adoptive family currently in the trenches of trauma?
LISA QUALLS: I’m writing a book right now on the experience of siblings in adoptive families, so keep your eyes peeled for that! I speak with my kids at conferences. Annarose and I spoke at the Tapestry Conference this last October!
The number one thing you can do is make sure your family is safe. You must give all of the children a voice in the family. You must hear them. It may seem almost impossible, but you have to make a safe space for them to connect and talk with them. That might mean some children go to school and some kids stay home. It might mean special connected time with each child. We have to give our children space to communicate what is going on in their minds and hearts. If we can maintain the connection, it will make all the difference in the future of your family.
If you are interested in learning more about trauma in adoptive families, Lisa and her daughter, Annarose are doing a webinar for parents about siblings in foster and adoptive families. You can find out more information about her webinar here.
Don’t miss our FREE training on teachable this month. It features Lisa Qualls and her daughter Annarose’s session about siblings in foster and adoptive families, in addition to other speakers like Tracey Fields and Dr. Karyn Purvis. You can enroll in this free training here.