Adopting To Advocating as told by Arms Wide mom, Natalie

From a young age, I always knew that I wanted to adopt children. Almost 8 years ago, my husband and I adopted our first son from a disrupted adoption. He came to us just before his 9th birthday when his prior adoptive family (of two years) placed him in respite care after putting him through more physical and emotional abuse than the early neglect he experienced with his birth family. We committed to adopt Elijah after hearing about him and before even seeing his picture. 18 long months later, our adoption was finalized.

In the early days of our adoption, we taught Elijah the words “abuse” and “trauma.” He truly did not know that what he experienced at the hands of his former adoptive family was not his fault or was wrong. He still struggles somewhat with those truths today, and he may always. But his struggle has not stopped him. In fact, we think it has made him stronger and an advocate for other children who have not yet found their voices.

In my line of work as a psychologist, I frequently have speaking engagements. Typically, I speak about child development, autism spectrum disorder, and the like. Over the past year, Elijah has been asking me if he could speak with me. When I asked him what he wants to speak about, he said, “Trauma. What happened to me. All of it… everything.” I encouraged him to wait patiently while we searched for the right time and place. After all, the audience drives the topic.

In February of 2018, Elijah had his chance. I was invited to speak at my first national conference: The Attachment and Trauma Network’s National Creating Trauma Sensitive Schools Conference in Washington, DC. I wasn’t fully confident that a national conference was the best place for an aspiring teen speaker to start, but I was optimistic. I suggested to the committee that Elijah and I co-present. I was happy to learn that there was a planned teen panel- a time for several teens who experienced trauma to field questions from audience members about their own experiences and how school helped or hurt them in their healing process. Elijah was enthusiastic about the idea.

As a bright child who has experienced countless problems in school, he was confident he could speak to this topic. He enrolled in 4th grade shortly after coming to us and had an awful school year with a teacher who was not trauma informed. His following year was amazing. It has been up and down at school since. He is currently thriving in high school with a wonderful set of caring teachers and staff.  This is also his first experience of attending the same school more than one year in a row.

Elijah and I talked about our topics and brainstormed some ideas. I recalled specific examples of watching schools and teachers get it right and get it wrong when it came to trauma informed education. Elijah added the personal insight and perspective. Even as a junior in high school, he still struggles to write, but he is an articulate speaker.

Presidents Day weekend, Elijah and I boarded the plane to The Attachment and Trauma Network’s National Conference on Creating Trauma Sensitive Schools in Washington, DC. We checked in to our hotel room and learned our way around. At this event of seasoned educators and administrators, Elijah was one of about four minors. I had not prepared him for the socializing and networking that happens at conferences. He was clearly bored, eager to speak, and triggered by the topics and conversations happening all around him. At his age and level of maturity, he was able to verbalize his feelings, but still sometimes resisted the downtime he needed to stay regulated. Luckily, the pace picked up and he coped. As his mom, I could see his active trauma responses that others may not have noticed.

Jim Sporleder with Elijah

Paper Tigers

As part of the conference, there was a screening of Paper Tigers, a film about the impact of trauma informed education on one alternative school. Following the screening, there was a discussion with the former principal of the high school, Jim Sporleder. Elijah stayed late to meet Mr. Sporleder and thank him for his dedication to kids like him. I was a proud mom as I watched the two of them discuss the problem of high school graduation. What trauma informed supports are available in the community for these adolescents and young adults? What becomes of mentoring programs? Why is support ended when it might be needed most (during the transition to college and/or adulthood)? Their ideas and thoughts were powerful. It was tough to slow our brains down and get some sleep for the next early morning.

My Name Is Faith

The next morning, Elijah was part of a talk given by one of the Angels in Adoption award recipients, Tif Junker. Tif is the adoptive mother, producer, and director of the documentary film, My Name is Faith (available on Netflix). The documentary is about Tif’s daughter, a 12-year-old girl adopted at age 6 who was the victim of severe trauma and neglect. The film won numerous film festival awards. Elijah and Tif share a special relationship because her family took him in for respite care after his first adoption disrupted and before he came to us. Tif and her family are like extended family to us.

Natalie and Elijah with Tif Junker

Tif talked, with Elijah’s help, about the shame that children with trauma feel, which is something that Elijah has tremendous experience with. Her talk was based on Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability, shame, and resiliency. Elijah was able to speak to the crowd of 50 people about how shame has impacted him negatively and still interferes in his daily life. He also talked about how sharing his story and receiving empathy has helped him to combat his feelings of shame. Teachers, administrators, and even superintendents asked him questions about how to respond to students who are experiencing or have experienced trauma. They were particularly interested in his thoughts on connecting with students that are difficult to connect with – those that don’t volunteer their problems and may not be accepting of support. Elijah told them one of his favorite quotes, “The best thing you can do is the right thing. The next best thing you can do is the wrong thing.  The worst thing you can do is nothing.” He added that they should not say that it will be okay, or that they understand, because it might not be okay, and they may never understand. Instead, he recommended that teachers empathize with the student and just say something, even if it is “I don’t know what to say.” It was a really validating experience for him to educate the educators on something so personal to him. The participants raved about how helpful it was to hear from him what has and has not worked for him.

Conference Paneling

Later that evening, Elijah totally stole the show. He was on a teen and young adult panel with 3 other students who were the victims of developmental trauma. The audience was about 150 people and the discussion lasted 90 minutes. He fielded questions that he had never seen before. Questions ranged from what has worked for him at school, what hasn’t worked, and how to connect with kids like him where the relationship is the key factor in his ability to regulate his own behavior.

I was happy to report to his current high school that most of the ‘what worked’ things came from his time there. His teachers would have been so proud of him – he spoke slowly, only spoke if two other people had talked since he last talked, and he didn’t interrupt or argue once! (All areas of difficulty for him in the past.) Before the panel discussion, he and I rehearsed the phrases, “I have a different experience,” “I’d like to add to that,” and “I can speak to that.”

Sharing To Sleeping

Elijah exhausted after sharing his story

After the panel discussion, he was so triggered and emotionally exhausted… but he stuck around to answer questions and receive praise. When the room cleared out, he sat down on the floor and went to sleep for two hours in the same ballroom where the event occurred. He was impossible to wake and slept through the hospitality staff cleaning up the tables and chairs. This allowed some of the conference participants to see his trauma response in action. It was a good reminder of how real the impact is, and how long lasting – even in the best of circumstances.

Later that day, he was still quite triggered until the afternoon. Elijah walked out of several talks we attended, fell asleep easily and often, and felt rejected by the group when he was told some empty seats at lunch were taken. He tended to be shut-down at times when he was awake and around. Elijah said he didn’t regret participating, but I think knowing so many strangers knew so much about him was hard when there was nowhere else to go. I could see that it was very difficult for him to take the time out for the self-care that he needed. He seemed torn between enjoying the event and the attention from the conference attendees.

Creating Trauma Sensitive Schools

Late on the last day of the conference, I spoke on homework considerations for traumatized children. Elijah was able to chime in and help with some examples of past and current homework struggles he has faced. Several adult participants were in tears when we discussed assignments that may unintentionally trigger traumatic responses in students because the participants themselves had personally experienced triggers with family tree assignments, anything requiring baby pictures, or writing topics that were emotional in nature. It was a neat experience for Elijah to see that he isn’t the only one facing the effects of trauma, and to see the impact on these seemingly well-adjusted adults, years after experiencing abuse, neglect, and/or trauma and years after being in school. The participants were thankful that these considerations are now being taught to educators in conferences like this one.

At the close of the conference, Elijah personally thanked the 600 educators and policy makers in the audience for coming and for caring about trauma in schools. It was one of the highlights of the trip for him.

Throughout the conference, several people approached Elijah and invited him to come talk to their staff or students in states around the country. He says he would like to do this and pursue motivational speaking. I must admit that I am a little jealous! I’ve been on the public speaking circuit for 8 years and this was my first national conference invitation. His first talk was at a national conference, and he received invites to out-of-state engagements, which was something that took me about 6 years to achieve!

The Trip Home and Aftermath

We left following this last talk, but traffic was so bad, we missed our flight. It was the last flight out of the airport headed anywhere near Houston on our carrier. We got the first flight out the next morning, went home and got cleaned up, then I dropped him at school at about 10am. (We slept overnight in the airport… not exactly the self-care needed!)

Elijah sleeping in the airport

The week of our return, Elijah was notably more sensitive as he had opened a lot of emotional doors over that weekend of the conference. It was also a bit of a let-down to experience coming back to the real world. Not to mention the flat-out fatigue of 12-hour days plus working dinners that we had while there. Reminders to “get his heart rate down” helped. This was an old technique we used with him in the past, when dysregulation was an all day, every day experience. With years of practice and the help of a wearable heartrate monitor, Elijah has learned to help himself regulate his body and mind with deep breaths and conscious effort.

Upon our return, I notified Elijah’s teachers of his experience and asked for their flexibility during that following week. While I let them know he would appreciate their letting him know they were proud of his accomplishment, I also told them that the most meaningful thing any of them could do would be to watch the film Paper Tigers (free on Amazon Prime) and let him know they watched it because it was important to him. He told me during the conference that he thinks all teachers should be required to watch this film.

We have really been lucky to have such a great high school experience for him here in Houston. I don’t know what his future holds, but I think whatever he’s going to do, he’s going to do it well. Seeing his growth, excitement, and passion has been deeply meaningful and inspiring to me. We could not have picked a more special young man to share our lives with.


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