Broken on the Inside

(Originally posted Nov. 2, 2015)

In my last post I mentioned that our three year old foster son is labeled “Level 4” trauma. At the time of writing, I wasn’t completely sure what the level designation meant. Since then I have checked with a friend of mine who is a Guardian ad Litem and he was able to provide me an answer.

Briefly, and in plain language, ‘Level 4’ trauma indicates that the child has either been significantly abused (i.e., physical, sexual, etc.) or has witnessed significant abuse.

In our son’s situation, the social workers are fairly certain that he has not been sexually abused. However, he has witnessed his birth mom having sexual relations with a man or men at least once and probably multiple times. Additionally, he may have been physically abused and without a doubt has witnessed his birth mom being physically abused. Plus, he witnessed his birth mom and others using heroin often enough that he could describe the entire process from untying your shoe laces to removing the needle once the injection was complete.

The difficulty in this situation is that on the outside he looks fine. He has blonde hair, striking blue eyes, and dimples when he smiles. In public he is warm and bubbly, greeting strangers like old friends and passing out compliments like they were candy on Halloween. People constantly tell us how much they like him, want to take him home, how well behaved he is, etc. No one who meets him has ever said anything negative about his personality or his (public) behavior.

In psychological terms, our foster son exhibits either high self-monitoring or high social control (or both); it is too early to completely tell. However, I am leaning towards high social control because of his gregariousness and infectious personality and because he is like that regardless of the social climate he is in.

Yet, as mentioned previously, there is dissonance between his social emotional control and his emotional expression at home. While there are aspects to his maladaptive behavior that require corrective discipline and redirection, I am becoming increasingly convinced that the behaviors are more rooted in his personal trauma (his extreme behaviors resemble PTSD, which makes sense considering the element of trauma); this is why I consider him broken on the inside.

There are some disabilities and disfigurements that are apparent to the naked eye, regardless of whether it is appropriate to mention them or not. Trauma, however, is not among them except when the afflicted person is in the grips of response symptoms. Our foster son looks like the picture of physical health and would be considered by many to have some ideal characteristics (blonde hair, blue eyes, etc.). People who only know him socially have no idea that he has experienced horrific trauma and that said trauma rushes to the surface whenever he experiences a trigger, be it emotional or situational (They are mostly emotional. Thankfully he faces very few situational triggers now that he is with us).

This experience with our foster son has reminded me that when I see a person, I may only be seeing that person’s “ideal” self. They may be high self-monitors or high social control types who are able to mask what is going on inside, social chameleons as it were. Therefore, I need to be sensitive and open to those who I come in contact with; outside they may be whole but inside they may be broken.

Furthermore, I need to be willing and understanding enough to help others heal from their wounds should they so desire it. This does not mean provide all the answers, or hand out platitudes (religious or secular) which really only make me feel better by giving me the illusion of having done something. No, as I am learning with my foster son, I need to give grace and love, along with patience and consistency.

All this is easy to say and difficult to implement but as I am learning with my foster son, it is more than worth the effort.