When we adopted Stephanie at age four, she was a spitfire. Steph survived her hard start to life by always being in charge. She determined what she wanted by doing the exact opposite of what anyone wanted her to do. She figured out this was usually the safest option, and she learned how to get her own way.
When we became Steph’s forever family, she was attending a preschool for children ages 2, 3, and 4 with anger issues. Sometimes I have to say it again, because the words just don’t make sense. Stephanie attended a preschool for young children with anger issues.
If I’m honest, I kind of liked not knowing there are preschools for two-year-old, three-year-old, and four-year-old children with anger issues. Childhood shouldn’t be spent in anger. Childhood is for make-believe and laughter. When you have a history of hard, it is sometimes difficult to make-believe and twirl around the yard pretending you are best friends with unicorns and butterflies.
We’re grateful that Stephanie is a spitfire. Her strong will and fiery temper kept the girls safe in those early years. When kids experience trauma, especially the kind of trauma that lands you in foster care and leads to termination of parental rights, your brain changes. Your emotional control center , the amygdala, enlarges. When the amygdala is enlarged, it leads to extreme emotions. The primary emotion children from hard places feel is fear. There are three reactions to fear: flight, freeze, or fight.
Stephanie is a fighter.
It used to be believed that once a brain was altered from trauma there was nothing that could be done to change it back. The best option was to learn to live with extreme emotions. It turns out this isn’t the case!
Recent brain research shows that brains can heal and that amygdalae can shrink back to a normal size. It’s not easy, but it’s also not complex. The way brains heal is the same way healthy brains are developed in the first place. They are well-nourished and needs are met.
When we meet the needs of a child from a hard place, we begin to heal their brains. It isn’t instantaneous, and I know first hand that it isn’t easy. Children from hard places can be very difficult to love. Some days it’s so difficult that I wonder if it’s true that brains can heal.
Then I saw Steph go outside with her music, colored pencils, and intricate coloring book. She slammed the door a little too hard, the only sign of her anger. I watched her while the minutes disappeared, and I remembered the little girl who learned in the therapeutic preschool for kids with anger issues to sing as a way to self-soothe. I watched her lips move along with the song. I watched her color and stare at the sky and smile as a bunny hopped across the yard. She took deep breaths and colored more.
I find her remarkable after eight years of learning to love her more. Day after day of ignoring the fight and believing in filling her needs. Offering her hugs instead of what she deserved. Finding grace and mercy in deepest parts of my soul and offering them to her, while the enemy whispered that we enable her and she will never be grateful and she will always be filled with anger.
I step outside, with 12 year old Stephanie. “I’m okay,” she says.
Tears brim past by eyelashes. “I know,” I say.
She turns back to filling the butterfly wing with turquoise. I snap her picture.
She looks at me. “Why’d you take a picture?”
“Because I want to remember what healing looks like.”
She smirks at me and says, “You’re so weird.”
I laugh a laugh that is too loud, and I hug her. She giggles. “Like, really weird, Mom.”
Stephanie is healing as her needs are met again and again. I celebrate this healing.
And there’s an even bigger reason to celebrate — teachers can heal brains too. There are many children who are still in hard places. Their last hope of healing may be in our classrooms. As teachers meet needs, brains heal. As brains heal, the trajectory of a child’s life is altered.
And, I believe, the world becomes a better place.
Here’s to celebrating teachers, because we change the world.
[Just FYI, my new book is a lot like this blog post — only much longer with stories that are told as close to my bones as I can tell them. It is a collection of stories, much like this, and a call to action for teachers to heal brains, help students tell true-er stories and share their messages with the world, by enticing all students to write with practical leaps of faith in writing workshop. (Can just say, it makes me smile to pair the word practical with the phrase leaps of faith!)]
I’m so happy to celebrate with you!
Human brain is amazing. Your story shows the power of love.
YAY for patience, healing, hugs, grace and growth! It is sad that so many kids begin life in anger, but thankfully they don't have to stay that way. Stephanie is lucky to have you for her momma.
Ruth, I always enjoy reading about your children. You amaze me with the challenges you and your children overcome. I am currently reading THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE and it makes me think of “healing brains”. Thank you for sharing!
Ruth, thanks so much for this beautiful story. I needed to read this. My boys are in a place right now where the hard is so hard that it feels like it's never going to get better. Thank you.
Helping children learn that responses can change through love and patience is something parents and teachers can do, and they too have to learn about responses, don't they? Love hearing about this perfect moment of Stephanie's, taking care of herself in a new way.
Love the pic of Stephanie on the deck, cooling down in her own unique way. Thanks for sharing the healing that takes place in your home and encouraging our work as healers in the classroom, helping our world become a better place.
I believe in healing. I believe in grace and faith. I love hearing your stories and your Stephanie is amazing. Thank you for sharing her story with us. I can't WAIT for your book that includes stories like this. When does it come out? Can't wait to meet you IRL next week!!!
As I read this, I was thinking, and this is the challenge we face in our classrooms. This is the challenge our kids face every classroom they enter. Thank you for Stephanie's story to date. With it you give great hope!
Moms and dads are “weird” in the love they have for their children. The children just have to adjust to that simple fact, they will be loved by their forever family. That's the plain and simple fact.
Children in hard places need extra nurturing and a supportive ear to listen to the deep-seated issues. Little did Stephanie know as a young child that there would be a mother and father who would guide her to a better place. You and your husband were the perfect guides to to turn her life around and so now you tell your story for us to learn. Hard is an ugly place to be but a forever family helps the hard place to turn into a loving one.
That's a post that this teaching momma just loves and loves…as a momma, and as a teacher. Thank you, Ruth!
Your strength and your faith just shines in this post. What a gift each of you are to each other. This certainly makes me think about how I can help my students heal. Can't wait for this book!
I'm celebrating with you. Thanks for sharing this story of healing.
I read this last Saturday, and several times since. It is so full of meaning. I wanted to keep thinking it over.
And there's an even bigger reason to celebrate — teachers can heal brains too. There are many children who are still in hard places. Their last hope of healing may be in our classrooms. As teachers meet needs, brains heal. As brains heal, the trajectory of a child's life is altered.
These words especially inspire me right now, thinking of the new school year. I am thinking of and praying for some of my kids in hard palaces. And praying to be used as a healer.
I think of our adoptions and fostering, and wish for more opportunities even as the children are now adults…