It took me a quarter of a century (literally) to realize that I experienced trauma throughout certain points in my childhood. It took me another year to realize that my behaviors were deeply rooted in how I responded to that trauma. And it took me even longer to realize that my emotions during those years were not normal.
It seems obvious, doesn’t it?
The thing was… no one told me that the things I was doing weren’t normal. And a lot of times, as a kid, if someone doesn’t outright tell you something, then you have no idea.
I didn’t know that it wasn’t normal to self-harm at twelve years old. All of the friends I’d chosen were doing it so I assumed ALL preteens were doing it. None of us hurt ourselves to fit in with each other (we actually knew each other for quite a while before admitting to one another that we were self-harming), but we were all doing it to cope with something. We were all kids with messy stories, which drew us together like magnets.
Because of my relationships with other kids like me, I genuinely assumed that all middle-schoolers felt the need to cut their skin to release overwhelming emotions.
No one told me it wasn’t normal. I think if I’d have known that it wasn’t normal, and that I was doing it because I had deep mental health problems during those years, I would have viewed it differently. Imagine if someone had told me I was using that self-harm as a coping skill and then explained to me what that meant.
I also didn’t know that it wasn’t normal to feel angry ALL. OF. THE. TIME. as a teenager. I remember being so angry–like shaking angry–because someone had asked me how my day was going. I was so mad within seconds of hearing them speak that I had to clench my teeth to keep from yelling in their face. I felt like that for a lot of years. I was a tightly wound coil, waiting to burst at any moment.
But I thought everyone felt that way. I just assumed no one talked about it because they were all too busy hiding their secrets like I was.
I didn’t know that seeking validation from boys was a result of my unhealthiness. I didn’t know that crying every night after being in a car accident was a result of PTSD. I didn’t know that manipulating my parents to get what I wanted was a habit I’d learned very early in life to help me get by. I didn’t know that driving fast because I was mad was another way of expressing deeper emotions.
I had no idea.
No one ever told me.
To be fair, not all of the adults in my life knew that I was doing/feeling all of those things. But a lot of adults knew bits and pieces, and I can only remember one or two of them trying to talk to me about it. I remember a lot of adults noticing a lot of things and turning a blind eye. A lot of little moments got swept under the rug.
The way they noticed and then didn’t mention it made me assume (yet, again) that what I was doing was normal. I often heard the phrase, “Everyone goes through those phases.” It makes me wonder how many of the adults in my life were never told, “This isn’t normal,” either.
I think adults were also intimidated by the idea of correcting me. I was a straight-A student with a lot of confidence and a sweet personality. I think they didn’t want to make me sad or make me feel like I had to be perfect. I was doing well in school so did the other little things really matter?
And I was a very skilled liar.
No one ever had the courage to call me out and explain to me why I was making these bad choices. They never told me I was unhealthy and that it wasn’t my fault. They never told me there were easier ways. They never told me that there were kids my age who didn’t struggle with the things I was feeling.
Now, as a foster parent and someone who has worked with kids of trauma for three the past three years, I realize that there really ARE kids who haven’t been through trauma. It took me almost thirty years of life to discover this.
There are kids who don’t get called “mature for their age” because they learned earlier than everyone else how to blend in. There are kids who aren’t scared so scared of failing that they’d rather die than face a bad grade. There are kids who aren’t overwhelmed by sounds and temperatures and lights. There are kids who don’t bury their feelings in teenage relationships. There are kids who don’t throw up when they get scared. There are kids who aren’t suicidal. There are kids who don’t lie or steal or cheat.
No one ever told me.
About two months ago, I had to tell my current foster daughter that what she had experienced up to this point in life wasn’t normal. It made her cry, which made me cry, but it was so important for her to hear that from me. It was a moment of clarity for me when I realized that she didn’t know.
She thought that everyone was physically beaten and emotionally abused when they misbehaved. She thought that everyone lied when they told stories (I remember her saying, “That’s just what kids do.”). She thought that all families screamed at each other as a way to communicate. She actually said those words out loud.
And why did it take her an entire decade to realize that those things weren’t normal? Because no one ever told her.
It takes a lot of time and energy to build the necessary relationship with kids to be able to have this conversation with them without offending them. You can’t just tell every angry kid you see that he’s not normal. You can’t tell every promiscuous teenager that she’s recovering from trauma. You have to build the relationship first.
But once you invest in them and know that they trust you with their heart, it’s important to be honest with them.
It’s CRUCIAL to not assume that they know where their areas of trauma are and why they exist. It’s important to know that THEY probably don’t know how abnormal their behaviors/emotional patterns/lifestyle habits are.
Please, for the love of all things worthwhile, tell them. Tell them before they’re thirty years old.