Resilience can come in surprisingly small packages.
Bella, age 3, has a headful of curly, dark hair and a shy, sweet smile. Chloe, her 2-year-old sister, has the same curls – but her hair is blonde and her eyes are blue. They have beautiful complexions – like coffee generously blended with fine cream.
One would never guess that such young girls have so much strength. But both came from abuse and neglect so serious their birth parents’ parental rights were terminated before they were 2 years old.
When they entered the home of their adoptive parents, Megan and Brandon, in June 2016, many challenges awaited. The little girls had overcome numerous behavioral obstacles, but many remained – including attachment issues and developmental delays that stemmed from such a rocky start in life.
Due to the severity of the girls’ trauma symptoms, their child protection worker and foster parents sought out Sara Stallman, LICSW, a licensed clinical social worker at Abound Counseling, a program of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota. Stallman’s specialty is trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) to help kids heal from loss and abuse. Many of her clients are foster-care or adopted children, and Stallman, a foster parent herself, works with all adults involved – adoptive, foster and even birth parents (when appropriate) – to ensure the children receive the best care.
Room for two more
Megan and Brandon’s house is a busy, cozy picture of domesticity, with cats slumbering on couches and a well-mannered Border Collie greeting visitors at the door. Family pictures are perched here and there and homegrown tomatoes await canning on the kitchen counter. The large backyard is filled with children’s playground equipment and toys.
The couple had always wanted a home like this – a place filled with kids. Like many, they struggled for years to get pregnant with their son Levi, now 4. Fortunately, the couple had always been interested in adoption but weren’t sure of the best timeline. Brandon, a teacher, was tutoring a child in foster care, which made them think this might be the right time. They began the process to become licensed to adopt children out of foster care as well as to be foster parents.
After fostering a handful of children, the couple was matched with two young sisters. Like many in foster care, it was hard to tell all the girls been through, especially because of their young age and inability to communicate their story. Bella was removed from her birth parents’ home before her first birthday, and Chloe never knew her birth parents.
They’d made significant progress after being placed in a caring and supportive foster home, but they needed a forever family.
Several visits were arranged between the foster parents, the couple and the children so the transition would be as smooth as possible. But, as anticipated with any significant change, the little girls regressed after the move.
At first, Chloe rejected her adoptive mom – even running to strangers for comfort before she’d choose Megan.
Stallman notes that attachment to maternal figures had always been hard for Chloe, which only increased after her move to her forever home. Thanks to coaching and reassurance from their therapist, Megan realized it was simply Chloe’s survival behavior, not personal rejection. Stallman also provided education and ongoing support to help Megan understand her feelings of grief and loss around Chloe’s initial behavior.
Building new bonds, losing old fears
The girls needed help, but, in 2016, North Dakota didn’t provide funds for mental health services for anyone younger than 2 years old. Through the generosity of LSSND’s private donors, the sisters were able to get interventions as soon as they were needed, even though they weren’t yet 2. This reduced the likelihood of needing to treat costlier, more severe behaviors later in life.
Stallman and the couple worked on activities to encourage attachment. Megan used baby carriers, which allowed the girls to nestle up against her comfortably. Just as weighted blankets soothe anxious children by using deep pressure to trigger serotonin, so did the girls find it soothing to be swaddled against their mom. It promoted bonding and helped them find security in their new environment. The close proximity also allowed them to share eye contact with Megan, which reinforced the child-maternal bonding that typically occurs when we are infants.
Within minutes of her first time in the baby carrier, Chloe fell asleep. Today, when Megan brings out the carrier, the two girls eagerly line up to hop aboard.
Stallman also worked with the family on the girls’ sensory issues and startle responses. Trauma affects the sensory system, sometimes making a trauma survivor hyper-vigilant to any unexpected or unfamiliar element in their environment. The bark of a dog, for instance, might make a traumatized child freeze or burst into tears. Both girls had these issues, including Chloe, who had never lived with her birth parents. Research shows that even trauma experienced by the mother in-utero can affect how a child responds to stressors after they’re born.
They played games which focused on the element of surprise and then worked to self-regulate. They carried sensory backpacks in which they explored and touched items like pompons or feathers hidden in different pockets.
Brandon and Megan use the Nurtured Heart Approach®, based on recognizing positive behaviors rather than energizing the negatives. It works especially well for anxious and traumatized children.
Everyone knew they’d made progress when Chloe began choosing Megan over Stallman for hugs of reassurance during therapy sessions.
A year-and-a-half after joining the family, the sisters continue to receive speech, physical and occupational therapy. They are bright, curious, thriving little girls.
In fact, everyone has adjusted admirably. Levi, a winsome, ginger-haired 4-year-old, “was built to be a big brother,” Megan says, proudly.
And four short months after he gained two sisters, everyone received yet another surprise: Megan was pregnant. After consulting Stallman, Megan and Chloe resumed attachment therapy to assist this new transition and help with their bonding before this new addition.
So now there are four, including Emma – a watchful infant with plump cheeks and a mellow demeanor.
“Abound was honored to be a part of the girls healing journey as they entered the foster-care system, teamed with their foster parents and supported their attachment in their forever home,” Stallman says. “Through the immediate, early and family-focused treatment we have two little girls with a story filled with hope.”
Megan marvels at their resilience. “I can’t believe how much they have overcome. They’re an inspiration.”
But Brandon offers perhaps the greatest testimonial of all. “It feels like they’ve always been here,” he says.
Click HERE to learn about symptoms that suggest a child was exposed to significant trauma.
If you are interested in learning more about trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, go to https://tfcbt.org/
To schedule an appointment with an Abound therapist, click HERE.
Note: All names were changed to protect family’s privacy.