When Survival Instinct Encounters Love

Any person who has suffered trauma, abuse, neglect, abandonment, etc. learns how to survive. This is especially true if their experience is chronic or ongoing. Even though it doesn’t always look the same, we all have the will to survive. Some shut down, pull in, and seal themselves off from the world trying to protect themselves the best they can.

Others run. Physically or emotionally run away from any perceived danger. Then there are those who fight. They lash out with their fists or words, angrily striking first hoping to avoid anymore pain.

When a family brings a child into their home, either to foster or to adopt, they need to know that they are bringing a child in that is in survival mode. This is true even if the child is only a few months old. And, as they grow older, even if the abuse or trauma was years before, they will implicitly react to perceived danger much more strongly than a child who has not experienced trauma.

The trauma hard-wired their brains at an early age to react this way.

I wish more people understood a child from a hard place. I often get looks when my child responds out of fear. I want to try and explain why he is acting this way. But, I decide that if they are giving me a look, they probably don’t care to know why, they just want me to get my kid away from their kid. And, sometimes that is the best solution.

I wish that I always remembered why my son responds with fear. Or, that I responded more often with patience and understanding. Because when I respond with impatience, frustration, even anger, guess what, he acts out even more. No wonder he does. I probably scare the dickens out of him.

However, when I respond with love…(deep breath)…wow, what a difference.

It’s not always immediate, but the eventual results are amazing and healing.

Recently, my son had a difficult getting ready for bed experience just like many four-year-olds have when they are past tired. But the difference with a child from a hard place is that these experiences often are more intense and last longer.

I tried all of the techniques I have learned like saying “want to try that again with respect?” to giving options so he felt more in control of his environment to defaulting to consequences.

After several minutes of screaming, throw himself down on the ground tantrums, name calling, and even telling me that he didn’t love me and didn’t want to be my son anymore (I thought that was supposed to happen when he became a teenager not a preschooler!), he finally let me pick him up and hold him in the rocking chair.

Yet, he still struggled to calm his anger.

I know it was the Holy Spirit within me. Instead of anger or hurt, I felt overwhelming compassion and love for my son. I held him as tight as he would allow even though he tried pinching my arm. I placed my hand on the side of his face, leaned over and kissed his forward head, whispering, “It’s ok, I love you” over and over.

I could feel him relax in my arms. He clenched his fists a couple of more times before finally melting into my chest, my hand still gently holding his face.

Love conquered fear.

“Do you still love me, Daddy?”, he quietly asked. “Yes, son, I will always love you.”

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.1 John 4:18a ESV

If you are the parent of a foster or adopted child, I urge you to find a way to nurture them even in the toughest moments.

And if you interact with those who have a child from a hard place, please understand that that child’s behavior is almost always driven by fear. Your compassion toward that child and parent will act as a healing salve instead of a judgmental look, comment or action.

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I am a longtime Austinite. Married my beautiful wife over 25 years ago. Adopted our son September 2012. Currently a writer and loving it. Previous jobs and careers include project management, missionary, and pastor. I enjoy sports (both watching and playing), traveling, reading, digging in dirt and hanging with my friends and family.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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4 thoughts on “When Survival Instinct Encounters Love

  1. Thanks Kenny once again for a job well done in expressing what adoptive and foster parents face. I find, too often, that when I look back at a situation that really blew up with my kids and me, my reaction could have changed the entire situation by reacting in a more loving way. You would think I had it all down now that the last adopted ones are all teens. Maybe someday I will.

    • Donna, I feel that way almost daily. I guess we never have it all down, right? But we can make it a positive if we know how and are willing to repair when we handle it poorly as a parent. Thanks for the comment Donna!

  2. I keep starting to type a comment and then erasing it because I can’t find the right words. So I’ll keep it simple. I love this post because I can picture it very vividly. He’s such a beautiful child. And so intelligent. And I know it doesn’t always feel like it, but you and your beautiful wife are getting so much right.