Kids who have experienced trauma often gravitate toward drugs and other types of self-medication. You would too if you’d been through what they’ve been through. If you were mistreated by the people who should have loved and protected you, then you already know the pain that kids try to alleviate.
If you were not abandoned, neglected, abused, or sold as a child, then imagine the most painful experiences of your life, add them together, multiply by 100 and you might come close to the pain that children feel after experiencing hunger from being left alone with no food for days, the pain of knowing that Mommy is in the next room while her drug-dealer boyfriend rapes you, the pain of being traded for sex by Daddy after his medicine and money ran out, the pain of feeling dirty and being bullied because you smell from not showering for days and the clothes you’re wearing are dirty, torn, and don’t fit, or … well, you get the idea.
To give you a sense of the pain the children in your care have felt, think of a time (or imagine for a moment) when someone you love decided they no longer love you anymore. Or imagine a scenario in which your strongest, scariest fear becomes a reality. Imagine begging for your worst fear not to happen, but the worst thing happens anyway. When that happens, something inside you breaks.
It’s hard to make pain like that go away. Young people don’t have the ability to put painful things into perspective to understand that what happened wasn’t their fault. They haven’t lived long enough to know that time can ease their pain. And they don’t have the wisdom to know that their past does not have to dictate their future. Children who have been through their worst fears, often continue to live in the reality of their worst fear with no ability to imagine a brighter future.
Imagine waking up every day to an ongoing nightmare in which you feel the same pain as yesterday. Imagine trying to go to sleep every night knowing that the people you care about are out there somewhere, and you have no idea where they are or if they care about you. If you were trapped in that situation, you might want to medicate your pain too.
Similarly, kids who have experienced trauma often gravitate toward people who make them feel liked, wanted, and a part of a group. You would too if you felt unwanted and unloved. These kids who’s life experiences have told them that they are worthless, are excited when one of the “cool people” looks their way. They stand up a little straighter and feel a little cooler themselves when someone like that talks to them. Then when that person offers to take them somewhere in their car (which represents independence and power), they are beyond excited. To be chosen by a cool guy is like winning the lottery. To be invited to go with a cool guy is like being freed from prison. Of course, they go. No amount of education is going to change their minds about going. They have no idea that they might be jumping in the car to be raped multiple times every night for days, weeks, and months on end until they finally die. And if you tell them that, they won’t believe you. They want so badly to believe that they’re finally wanted and loved.
So, how in the world are we supposed to protect kids when they want to be the one who is chosen and invited to go along with someone who could be a trafficker?
The best protection for the kids you care about is to CHOOSE them before a bad guy does.
People are wounded in bad relationships, and they are healed in good relationships. So the best way to prevent young people from making bad choices to medicate their pain and go with the wrong people is to make them feel wanted, loved, chosen, and included.
You already know that it can be incredibly difficult to love someone who has been badly hurt. Pouring love into a wounded person can feel like pouring water into a bucket that has holes in the bottom. It feels like it’s never going to end. The truth is, though, that if you will keep trying and refuse to give up, the holes in the bucket eventually close up, the water begins to hold, and the young person begins to heal from the inside out. And when that happens, he or she is less likely to make poor choices.
The work of loving a wounded person into wholeness isn’t easy, but it is pretty simple. It starts with making eye contact, really listening to what the person has to say, acknowledging what was said (regardless of whether or not you agree), and then responding with something like, “I think I’d feel that way too if I’d been through what you’ve been through.” You continue like this, including the young person regardless of their mood or attitude (you’d have a bad attitude too if you felt worthless). You continue living well, treating people well and making right choices, in front of the young person so that he or she is exposed to this healthy way of living, which is likely new to this person. This is how you establish a relationship, which is how you start earning the ability to bring correction or advice.
There are many more specific suggestions for showing kindness to people who cannot or will not reciprocate in the book, Kindness Quotient. This book was dedicated to YOU and to all the other wonderful people who do the work of loving wounded kids into wholeness. It is a resource for all foster parents and is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and on my website, www.rhonda.org/store, where all profits go to the Successful Survivors Foundation. The publisher has graciously allowed that it be provided to foster parents in bulk at cost. If you’re interested in making a bulk purchase, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
When wounded people feel as though they are included, chosen, wanted, valued, and loved, they will be far less likely to medicate their pain or jump in the car with someone who shows them a little attention.
If a child you know may already be in a situation in which he or she is being trafficked or groomed for that heinous crime, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline 1888.373.7888 or text them at 233733. The hotline is staffed 24/7 and can accommodate 200 different languages.
Rhonda Sciortino is a foster alumnus who was not trafficked, but who could easily have become a victim of trafficking. Through her books, speaking, training, and YOUR REAL SUCCESS curriculum, she strengthens and empowers vulnerable young people to find and fulfill the good plans for their lives.