Why Adults Who Have the Savior Complex Aren’t Healthy for Kids From Trauma

We’ve all been that person before… the one who sees a sad-faced child being scolded by an angry adult and wants to swoop in to save them. We’ve made all the assumptions, leapt to all the conclusions, and planned out all the ways we’d have handled the situation if we were the ones in charge.

Even the most careful of us are guilty of it sometimes.

It’s not necessarily bad to be a person who evaluates what’s going on around you. It’s not necessarily bad to want to make children’s lives healthier and happier. It’s not even bad to make plans for how we’d be kind to children we work with or will work with in the future.

The problem comes when we assume that our plans truly encompass all the pieces of the puzzle and that other plans are less worthy.

When we train ourselves to look at children who are in trouble and assume that the adults are at fault, we train ourselves to believe that all children are innocent and all adults are guilty. Granted, it’s more preferable to assume that than to assume the opposite, but neither is healthy or beneficial.

In reality, most kids who are being reprimanded have a lot more going on than what we can see in a snapshot moment. Particularly, kids with pasts full of trauma have a lot more layers to their behavior than what we can see. They’re also the most likely kids in the room to manipulate the adults who are working with them and to do it well.

This isn’t to say that kids from tough backgrounds are bad or that they should always be presumed guilty. In fact, I’d rather see people jump to conclusions less often about “bad” kids than what they do. This article is simply meant to say that raising children who’ve experienced serious pain takes a completely different approach than most people are used to. It takes spending lots and lots of time with them to figure out how they tick. It takes being manipulated enough times that you finally recognize the signs. It takes being stolen from, lied to, and taken advantage of so often that you’re no longer offended by it.

It’s tricky work that can’t be summarized in a few short paragraphs or one judgmental glance.

And speaking as someone who has always had to fight against the savior complex, personally, I can say that it is really, really, REALLY not helpful for kids from hard places to have adults walking around with the unfounded desire to save them.

Help them? Yes.
Keep them safe? Absolutely.
Encourage them? Totally.
Hold them accountable? Every day.
Walk through the hard parts of life with them and never give up on them? HELL YES.

But save them? No. We are not God, and it sets up an unhealthy dynamic for us to try to be.

In my experience, wanting to rescue kids from whatever I presumed the threat to be only made me more judgmental of other adults. It made me gullible about the sob stories kids gave me. It opened opportunities for kids to learn how to triangulate adults against one another. It caused me to allow kids to use their heartache as a crutch, and it caused a lot of strain in the professional relationships I had over the years. I enabled children in ways I didn’t understand at the time because I thought I was giving them what they needed.

Now, mostly on the other side of that, I’ve learned that kids from trauma DO need gentleness, but they need it with consistent boundaries, clear expectations, and honest feedback. They don’t need things sugar-coated, and they definitely don’t need someone to assume they’re being mistreated. They need a team of people who all have the common goal of doing what’s best for that particular child.

If you’re concerned about the way a child is being treated by an adult (regardless of his/her trauma background), take the necessary steps to make sure they’re safe. Ask who keeps that adult accountable. Find out more about the situation. Express your concerns to other people who are involved if you need to, but do so with a cautious heart.

Ask more questions instead of making more assumptions.

Or, better yet, get to know the child and the adult so you can better understand how their relationship works. Maybe you’ll come to know, firsthand, why those interactions look the way they do.

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