I recently read a study that highlighted the difference between our ability to recall images versus words. There were two control groups. The first was shown a picture of a circle. The word “circle” was written down for the second group. The groups were re-convened 72 hours later and asked what they were shown. The group that saw the picture recalled that it was a circle one and a half times better than the group that only saw the word.

We know the power of images. Television is more popular than radio. Yahoo (visual) was used more last month than Google (text) for internet searches, and we all know the truth of the saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” 

Maybe this helps to explain why physical wounds often get so much more attention than emotional wounds when it comes to our children.

Our foster daughter is the first child we’ve had in our home that came to foster care because of physical abuse. We have followed the treatment prescribed by doctors and therapists and she is making progress.  They all say, “her wounds are healing nicely.” This is certainly true of her physical wounds. There is visual evidence that her physical wounds are healing, but what about her emotional wounds?

Since a picture is literally worth one and a half words it seems that we can fall into believing there is a hierarchy of wounds. We can see our foster daughter’s physical wounds therefore they get the majority of our attention. If we can’t see an injury, the thinking goes, then there must not be a wound that needs to heal. This can be dangerous because the important things are often hidden from our sight and, as a result, can go ignored.

What we have learned over the years parenting children from hard places is that physical wounds leave physical scars; emotional wounds scar our children’s ability to trust.

Think about anyone who has hurt you emotionally. Think about the great distance that grew between the two of you. Think about the amount of time that was needed for those wounds to heal. Emotional hurts erode trust and chip away at relationships. If you are the person who is wounded then you need time to heal. That makes sense to us so we accept that. But if you are a child who is wounded that healing can take a lot longer.

If a child was abused in the past by an adult in the bathtub or swimming pool they may struggle to trust any adult around water. It would be no surprise if this child associated the harm she experienced with any situation that combines water and people.  This is one of the hardest things about being a foster or adoptive parent – you have to earn back trust that you never violated. You have to work to redeem hard places that you never created. You have to heal wounds that you never inflicted.

I remember how our son wouldn’t tell us that he loved us for the longest time. It hurt because we loved him even before he came home. We wondered why the words were never reciprocated. But now I realize that even at the age of four he didn’t trust us…he couldn’t trust us…enough to let us in. He wasn’t going to allow anyone into his space because adults had inflicted on him unseen hurts in unseen ways in the past. His was a trust we never violated, but still one we had to earn back.

I love this story now because it reminds me that emotional wounds can and do heal. It took my son more than five years to first utter those precious words, “I love you.” He did finally let us in.  Some of his wounds are no longer there, but the scars remain.  Yet these scars tell a story — a beautiful story.  As Scott McClellan writes in Tell Me a Story, “a scar is evidence of a wound, but also evidence that we can heal.”

We are not deceived into thinking that relationships will be easy for our son but he is learning that he can trust again. Emotional wounds often take more time to heal because we don’t readily see their severity and setbacks can come all too easily.  But we keep on trying and we continue loving our children because healing establishes trust — and we are learning that without trust you don’t have much.