Adopted at the age of six months, Joseph was a fussy and sometimes hard to soothe infant. Feeling as though this was just normal infant difficulties with the adjustment of adoption, Pat and Robert paid it little attention. When Joseph reached the age of two and began to bite the other children in daycare, they chalked it up to the dreaded two-year old stage of which everyone assumes to be okay. Though the biting never quite ceased that year, with a few modifications, Joseph made it through the year. The teachers raved about how smart he was. By the time he was six, the increasing duration of the school day seemed almost more than he could bear. Sometimes screaming for hours at a time, Joseph would do no work and then would spend the remainder of the day in isolation. Prone to striking out when others attempted to soothe him, Joseph had now grown accustomed to attempting to runaway from the school personnel when his behavior would escalate. On many occasions this would lead to Joseph being restrained by the security guards, principal, or coaches. Eventually Joseph began to stack up a list of schools attended and suspended from. By the time Joseph had hit the 5th grade, his increasingly violent outburst coined with outward defiance had gained him two different stays at local residential treatment centers. Not knowing where else to turn or what else to do, and after failed attempts at therapy, and more than eight psychiatric medications had proved of little benefit other than causing Joseph to appear “zombie-like,” Pat and Robert felt their only other option was to send Joseph to a boys boarding school.
Unfortunately, the above story is not an uncommon plight that adoptive parents face. Though not always leading to a disruption or out-of-home placement, many adoptive families struggle for years to create the peaceful family of which they had dreamed. Regrettably, one of the main barriers preventing such family harmony is one of the least understood when it comes to understanding the plight of the adopted child. The barrier is trauma.
Whether adopted from birth or later in life, all adopted children have experienced some degree of trauma. Trauma is any stressful event which is prolonged, overwhelming, or unpredictable. Though we are familiar with events impacting children such as abuse, neglect, and domestic violence, until recently, the full impact of trauma on adopted children has not been understood.
What Science Is Now Revealing
Scientific research now reveals that as early as the second trimester, the human fetus is capable of auditory processing and in fact, is capable of processing rejection in utero. In addition to the rejection and abandonment felt by the newborn adoptee or any age adoptee for that matter, it must be recognized that the far greater trauma often times occurs in the way in which the mind and body system of the newborn is incapable of processing the loss of the biological figure. Far beyond any cognitive awareness, this experience is stored deep within the cells of the body, routinely leading to states of anxiety and depression for the adopted child later in life.
Because this initial experience has gone for so long without validation, it is now difficult for parents to understand. Truth be told, the medical community still discounts this early experience. Nevertheless, this early experience is generally the child’s original trauma. From that point forward many more traumas may occur in the child’s life. These include premature birth, inconsistent caretakers, abuse, neglect, chronic pain, long-term hospitalizations with separations from the mother, and parental depression. Such life events interrupt a child’s emotional development, sometimes even physical development, subsequently interrupting his ability to tolerate stress in meaningful relationships with parents and peers.
An important aspect of trauma is in recognizing that simply because a child has been removed from a traumatic environment, this does not merely remove the trauma from the child’s memory. In fact, stress is recognized to be the one primary key to unlocking traumatic memories. Unfortunately for both the adopted child and family, the experience of most traumas in the child’s life is that the traumatic experiences typically occur in the context of human relationships. From that point forward, stress in the midst of a relationship will create a traumatic re-experiencing for the child, leading the child to feel threatened, fearful, and overwhelmed in an environment which otherwise may not be threatening to other people.
10 Keys to Healing Trauma in the Adopted Child:
1. Trauma creates fear and stress sensitivity in children. Even for a child adopted from birth, their internal systems may already be more sensitive and fearful than that of a child remaining with his biological parents. You must also consider the first nine months in which the child developed. These early experiences as well could have major implications.
2. Recognize and be more aware of fear being demonstrated by your child. Be more sensitive and tuned in to the small signals given such as clinging, whining, not discriminating amongst strangers, etc. All are signs of insecurity which can be met by bringing the child in closer, holding, carrying, and communicating to the child that he is feeling scared, but you will keep him safe.
3. Recognize the impact of trauma in your own life. One of the single greatest understandings parents can have is a self-understanding. Research tells us that far more communication occurs non-verbally than verbally. Understanding the impact of past trauma in your own life will help you become more sensitive to when your reactions are coming from a place other than your existing parent/child experience. Re-experiencing past trauma is common when parents are placed in an ongoing stressful environment.
4. Reduce external sensory stimulation when possible. Decrease television, overwhelming environments, number of children playing together at one time, and large family gatherings. When necessary that these events take place, keep the child close, explain to him that he may become stressed and he can come to you when needed.
5. Do Time-In instead of Time-out. Rather than sending the stressed out and scared child to the corner to think about his behavior, bring him into to you and help him to feel safe and secure. Internally, this will then permit him the ability to think about his actions. Though time-in is not a time for lecturing, it will allow your child an opportunity to calm his stress and then think more clearly. Another effective key is to let the child decide how much time-in he needs.
6. Do not hit traumatized children. Doing so will only identify you as a threat. The biblical verse spare the rod, spoil the child speaks to the raising of sheep. A rod is used to guide the sheep and the staff to pull him back into line when he strays. Hitting children, just like sheep, will cause them to become frightened of you and in many instances to runaway or hit back.
7. There is never enough affection in the world. A very simple technique for time is the affection prescription 10-20-10. Give a child 10 minutes of quality time and attention first thing in the morning, 20 minutes in the afternoon, and 10 in the evening. Following this prescription of time has proven to have a great impact on the most negative behavior.
8. Encourage an IEP in the classroom to develop an understanding of the child’s stress and fear. This may assist in addressing such vital areas as homework, playground, peer interaction, lunchtime, and physical education. All are common areas of reduced structure and increased stress.
9. Educate yourself regarding the impact of stress and trauma on families. Try not to scapegoat your child for their difficulties, but rather take responsibility for creating the environment necessary for healing his hurtful experiences. See below for the many resources available.
10. Seek support. Parenting a child with trauma history can take its toll on the best of parent. Seek out a support system for occasional respite care, discussing of issues, and the sharing of a meal. Such small steps can go a long ways during particularly stressful times.
In closing, never forget that you are a great parent. During times of stress you won’t always feel like it, but both you and your child were meant to be together. Your child will teach you far more about yourself than you may have ever realized without him. Give yourself time to refuel, connect, and communicate. And finally, a secure parental relationship is the single greatest gift you can give your child. When the parental relationship is secure this will permit the child a foundation to grow from.