Adoption and Trauma

Written by Jessica Stefanski

Written by Jessica Stefanski

I came across a post on social media by Real Life Foster Mom, titled “Adoption is not a solution to trauma,” and I began to reflect on my work as a Mental Health Therapist and my time spent treating trauma in children. You could argue that living in today’s world, most of us have some degree of trauma. There are plenty of articles discussing the aftermath of trauma, statistics, but I wanted to pass along a message of hope for parents, caregivers, and children experiencing the effects of trauma. Hope is what we need to cling to when we are stuck in the trenches of trauma.

Adoption not being a solution to trauma can feel discouraging and scary for those who are currently fostering children or for families who have adopted. Although it is not a clear cut solution, the love of a family is a huge step in the right direction to help a child heal.

In the same way that healing looks different in every child, trauma appears differently in every child. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. This can include direct and indirect exposure to a traumatic event. For children, trauma can manifest as nightmares, flashbacks, avoidance of people, places, activities that remind them of the event, socially withdrawn behavior, sadness, shame, confusion, anger outbursts, hyper-vigilance, problems concentrating and sleep disturbances. It is important to remember that not all individuals who have been exposed to a traumatic event develop PTSD.

As therapists we often say trauma is in the eye of the beholder. Some individuals have protective factors that can shield them from trauma such as nurturing and loving homes, emotionally available parents, basic needs being met, financial stability, and having a mentor such as a teacher. However, for many of our children, they might be facing risk factors that make them more at risk for experiencing trauma. This can include children experiencing lack of attachment to a caregiver, exposure to drugs and alcohol, witnessing domestic violence, poverty, exposure to substance abuse, sexual/physical/emotional abuse and adoption. 

Many families I have worked with who have adopted have expressed feeling a need for more support. These families were not fully aware of the extent of their child’s trauma until after the adoption was finalized. These experiences are very real and can be extremely overwhelming. However, I always tell parents that the number one predictor for how their child is going to heal is the relationship they have with their child and the environment they have at home. Parents can’t control what has happened to their child or take away their child’s pain, but they can begin to take back control on how they connect with their child and the space they provide for them to heal.

I can do trauma therapy with a child for years, but if they are not set up for success at home, the results we see in therapy are limited. Parents have more power than they realize and this gives me hope. I hope this also gives you hope too. Many people reading this are doing that very recommendation I give to so many parents… they are providing a safe home and their child’s basic needs are met in terms of clothing, food, shelter. They are providing unconditional love, structure, boundaries and consistency for their children. This may sound very simple, however, it is anything but. Once a child has this support at home, they can begin to heal. Parenting a child with trauma does not mean we offer them an excuse or validation for difficult behavior. However, it is an understanding that this behavior is a form of expression in the only way they might know how. Expression of their needs, their feelings, their past.

Trauma can be treated.

Therapy is one way to help your child heal from trauma and I cannot emphasize enough the power of these treatments, Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). These treatments are the two most studied and highly effective treatments for trauma and the ones I personally use in therapy. We are discovering so much more in terms of treating trauma and EMDR allows a safe approach to connect with parts of the brain where the trauma memories are stuck and release them in a gentle manner. Every previous life experience is stored in our bodies, however, we now have the tools to release the experiences that are interfering with our functioning and how we perceive the world around us. For many of our children, they will require mental health therapy to heal and acclimate to their new environment. Finding a mental health professional that is trained in trauma treatment is crucial. 

What can you do as a parent right now? 

  • Increase bonding and connection. This includes positive relationships and constructive support with caregivers and other supportive people in your child’s life.

  • Set clear, consistent and assertive boundaries. Many of our children have not had healthy and appropriate boundaries modeled for them. Healthy boundaries are what allow our children to feel safe, even when they might resist them.

  • Teach and nurture effective coping skills. This includes modeling and naming strong emotions we might be having as an adult. There is this perception that as parents we cannot ever show our sadness, frustration or disappointment. However, we know modeling appropriate coping skills with our own emotions teaches our children how to manage their own strong emotions and also shows them that we are human.

  • Connect before correct. I often remind myself as a parent to connect with how my child is feeling first, then correct the behavior by identifying an alternative option or choice. The feeling my child is experiencing is valid and true. What my child might be thinking that contributed to their feeling might not always be accurate, however, this distinction between feelings and thoughts can be extremely helpful.

  • Set and communicate high and realistic expectations. Trauma does not mean your child is not capable or should not be held to certain standards. The trauma your child has experienced does not define them. It is a part of who they are, however, through time and in therapy, the amount that a child’s trauma defines them becomes less and less. We want to capitalize on this and shine the light on their strengths and unique qualities.

Lastly, parenting is the hardest job in the world. You need to hear you are doing a great job. You deserve support, education and understanding and you are the best parent for your child. You are doing a great job. You have taken the first step towards healing for your child.