When we first started the process to adopt 13 years ago, adoption training regarding how past trauma affected adopted children didn’t really exist. The Connected Child by Dr. Karyn Purvis wouldn’t be published for another couple of years, and that was really just the beginning of what neuroscience has been learning about how the brain works—or doesn’t work—when affected by trauma. It’s no surprise then that the idea of parents experiencing trauma as a result of parenting their adopted children wasn’t on anyone’s radar.
Before we get much further, let’s stop and define some terms. What is secondary trauma exactly? According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, secondary trauma is, “the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experience of another. Its symptoms mimic those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” Secondary trauma can affect anyone who works directly with a person who has experienced trauma, including parents.
Secondary trauma is a little different from post-traumatic stress disorder itself. Secondary trauma causes a trauma response because of hearing about someone else’s trauma. PTSD results from experiencing trauma first-hand.
Adoptive parents are at risk for experiencing both types of trauma. Rarely is this actually addressed in any adoptive parent training that I am aware of; yet, I know plenty of parents who would readily agree that they are affected. This is not to scare anyone, but it is something that adoptive parents and prospective adoptive parents should be aware of so as not to be caught off guard.
The secondary trauma aspect is a little easier to wrap one’s head around, so let’s start with that one. Some of our adopted children have not had the easiest start in life. In fact, some of our adopted children have had an extremely brutal start, and many children vividly remember the abuse and trauma they suffered. Often, the stories do not come out all at once but in little bits and pieces as the child feels comfortable sharing them. Sometimes what is even worse is that the child doesn’t even realize that what they experienced is outside the norm of reality, so they don’t think their past abuse is even something exceptional to share. These stories can often be extremely hard to hear, especially when it is coming from your child. Your own child whom you love. It makes it even worse to know that this beloved child experienced horrors you don’t want to think about. It is traumatizing, though the trauma is secondhand.
While horrible, this type of trauma is not unexpected if a person is aware that children who need a new family are coming out of less-than-ideal situations. What is probably more surprising to people is that adoptive parents can have their own firsthand trauma as a direct result of parenting a hurt child.
Hurt children, children who have experienced trauma themselves, are not always easy to parent. Trauma affects a person’s brain; it affects how a person sees the world; it affects automatic responses; it affects cognition; it affects pretty much everything. A child who has experienced trauma can sometimes deal with the pain they carry with them by violent behavior: raging, breaking things, self-harm, harm directed towards others. Often when a rage begins, the adults around the child will have no idea what set the child off. It can feel like living with a ticking time bomb or constantly traversing a minefield, or both at the same time. Endless rounds of this can take its toll.
So what does it look like in a parent? It is higher anxiety, increased risk of depression, bouts of anger, sleeplessness, hypervigilance (especially in regard to the child involved), and a very thin emotional margin. In short, many of the symptoms associated with classic PTSD. It’s often quite some time before the parent affected even realizes that they have changed and why.
So what can a parent do? Identifying what is going on is primary. It actually doesn’t matter if the trauma is secondary or firsthand; the results can manifest the same symptoms. Realizing that there is a problem is a good start. It could be that the parent needs to find a therapist who can help sort out everything that has gone on, all while parenting a hurt child. I know many adoptive parents have had great healing through EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). EMDR practitioners can help integrate memories more appropriately within the brain and stop the trigger responses that make a person feel so out of control.
Self-care is also vital. Learning how to take care of yourself is important to well-being. Ways to do this include eating well, getting enough rest, exercise, and being able to pursue activities which are important to you. I know this can feel extremely difficult if you are still in a hard season with your child, but if you are already clinging to the edge, you are not going to be any help to your child.
No one sets out to adopt a child expecting to also experience trauma. That’s just not part of the happy adoption scenario. But adoption is also born in loss. Loss and pain actually are a part of the adoption story, though the degree to which they influence an individual and a family will vary. Because loss and pain are present, the possibility of trauma is always hovering in the wings. Knowing ahead of time that this is true, adoptive parents can be proactive in both self-care and getting the help they need before a family reaches the crisis point.