Childhood Trauma Part 1

“Why are you doing that?!” I wondered for the 4,000th time that day. “We’ve had you since you were tiny! You shouldn’t have the trauma your brothers do. Why?!”  My dainty, beautiful, much-loved, doted-on baby girl was screaming and screaming over something so small. I couldn’t even figure out what was making her upset, but she was so angry. At 2 years old, she could speak full sentences but couldn’t tell me what was wrong. Year after year, I would hear, “that’s typical childhood behavior” while knowing in my gut that something else was wrong. Year after year, little “quirks” would develop and not go away. She started eating her hair, chewing her fingers, biting apart plastic plates, flapping her hands in frustration, terror, or joy. She started sneaking into the pantry at night and eating sugar or dumping out all of the spices. Her brain was disorganized, and she was acting out in ways that didn’t make sense. Worse, my otherwise happy, well-behaved girl became weepy and clingy. She would wail over the tiniest problem, over being told no, over being too tired. She would look me in the eye and directly disobey a request to get down off the couch back or not to climb a bookshelf. Finally, at 5 years old, we got diagnoses including PTSD and what amounted to a bowl of alphabet soup of things mentally wrong with my precious baby girl. The baby girl we had since she was six weeks old. The baby girl I had worn around the house in a sling or backpack from the time she came home until long after she could walk. My sweetest companion on every chore, adventure, and moment for over four years as we bonded as mother and daughter. What could possibly be wrong with a baby we had since birth? What had we done wrong?

It turns out we hadn’t done anything wrong. (Well, to be clear, we do a lot wrong as a family, but nothing that caused major trauma to our girl.) There is something that psychologists have called “The Primal Wound” (Verrier, 1991). The very act of removing a baby from their birth mom, the woman whose voice they heard for nine months of gestation, the woman whose heartbeat sang them to sleep, causes trauma, even if there is no intention of trauma. Even if the mother died and the baby was placed in another family out of necessity. Even if the baby were born addicted to meth because of the mother’s choices, the baby would feel the pain of not being with their birth mother, and their brain will register it as a trauma. That trauma can affect their development. 

Even the most well-meaning, attentive parents may have to help their child work through the pain of not having their birth parents in their life. Their brain will have broken wiring from that trauma that will not allow them to form connections the way it’s supposed to. There is hope. There are therapies developed every day that can help repair the damage. The very first step is realizing, without feeling guilt, without assigning blame, that an adopted child will always struggle in some way with the trauma of being separated from birth parents. Hiding their adoption from them won’t eliminate the problem. Telling them when they are old enough to understand won’t eliminate the problem. It is just a problem that will need to be addressed. 

Furthermore, some traumas can happen right after birth or in utero that will cause mental health concerns. Babies that have surgery can end up with trauma because they can feel the pain but not cry out and say what is wrong. 

A baby who experiences the stress of their birth mother due to unsafe living conditions, job loss, drug or alcohol addiction, or any stress-filled event will experience the event as a trauma. Their bodies will be bathed in cortisol from their mother’s distress, forever altering the baby’s brain. A baby born too early, who needs to spend months in an incubator without direct human contact, can develop an attachment disorder because they aren’t getting the sensory input they need. Thankfully, medical science realized the importance of human contact, that things like kangaroo care and frequent physical touch are important.  

Trauma is not necessarily the fault of anyone, but it needs to be acknowledged and addressed for healing to occur. So what do we do? Over the next few months, I’m going to explore the different types of childhood trauma and how physicians and psychologists are working to treat and resolve some of these traumas. 

The first part is acknowledging that the problem exists. There is nothing you need to be ashamed of if your child is struggling. You just need to know they are struggling and work to get them help. It is a problem that many families struggle with, but many are afraid to talk about it out loud. There is an unspoken pain many families are trying desperately to manage but have no idea what is even wrong. They feel like they must have done something wrong if their child, whom they have prayed for and known since birth, is having difficulty. They must be bad parents. They must have disciplined wrong. 

No. Hear me say this: It is not your fault. Yes, you can do things to help, but no, you didn’t cause the trauma. No, your child isn’t a “bad seed”. It isn’t the birth mom’s “fault”. Stop thinking about fault and who is to blame. The only reason you need a formal diagnosis, the only reason you need to know “why,” is because that is how you get the help you need. You need to get your child to a psychologist. You need to admit there is a problem, that there is an issue you can’t fix on your own. 

You can’t let your guilt make you a fearful or ineffective parent. Here is what scientists are now just beginning to understand:  

The prenatal brain development starts at just two weeks after conception. The formation of the neural plate begins and then curves into the neural tube which will close and separate into four sections: the forebrain, the midbrain, the hindbrain, and the spinal cord. They will then make up the child’s nervous system weeks into the pregnancy. Finally, the cerebral cortex will form, which is the part of the brain that controls voluntary actions. This part of the brain is underdeveloped at birth but matures within the first few years of the child’s life …Many birth mothers find themselves under a great amount of stress when pregnant. Even the greatest birth moms are under some form of stress. Keep that in mind when you are considering whether or not a child adopted as a newborn can have adoption-related trauma. (Heesch, 2019) 

Furthermore, children adopted internationally who have lived in orphanages or children adopted from foster care can have more complex trauma. Because orphanage workers are understaffed and underpaid, there are times a child may only receive what is necessary to keep them alive. They may be provided with food, clothing, and shelter but no physical contact. A baby in an orphanage may learn early on not to cry because no one is coming regardless. This causes stress that can permanently alter brain function. Attachment disorders can form because a child has learned very early that the people supposed to care for them didn’t. That leaves them unable to rely on anyone but themselves. Well-meaning adoptive parents may not recognize the child’s need to build attachment and may view their independence as being “grown-up.” Many times, very young children can prepare their own food, put themselves to bed, and get themselves dressed, not because they are advanced but because they figured out they couldn’t count on anyone else to do it for them. It seems impossible that a one-year-old would be able to take care of themselves in any capacity, but I promise you it is true. Two of my daughters came to me from foster care. When we met, they were four and two. The 4-year-old was deeply involved in the physical and emotional well-being of her sister. She would try to take over when I changed a diaper, prepared food, and got her dressed. She insisted she knew best when it came to anything sister-related; because at four, she had learned that no one knew her sister as well as she did. They had been in six different foster homes. Their lives were chaotic and unpredictable.  

Older adopted children struggle a great deal because they have lacked stability their whole lives and suddenly finding themselves with parents who love them and give them structure is too much. They might create chaos just to feel normal. This is most often felt on special days. Birthdays are often ruined because they feel the lack of their birth parents. They can rage and intentionally sabotage birthday parties. Some kids struggle tremendously at holidays because either their family was most chaotic at holidays or they know what it “should have been” like and feel terrible their lives with the birth family were not that way. There are many reasons that kids adopted from foster care may have trauma because of the circumstances they lived in before CPS was involved. My oldest son was emaciated and the size of a 4-year-old at 10 years old because of the tremendous neglect he faced growing up.  My son’s story is tragically not as unusual as one would hope. 

So now you are aware. Most, if not all, adopted children suffer from some trauma. You may never know the full extent of what happened to them to cause the pain they feel inside. They probably won’t ever be able to totally understand the grief they feel at times. Adult adoptees can often express that they felt sad about their lives, not because they hate their adoptive families, but because they wished they hadn’t needed to be adopted in the first place. It is an unfortunate truth that we live in a world where adoption is a necessary social construct. Parents die, are unsafe, mentally unwell, or physically incapable of parenting a child. The child doesn’t understand why they can’t have mommy even if mommy literally lit them on fire. There are stories of children crying out for their mother in the hospital when their mother put them in the hospital. They cannot deny their instinct to want their mama. 

What can you do? Over the next few months, we will be exploring just that. Thankfully, in the past 20 years, there have been some tremendous discoveries in the mental health field. New therapies have been developed to address the issues that for a long time were considered to be the result of “bad parenting” or difficult kids. We now know that it is actual damage to the brain that needs repairing instead of willful disobedience. Only armed with that knowledge, my life has felt so much better. The words, “It’s not my fault,” were a magic balm after years of feeling like a failure as a mom. “It is a fixable problem,” also makes me feel so much less hopeless than I did after my oldest child’s first psychological evaluation. It is hard work. Many days feel like an uphill battle. Having multiple kids with multiple issues makes for days where I fall into bed exhausted and overwhelmed. However, the knowledge that something can help makes all the difference between utter despair and hope.

Are you and your partner ready to start the adoption process? Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98 to begin your adoption journey. We have 130+ years of adoption experience and would love to help you.