What Facebook Reminded Me About My Daughter’s Trauma

Nine years ago, back when Facebook was still just a place to share random thoughts, I posted this on my feed:

Lucy’s new trick the past few days is that she cries whenever I leave the room. Instead of annoying me, it makes my heart leap with joy because it means that she is starting to see me as her mommy. Quite a change in perspective from when my boys were babies!” 

The “On This Day” memory popped up and reminded me of those early days with our daughter whom we adopted. She came home to us at almost 6 months old. She was an actual doll with her chubby arms and bouncy brown curls. She stared around at her new mom and dad, new big brothers, and her new home with wide eyes. She stiffened when I picked her up and didn’t hang on to me as my bio kids had at that age. When I set her down on a blanket, she was content to lay there and stare at the ceiling. She didn’t seek our attention. If we entered her field of vision, she would glance at us, then look away. It was eerie.

She didn’t cry much those first few months home. We had no idea when she was hungry because she wouldn’t let us know. I fed her on a schedule so that she got the nutrition she needed.

When kids wake up in the morning or from a nap, there is usually babbling, cooing, crying, or some kind of sound, so the world knows, “Hey people, I’m awake! Come get me!” There wasn’t any of that from our daughter. She was quiet. I would sneak into her room to see if she was awake. Sometimes I would go in, and she would be sitting up in her crib just staring. She didn’t smile when she saw me.

Before coming to our home at 6 months old, she had spent two months in foster care with a sweet older couple that doted on her. Before that, she was with her birth mother. What we know about her history is spotty, but we know she experienced long periods of neglect. 

How Attachment Works

When a baby has a need, they let us know about that need by crying. When they are hungry, they cry until someone comes to feed them. When they are tired, they cry until they are soothed. When they are wet, they cry until someone takes care of their diaper. This is commonly referred to as the attachment cycle. Over and over and over, the cycle is repeated, and the child learns to trust their caregivers.

When that cycle is broken, and a baby’s needs are not met or are met intermittently, it results in the child learning they can’t trust their caregivers. Very likely, at some point in my daughter’s early life, she realized that crying did nothing. No one is going to come, so why bother? “When I’m hungry, no one comes.” “When I’m tired, no one comforts me.” “When I’m wet, no one changes me.” “When I want cuddles, no one cuddles me.” So she gave up and stopped crying to get her needs met. To realize that my daughter went through that process as a tiny baby is heart-shattering. 

What Does Early Trauma Look Like Today?

Today, my daughter is 9. She has intense food insecurities. Thankfully, she no longer has a problem letting us know that she is hungry, but she is always worried that there won’t be enough food or the right food. She is fiercely protective over what she perceives as her food.  It has been a delicate balance to teach her about the foods her body needs to be healthy and allow her to have the foods that make her feel happy and safe.

She also has intense anxiety whenever I leave the house. She is okay going somewhere without me, but if I leave to have dinner with a friend or go on a weekend trip, there is crying and angst for days before. Interestingly, her attitude is no big deal when I return, and she doesn’t act happy that I’m home. 

Dr. Bruce Perry is a child psychiatrist and neuroscientist who has studied the effects of trauma in young children. He writes in his book What Happened to You?, “The basic finding is that the experiences of the first two months of life have a disproportionately important impact on your long-term development. This has to do with the remarkably rapid brain growth early in life. The child who has only two months of horrible experiences does worse than the child with almost 12 years of bad experiences, all because of the timing of the experiences.” 

But that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. As adoptive parents, we have the opportunity to help our children who suffered early trauma and neglect. Here are some ways:

1. Learn as much as you can about trauma and what it does to kids’ brains.

The more we know about their brains, the more we can change how we handle complex issues. When kids’ brains perceive danger, they will operate from their fear response rather than with a rational response. This is why kids sometimes will seem angry when they’re actually scared or stressed.

Some excellent resources that educate parents about their kids’ brains are The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson and Brain-Based Parenting by Daniel Hughes and Jonathan Baylin. These will give you the information and the confidence you need to understand your child better.

2. Work on attachment as much as you can when your child first comes home.

If they are babies, this means using attachment practices such as baby-wearing, baby-led feeding, and cocooning, a practice of isolating your family for a time to ensure that you and your spouse are your new child’s primary caregivers. If you bring home an older child, the same concepts can still be used, but in a way that makes sense for an older kid: instead of baby-wearing, you can make a tradition of cozy family movie nights with treats and snuggles if your child allows. 

3. Realize that conventional parenting techniques and discipline may not work with your child. 

When traditional discipline methods are used, which are usually built on a foundation of punishment and consequences, the child’s protection part of their brain is triggered. They switch into fear mode and they can’t learn. Instead, learn about methods like Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI). This approach to parenting helps you reach your child in a way their brain can understand and learn to do things the right way.  A very accessible resource is The Connected Parent by Karyn Purvis and Lisa Qualls. The authors give real-life practical examples of TBRI in practice. When we use gentler methods of discipline where our child feels understood and safe, it is easier for them to learn. After all, discipline is about learning the right way to do things.

Early childhood trauma—even as early as in-utero—damages the brain. The best thing you can do for your adopted child is to understand this trauma. Our end goal should be a good relationship with our children rather than good behavior. The work can take years, but it’s worth it.