Trauma and Brain Development: What Adoptive Parents Should Know

The vast majority of brain development happens between conception and age 6.

Shannon Hicks February 09, 2018
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If you are an adoptive parent, it is very likely that your child experienced some form of early trauma. Traumatic events can include abuse and neglect, drug or alcohol exposure, complications in utero or during birth, and the loss of a primary caregiver. Whether your child was adopted as an infant, a toddler, or as an older child, it’s important to know the basics about how trauma can impact brain development.

Trauma changes the structure of the brain.

The vast majority of brain development happens between conception and age 6. Although it’s tempting to think that what happens before a child is verbal (and has conscious memories) won’t have a significant impact on their development, brain science suggests otherwise. Studies have shown that early trauma increases the stress hormones in a child’s brain and can actually change the structure of a developing brain. For a practical explanation of how this happens, check out this video. If you want more technical information, this article  will be helpful.

A history of trauma can significantly impact a child’s behavior.

Our brains control our behavior. Children with early trauma experiences may exhibit a wide variety of behaviors related to the overabundance of stress hormone and rewiring of the brain. The areas that may be negatively impacted include attachment, emotional regulation, impulse control, language development, ability to focus and maintain attention, self-esteem, and behavioral control. These issues may be complicated by drug or alcohol exposure or underlying mental health conditions. When discussing a child’s behavior with medical or mental health professionals, it’s important to consider the possible effects of early trauma to avoid a misdiagnosis and inappropriate course of treatment. When dealing with behavior impacted by a child’s early trauma, traditional parenting methods can prove ineffective. This video provides some helpful information about the way that behavior helps to meet a child’s needs and how parents can address it.

Felt safety and trust can rewire the brain.

All of this information might leave you feeling like the outlook for a child with an early trauma history is bleak. Fortunately, that doesn’t have to be the case. There is evidence that providing a child with felt safety and the opportunity for healthy attachment can help rewire the brain. Two helpful, practical resources for parents are The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Seigel and Tina Payne Bryson and this website. Also, there are many support groups (physical and virtual) for adoptive parents where you can get helpful information and resources. If you are struggling to parent a child who experienced early trauma, you are not alone. Reach out. There is help and hope for you and your family.

Adoptive parents, what would you add? What have you learned about trauma and brain development along your journey? What resources have you found helpful?

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Shannon Hicks

Shannon is mom to two amazing kids who joined her family through foster care adoption. She is passionate about advocating for children through her writing and her job as a kindergarten teacher. You can read more from her at Adoption, Grace and Life.


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