What I Wish I’d Known About How Early Trauma Affects Adopted Children

Toxic stress can impact developing brains in profound ways.

Shannon Hicks October 03, 2017
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I love adoption. It is because of adoption that I get to parent my daughter and son – the two greatest blessings in my life. But here’s another reality of adoption: it always involves loss, and often involves dealing with the lingering effects of early trauma. While I feel that my agency did a good job of generally preparing me for some ways this might look in different children, here are three things I wish I’d known about how early trauma can impact kids:

Early trauma can change the structure of the brain.

This video explains how toxic stress can impact developing brains. While abuse and neglect come immediately to mind as traumatic situations, children may also experience complications during pregnancy, complications during birth, and early hospitalizations as trauma. Because of this, even children who are adopted as infants (or your biological children) may deal with an increased level of stress hormone in their brain. This abundance of cortisol can impact behavior in many ways. This video introduces a few ways that early trauma can impact a child’s behavior. Understanding that some of the challenging behaviors your child exhibits may be caused by the effects of early trauma on their brain and not just their bad choices can change your perspective as a parent and give you a lot more empathy and a lot less judgement.

Long-term effects of early trauma can look similar to symptoms of other conditions.

The list of ways that the effects of early trauma may manifest in children’s behavior is long and can change depending on the age of your child. In school-aged children, these include difficulty paying attention, difficulty transitioning from one activity to another, regressive behaviors, and fighting with peers or adults. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is a list that shares items in common with diagnoses like ADHD, ODD, bipolar disorder, and autism. As a parent, it’s important to educate yourself (and sometimes your physician) on the potential effects of early trauma. While it’s certainly possible for adopted children to have these other conditions, it’s also possible that the same “symptoms” have a different cause and require a different course of treatment.

There are strategies and resources to help.

If your child is dealing with the challenging long-term effects of early trauma, know that you are not alone. This is very, very common, and there are lots of strategies and resources that can help.  First, rally your village. Taking care of your own mental health is crucial when you are dealing with some of these challenging behaviors. Next, do your research. Websites like www.empoweredtoconnect.org and books like The Whole Brain Child by Daniel Siegal and Tina Payne Bryson are a great place to start. They point to research that indicates that our brains are flexible and can be “re-wired” with secure attachment, loving interactions, and lots of practice. I’m also a big believer in the benefits of sensory play as described in this article. Finally, if you need help beyond what these online resources can provide, please reach out to your medical or mental health care provider. They can offer their expertise and also point you in the direction of other local resources to help.

Adoptive parents and adoptees, what do you think? What do you wish you had known about the effects of early trauma in adoption?

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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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