You’ve adopted a child and are ready to make them part of your family. You want to provide a nurturing home, realizing that may have been something that was missing from the child’s life previously. When your adopted child shows signs of trauma, you want to know the best way to help them and to help your family as a unit. Addressing complex childhood trauma after adoption can be challenging but is necessary to guide all members of your family through the healing process.
Some stress in a child’s life can actually help them develop new skills and help their brain to grow. For example, they may be nervous about riding a bike without training wheels for the first time or going to a new school. However, there can be traumatic events in the child’s life that cause their bodies, brains, and nervous systems to adapt in an effort to protect them.
Traumatic events in a child’s life can include neglect, abuse, poverty, separation, bullying, witnessing violence, or erratic parental behavior that is affected by addiction or mental illness. Being in the child welfare system, being placed in foster care, or being placed with an adoptive family can become another traumatic event for a child.
Trauma can result from a stressful experience that overwhelms the child’s natural ability to cope. Just as in adults, the events can cause a “fight, flight, or freeze” response. The trauma can result in physical changes to the body, including a faster heart rate and higher blood pressure. It can also cause changes in how the brain perceives and responds to the world, even when that world now involves a loving father reaching out to include the child in their new family.
Your Child’s Behavior
It can be unsettling and frustrating as a parent when your child “acts out.” It is important to remember that the child’s trauma could result in distrusting or disobeying any adults, feeling disconnected from reality, and increased aggression. Children who are in danger engage in these behaviors to protect themselves. Even after they are in a safer environment, living with a loving adoptive family, their brains won’t necessarily recognize that the danger has passed.
Your child’s behavior may be a result of that learned response to stress. It may take time for the child’s brain and body to learn how to respond in more appropriate ways when they are in a new, safe environment. They will need to learn that they can relax and that their “fight or flight” response is no longer necessary.
Addressing Trauma After Adoption
Children are resilient. With your help as their adoptive father, they can recover from complex childhood trauma. Learn as much as you can about any trauma they may have experienced. Then take the following steps to address the trauma, to help everyone heal.
Identify Trauma Triggers. Be aware of whether something you say or do, or something in your home that may seem harmless, could actually be triggering your child’s trauma reactions. Watch for patterns of behavior or reactions and note what seems to make your child more anxious or results in an outburst. Take care to help your child avoid these triggers until you are able to help them process their trauma and heal.
Be available, emotionally and physically. While it may be difficult, given the child’s potentially aggressive behavior, let them know you are there for them by giving them attention, encouragement, and comfort. You may need to spend extra time with your adopted child as a family. Your child may just need a loving, trusting hug.
Respond but don’t react. Do what you can to calm your child by lowering your voice, acknowledging your child’s feelings, and being honest and reassuring. Don’t take your child’s behavior personally. Help your child find words and more acceptable methods of expressing their feelings. A professional counselor can help with this step as well.
Take the time to listen to your child. Don’t force your child to talk about their experiences but when they are ready to express their feelings, give them your focused attention. Help them process their stress by encouraging them to practice slow breathing, listen to calming music, or repeat positive statements such as “I am safe now.” Most importantly, be patient as your child works through the changes in their life and realizes they are in a secure, loving environment now.
Encourage your child’s self-esteem. When your child has experienced complex childhood trauma, they can have difficulties with their self image as well. You can work with your child to help them to have more positive experiences that will increase their resilience. They can participate in school activities, sports groups, volunteer efforts, and other experiences that will help them feel better about themselves.
Secondary Traumatic Stress
When you are parenting a child who has experienced complex childhood trauma, it can put a strain on your relationship with the child, your relationship with other family members, and on your own physical and mental health. When you are affected in this way by someone else’s trauma, you may be experiencing secondary trauma.
You may need help yourself, to work through the effects of secondary traumatic stress. Self-care, skills training, social support, mindfulness and other stress reducing activities, as well as professional counseling and therapy can be beneficial to you and your family. Strategies such as psychotherapy can help ensure your well-being and provide the resources you need to work with your adopted child and their complex trauma.
Specialists in Adoption-Related Addiction Treatment
When you’re the father of an adopted child who is struggling, healing is possible for you and your family. You are not alone. You have resources available to you, such as the adoption-related treatment program at PACE Recovery. Our unique adoption-specific program can facilitate healing and healthy, productive discussions around adoption, attachment styles, and treatment for mental health issues or substance use.
Today, please contact us to learn more about our mental and behavioral health specialized services for parents of adopted children. Call the PACE Recovery Center team at 800-526-1851 to learn how we can help you or a loved one heal and lead a healthy life in recovery.