Understanding Your Adopted/Foster Child’s History

“A scar is evidence of a wound, but also evidence that we can heal.”- Scott McClellan

Empowered to Connect

I didn’t think it would be this hard.

My child’s behaviors are out of control.

He got kicked off the school bus AGAIN.

He keeps punching kids in line.

The whole house is like a war zone.

I thought I could do this, but I don’t know if I can. It’s just too hard.


I’ve heard these statements along with pleas for help from countless parents. I have offered to come into the home and do some observation, as well as get some parenting tools that work into the hands of the parents. It seems as if every time, the parent says, “Oh, he/she is so manipulative, I don’t know.” As if the child will pull the wool over my eyes (as he may do with some) or their situation is so unique, so individual that I won’t be able to grasp it. It is this pit of ‘aloneness’ that foster and adoptive parents feel. No one else struggles like you. Nobody understands. We adoptive/foster parents may feel as if we have slipped an Alfred Hitchcock and are captives who will never escape. What should we do? Who has the answers? To move forward with understanding, we must first have knowledge.

  Foster/Adopted children have had trauma in their lives. Trauma changes the neurochemistry of the brain in these children. 

Every behavior is a need in appropriately expressed.

In adoption/foster circles we hear the phrase ‘children from hard places’. As Ryan North, Executive Director of Tapestry Ministries, reminds us, this is not a geographical location. As explained in The Connected Child, there are six primary risk factors that characterize children from hard places:

  1. Prenatal stress and harm-over 80% of children adopted/foster care have been exposed to drugs or alcohol. The Mother’s high levels of cortisol cross the placenta,  alters the structure of the brain and damages the immune system. 
  2. Difficult labor or birth.
  3. Early medical trauma -hospital stay, surgery, etc..
  4. Trauma- house fire, natural disaster, auto accident, death of parent.
  5. Neglect-  Neglect says,”You don’t exist.”
  6. Abuse – Abuse says, “You don’t matter.”

Five things are impacted by early trauma (any one of the six risk factors).

  1. Brain- altered brain development, overactive amygdala. It’s as if the child is chased by a bear all the time. Our experiences shape the connections in our brain. Hebbian principle- What fires together wires together.
  2. Biology- Neurochemistry is altered. Hormones altered. Serotonin is often low. Dopamine is low or high. Some young children have the adrenals of a ninety year old.
  3. Body- Learning delays, developmental delays, sensory issues.
  4. Beliefs- What’s one firmly held belief that you have? What would it take you to change that belief? Adopted/foster children may believe: People don’t love me because I’m not worthy. If I was worth something, people won’t treat me this way. Everyone leaves.
  5. Behavior Regulation. Co regulation. Self Regulation. – A child from hard places has difficulty regulating because he has not had the natural progression. Remember, a behavior is a need inappropriately expressed.  These kids get stuck in survival mode or Fight, Flight, Freeze.

Traditional parenting doesn’t work with these kids. In the ETC course for adoptive/foster parents, we teach 25 parenting tools to help these kids have hope and healing. The tools are based on the TBRI model- Trust Based Relational Intervention, created by Dr. Karyn Purvis and Dr. David Cross at TCU in Texas. This approach was turned into a training curriculum by Michael Monroe and Dr. Purvis called ETC  Parent Training for Adoptive and Foster Parents. I am a parent trainer (along with my husband). We teach a variety of trainings, one for professionals (3 hours), a Prepare Course a six week class,  for those considering foster or adoption and a Connect Course, a nine week class, for those who have adopted/foster children already in their homes.

If you read this article and see yourself in the opening statements, maybe you feel isolated and alone, at the end of your rope. Or..maybe your adoption/foster experience isn’t quite as rocky, but you would like to learn more about some parenting tools and spend some time with other adoptive/foster parents, if any of these are you, then look into the parent training. You can click here to go to the map and find a trainer near you.

Also, check out the Empowered to Connect Site for more articles and videos to help you in your adoption/foster care journey.

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