Delayed Effects of Trauma in Foster/Adoptive Families

Delayed Effects of Trauma in Foster/Adoptive Families

  • We potential adoptive/foster parents study the science of trauma. 
  • We learn about the five Bs affected by Trauma.
  • Foster/adoptive parents take all the classes and hear all the reports about how the kiddos were neglected/abused, etc.
  •  Then we willingly sign on the dotted line and say, “Yep, I’m in.” 

Adoptive/foster parents are not saints or superheroes. 

Adoptive/Foster parents are just regular people who want to part of the solution. We want to build safe/secure/family oriented environments for kiddos who have had trauma.

We are called special, saints, have patience, etc… when we bring the kiddos home. When they start exhibiting behaviors as a result of the trauma, suddenly we are bad parents. I’ve been there, along with the multitude of foster/adoptive parents who contact me.

I was on the phone with an adoptive/foster parent the other day. One of her seven kiddos exhibiting some violent and destructive behavior. It was evident that she was beating herself up, i.e. blaming herself. I asked her a question that I ask all parents in this scenario – How are your other kids doing? Have you successfully parented them? Every time the answer is slow to come, almost as if it’s something the parents haven’t thought about. “Yes,” she said haltingly. I knew the answer before I asked the question. It’s a question to change the focus. We adopted/foster parents are not responsible for the trauma kids experienced before they entered the home or the effects of it. We try to be. We want hope and healing for these kiddos more than anyone else.

Trauma doesn’t always exhibit after effects right away.

Here’s a key point. Trauma doesn’t always show the effects right away. There sometimes seems to be a delayed reaction.

When I was eight, I had a serious bicycle accident. I flew over the handlebars and landed on my head after sailing over a speed bump. I woke up on in the ER to a doctor pulling rocks out of my face with a tweezer-like tool. I got off the table and said, “This is a dream.” It was pretty horrific. I was placed in a room with another young girl. She was hooked up to wires and monitors. She was in a coma. I overheard the doctor and parents talking about the car accident she had been in a year earlier. Her body was exhibiting the after-effects of the trauma now. A year later, her body was shutting down. (This really freaked me out!)

This is a physical example of what the body may do. In the book, The Body Keeps Score, Van Der Kolk, M.D. says:

“There have in fact been hundreds of scientific publications spanning well over a century documenting how the memory of trauma can be repressed only to resurface years or decades later.”

The Honeymoon Phase

Adoptive/foster parents go through a honeymoon phase with kiddos similar to what young couples go through after the wedding. Everyone is polite, kind, trying to please and be accepted. Then it gets too exhausting. We wives wipe off the makeup and put on our yoga pants because now we feel comfortable enough to be our real selves. Yes, sometimes we take it too far (raising my hand here). 

The adopted/foster kiddos version of this is – I feel secure enough to go back to who I was. I don’t have to perform anymore. Or, the opposite end of the spectrum, they’re going to harm me, just like everyone else did, so I’m going to control my environment. I’m not saying these kiddos are doing this consciously or planning it out in their journal. It’s just the survival mode response. We all have it to varying degrees. Parenting the Hurt Child explains it this way:

“The struggle, however, represents something completely different for parents than it does for children. While the parents are simply trying to get the child to accomplish a simple task — such as dressing for school, getting ready for dinner or picking up his toys — the child is involved in a struggle to survive. He resists the intrusion and direction by others and perceives it as a fight for his life. As a result, his behavior becomes stubborn, tenacious, and intense. Think about it — how hard would you struggle if you thought that giving up or giving in would mean certain death?”

Be kind to Foster/Adoptive Parents

On a final note, be kind to adoptive/foster parents. You really have no idea what they are going through (unless you are one). Even if you are an advocate or therapist, you’re still behind a veil. You may know more than others, but you haven’t truly experienced the after-effects of trauma.

We foster/adoptive parents are doing the best we can. We need cheerleaders and prayer warriors more than we need judgement for our kiddos’ behaviors.

The Habit of Celebration

In the month of November, we turn our attention to practicing gratitude. That’s a great focus. Today, I’d like to take that a step further and say, we need to practice the habit of celebration which in turn produces memories to be grateful for!

“Make sure that the good ground of your home includes an abundance of laughter, parties, celebrations, presents, candles, Christmas trees, gifts, surprises, rocky road ice cream, jokes, backyard picnics, vacations, mountain bikes, bike rides, swimming, fishing and games. At the various houses in which our family has lived, we have had things like a swing set, a tree house, a tent, sleeping bags, a basketball hoop, baseballs, gloves and bats.” 

Seven Habits of a Healthy Home

One summer Sunday, we had a family birthday celebration for Amerey and Damian. Their birthdays are three days apart, and we often celebrate them together. We had grilled chicken and veggies and had a build-your-own fajita buffet. 

My brother Jess and his wife Tessa were able to come, along with their two children, Lexie and Alivia. My sister Natasha and her three children, Aaliyah, Aaron, and Israel, came too — plus my daughter Audrey and her husband Adam. We had a full house and lots of conversation and laughter.

The ironic thing about this celebration is that it had been preceded by a catastrophe. An hour before the party was to begin, Amerey and I were in the kitchen doing some prep work. She was making five gallons of lime water while I sliced green peppers. Her boyfriend had called us several times and warned us that a violent storm was headed our way, but it was still sunny, so I just kept chopping. Within minutes, though, the wind picked up, and black clouds rolled in. Amerey and I ran down to the pool patio and put the umbrellas down, closed the shed, and ran back inside with the wind knocking us around and sheets of rain pouring down on us. 

Back inside, Amerey dried off with a towel and checked the garage. An inch of water had flooded in. We began moving drums and anything we could out of the water’s path. Then she ran upstairs, only to find water cascading from the foyer light. 

My brother Jess and his family had pulled up in the middle of the storm and were waiting it out in the car. When the rain slowed, he called.

“Come in here — we need you!”  I said.

He came inside, checked out the light with a flashlight, and found where the water was coming in. The rest of the family arrived home from church, and we worked on sweeping water toward the garage drain. Tessa took over my slicing job. Damian went down and fished the sticks, leaves, and other debris out of the pool. I cleaned out the light and cleaned up water around a leaky window.

I went back to the kitchen to make sure everything was out and ready. Amerey and Tessa were still slicing and dicing, and everything was on track. “I am so through with this house!”  I complained to Tessa, and then we had gone on with the party.

The highlight of the celebration was our tradition of taking turns at the dinner table to speak blessings to the birthday person. It’s a celebration of memories. Each person starts with, “My favorite memory of you from the past year is . . .” 

This particular year, Damian had turned eighteen, and the comments he received were all about his work ethic and how he had matured. My son-in-law Adam spoke of his tenacity in projects, such as taking something apart and building something new out of it. 

The memories people shared with Amerey were about her being on her own, living in an apartment. Ania’s favorite memory was being able to go spend a weekend in the apartment and eating almost a whole pan of brownies together. Fun times!

I tell this story as a reminder: some of our best memories come at unlikely times. Like a fun-filled birthday party in the middle of a massive storm.

Choosing to Celebrate

Celebration is a choice. If our family had waited until all the circumstances were perfect before we celebrated life, that party never would have happened. When it comes to celebration, timing isn’t everything.

“He who observes the wind [and waits for all conditions to be favorable] will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap.” (Ecclesiastes 11:4)

 This scripture puts it plainly. If I wait for conditions to be favorable or for everything to be perfect, than I will never sow, nor will I reap. If I want to reap a harvest of memories with my children, then I must sow the habit of celebration over and over again. 

As a parent, you never know which memories will stick. Every once in a while, my children will speak of a bad memory from their past, but more often than not, they share good family memories. 

“Remember when we went hiking at Coopers Rock?” 

“Remember when we made cards at my birthday party?”  

“Remember when we rollerbladed up and down the boardwalk at the beach?”

Each one of these memories were probably preceded by unfavorable conditions. They definitely weren’t experiences that we planned down to the last detail and executed without any hiccups.

While speaking to the Mom to Mom group at our church, I was asked the question, “Well, what if I plan a fun activity like making cookies, and my kid says she doesn’t want to do it?”  My answer? “Do it anyway!” 

I have found that no matter what “fun” thing you have planned, there will be naysayers. The naysayers may drag their feet and complain, but years from now, it may be a fond memory. I am often surprised when my kids mention one of these events as a favorite memory — even though I remember clearly that, during the actual event, he or she didn’t want to participate. 

Hurt children are often afraid to participate. If the situation is a new scenario for them, they may feel out of control. If the child has bad memories associated with a particular activity or event, he may think that it will end up the same way. 

An example I’ve already mentioned from my own life is long car trips. In my childhood, these were scary times for me. My father would become tense and angry as soon as we got in the car. I began to associate long trips with anger. I didn’t want to get in the car and go to the mountains or the beach or anywhere. Even today, in my adult life, I must remind myself  that long trips are not bad things.

*If you’d like to learn more, check out How to Have Peace When Your Kids are in Chaos – the book  (this article is an excerpt ) and the course.

The Five Bs Affected by Trauma Part 5- Behavior

This is the last in the series on “The Five Bs Affected by Trauma”, you if you missed the rest, start here. Also, hop on over to the printable resource page for a copy of “How Trauma Affects Kids.”

Science says there are five Bs affected by trauma, and we cannot overlook them. In kids from hard places, behavioral disorders are a symptom of the effect trauma has had on their development. 

Negative behaviors will be taken care of once a child is securely attached. To achieve that, we must start with the five Bs and work our way out from there.

Behavior

Behavior — an altered ability to self-regulate in response to stressors. This can manifest as impulsiveness, self-destructive behavior, aggressive behavior, excessive compliance, sleep disturbances, eating disorders, substance abuse, a re-enactment of their traumatic past, or pathological self-soothing behaviors.

This is the one we seem to put the most emphasis on. Why can’t this kid just behave? 

Children from hard places have an altered ability to self-regulate in response to stressors. Kids are impulsive! 

When a baby is born, the mother regulates for him. She feeds him when he is hungry. Wraps him in a blanket when he is cold. She rocks him to sleep when he is tired. When he gets a bit older, he begins to co-regulate, this is the two-year-old who gets the juice out of the fridge and pours himself a glass and gets it all over the counter. He begins to recognize his needs and try to meet them. Self-regulated is the final destination of this journey. This is when a teen or young adult can regulate himself. He drinks water and doesn’t become dehydrated. He eats food. He sleeps when he is tired. He starts handling his bank account on his own.

 Children from hard places often have this cycle of regulation broken. Their needs are not met consistently. They miss the season of co-regulation. As a child, they don’t recognize their own body’s signals for food and water. Their sleeping patterns are messed up. They walk around slightly dehydrated. They don’t eat enough or do the opposite. Gorge. 

What we see on our end is dysregulation. A child who can’t sit still. A child who fidgets. Speaks out of turn. Who doesn’t listen.

Key to Remember – “Good/excited stress loads in a child from a hard place in much the same way as bad/traumatic stress. Generally, a child cannot tell the difference.” – ETC

As a result, children from hard places often experience heightened and persistent levels of stress and fear, driving them to develop an array of survival tactics and inappropriate behavioral responses. However, as Dr. Purvis reminds us: Every behavior has a purpose and a function. Behind every behavior and misbehavior is a need, and we must come to view our children’s needs not as something negative but as something very positive. Needs are one of the primary ways that God uses to bring people into a relationship with others and with Himself. So, we need to learn to follow the needs of our children.

Behavior is a need however inappropriately expressed.

 “It’s can’t, not won’t.”

Many children from hard places deal with heightened levels of stress and fear. In order to help our children heal and move forward, it is critical that parents understand how pervasive fear can be and what it looks like in our children’s behaviors and responses.

Fear is much more than a feeling. Fear is a state of being, and for many children from hard places, it has become a way of life.

There are three ways that children from hard places typically respond to fear and stress:

  1. Fight- frustration, explosive or aggressive, resistive, acting out, saying “I won’t, You can’t make me!”
  2. Flight- Goofy, Physically or emotionally distracting behavior, running, escaping behaviors, distractible, clowning, redirecting, easily bored, effectively saying, “I’m out of here.”
  3. Freeze- Body is often not receiving signals from the brain- whiny, tearful, clingy, fearful, reluctant to separate or to try new things, withdrawing, hiding, saying “I can’t!”

THERE IS A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FEELING SAFE AND BEING SAFE!

Instead of asking, What are you afraid of, ask, what do you need?

In order to truly address the issue of fear, we will need to create a sense of felt-safety for the child.

 Key to remember-You provide felt-safety when you arrange the environment and adjust your behavior so that the child can feel safe.  Felt safety is just as important and real as actual safety, even for adults. Think of a time that you were perfectly safe and yet you had anxiety. Everyone has something that raises their anxiety level. It could be heights, snakes, spiders, elevators, flying, or crowds. 

Now think about how you react to those around you when confronted with those fears, and you’ll understand your children’s behavior better.

Want to hear more about behavior?

In this episode of Positive Adoption, Kathleen continues the series on the Five Bs affected by trauma with “Behavior.” Behavior — an altered ability to self-regulate in response to stressors. This can manifest as impulsiveness, self destructive behavior, aggressive behavior, excessive compliance, sleep disturbances, eating disorders, substance abuse, re-enactment of their traumatic past, or pathological self soothing behaviors. Grab a cup of coffee and join Kathleen as she finishes this series!


Five Bs Affected by Trauma Part 2

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

“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, I don’t know. He/she is so manipulative” — as if the child will pull the wool over my eyes (as he may do with some professionals or teachers), or as if their situation is so unique and so individual that I won’t be able to grasp it. 

It is in this pit of “aloneness” that satan likes to keep us. 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. And the one who is to be banished to the pit at the end of age tries to keep us equally isolated. 

Fortunately, that pit is not where we belong, nor do we need to stay there any longer. There is hope. Isaiah says that God’s people perish for lack of knowledge. To move forward with our kids, we must first have knowledge.

SEcond B affected by Trauma


Science says there are five Bs affected by trauma, and we cannot overlook them. In kids from hard places, behavioral disorders are a symptom of the effect trauma has had on their development.  I covered the first B affected here. Today, I’d like to talk about the second B – Biology.

Biology — altered neurochemistry. Complex trauma can cause a variety of issues: sensorimotor development problems, hypersensitivity to physical contact, somatization, increased medical problems, and problems with coordination and balance.

Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers that help our bodies think, feel, and move. However, the levels of key neurotransmitters in many children from hard places are often high, too low and/or out of balance.

Neurotransmitters (NTs) are naturally occurring chemicals that transmit information between the cells (called neurons) throughout your body. Over 5o NTs are present in the nervous system, but only a handful are currently measurable and understood in relation to our health and functioning.

Neurotransmitters or NTs control the on and off switches in the nervous system. They help define our moods, behaviors, and health.

There are two primary types of neurotransmitters:

  1. Excitatory NTs which increase the likelihood that a neuron’s signals are sent. Excitatory NTs are responsible for providing energy, motivation, mental cognition, and other activities that require brain and body activity. We refer to these as the GAS PEDAL. The gas pedal can get stuck.
  2. Inhibitory NTs decrease the likelihood that a neuron’s signals are sent. Activation of inhibitory NTS causes a chemical change within the neuron that oppose the effects of excitatory signals. Inhibitory NTs are responsible for calming the mind and body, inducing sleep, and filtering out unnecessary excitatory signals. We refer to these as the BRAKE PEDAL. The brake pedal can get stuck as well.

A balance between the levels of inhibitory and excitatory NTs is necessary for optimal health, yet many children from hard places show significant, sometimes profound, imbalances in their neurochemistry. This can result from a number of primary causes, such as chronic stress, poor diet, exposure to neurological toxins (e.g. heavy metals, chemicals) and genetics.

A growing body of research has documented significant alterations in hormones and NTs in children with histories of abuse, maternal deprivation and neglect.- Dr. Karyn Purvis

Want to know a bit more on how biology is affected by trauma? Listen to the edition of Positive Adoption below!

Want a free printable resource to share? You can download “How Trauma Affects Kids” on our Printable Resource Page.

Five Bs Affected by Trauma Part I – The Brain

“Too often, parents and experts look at behavioral disorders as they existed separate from sensory impairments; separate from attention difficulties; separate from early childhood deprivation, neurological damage, attachment disorders, post traumatic stress and so on.”

The Connected Child

By taking the time to examine what issues are driving a behavioral disorder, we gain a foundation of understanding. When we learn the science — the “why” behind a child’s behavior — our reactions will be tempered. 

When a child is behaving poorly, we often try to treat the symptoms rather than getting to the root of the issue. I know I’ve been guilty of that on several occasions. Of course, this approach doesn’t work; it never does. Just as removing a bottle of whiskey from the liquor cabinet won’t cure your father’s alcoholism, focusing on a child’s behavior won’t cure their attachment issues. There is a deeper problem we have to address.

“Chronic trauma is a lifestyle that is marked with traumatic events.

– Nurturing Adoptions

Science says there are five Bs affected by trauma, and we cannot overlook them. In kids from hard places, behavioral disorders are a symptom of the effect trauma has had on their development. 

Negative behaviors will be taken care of once a child is securely attached. To achieve that, we must start with the five Bs and work our way out from there.

Brainaltered brain development and an overactive amygdala. 

Children from hard places have altered brain development and an overactive amygdala. It’s as if the child is being chased by a bear all the time. As Deborah D. Gray explains in Nurturing Adoptions

“Neurobiologically, trauma shapes the developing brain. Early high stress is especially damaging because brain development is at an early stage.” In Emotional Development, Alan Sroufe makes a similar point when he describes the brain as experience-expectant and experience-dependent. Neglect deprives the experience-dependent brain of the experiences needed to develop the brain structures that support and stretch positive mood states. Neglected babies do not build the structures in the brain that allow for self-soothing or smooth processing through highly arousing experiences.

Think of a brain like a house with an upstairs and a downstairs. At birth the downstairs brain is developed. It houses things like breathing and survival mode.

Life in the Downstairs Brain

“It’s time to get up and eat breakfast.”

“Could you please pick up your socks?”

“No, the math equation isn’t solved correctly. Try again.”

You ask or correct, and in response, the child retorts, “Why are you yelling at me? You always yell at me!”

Have your children ever said this to you? How about when you are talking in a normal tone and they are yelling? Confusing, huh?

These kids seem to be hearing things differently than the rest of us — and they are. They are operating in their downstairs brain, which means they are seeing things through the lens of hypervigilance. They are in survival mode. Noises sound louder. The amygdala, which resides in the downstairs brain, is hard at work looking for danger. Its switch gets stuck in the “on” position, leaving the child in a constant, adrenaline-fueled state of fight or flight. 

“Chronic fear is like a schoolyard bully that scares children into behaving poorly.”

– The Connected Child

Even if they aren’t in any actual danger, the child does not feel safe — and in some ways, felt safety is more important than genuine safety. When a child feels safe, the primitive downstairs brain lets its guard down and allows other portions of the brain to operate. Higher learning can occur when a child feels safe. He can understand reason, logic, and choices. 

When children come from traumatic beginnings, their primitive brain remains the driver until the child feels safe. These kids are perpetually on guard. They don’t remember fun events or joyful times because they weren’t fully present. Their brains instructed them to survive these experiences in whatever shape or form they could. In survival mode, they didn’t have the capacity to really enjoy themselves.

The upstairs brain, on the other hand, is completely different. As The Whole-Brained Child explains, the upstairs brain is “made up of the cerebral cortex and its various parts-particularly the ones directly behind your forehead. Unlike your more basic downstairs brain, the upstairs is more evolved and can give you a fuller perspective on your world.” It’s sophisticated as opposed to primitive. This is where the creative process lives — imagining, thinking, planning. Logic lives here, too.

Children who live in the downstairs brain or survival mode are bossed about by their will — minus the intellect or common sense that reside in the upstairs brain. They are impulsive. As our pediatrician said of our eldest when she became extremely mobile at five and a half months — “maximum mobility, minimum common sense.” Thankfully, with proper brain development, the intellect catches up, and the child develops impulse control. 

Some call this “will.” Charlotte Mason, for instance, speaks of children having a strong will when they are able to govern their will. In other words, the more the child (or adult for that matter) can control his will and boss it around, the more he is living in his upstairs brain.

Some Practical Suggestions

So, how do we help a child integrate the upstairs brain when he demands to stay downstairs? 

First, remember that your child’s brain is a work in progress. The upstairs brain is still developing. It won’t happen overnight. To start, you can help him climb the stairs once and check it out. The more often he does that, the more he will use it. The more he uses it, the more it will grow. 

Here’s another suggestion: Give him assignments that require him to use the upstairs brain. He needs problems to solve, and he will encounter plenty in his everyday life. Give him the space to work them out on his own instead of doing it for him. This is where planning, creativity, and logic come into play. 

And I do mean play. LEGO building. Block towers. Drawing. Writing stories. Planning out a plot. 

My son who loves to write (he just wouldn’t admit it publicly, so keep that to yourself, ok?) loves story prompts. We did a semester of them, usually a few times a week. I wrote the prompt on the whiteboard, and he wrote the rest of the story. When he got stuck in a rut and everyone died at the end of each story, I put my foot down and asked him to think of some new endings. No one lived happily ever after, but they lived. 

Kids today have so little time to be creative. Soccer practice is good, but it doesn’t replace the need for creative play. 

In the upstairs brain, YELLING can become conversation:

• “How did you build that? Tell me about it.”

• “How do you think you can solve that problem?”

• “What could you do differently?”

• “What could you do to make your day easier tomorrow?”

Just remember, these questions cannot be asked in the middle of a meltdown. You must make opportunities when things are calm and happy. It is tempting to enjoy the calm and slip away to do something else (like the dishes), but take advantage of the quiet to connect with your child and watch him work his upstairs brain!

Fear is a powerful dictator. It rules the child without love, logic, or reason. It’s easy to look at the behavior as willful disobedience. I know I have. But for us adoptive/foster parents to help our children rewire their brains, we must rewire ours. If we see these behaviors as brain issues instead of behavior issues, we can begin to help our child — even if what the child believes may sound ridiculous to us. 

Fear has no logic. It has no boundaries of common sense. It doesn’t obey commands. It can only be diminished through felt safety — not by orders, sermons, or discussions. Once we understand this, we can help our children feel secure and begin the process of moving upstairs.

Want to know more? Listen to the podcast below.

*This article is excerpts from How to Have Peace When Your Kids are in Chaos for Adoptive/Foster Parents.

You can find the accompany course here.