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Helping adopted and foster children navigate their early trauma

Julie Beem Executive Director Therapeutic Parent Attachment & Trauma Network, Inc. (ATN)

Children in foster care and those available for adoption--either domestically or internationally-- have suffered the loss of their original parents. It is also likely that they have suffered many other hardships and traumas.

Unaddressed early childhood trauma has been cited as a major factor in chronic illnesses, depression and anxiety, addictions and psychiatric disorders. But a loving, stable family and adoptive/foster parents who provide a safe, secure base can be a major factor in helping children who have been exposed to early trauma. There is much you can do to help your adopted/foster child who has been traumatized.


Do recognize the potential of trauma in at-risk children

The federal government cites that 90 percent of children in U.S. foster care have been exposed to trauma. And children in international orphanages are equally at risk. Ongoing research into brain development tells us about the enormous impact that early neglect, abuse, abandonment or unmitigated pain can have on an infant’s ability to develop normally.

The term, complex trauma, describes children's exposure to multiple or prolonged traumatic events, which are often invasive and interpersonal in nature. Adopted and foster children do not come to our homes as clean blank slates--even if they don’t have language to tell us about their traumas. Complex trauma affects a child’s sense of safety, ability to regulate emotions and capacity to relate well to others. Research shows that the earlier a child experiences trauma, the greater impact it has on the child’s developing brain. By understanding trauma, parents have the opportunity to help their child from the start.

Do understand that previous trauma may affect current behavior

How do you identify trauma in a young child or infant? Behavior is the language by which our children communicate. Traumatized children’s behaviors are often unpredictable and surprising. Their response to things that we would view as positive or commonplace may be extreme. They may be triggered by sights, sounds or smells that we have failed to notice. We may be highly confused by their reactions.

Knowing as much about your child’s history as possible is important. The history of where your child lived before coming to you, as well as any events that happened, can provide you with clues as to why he/she is reacting in a particular way. Parents need to play detective. Instead of focusing on the behavior itself and trying to get it to stop, ask yourself what preceded the behavior that may have triggered this reaction. When possible, change the situation or environment to see if your child reacts differently.

Do reassure your child’s need for safety and security

Traumatized children often will not directly say they are scared or feeling insecure. They may not have the language to say that; however, their behaviors will convey their feelings. It is vital for parents to create a safe and secure environment, and to focus on communicating this to your child. While it might seem obvious to you, there is nothing wrong with directly telling your child that he/she is now in a safe place, and that it is your job to protect and provide. Consistency in schedules, routines and rituals helps to reinforce this security.

A frequent strategy that parents of traumatized children employ is to make the child’s world smaller. This means to simplify the child’s life. An example is removing video games or other technology that can overstimulate the child and, instead, spending more time in one-on-one interaction at home. Parents find that eliminating TV or other distractions--and focusing on playing games or other togetherness activities--help to build the child’s trust that home is a secure and nurturing place. Make sure you do not involve your child in too many activities, sports and lessons. Instead, spend time helping your child learn self-care strategies, and how to relate to you and begin to feel safe in your home.

Do advocate for your child’s needs

Traumatized children, especially those with complex trauma, are likely to struggle in a variety of situations. They may need extra help in school to learn and concentrate academically. They may struggle socially with making friends or understanding interpersonal communication. They may find it difficult to control their impulses and anger. Or they may not be self-motivated or able to complete any task. All of these challenges can look like many other things, but relate back to the trauma’s impact on their early brain development. When triggered, traumatized children, just like adults with PTSD, will react with either fight, flight or freeze. This fight, flight or freeze response can look like all of the behaviors above and be mistakenly identified as other disabilities or problems by those not familiar with complex trauma.

As your child’s parent, you must help others who work with your child to understand these issues. The impact of complex trauma is just now being recognized. As a result, some teachers and counselors do not understand how to work with children with trauma challenges.


Do not wait to seek professional help

Consulting with a trauma-informed, adoption-competent therapist is never a sign of your inability to parent. The sooner you find someone who understands complex trauma, the better tools you will have to help your child. Not every child therapist is experienced in complex trauma, attachment and adoption issues, so interview therapists to see if they will be a good fit for your family and the situation. Trauma-informed therapists can help you develop strategies and techniques to respond to your child’s behaviors, as well as help create and maintain a calming, safe environment.

Do not assume your child will get over it or does not remember the trauma

Parents sometimes receive advice from friends and family that children will “grow out” of their traumas on their own or “can’t remember” because they were so young. But researchers in early childhood development tell us just the opposite. Even though your child is not able to tell you about specific incidents that happened when she was a baby, it does not mean she doesn’t have a memory of it. It is not a memory in the sense of recalling and retelling events that happened last week. It is actually a somatic memory that her body and brain remember. And she will need help learning how to process and live with the feelings that triggers present.

Do not underestimate your role in your child’s healing

A safe, stable home with loving, nurturing and strong parents is the best healing agent for a child of trauma. As Dr. Bruce Perry of the Child Trauma Academy points out, research shows that children who have a strong attachment to a caregiver, such as a parent, will be more resilient and able to handle traumatic stress better.

Don’t ever take for granted your role and your power in helping your child. Healing may not be apparent immediately or come in a predictable pattern. But providing your children with the safety and nurturing they need--day in and day out--will make all the difference. Parenting traumatized children is not for the faint of heart. It is incredibly intense and exhausting work. However, the rewards of helping our children’s hearts heal are tremendous

Do not forget to take care of yourself

Helping a child heal from early trauma is an arduous task. In many ways, you are like a frontline emergency response worker who is working a 24/7 shift. Ensuring safety and remaining calm can be challenging if your child is constantly anxious or if his behaviors become dangerous.

Maintaining a calm demeanor, while dealing with challenging behaviors and advocating for your child’s needs, can be exhausting. Parents helping to heal a child’s complex trauma must build a support network for themselves and develop ways to practice self-care, which includes plans for taking breaks from their parenting, such as respite care. This can be quite challenging because leaving traumatized children with sitters or respite providers requires them to have an understanding of the child’s trauma and triggers, and to understand what to do.

But it is critical that you prioritize your own self-care if you are parenting a child of trauma. Exercise, healthy diet, a chance to unwind/decompress and intentionally doing things you enjoy are all activities that parents must work into their schedule, daily and weekly. Finding others who are parenting traumatized children or who have had similar experiences also can be very helpful. The support of others who have “been there, done that” is invaluable. Ask your adoption professional or your child’s trauma therapist about local groups in your area, or join national organizations that have online support and can connect you to experienced parents.

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If your children have been exposed to early childhood trauma, it is crucial to recognize that their behaviors may be communicating their distress. When parents understand the impact that trauma can have on their young children, they can become better healing agents. Seek professional help from trauma-informed therapists. Don’t underestimate the impact of your child’s early beginnings. Recognize that you are a major catalyst for your child’s healing. Parenting a traumatized child is emotionally challenging work. Take care of yourself, so you can stay strong for your child. Together, you can navigate toward healing.

More expert advice about Adoption and Foster Care

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Julie BeemExecutive Director Therapeutic Parent

Julie Beem is a mom of four and a parent three ways - biological, step and adoptive. She began her journey of learning to therapeutically parent traumatized children after adopting her youngest from China in 1998. Since 2004, Julie has been an...

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