Adoption is a beautiful way to build a family. However, prior to adoption, there is usually grief, loss and trauma that impacts the brain in significant and lasting ways. This can lead to difficulty in attaching securely, self-regulation and maladaptive behaviors. To repair these results and enhance the development of your adopted child, adoptive parents must develop connection and trust as the foundation of their relationship with their child. With connection and trust as the foundation, adoptive parents can create opportunities and experiences with their adopted children to help heal the trauma and improve their beliefs in themselves, other people and the world in which they live.
Brain research shows that attachment trauma does affect the structure and neurochemistry of the brain. Some examples of attachment trauma include loss of caregiver(s), orphanage care, impersonal/inconsistent care, lack of adult protection, exposure to danger/violence, verbal abuse, physical abuse and sexual abuse. These experiences create surges of stress hormones and an excess of excitatory neurotransmitters that rev up the central nervous system. This often leads to a child being hyper-vigilant, reactive, impulsive and lacking emotional regulation.
Additionally, these trauma experiences (even preverbal experiences) leave imprints on the brain where it becomes wired out of fear, abandonment and rejection. This leads to the natural survival response of fight, flight or freeze. In children, this response resembles aggressive, oppositional, defiant and antisocial behaviors.
As an adoptive parent, it can be helpful to know and remind yourself that your adopted child is not acting out on purpose to defy you. Her brain is wired to be in survival mode and is responding to perceived threat. She does not have the inner ability to stop herself from acting this way. A parent who can shift the focus from threatening and consequencing negative behaviors to connecting and building trust will help rewire the brain out of a fear-based structure.
The consistency at which a newborn baby’s needs are met by his caregiver lays the foundation for optimal brain development. The cycle of distress followed by soothing, calming and nurturing by the caregiver creates healthy brain chemistry. While this process is often missing for adopted children, it can be recreated in a sense by adoptive parents. Just as a parent responds quickly to a newborn baby’s cry, respond when you notice your child distressed. Try to uncover the need underneath the maladaptive behavior or emotional dysregulation. Try to meet that need as much as possible to build trust, help the child feel safe and secure, and enhance your connection.
We all have triggers that can jolt us into negative emotional states. But for many attachment trauma children, triggers can stir up their negative core beliefs that developed out of their early trauma experiences. Common triggers include a parent saying no, a stern look on a parent’s face, mom paying attention to a sibling, parents going out of town, a holiday, homework, bedtime, morning time, or a timeout or consequence. These can trigger beliefs that were formed in early attachment trauma, such as, “There is no one to help me,” “I am all alone,” “I’m not safe” or “I’m not good enough.” These beliefs drive maladaptive behaviors and can escalate an already tricky situation.
As a parent, knowing your child’s triggers can help your child prepare for them and prepare yourself. Knowing in advance that your child will get upset over something gives you a sense of control and empowerment to stay mindful, calm, present and respond lovingly. When your child is triggered and reacting out of a fear-based network, your goal must shift from the task at hand to de-escalating the situation and helping your child’s brain calm back down.
Mindfulness is a “form of mental activity that trains the mind to become aware of awareness itself and to pay attention to one’s own intention” (Siegel, 2010). When parents are committed to staying in the present moment and making the best parenting choices in that moment, they are more likely to make choices that enhance connection and trust. When engaging with a child with attachment trauma, it is important to have a relaxed posture, calm tone of voice and calm facial expression. The parent should be focused on the need underlying the child’s behavior and helping the child feel heard and understood. The parent’s regulated state will model and mentor the child’s dysregulated state to help calm him. This will build connection and trust.
A parent who is not mindful could get caught up in the content of the situation instead of the core need. She may get angry, frustrated or impatient. She may use threats or consequences to try and resolve the situation, instead of connecting, supporting and teaching. Take good care of yourself, try to stay centered and remain aware of your internal state as you work with your child to solve problems and resolve conflict. Deep breaths, personal time- outs and positive self-talk can go a long way.
The best way to create a secure, attuned and joyful relationship with your child is to engage in play with her. Playing with your child and really being present with her in the moment sends wonderful messages of “you are fun,” “you are worthy of my time and love,” “you are a delight,” “the world is a fun, safe and happy place” and “you are important.” When you show your child you understand her, it helps her to better understand others and the world.
Nurturing, playful touch enhances attachment. Being with your child, right there beside her, helps her to feel safe enough to try new things and accept new challenges, enhancing growth and development. Engaging in play with your child can encourage positive change in the child’s self concept. And in the parent’s, it can improve self-regulation, decrease relationship and behavior problems, and build a secure attachment.
When a child reacts out of fear, he looks scary (screaming, yelling, hitting and kicking). The parent can get scared and think, “I have to control my child! He has to learn that this is not ok.” Then the parent may begin threatening consequences and get upset. And the parent looks scary to the child, which only escalates his fear and he will continue to react from survival mode. This cycle will do nothing to help change your child’s maladaptive behaviors. In fact, this cycle will only continue to escalate the problematic situation. A child must feel safe and connected with you to be able to learn from discipline. He also must have a calm brain to be able to understand consequences and good choices.
When a child displays problematic behaviors, respond from a calm, centered and mindful place. Try to understand how your child is feeling and why. Calmly be with him as his brain begins to calm back down. If it helps, encourage deep breaths, hold or rock him, offer other sources of comfort, or just give him time as you stay close by. When you see that he is completed regulated again with a calm brain, you can engage in talking with him about what happened and teaching.
Attachment trauma usually hinders a child’s secure attachment with a primary caregiver early on. A secure attachment is essential for a child’s development. It is likely that your child’s development age is younger than her chronological age. It is important to parent the developmental age, rather than the chronological age. Having unrealistic expectations of your child sets her up to fail, frustrates the parent and child, and hinders the attachment. A child first has to know she can depend on you before she will be able to learn about independence.
Parenting a child with attachment trauma is challenging. It calls for a very intentional, thoughtful and mindful way of interacting with your child--and it is a job that never ends. It is easy to cut corners and slip back into the type of parenting that is more familiar to you. It feels easier and quicker to just try to control your child’s behavior with threats, consequences and material incentives. However, these interventions will not lead to long-term gains with your child. The primary focus must always be on connecting with your child. Attune with your child, notice how he looks and feels, encourage eye contact, and engage in conversation and play. Stay mindful to parent in the best possible way. It is only through connection that a child is able to receive instruction.
A burned out, exhausted, frustrated and hopeless parent cannot interact with her child in the most optimal ways. You must find ways to nurture yourself. Try different things to see what works best for you. You could meditate, do yoga, garden, pray, listen to music, journal, or get a massage or manicure. Also, seek out support. Join with other adoptive parents who know what you are experiencing and can relate. A parent’s emotional state is so important in helping a dysregulated child calm down. A parent’s calm state helps the child to feel safe, secure and connected. Taking care of yourself is taking care of your child.
All relationships involve conflict. There are times of separation, misunderstandings and differences of opinion. It is especially hard when a behavior crisis occurs and intense negative feelings are felt. Discipline also can be difficult for the parent and child relationship. These conflicts can create disconnect and mistrust in the relationship if not handled appropriately.
It is always essential to take time to reconnect and repair when a conflict occurs in a relationship. It is critical to make time for repair with a child who has experienced attachment trauma. After the conflict or crisis situation has concluded and everyone has had enough time to cool down and become regulated again, the parent should initiate a reconnection. It is important for the child to feel the parent become available, sensitive and responsive again. This helps her brain to believe that in spite of separations, conflict or crisis, the relationship always continues. This will deepen the trust and connection between the parent and child.
Being an adoptive parent is a tremendously rewarding job, but it is also very challenging. Try to stay centered and calm by practicing mindfulness. Understand that your adopted child endured grief, loss and trauma before the gift of adoption and this affected her brain development. Your child needs to feel safe and connected with you above anything else. With connection and trust as your foundation and a safe, playful setting as your environment, you will enable your child to believe positive, hopeful and joyful things about himself, others and the world around him.
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