Interview: Bryan Post on Trauma-Informed Adoptive Parenting

May 2024

Bryan Post is the founder of The Leaf Company, a program of Parents in Training serving adoptive families in Northern California. He is an adult adoptee, former foster child, child behavior expert, and the author of From Fear to Love: Your Essential Guide to Parenting Adopted and Foster Children and other books. He sat down with Pact to share some key insights about trauma, adoption, and parenting. What follows is a condensed summary of a deep and wide-ranging conversation.

PACT: What is the role of trauma in adoption? Why is it important for adoptive parents to be trauma-informed?

POST: Trauma is any stressful event that is prolonged, overwhelming, and/or unpredictable. If a person doesn’t (or can’t) process or express or make sense of that experience, it will have a lifelong, brain-altering impact. People tend to have a cognitive understanding of what trauma is, but it makes them anxious, so they try to bury or minimize it.

Many people don’t readily accept that adoption is a traumatic experience. If you’re a “lucky” adoptee like me, you’re only dealing with being suddenly removed at birth from the presence of the parent you’ve been enmeshed with for nine months, separated from this body you are connected to on a cellular level. “Unlucky” adoptees like my sister are impacted by high-stress pregnancies, medical issues, substance exposure, and/or multiple placements, which just increase the intensity of the trauma.

When you’ve experienced trauma, that’s part of who you are. It doesn’t define your whole being—but it’s also never not there. Being adopted has impacted my entire life. It explains who I am, what I do, the skills I have. For example, I’m very sensitive, because I’m hyper-vigilant. That allows me to listen deeply and help people. But I am not without scars. I have issues with working too much, I have relationship challenges, I fear rejection and abandonment.

Too often, we don’t allow children to grieve, we don’t recognize grief as an invitation. If adoptive parents are willing to grieve along with their children, that can be a very intimate experience. If children grow up without the opportunity to grieve, not only are they missing out, but their parents are missing out on a shared experience that could bring them closer.

My mother—my adoptive mother, the person I call Mom, the mother who raised me—is so important to me, which means she has the potential to make me feel more vulnerable and at risk than anyone else. Adoptive parents need to understand this. For adopted kids, connection represents loss and pain. In some placements, there is a so-called “honeymoon period” when the kids are perfectly well-behaved. That’s because they haven’t connected yet. Once they connect to someone, fear sets in—they fear losing the person they care most about (again). Fear stirs up their earliest memories, they get dysregulated, they act out. And then—the parents get activated, their own traumas get triggered by the stress, and they start reacting to the unprocessed pain they are carrying around rather than what’s going on for the child in that moment.

PACT: You’ve written about the role that adoptive parents’ own traumas can play in the emotional life of a family. Can you say more about this?

POST: Parents need to get to a place where they can be less reactive and more responsive, because their children need their support. When we haven’t grieved our stressful experiences, we grow up with unprocessed grief—it is stuck in our bodies, waiting to get triggered. If you haven’t processed that stuff, if you haven’t unpacked it, then when you get stressed, it will surface. It will show up as anxiety, as anger, as shame. You have to know your own past story, your own past grief that surfaces when you’re in conflict. Because as parents if we are stuck in our own feelings, we can’t help our kids with their feelings. Parents need to get in touch with the energy in their bodies that gets stirred up, because if they don’t make friends with that energy it’s going to take over.

PACT: Are there popular parenting strategies that you believe are not appropriate or effective for adopted children?

POST: Yes! My answer is simple, but it is not easy. If you are creating more stress, do less. If you are creating less stress and more joy, do more. Society has conditioned us to use fear, threats, and punishment in attempts to control, suppress, and change children. In this model, both parents and kids are operating from a place of stress and fear. This is a self-perpetuating situation.

Think about “time outs.” You are placing a dysregulated child in isolation. Children in distress need attention. They need “time in” with a regulated adult, because children’s regulatory systems are dependent on adults.

The same goes for behavior modification. If kids are stressed out, they will act out. Behavior modification doesn’t recognize behavior as a manifestation of fear and stress. When kids act out they are regressed, they are operating from an earlier emotional age. Adults shouldn’t regress too. Adults need to create regulation by responding with understanding, awareness, and attunement. This calls on parents to listen to behavior but not react to it; to ignore the behavior but not the child.

Another popular concept I have issues with is “consequences,” the whole “Love and Logic” formula. Implementing fear-based, parent-formulated consequences is reactive and blaming, it’s teaching reactivity. Natural consequences are just that—they will occur naturally. I recommend that parents create love-based consequences. This means parents take preventative responsibility for keeping children safe and regulated. This shifts the emphasis from “you” to “I.” If your small child gets stressed in stores and starts picking up merchandise and hiding it in their pockets, you should put your child in your shopping cart to keep them safe. We shouldn’t ask children to figure out their own problems. Adults need to go to the dark places and suffer through the hard stuff with their children to build reparative relationships. This is hard and complicated—and important.

PACT: Are there trends or hot-button issues you are noticing in youth mental health right now? What can parents do to meet their children’s evolving needs?

POST: Gender identity challenges are becoming one of the most pervasive issues facing families today. Again, in highly stressed situations, parents still have to seek understanding. Issues only become bigger when we resist and fight against them. These challenges are usually layered on top of already strained relationships, and unexpressed and unprocessed traumas from the past. Parents accuse their children of being confused when in fact, the parents are just as confused. We really have to work to suspend judgement and at the same time practice sound logic and reason, be responsible and mature adults. If your child is gender-fluid or wants to assign themself an identity separate from your own beliefs, find in your heart the space to love and respect them. At the end of the day, the relationship is the most important thing. Stay focused on a loving, connected relationship and things have a way of working out.

We are grateful to Bryan for sharing his personal story and professional expertise with the Pact community. For more, read the article he wrote for Pact on Understanding Trauma & Behavior in Adopted Children, and check out his website.

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