Understanding Trauma & Behavior in Adopted Children

by Bryan Post


 Along the stress-full journey we shall go

In his seminal work, “The Emotional Brain,” neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux explores how traumatic experiences in early childhood, whether remembered or not, can impact adult behavior. “In times of stress,” he writes, “our thinking becomes confused and distorted, and our short-term memory is suppressed.” I have been teaching this scientific finding for 20 years and expand this idea to note that stress does three things: It causes us to react from the past, takes us out of the present and causes us to obsess about the future.

When you are having a stress reaction, you are not here in this moment. When you are not in this moment, you are in a place that has already occurred (angry, for instance, about the slow drivers that made you late for your doctor appointment) or in a place that has not even happened (worried that you’ll have to reschedule your appointment because you are going to be late). You are essentially living in a stress-driven mirage and it’s powerful because it may be connected to an unconscious memory in your brain that has sounds, smells, temperature, visuals and much more attached to it. It is alive and awakened from your cellular being. This is a trauma memory and it is, in its essence, the root of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

We commonly associate PTSD with soldiers and police officers, yet this is a narrow understanding of trauma. Trauma is any stressful event that is prolonged, overwhelming or unpredictable. And when you do not have an opportunity to process trauma—to talk about it, cry about it, yell about it, talk about it more and finally make sense of it—what might otherwise be a short-term stressful event becomes a long-term, potentially life- and brain-altering traumatic event.

This is extremely important information to understand when it comes to parenting. Unfortunately, we spend 90% of our time focused on children’s behavior rather than working to understand children’s reactions and stress levels. Additionally, when we are focused on their behaviors, we are not mindful of our own stress- and trauma-driven reactions. If/when parents’ or professionals’ primary focus is on changing, controlling or suppressing unwanted behaviors, they are operating from a place of stress and fear that generally is not going to be useful in helping children accomplish positive changes.

What’s stress got to do with adoption?

In a word: Everything. Adoption at any age is a stressful and most likely traumatic event. Just the separation from the biological parents leaves an indelible imprint upon a newborn’s cellular experience, one from which the child may never fully recover. And this is to say nothing of experiences such as physical, sexual and emotional abuse, abandonment, alcohol and drug exposure that children may also have experienced. Adopted children can harbor layered trauma that few adoptive parents or professionals fully grasp.

These events may have happened in the past, but they’re still there in the brainstem, our brain’s hard drive; they’re like files that never get fully deleted. These files—these traumas—are stored away, just waiting to be accidently opened by various triggers, revealing a past experience of fear and pain that colors the lens of the person, thereby changing everything they see and hear in the new moment. Taking the new and making it old.

However, that’s only one-side of the proverbial adoptive coin.

The other side is that of the adoptive parents themselves, many of whom have gone through an enormous emotional journey on their way to adoption. Some adoptive parents never had biological children and have grief around that. Others have children born to them and also chose to adopt children, and then struggle to make sense of why the parenting that succeeds with the former doesn’t also work with the latter. And let us not forget that parents were once children, too, and we have our own files of subsequent experiences stored in the hard drive of our brains. Years and years of adulthood have sufficiently shielded the grown-ups from accidentally opening their own files until alas, the adopted child enters the home.

You will dance with me whether you want to or not

In his groundbreaking work aptly titled “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ,” psychologist Daniel Goleman writes about the human response to stress. He coined the term “amygdala hijack” to describe what happens in the brain when the amygdala—the part of the brain responsible for processing emotions—detects fear and prepares the body for a response. When the amygdala is triggered, it shuts down (or hijacks) the part of the brain responsible for logical thought, floods the brain and entire system with stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, and prepares the body for fight or flight. In other words, amygdala hijack is an immediate and overwhelming emotional reaction disproportionate to the stimulus because it triggers a deeper emotional threat.

This was intuitive before the science of oxytocin (the brain’s anti-stress hormone) and the work of Dr. Paul Zak began to catch the attention of the public. Dr. Zak explained that a healthy hypothalamus releases oxytocin in the presence of stress that ultimately helps sooth a child’s activated amygdala. However, we also learned that the oxytocin response is a learned response of the brain. Therefore, a child birthed in conditions of stress and cortisol (i.e. trauma) has a poorly developed oxytocin response.

When your child becomes stressed and their reaction doesn’t match the stimuli, their amygdala floods their body with stress hormones, which in turn triggers a response in your own amygdala. When your child is stressed, you will inevitably become stressed, too, as this is an evolutionary function. Ideally, because you have a lifetime of navigating and repairing repeated stressful experiences, you are able to react less negatively and respond with greater positivity and frequency. It is your ability to release oxytocin in that moment—a learned response—which helps your amygdala settle.  Remember: Your adult brain is more mature than your child’s youthful, developing brain. So rather than reacting in alarm, you will be able to respond to your child’s stress-driven behavior with appropriate oxytocin-fueled support and understanding.

Here’s where things get tricky: When your child becomes stressed and begins to signal a need for soothing and support, instead of the ideal situation outlined above, your amygdala overwhelms its own oxytocin response, flooding itself with cortisol and adrenaline and activating the brainstem, the silent storing place of the old files we discussed earlier.

When the brainstem is activated and the old files are opened, a host of experiences and feeling flood forth causing a cascade of unhelpful emotional sensations which render you incapable of lending the kind of support your child’s immature and trauma-exposed brain is seeking. Rather than receiving a supportive and soothing reaction which will help them produce calming oxytocin, their brain receives an equal if not greater threatening vibration and then there is no safe place to be found. It is from this place that negative behaviors spout forth.

Psychiatrist Bruce Perry, a Senior Fellow of the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, states that during times of stress we revert to our developmental zones of comfort. In other words, when we stress, we regress and then act out according to our emotional age (the age at which our emotional trauma occurred). Every negative experience and sensation connected to the emotional age becomes activated and changes the lens through which we see.

For example, one of my clients recently shared an experience she had with staff at her child’s school. Her son had had a significant meltdown following an incident and rather than call her, the administrators waited to inform her when she arrived to pick him up. My client was put on the spot as the teacher and staff asked her how to deal with it.

She froze but was able to calm her child enough to get to the car. Once there, her older child also began to meltdown, further agitating the younger child until both were in full-blown meltdown. Not knowing what to do, my client called the kids’ dad who came to help her. When telling me about her experience, my client stated that she was worried and embarrassed because there were other parents around, and she couldn’t drive away because the kids did not have their seats buckled.

Of note is this family had previously endured a traumatic experience with a local children’s service that was made public; the parents were separated, and the children were removed, before subsequently being returned to the home when all allegations were proven unfounded. I pointed out to my client that when she was caught off guard by the school staff, this opened the files of her family’s past experience. When the boys melted down in the car, she was further accosted by the shame she felt at the presence of other parents, further intensifying her own internal reaction. She was literally frozen and did not know what to do, a perfect example of Dr. LeDoux’s quote introduced at the beginning of this article: “In times of stress,” he wrote, “our thinking becomes confused and distorted and our short-term memory is suppressed.”

Right now, this moment is all that matters

My client was having a traumatic reaction as much as her children were. Yet, the responsibility of the parent is to provide emotional safety in the presence of stress. Before mom can soothe her children, she must soothe herself. This takes practice and some specific tools.

I suggested to her the following very simple steps to calm her brain: Start by taking deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling; roll up the car windows to reduce the sound; drive out of the parking lot away from the perceived judgement of others and then pull over to contend with the situation. By focusing on herself first, she would be releasing herself from the grasp of her own trauma. She would be stepping out of the past and back into the present. This, in turn, would give her the opportunity to turn on oxytocin and be able to offer her children the support and understanding they were craving.

Every behavior challenge you encounter is a gift to see differently. Take a fresh perspective. Seek to understand. The greatest opportunity for healing occurs during the behavioral episode because that is when those old files get opened. It is in these moments that you have the greatest opportunity to respond with oxytocin rather than more cortisol, thus planting a seed in your child’s brain that slowly begins the work of reorganizing the trauma that occurred at an earlier stage of development. Being able to soothe and support your child requires one and only one very important thing…you must stay in the present moment. Now. Right now. Settle your own fear, turn on oxytocin and help your child calm their fear and learn how to turn on oxytocin for themselves. This is how you go from fear to love. Let love do the healing.

Bryan Post, an adopted and former foster child, is one of America’s foremost child behavior and adoption experts and founder of the Post Institute (www.PostInstitute.com). You can receive a free copy of his best-selling adoptive parenting book “From Fear to Love” by going to www.feartolovebook.com.

More Posts to Explore

Book Review: When We Become Ours

Book Review: When We Become Ours: A YA Adoptee Anthology Edited by Shannon Gibney and Nicole Chung reviewed by Katie Wynen 2024 “Representation makes us feel less alone. Representation plus imagination anoints us to fly.” The closing lines of Rebecca Carroll’s...

read more

Book Review: I Would Meet You Anywhere

Book Review: I Would Meet You Anywhere: A Memoir by Susan Kiyo Ito Reviewed by Pact Staff 2024 Listening to adoptees is the best way to learn about the experience of being adopted. In her compelling memoir, Susan Ito reminds us that adoption is indeed a lifelong...

read more

Book Review: Adoption Unfiltered

Book Review: Adoption Unfiltered: Revelations from Adoptees, Birth Parents, Adoptive Parents, and Allies by Sara Easterly, Kelsey Vander Vliet Ranyard, and Lori Holden reviewed by Pact Staff If you’re seeking to move past the “fairy tale” and deepen your understanding...

read more