Parenting an adopted, foster, or kinship child almost certainly means we are raising kids with sometimes significant trauma histories. How can we better understand the impacts of trauma? Once we know, what can we do to help lead our kids toward healing?

In a recent podcast with Dr. Bruce Perry, he offered the Three Es to help listeners understand the impacts of trauma. We’re fleshing those out and offering practical ideas to help you support your kids and develop the coping skills and resilience to allow them to thrive.

1. Understand the Events.

When seeking to understand the impacts of trauma on our kids, it’s helpful to understand the events that traumatized them. Indeed, that can be complicated for parents of adopted, foster, and kinship children who often come with chunks of time unaccounted for and missing or incomplete records. Add in a young child’s limited ability to talk about what they experienced. You can see how the event in question can feel clouded in mystery.

Events In International Adoptions

Commonly, you will have limited access to your child’s entire history when you adopt a non-relative child internationally. However, you can flesh out common trends of traumatic experiences and living conditions by connecting with other parents who adopted children from the same country or even the same orphanage. It can also be helpful to build a network with families who are raising kids who have similar medical or developmental needs. None of these connections will offer you a confirmed story of your child’s traumatic events. Still, they can help you put together a fuller picture.

Events In Foster and Kinship Adoptions

When trying to piece together the events your foster or kinship child experienced prior to adoption, there are more avenues available to access the information. If you are adopting a child from foster care or kinship care, make every effort to build a relationship with the child’s birth family. If the birth family is challenging for you to connect with, try to reframe your perspective on this information-gathering mission. Keep the mantra, “in the best interest of my child,” at the top of your mind to help you remain free of judgment or criticism. Reach out to caseworkers to access your child’s complete file, including contact information for former caregivers or extended family who might help you fill in the blanks.

When birth or extended family are unsafe for an in-person relationship, consider alternate means of connecting like email or P.O. boxes. You can also use your agency as a neutral third party. Glean what information you can about your child’s prior experiences but stay focused on what the NOW impacts are. Try to rise above the temptation to point out to them (or even dwell upon in your own thoughts) what could have been or should have been.

Partnering with Birth Parents in Foster Care

2. Understand the Experience.

The hard truth of understanding our kids’ trauma is that we may never fully know the specifics or the extent of the trauma they have endured. However, we have many clues of behavior and reactions to the world around them to help us understand their experience of the trauma.

Each child reacts to their trauma uniquely, related to the trauma type, timing, and duration. But they also respond in unique ways to their temperament and environment. As you become a student of your child, you will learn his clues and begin to understand his experience of the trauma. You will start to notice over- or under-reactions to noises or voices. You might even observe atypical sensitivities to textures or repetitive dysregulations at the same time of the day. Some kids have almost calculated non-reactions to events or triggers as learned protection against the pain.

Even if you have adopted siblings with the same traumatic events, remember that every individual reacts to and experiences that trauma uniquely. When you are alert to reactions that lend a peek into his internal experience, ask yourself the following questions to help you understand his experience further:

  • What emotions might he have experienced when this trauma occurred?
  • How can I show empathy for those emotions right now?
  • What triggered the memories of his trauma in our lives right now?
  • Is he sensitive to smells? Sounds? Noises? Storms? Emergency vehicles or persons in uniform?
  • What can I do to buffer those sensitivities before the triggers occur?
  • How can I help him regulate in the moment of greatest need? (Does he need third-party exposure, like books or children’s shows? Does he benefit most from being held or rocked? Can he talk through the feelings and reactions inside his body?)

It will be helpful to remember that kids exposed to trauma are “many kids in one body.” Because trauma impacts development, many kids’ chronological ages do not match their emotional, developmental, or academic ages. When dysregulation ramps up, try to level your response to your best estimate of developmental age and work up from there.

3. Understand the Effects.

On Behavior

As we touched on in our discussion of the emotional experience of trauma, the effects of trauma are usually most apparent in behavior. You are already familiar with rages and rants, meltdowns, defiance, and other challenging behaviors. Remember, other behaviors like isolation, self-harm, and self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, or other addictive behaviors might also be effects of the trauma your child experienced.

On Relationships

Behavior is not the only area of a child’s life where you will see the effects of trauma. A child’s primary caregiver informs and defines what people mean to the child. When a child has experienced early childhood trauma, her brain spends those years trying to connect what she sees, hears, and feels to make sense of the trauma. As her brain organizes that information, she is crafting a belief about how people act.

Trauma — and how she experiences the trauma — impacts how she thinks about people. Thus how she interacts in relationships is also impacted.

For example, when a caregiver – who is supposed to be nurturing, steady, and safe – is unreliable, unsafe, or unpredictable, her brain believes that people will hurt or leave her. To cope with that belief, she may develop a way of relating to people that feels like a constant push-pull. She engages and disengages as her brain seeks to protect her from further trauma. She might be controlling and have a rigid lane of how and when she expresses affection to you or others.

On Self-Esteem

The experience of trauma also influences a child’s view of himself. The traumatic events themselves can make the child feel unloved or devalued. Chronic exposure to those events and emotions can lead to self-loathing. These traumatized children are at risk of believing they deserved the original abuse or neglect. They might also begin to think that they don’t deserve to ever be loved and cherished. Loneliness and isolation, or feeling othered by their trauma, are powerful tools that can further reinforce a sense of unworthiness.

On World View

As experiences of trauma make their way to a child’s brain, the brain also seeks to organize a view of the world. Once a child’s worldview is developed, his brain “likes” that worldview. Even if it’s a warped and skewed worldview, it is safe and predictable to the child. Interactions that threaten to expose their faulty worldview can cause an extreme reaction. Therefore, the child will fall back on the behaviors which provoke responses from others that re-confirm his worldview.

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What Can We Do About the Impacts of Trauma?

1. Nurturing, Connected Parenting

We have the power to influence healing in our child’s brains with the things we do with and for them as parents:

  • Predictable routines for the child and family
  • Regulated, nurturing parenting responses
  • Opportunity for connection with peers and healthy adults
  • Participation in extracurricular sports and hobby groups
  • Belonging within a faith community
  • Build memories and prioritize fun as a family

These activities all offer daily moments in which their brains’ synapses can be re-wired by tiny healing bursts, overcoming the damage wrought by trauma. That moment of clarity and connection is what heals the child’s brain in the short and long term. The repetition of daily nurturing connectedness and responsiveness also heals our child’s brain. It provides a path for our kids to go toward healing for themselves.

Every child who has experienced trauma benefits from the presence of one constant, nurturing adult. Ideally, that adult is you, the parent, as a buffer against life’s adversities. However, there is a need for more than just good, trauma-informed parenting for your child who has a history of complex trauma. Your constant, steadying presence is a necessary element of healing, but chances are your child will need more.

2. Developmentally Appropriate Activities and Interventions

Be an informed advocate for your child in school and with his medical providers. No one will speak for him like the parent who loves him! Educate yourself on the services and supports that best meet him where he is. Work with his teams to provide the stimulation and support he needs to keep progressing as far as possible.

Sometimes speaking up for your child requires that you also be a strong advocate for trauma-informed education for the professionals. It will also require you to think about what to share and what labels you want to add to his records. There is no easy answer to how to do those things. We have a wonderful community of experienced parents who are willing to share what they’ve learned along the way.

3. Create Opportunities for your Child to Serve Others

Finally, one more practical way to mitigate the impacts of trauma is to teach your child to serve others. Service to others calls out the compassion and empathy within your child and builds a sense of responsibility.

Building a sense of meaning and value reframes their skills as accomplishments that are worth offering. If you can find an area where your child has tasted success or achievement, teach her to share that skill or knowledge. She will gain feelings of competence, pride, and connection with the one she is teaching. Your child will understand where she belongs in the world when she can say, “I used to struggle with this, but now I’ve overcome it and can share it with the world.”

How have you implemented some of these tips to help you understand your child’s trauma? We’d love to hear what worked for you when you reply in the comments!

Image Credits: Razvan Orendovici; Capture Queen