The Trauma and Adoption Connection


Siobhan Rowe
Special Needs Database

AFABC has prepared this special needs supplement on trauma because, whether we like it or not, trauma is inextricably linked to adoption. Of course, not all children who join their families through adoption have experienced trauma, but many have.

Until fairly recently, it was assumed that only children who have experienced extreme abuse or witnessed violence would suffer the effects of trauma. But science is now telling us that if the mother of a growing fetus is experiencing trauma herself, the stress hormones that she releases will flood the baby too. This can result in the child being born hyperreactive and hard to soothe. It’s also safe to say that many expectant mothers considering adoption for their child experience such stress, particularly if they are the victims of violence, have little support or face other extreme stresses.

Some experts believe that even healthy newborns who, after nine months of companionship with their birthmom during her pregnancy, are handed from birth parent to adoptive parent, experience the trauma of that separation.

Parents who adopt children from the foster care system must also understand the signs and symptoms of trauma. The vast majority of these children have experienced neglect and abuse, often of a sexual nature, at the hands of their caregivers. When you add to that frequent moves in and out of foster care and within the foster care system, then you have a recipe for suffering and anguish.

Trauma is also clearly an issue that needs to be considered by parents who adopt internationally. It hardly needs to be said that children raised in orphanages often experience the early trauma of multiple caregivers, and lack of attention and nurturing. Sudden life changes like being taken to another country and culture by adoptive parents can also be a traumatic experience, even for tiny infants. Some internationally adopted children have also suffered the trauma of living in a war-torn or extremely violent society, or have experienced the death of, or separation from, close family members. Elinor Ames, Canadian attachment expert and researcher into the adoption of Romanian orphanage children, cautions that "All adoptions of orphanage children should be considered by both prospective parents and adoption officials to be special needs adoptions."

In the past, it was believed that traumatic experiences were often forgotten about over time. It is now understood that, in fact, our brain stores trauma away and, depending upon an individual’s circumstances, it can remain close to the surface or deeply hidden.

Of course the brain doesn’t just archive traumatic event; early childhood trauma directly affects the growth and structure of the brain. Brain research now tells us that childhood abuse and other sources of extreme stress can have lasting effects on the parts of the brain that are involved in memory and emotion. The hippocampus, in particular, seems to be very sensitive to stress. Damage to this part of the brain can cause problems in dealing with memories; it can also impair new learning. Scientists have shown that the brains of rat pups that experienced the stress of being picked up for a short period of time by a human, look different from other pups.

When a child is experiencing trauma, all that child’s psychobiological resources are directed at survival. This can interfere with the development of a capacity to love, trust, feel safe and, in some cases, learn and thrive. The good news though, is that depending upon the level of trauma and the way it is treated, humans can recover from trauma and lead successful lives.

Though there are common symptoms, each child, even siblings who experienced the same traumas, reacts very differently. 

As we have mentioned, all this doesn’t necessarily mean that all adopted children are traumatized. But it does clearly indicate that adoptive parents must be aware of the signs and symptoms of trauma, be prepared for them to show up at any point in their child’s life, and be willing to take an active role in helping their children heal.

by Siobhan Rowe