Can a child adopted as a newborn have adopted-related trauma issues? Before we get too far into the question, I want to advise you that I am not a medical professional. This article is written only from my personal experience and research done as an adoptive mom who is willing to learn the effects adoption has on raising our son. I suggest you seek professional help if you have additional concerns about your child. Let’s start with some basic definitions. The definition of trauma is “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” Then, what is adoption-related trauma? There is not quite a specific dictionary definition of adoption-related trauma, however, many believe there is trauma involved in most adoptions. Let’s explore how this could be possible.
Before we can get into adoption-related trauma, let’s start with a child’s development. A child’s brain actually starts in utero. The prenatal brain development starts at just two weeks after conception. The formation of the neural plate begins and then curves into the neural tube which will close and separate into four sections: the forebrain, the midbrain, the hindbrain, and the spinal cord. They will then make up the child’s nervous system weeks into the pregnancy. Finally, the cerebral cortex will form, which is the part of the brain that controls voluntary actions. This part of the brain is underdeveloped at birth but matures within the first few years of the child’s life. See how much development happens even before the child is born into this world?
What can be done to help a baby’s brain develop? Of course, many have heard that you are to avoid drugs, smoking, and alcohol while pregnant. There are other things you should avoid as well. Stress, yes, stress can have a negative effect on a child’s development in the womb. A good rule of thumb is the better health you are in, the better health the unborn child will be in. Making sure you are eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and proteins is also a good idea. Your doctor may also suggest you take a daily prenatal vitamin. It is also important that you continue to attend your prenatal appointments, and talk with your doctor about any concerns you may have. Many birth mothers find themselves under a great amount of stress when pregnant. Even the greatest birth moms are under some form of stress. Keep that in mind when you are considering whether or not a child adopted as a newborn can have adoption-related trauma.
When your child arrives their brains are a fraction of the size of an adult brain, however, they already have almost all of the neurons they will need for their life. You have heard of the “soft spot” on your baby’s head, right? These soft spots are actually called fontanelles, and they are there because your child’s skull is not fully fused at birth. This allows the baby to be able to fit through the birth canal but also allows room for the brain to grow. By the time your child reaches the age of 3, their brain will almost be the size of an adult brain, making the first few years of your child’s life a critical period for your child to learn and grow.
When children are developing, they start to form synapses at a faster rate than any other time in their life. They actually produce more than they will need and not all of them will make it to adulthood, which allows them to learn things more quickly than adults. This becomes a crucial time to teach your children.
What else is happening in your child’s brain? At birth, a baby’s vision is very fuzzy and they can only see a few colors. Through the first six months of the baby’s life, cells form in their brain that will eventually form the visual cortex. By three months, their eyesight will improve and by the time they are six months old, they can see almost as well as an adult. Engaging your child’s sense of sight is crucial during the first six months of their life. You can do that by making facial expressions to them or exposing them to different colors, objects, and patterns.
Also, during the first year of the child’s life, their cerebellum triples in size. This allows them to learn things like rolling over, crawling, eating solids, and walking. Encourage them to learn new things. At birth, your child’s life myelination is incomplete in many parts but during the first year of their life, it rapidly develops.
Not only do you need to encourage your child to learn and grow, but it is also crucial that your child gets proper nutrition during the early childhood years. Our brains require a vast amount of energy and nutrients in order to develop and utilize its’ components properly.
Issues with Adoption
So what does all of this have to do with your question, can a child adopted as a newborn have adoption-related trauma issues, then? It has everything to do with it. Let’s see how.
Every adoption is unique but they all start the same—with loss. Experts have considered separation from a child’s birth parents, even as an infant, a traumatic event. Which means every adopted child will experience early trauma in at least one form. Everything the child had been used to, even in utero, the sights, sounds, and smells are gone. Remember when I talked about the part of the brain that is developed above, the nervous system? That part of the brain is responsible for the fight, flight, or freeze response in children. When this happens to a child before the age of 3, it may be recorded in their brain as an implicit memory. This simply means that the event of a child being taken from their natural environment and placed elsewhere is not only a traumatic event that has taken place in the child’s life, but it is also stored in their brain.
Effects on the Brain
What is happening to the brain of an adopted child then? For starters, the hippocampus, which is a small organ within the brain’s medial temporal lobe, is affected. The hippocampus is mainly associated with learning and memory. Early stress can negatively affect the hippocampus as well as its ability to regulate stress after a traumatic event. Not only that but the corpus callosum, which integrates motor, sensory, and cognitive performance, can also be negatively affected by early stress.
When the brain structures are compromised due to early trauma, a child’s development, social, emotional, and behavior outcomes change. What could this mean? It could mean that a child’s flight or fight mechanism could become hypersensitive. Which means a child could face a chronic fear response. Also, children who have experienced trauma may be delayed in cognitive, social or developmental milestones. Children who have experienced early trauma could also develop anxiety and depression in their adolescent years.
While I don’t want to spend a ton of time on this section, I do want to point out a few issues that can arise with adopted children that also have an effect on a child’s life. They are loss, rejection, guilt/shame, grief, identity, intimacy, and control/mastery.
Loss: No matter how great an adoption plan is, adoption is loss. Without the loss of birth parents, there would be no adoption. Even if adopted at birth, the adoptee suffers from the initial loss. Any subsequent loss could become more alarming to the adopted child. It is crucial to recognize the adoption as a loss in order to later help your child if they react in a negative way to the loss or the subsequent losses in their lives.
Rejection: Much like the feeling of loss above, rejection is often related to the loss. Be sure to acknowledge that your child might avoid certain situations where they might be rejected. Adoptees, even at a young age, may understand the concept that they were once the “un-chosen” before they were the “chosen.” Try to have an open dialogue with your child about how they feel about their adoption experience and how they feel about being rejected.
Guilt/Shame: The feelings of rejection may lead to guilt or shame. They may begin to think something is wrong with them to have been adopted. Try to make your child know they were unconditionally loved and are special. It may be hard for your child to not feel like they did something wrong but assure them it is not anything they did.
Grief: This may come at different times in your child’s life. Many adoptees are not able to fully understand the impact of their “loss” until they are adults and able to understand more. Without being able to process their loss, they will not be able to fully grieve for their situation either. Be sure to continue to have an open dialog with your child about how they feel about their loss and grief.
Identity: Your child may have issues identifying who they are and what their identity is. Depending on if you have an open adoption or not, may depend on how much information you have about your child’s birth family. If you are lacking information, your child may question a lot about their identity. It helps if you have an open adoption to at least know more information about your child’s first family.
Intimacy: Your child may have issues in relationships with members of the opposite sex as they begin to age and learn more about biology and reproduction. Make sure to have age-appropriate discussions with your child about this.
Control/Mastery: Your child may relate to issues of control because they may feel they were not part of the decision to be adopted in the first place. They had no control. Now they want the control. This can trigger power struggles with parents and their adopted children. Be aware this may occur as your child gets older and questions more and more of their inability to control situations.
How to Help
Be aware of your child’s attitudes, emotions, and signs of distress. Remember, you are their parents, and you probably know them better than anyone else. You must also recognize the impact of trauma in your own life. Make sure to take a look at how you respond to trauma or most importantly, past trauma. You then will be able to relate to your child more. Not to mention, they can feel your nonverbal communication more than you would like! Many times it is important to reduce sensory stimulation for children who have trauma-related issues. Pay attention to how your child reacts to overwhelming environments, loud noises, and large crowds. Time-outs are not always the best response to children who have been adopted. Try the time-in approach, where instead of sending your scared and stressed child away, bring them to you to help them feel safe and secure. Then allow this time to discuss what previously happened that lead them to the “time-in.” Show your child affection! Discuss with your child’s teacher, if necessary, any additional help he/she may need. Educate yourself and others that impact your child’s life about the effects of trauma on children. Make sure you have adequate support. Find a local adoption support group, or there are several online.
There is a therapy that has been discussed to help traumatized children called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR. This was first developed by Francine Shapiro to reduce the distress associated with traumatic memories. This therapy targets the unprocessed memory along with the emotions, beliefs, and body sensations associated with the memory.
I recommend that if you feel your child needs additional help coping with their adoption, you seek professional help.
In short, the answer to your question is yes. Can a child adopted as a newborn have adoption-related trauma issues? Yes, they can.
Jessica Heesch is an avid runner and fitness guru by choice, occasional writer by coincidence, loved by an amazing husband, and mother to an incredible boy, Jackson, by the gift of adoption.