We were smack dab in the middle of our adoption journey when we stumbled upon the term: secondary trauma. When our domestic adoption agency offered training on secondary trauma, I was intrigued. We had recently completed our training to be foster parents, and the effect of trauma on children–even a child in the womb–fascinated and alarmed me.
So, I grabbed a notebook and a pen and settled down to view the training via webinar in my living room. The training I received that day was not at all what I expected, but it was probably one of the most valuable pieces of training that I could have participated in.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network defines secondary trauma as the “emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another.” It is not uncommon with therapists, caseworkers, and other professionals who work with traumatized children. That includes foster and adoptive parents.
You see, I had no idea what secondary trauma was when I signed up for that training. I thought they were referring to the trauma that children experience either at the hand of their trusted loved ones and/or from being taken away from loved ones. It was actually training for us, the prospective adoptive parents and, by extension, foster parents.
My Experience with Secondary Trauma
Years later, our domestic infant adoption journey was over, and we were foster parents. We took in a sibling group of five with the intention of eventually adopting them. At the time, the kids were ages 7, 6, 5, 3, and 20 months, and they had been in foster care for almost two years. It was not long before I started noticing signs of trauma in the children. One was in constant fight-or-flight mode, one was unattached to anything or anyone, another sought attachment so intently she had no healthy boundaries. I heard their stories and watched them experience life in a way completely different than I did. I began to feel their emotions myself so much more intensely than I had ever felt before.
One morning, at the dentist with my oldest daughter, I began to suspect I was suffering from some of the effects of secondary trauma. I do not even remember why we were there, but I remember sitting next to her in the waiting room. While reading an article on my phone about trauma and anxiety in foster kids, I looked into my daughter’s eyes. Her pupils were as large as saucers. Their beautiful blue hue was not even noticeable. At that moment, the feelings she hid washed over me. I felt her terror at feeling vulnerable in a place she had no control over, her uncertainty as she still was not quite sure if I was trustworthy. I felt intense sorrow and confusion as I knew that she did not quite understand what was going on, at the dentist’s office or in her life in general.
At that moment, looking into her eyes, right there in the dentist’s office, I cried. Completely unnatural for me. I am a pretty stoic person. But, there I was, quietly crying. My daughter rolled her eyes, but I think she saw my heart hurting for her, even if she did not quite understand it. Later that day, in reflection and while trying to figure out what was wrong, I remembered that training many years ago. Was I experiencing secondary trauma? The symptoms certainly were PTSD-ish, though I felt that diagnosis should be saved for those who had been through “real” trauma. I pushed the thought aside but did not forget it.
As the kids became more and more a part of our family, eventually becoming adopted, I found myself having more and more “episodes” of strong emotions. I carried the weight of parenting adopted children on my shoulders, constantly worrying I was not good enough for them. Our family began sharing our adoption journey on YouTube and social media to encourage others, but I felt like an imposter. I still worked full-time and noticed my performance there had decreased significantly. My temper was always at the surface. I began self-consciously projecting my desire for perfection onto my family. I knew I was struggling, but I thought I could handle it.
And then, I had my first panic attack. My heart raced, my skin crawled, and I cried uncontrollably. I had no idea what was going on. Even my husband was a bit freaked out. He encouraged me, saying, “You need to talk to your doctor about this.” I agreed.
It turns out that I have full-blown, generalized anxiety. It has taken a few years to adjust medication and my lifestyle to limit its effects, and I am nowhere close to having this all figured out. I still struggle daily with fears of inadequacy and failure. There are still moments I have to hide from my family to calm down. I know that anxiety is a journey, and its end is not on this side of heaven.
So, why share this with you? I believe that my anxiety disorder originated in the secondary trauma I experienced while fostering and adopting my children: secondary trauma that I chose not to address at the time because I was embarrassed by my weakness. I ignored what I was feeling because I did not think it was important, so my secondary trauma grew until it became anxiety.
If you are an adoptive parent, foster parent, or potential for either (or both), be aware of secondary trauma. Even if you adopt an infant, there is trauma in the process that you are not immune to. Adoption is a mix of joy and sadness, loss and gain. Remember that no matter your path to adoption, there are those before you who have walked the road. There are those beside you walking with you. We all feel the same things, but some choose to hide it. If you find yourself struggling, look for help. Find a group of adoptive parents, find a counselor experienced in trauma, or open up to a trusted friend. It is okay to seek medical help. Medicines are a valuable tool in the fight against anxiety–not a cure, a tool–and when used as such, you might just find yourself feeling normal again.
If you have a friend or loved one adopting or involved in foster care, look for signs of secondary trauma. Make sure they know you are there for them and that you will not be scared away. Your presence and support is the most valuable thing you can offer.
Dr. Rachel Remen said, “The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.” Such is adoption. You are not alone.
Kristal Black lives in Southwest Missouri with her husband, Jared, and five children adopted from foster care. She and her family’s mission is to encourage and support those interested in or involved in foster care and adoption. She faced all the same fears you might have about foster care and adoption and wants to help you overcome those fears. For fun, Kristal loves hiking, reading, and playing board games with her family.