What Does Secondary Trauma Have to Do with Trauma from Kids Who Are Adopted or Fostered?

Trauma, as defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, is a “disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury; an emotional upset.” Accidents, natural disasters, loss of a loved one, physical, emotional or sexual abuse are just a few types of trauma that adults and children may experience. These may be one-time events, also referred to as an acute trauma or chronic trauma, events that are repeated and last over a period of time. 

What Is Secondary Trauma and What Do I Need to Know About It?

Secondary trauma, sometimes called vicarious trauma, is emotional duress experienced by someone as a result of prolonged exposure to the details of another person’s traumatic experience. Typically, the first people to come to mind when thinking about risk for secondary trauma are members of the armed forces, first responders, and mental health professionals who either physically see or listen to firsthand accounts of traumatic events unfolding around them as part of their regular jobs. 

There is another population at great risk for secondary trauma that may not be as easily recognized or understood. Children who have been exposed to overwhelming, uncontrollable events, those that did not happen directly to them but leave them feeling unsafe, vulnerable and even helpless, may show signs of post-traumatic stress. 

Types of Events That May Cause Secondary Trauma in Children.

  • Parent or caregiver involved in combat
  • Parental divorce/conflict
  • Awareness of details regarding emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
  • Possibility of family or community violence
  • Learning that a traumatic event occurred to a close family member or friend
  • Repeated exposure to disturbing details of traumatic events

Essentially, if a child is exposed to situations deemed disturbing or difficult, indirect trauma may occur. For example, a parent returning from deployment who lives with post-traumatic stress disorder and has regular nightmares that keep a child awake at night; images of war played on the television; living in a community where drug or gang violence threatens physical safety daily; hearing detailed stories of abuse and suffering. These things need not be happening to someone directly for them to begin having symptoms of anxiety, depression, lowered sense of self-efficacy, perceiving one’s self as a victim, or feeling fear and isolation. 

What May Trigger a Secondary Traumatic Reaction?

According to an article in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, factors that influence how a child will adjust to trauma include the following:

  • Type(s) of trauma the child is exposed to
  • Number and types of co-occurring hardships (i.e. poverty, homelessness, previous trauma, parental separation, or substance use)
  • Mental & physical health of the child and his/her caregivers
  • Resilience factors within the family
  • Childs developmental stage (consideration of chronological age & emotional age)

If an adolescent or teenager has experienced one or more of the life events previously mentioned, it doesn’t automatically mean he or she will have a negative reaction or response to it. There are multiple factors that impact how someone processes and copes with events in his or her life. For example, news of parents getting a divorce may be felt as a significant loss resulting in worry, sadness, difficulty concentrating, and lower grades or test scores in school. One child may not improve with time, resulting in a more complex traumatic response while another child may adapt relatively easily, working through the loss with little impact on overall functioning. 

Lack of support or inappropriate responses from caregivers can have a significant impact on a child’s overall emotional well-being. How family members react, particularly a mother, plays a big part in how a child adjusts after being exposed to a stressor or type of traumatic disclosure. We are not all born with the same understanding of emotions and what to do with them when they arise. Children learn from the time they are infants whether emotions are acceptable to express or not. Growing up with primary caregivers that repeatedly reject or dismiss a child’s need for safety and comfort, that is parents who become notably angry, criticize, or ignore a babies cry to be held or a young child seeking comfort when scared, can make it very difficult for a child to make meaning out of her thoughts and emotions let alone find healthy ways to express them openly and honestly. 

High-risk families experiencing higher than normal stressors and adversity combined with inadequate or unhealthy physical and/or emotional child functioning and development are likely to predict how vulnerable a child is to have a traumatic response and symptoms. 

Trauma and Kids Who Are Fostered or Adopted.

Kids who are exposed to adverse situations and circumstances develop physical and emotional strategies to survive. Early childhood trauma such as neglect or abuse changes the brain, potentially limiting a child’s ability to empathize, regulate emotions, and form healthy relationships bonds with caregivers. In her book Treating Traumatized Children; New Insights and Creative Interventions, Beverly James shares that children experiencing what they perceive as a life-threatening event, without the sense that an adult is available or able to protect them, may react by dissociating themselves from the event, engage in destructive behaviors, experience a deep sense of shame, and may have intense feelings of loss and betrayal. Following is a brief description of how each of these coping strategies may look or sound in a foster or adopted child. 


Dissociation is a common way of coping with stressors. It occurs when the brain compartmentalizes a traumatic experience to avoid feeling pain or discomfort. In children this may appear as a trance-like state or zoning out to a point where they may not respond to you. They may experience lapses in memory to include a time period when the difficult event took place or even forgetting what they did moments ago. Mood changes may be noticeable, out of character behavior, and even sudden changes in energy may occur as a result of a child trying to manage painful experiences.

Destructive behaviors

Any time a child is participating in trauma-induced destructive behavior, it is best to check with a therapist or counselor so they can complete an assessment to ensure the child does not harm himself or others. Destructive behaviors may include self-harm, both direct as in “cutting” of their skin or more subtle actions such as minor injuries from “accidents.” A traumatized adolescent or teen may provoke a bully, instigate a fight, or destroy someone’s personal property, fully anticipating he or she will get caught and be punished. Or she may self-sabotage her own success. It is hard to imagine someone intentionally seeking out behaviors or consequences of a behavior that will cause him pain, either physical or emotional. These behaviors are connected to beliefs that being destructive is needed for survival. He may believe that he deserves to be punished and acts in ways that cause harm. Sometimes, this destructiveness is an attempt to make sense out of what happened or even a means for seeking revenge against the person responsible for the trauma she has either directly or indirectly experienced. What drives this behavior is usually a conscious or unconscious attempt to meet her emotional needs or resolve a conflict. 


Shame is powerful and not in a good way. Traumatized children can often feel deep shame causing them to feel alone and isolated, finding it difficult if not painful to make eye contact with parents, caregivers, or professionals working with them in their journey of healing. They may feel pressured not to tell anyone what they have seen or heard out of fear of making it worse for themselves or their family. Shame has a way of making people believe that they are damaged goods, and if others in the community were to know what’s happening, they will be shocked if not horrified and that may be too much to bear for a developing mind.

Loss and Betrayal 

Lastly, in her book, Beverly James talks about the significant feeling of loss and betrayal traumatized children go through and explains that they may not feel relief when it ends, or when they are removed from a stressful or dangerous situation. Throughout the first few years of a child’s life, the many interactions she has with her mother becomes internalized and form what John Bowlby called the internal working model or relationship rules. It is a set of core beliefs about self and others and these beliefs answer the questions, “Am I worthy of being loved?” “Can I get the love I need?” “Are others trustworthy and reliable?” “Will they be there for me when I need them?”

Even in the face of adversity such as neglectful or abusive parents, hospitalizations or war, the natural tendency and desire to be loved will lead a child to seek proximity and attention from his primary caregiver even if the “love” he gets is painful or destructive. When faced with the loss of loved ones due to trauma, a child may mourn the loss of the only love she or he knew, loss of friends, identity, and things that are familiar to the child. 

Navigating Trauma in Kids Who Are Adopted or Fostered

Children develop strategies for surviving both physically and emotionally when they have been exposed to adverse circumstances. There may be a natural tendency to believe that once removed from such circumstances and placed into a stable, loving environment where physical and emotional needs are met, a child should easily adapt. The truth is entering a safe family environment does not automatically turn off or change the coping mechanisms that a child learned previously. The part of that child’s developing brain that is designed to protect her has been overstimulated as a result of being exposed to traumatizing events, making it hard to manage emotions such as anger, fear, elation, shame, and despair. The child will continue these strategies which are often mistaken for “bad” or acting-out behaviors. 

Children may be confused and not fully understand what has happened and will need help and patience as they learn about “normal” emotional reactions and thoughts in a way that are age and developmentally appropriate. Developmentally appropriate conversations require an understanding that chronological age and emotional age may not be equal. A child that is ten years old and has been living with increased stressors or experiencing secondary trauma on an emotional level may be functioning as that of a 6-year-old. 

Sometimes, the brain reacts even when danger is not present, and while this is not a free pass to act in self-destructive or potentially dangerous ways towards others, understanding and validating what is behind this behavior while keeping boundaries around appropriate consequences for such behaviors can go a long way when trying to make sure not to retraumatize the child in this new, safe environment. 

Caregivers may feel a sense of helplessness while trying to create a healthy, positive bond with their child. Families may need extra support to help their adoptive or foster children during key stages of development as they may be working through feelings of rejection or abandonment which may be compounded if there is a history of neglect or abuse or if the child is exhibiting symptoms related to secondary trauma. While not a totally inclusive list, the following points can be considered as goals while developing a sense of safety:

1. Physical safety – food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, seatbelts, no abuse

2. Emotional safety – working towards being able to understand (age appropriate) and manage feelings without participating in self-harm

3. Social safety – feeling cared about by others

4. Moral safety – being able to recognize right from wrong and choosing to do the right thing

The focus of this article has been on secondary trauma as it relates to children who are adopted and fostered, but it is equally important to mention that other children living in the house, whether they are other foster children, adopted children, or biological, are at risk for developing symptoms related to secondary trauma as a result of being exposed to another member of the family’s trauma history. If you notice new or different changes in thoughts and moods, changes in arousal and reactivity, avoidance, or other intrusive symptoms of other children in your home, check with your healthcare provider for additional help and support. 

Debbie Logan is a Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in North Carolina. She is passionate about helping individuals and couples improve their relationships and create lasting connections. Debbie has been married to her husband Chris for over 20 years and together they have 2 sons. As a birthmother in reunion, Debbie chose a semi-open adoption plan for her daughter in 1989 and has been navigating her reunion journey since 2007. Advocating for birthmothers is an important part of Debbie’s adoption journey. She has spoken at several workshops and served on a birthmom panel at the Concerned Persons for Adoption Conference in 2001. She is slightly obsessed with German Shepherd dogs, visiting farmer’s markets, and drinking coffee! You can connect with Debbie on Instagram (@debbie_loganmft) or by visiting www.debbieloganmft.com.