Family Trauma: Traumatic Effects and Responses of Adoptive Families
Kaylene Scholl Henderson MA
In 2013, the US Department of Health and Human Services data reported that there were 402,378 American children in the foster care system. 101,840 of those children were released (parental rights terminated) and awaiting to be adopted. Children that had the privilege to be adopted that year were 50,608. According to the Department of Human Services many of those children were in the foster care system 25.2- 33.5 months prior to the finalization of legal adoption into what is termed their, “forever-family.” For many of these children, they were placed in and out of 3-7 or more foster families before their final move to the adoptive home. This calculation does not include all the overseas adoptions that have come into our country from orphanages or other housing places for children.
The trauma and crisis state that these children endured in their journey to the adoptive home has been profound in loss and traumatic effects which can cause negative responses towards the family unit in which they have become a part of. The effect of these traumatized children has many adoptive families living in their own subjected trauma effects and responses unbeknownst to the community around the family.
This research paper will define trauma and crisis, reasons that an adoptive child exhibits violence onto their forever family, traumatic impact on the adoptive family, coping in the midst of the family in trauma, and spiritual and professional treatment options for the adoptive family unit.
Family Trauma: Traumatic effects and responses of adoptive families
“Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear, break into singing and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate then the children of the married wife.” (Isaiah 54:1 KJV) By design the woman was created to bear and nurture children, (Genesis 4:1 KJV) yet some cannot bear and others do not have the fortitude to nurture. In both circumstances crisis is found. For the one that cannot bear, the crisis is in the loss of bearing and/or nurturing a child. For the other, the loss is attachment and bonding in relationship with their child of birth; for the child there is the loss of a nurturing, protective mother that cares for the primary needs and resources for growth and life. Without intervention in all three scenario’s the potential for traumatic effects and responses are sparks in the straw waiting for the wind to blow fire to life.
Crisis is referred to a “turning point” or crucial time in a person’s life when there is an internal reaction to an external hazard. Crisis is a result of a root symptom of loss and has special significance for the individual. (Wright 2011) Crisis is also described as having the experience of danger and /or opportunity. (Kanel 2007) Loss is to no longer possess that which you once had, (i.e. material objects, relationship, home, health) or the lack of experiencing a presumed natural life development. (i.e. marriage, baby)Trauma on the other-hand is exposure to actual or threatened death. Briere & Scott (2015) conclude that, “an event is traumatic if it is extremely upsetting, at least temporarily overwhelms the individual’s internal resources, and producing lasting psychological symptoms.” (i.e. natural disaster, fire, accident, violence, witness of)
Many factors collide in the adoption realities while trying to create a balanced family unit that loves, learns and grows together. An understanding through education and personal resources can help to, define the crisis events that dictate trauma, unveil reasons for adopted child violence, describe traumatic impact of adoptive family, define successful coping strategies to manage the effects of violence and address treatment through a spiritual and professional approach.
Reasons for the adopted child violence
The reality of rejection and abandonment producing great anguish at the loss of a parent is paramount. Jesus the son of God was not even immune from the anguish of the father turning his face away. (Mark 15:34 KJV) In this heart-wrenching cry, Jesus died. Nancy Verrier (1993) states that, “abandonment is a kind of death…a part of the self, that core-being or essence of oneself which makes one feel whole.” Observations from adoptive families concur that no matter what the age of the child at adoption, even a new-born from the hospital, carries a sense of abandonment. Relationships by nature have the capacity to be attuned with the sense of belonging or destructive in the absence of attachment with the other person in a relationship.
A child, (one of human parents, strongly influenced by another, or by a place, or state of affairs) that has been removed from their biological family (born into a group of people living together under one roof, usually under one head) has endured the crisis and trauma of the loss of what was familiar to them, even loss, violence, neglect and abuse. Children have lived on high levels of adrenaline from hyper-vigilant states of self-protection. A large percentage of adopted children have lived through horrific trauma experiences that could have included, neglect of primary care, domestic violence, sexual abuse, witness of murder or homicide, personal beatings, the family toy, unattended illness, death of family member, the drug culture, gang involvement and a host of other unimaginable exposures. Continued trauma induces results of adrenaline addiction, (Gloom 2013) disenfranchised grief and other traumatic effects.
The hyper-vigilant state resulting from a life of trauma causes traumatized children to live with high levels of adrenaline to keep their senses sharp to help prevent being in an environment of high levels of abuse. Living at continual high levels of adrenaline causes traumatized children to become addicted to their own adrenaline for survival. When these children are placed into safe foster or adoptive homes that are not as dramatic, the children need to provoke a level of arousal, trouble, and danger that will induce a higher level of adrenaline to be released, helping the child feel normal. When a foster/adoptive parent is strong enough to maintain self-control during a child’s escapades, the child needs to heighten their behavior danger in hopes to get a rise from the parent thus meeting their adrenaline rush need.
Gloom (2013) states, “This high production of adrenaline eventually causes the person to become conditioned to needing production for everyday functioning.” These negative behaviors starts as a coping mechanism to feel normal.
An area of loss and grieving that seems to be overlooked for foster and adopted children is disenfranchised grief. Disenfranchised grief is the grieving experience of a victim (the foster child) that is not recognized or validated by another person or group of people. Many are left to wonder why there is such an emotional connection (Doka 2007) forgetting that the biological family ‘is’ where the child was born to belong. The relationships of this child with their biological family has been disrupted. The reason the child has come into care is not to be the primary focus of whether the child should care or grieve the loss, but the relationship, the belonging and knowing where he/she fits in the role of their world. The emotions that explode are those of fear and anger at those who are in the place of those they were taken from. The focus on the lost relationship overrides the new clothes, new room, food and the “extra love” the foster family wants to bestow. The natural order of things is minimized for material embellishments from the new family.
The child is probably accustomed to loss and grief and has already established a pattern that was introduced by their original culture norm. (Briere & Scott 2015) To deny this child the opportunity to acknowledge their loss and grieve is an enormous weight resulting in another abandonment, being alone in their pain with no one to walk along side of them. Questions emerge in the child’s mind, “What have I done wrong? What is the matter with me?”
The effects of trauma experiences have been researched and documented for half-a century or more, starting with in-utero trauma. Critical events in a child’s life, especially at growth intervals, can cause the lack of brain development or retardation from hormonal imbalances. (Feldman 2014) The primary start is learning to trust in infancy when the infant relies on the primary caregiver to meet basic needs of food, water, shelter and safety. A theory of personality development was established by Abraham Maslow referred to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This diagram shows five basic needs that an individual needs to love, learn and grow. The level that these five needs are cared for will help define meaning to that particular person’s life resulting in developed motivations for behaviors according to the embedded belief systems that was fashioned. Ninety percent of these brain functions are developed by the age of five. (Feldman 2014)
The diagram builds with physiological needs as the base which shows the feelings of safety and care. When these two primary needs areas are met, trust is built. Trust is the third tier or the center component that brings all five together. Trust is the foundation of healthy relationship between two people. Psalms 22:9 “But you took me out of the womb: you made me trust on my mother’s breast.” With this relationship of love there is belonging which sprouts forth the fourth component of positive self-esteem manifested in confidence of self and respect for others. These modules top off with self-actualization which present through morality, problem-solving, acceptance of facts and positive creativity. The loss or deficiency of these core needs is a crisis. The crisis is that the mind and body are not able to function in the fashion that they were intended. Psalms 139 tells us that mankind was formed in the mother’s womb, fearfully and wonderfully man was made in secret, skillfully from the marvelous works of the creator God. The quality of the bond between mother and child will affect the relationships that a person will have for the rest of their life. Without a primary attachment, people are not able to develop psychologically and emotionally. (Verrier 1993)
Traumatic impact on the adoptive family
Mankind has experiences in life where loss responds in a negative or shadow of feelings. Even those considered to be good parents may not be able to protect their child from every life situation that presents itself. When a situation/experience happens, the interpretation and then belief about that situation has the potential to hold people in a stronghold belief that all situations like this will be the same.
Individuals may expect a mirror effect or transference of the old experience into the new experience. If he/she does not go back and look at that experience with the added knowledge about life with age, and then bring truth to the situation, they will remain in bondage in that area and will not allow others there, no matter how desperately they may want someone present showing care.
The refusal to be vulnerable in relationship with others, may affect the outlook on life and perception will be filtered through the negative experience. This will stunt growth psychologically and emotionally. Genuine appropriate emotions may be altered. Every individual in every family has their own time of personal crisis and possible traumatic experience. According to verbalized experiences from foster and adoptive parents, when a traumatized child joins a (their) family the relationship of this child with each family member brings about a challenge and possibly a trauma induced experience that affects the mother or primary care-giver, the family and its composition and the families community responses.
The mother or primary care-giver
Ask any foster or adoptive parent why they chose to take in children and some of the main responses will be, “I have extra love to give.” “The poor child needs …I can give…” Often an underlining motivation is to meet a personal unmet need in the name of love. Unfortunately, for traumatized children, (earthly/soulish) “Love is not enough.” (Thomas 2000) In past times there was the hunt for a child to meet the families need. The more recent thought being proposed is, “Find a family to meet the child’s needs.” (Levy & Orlans 2014)
Ecstatic delight puts the mother (primary care-giver) on the mountain top, yet stages of trauma soon fly like a run-a-way truck down the mountain side. These trauma stages spotlight and trigger the mothers own trauma past, bring the challenges of therapeutic parenting, and reveal responses from the community, all contributing to crisis and loss for the foster/adoptive mother (primary caregiver).
Trauma stages of the adoptive parent
For several decades research has been conducted, mass media has captured the world’s attention and social service agencies have been notified in regard to suspected abuse from a foster parent onto a foster or adopted child. The question continues to ring across the nation, “How did those people get approved to be foster parents?” Somewhere along the line of support others did not notice the screams for help, the decline of participation or the lack of hope that has taken foster and adoptive families captive. Trauma has come to take up residence. “Trauma is a thief. It steals from people, it takes away their sense of wellbeing, security, predictability and safety.” Wright (2011 p. 213) For an adoptive or foster parent the reality of induced trauma is probable. (This does not condone or excuse any possible abusive behaviors towards the child)When a traumatized child joins the adoptive family of origin and positive support systems are not active the health, security, safety and stability of the family starts to deteriorate.
In the first stage of parenting the child of choice is enveloped in blind love and euphoric emotion. The choice to foster/adopt may be from feelings of spiritual prompting or duty giving the impression of a savior’s complex. The parent, in pity for the poor child, is overly nurturing, indulgent and has taken on a personal mission to give this child what it never had. The child starts to take control and mom wonders about the peculiar behavior the child exhibits in destroying gifts, flinching at physical affection and lack of appreciation for the nice home. The mother is denied a reciprocal relationship. (Park & Murdock n.d.)
The second stage brings denial from the parent that the child could be so uncaring and confrontational to the family. Mom increases her bond to the child and the care and concern deepen, therefore more indulgence is given. The child’s behaviors become more troublesome with increased conflict within the family unit. The community is showing signs of being ‘taken in’ by the child or repulsed by his/her behaviors. The immediate family (household) is not sharing in moms care and concern and may be in opposition of the child’s place in the family. (Park & Murdock n.d.)
Desperation leads the third stage as the parent is fearful and confused by the child’s inconsistent behaviors, manipulation and passive-aggressive controls. Embarrassment and frustration are the motivating factors that cause the parent to leave no stone unturned in the search for outside information and helps all the while protecting and defending the child. The family members are losing the mother’s attention, becoming scape-goats for the child’s behavior and shrink back as the child has won the prize of the community’s affection or repulsion that dismisses the families prior involvement. (Park & Murdock n.d.)
Conflict with the other spouse, breaking off ties and other close relationships and isolation from life prior to the child’s arrival is the behavior that exposes shame, loneliness, sadness, and alienation from a despondent life. The child consumes mom’s physical, mental and emotional energies to the point of breakdown. Mom is reduced to judgments, avoidance and basically being shunned by the support systems she once knew.
Mom has won a personal diagnosis of exhaustion. Her emotions reveal a state of shock/ unfeeling, self-hate, helplessness and/or self-blame for the condition of the child, her family and her community relationship failures. In mom’s own state of crisis she may exhibit punitive, robotic tendencies that become dis-like and abusive proving the child’s belief that no one is safe. Mom is traumatized and is relighting the spark of trauma trigger damage toward the child she craved and now tries not to despise. Interventions and therapies have not proved to be helpful let alone healing. The point of trauma has captured mom, stolen her joy and rendered her incapable of thinking, feeling and caring as she once did.
Extreme anger rages from lack of respect and support that was expected from all she considered part of her intimate circle causing her emotions to come undone. In hopelessness she pushes the child out of her nest, emotional homicide and hatred killed the once viewed identity of who she thought herself to be. (Park & Murdock n.d.) The gift of a child has turned into an unexpected nightmare. Loss was the prize of the vow by virtue of parenting a child unable to bond. Loss of personal freedoms, loss of relationships, loss of personal identity, loss of safety in the midst of violent physical, emotional and mental abuse, for some the loss of finance and material possessions. A parent walking in this last stage has been void of the care needed for her own survival. Crisis has turned into acute trauma affecting psychological functioning requiring intense interventions not only for the child, but the mother as well. Briere and Scott (2015) refers to these losses as a very real presence of life-threat. The meaning of life as envisioned has turned deadly. (emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and sometimes physically)
Triggers from own past
Memory that is triggered from past episodes manifests in “extremes in the remembering of forgetting.” (AACC, Langberg 2006) Emotional and physical pain from an earlier traumatic critical incident surfaces with a current trigger causing the body to react in a way that represents the original stimuli if it has not been dealt with turning into traumatic turmoil. These deep memories twists with the current crisis situations increasing the unbearable effects in the now.
The attendance of any adoptive parent conference would expose the revealing stories describing the fear of reliving the feelings, hurt and pain of these reminders, causing the parent to live in a hyper-awareness state to prevent any outside triggers from claiming their mark on the child now in their care. To miss the trigger allows for a new trauma incident to throw daggers of pain onto all in the area of influence. Being the parent requires ministering to each family member who has been stabbed with their own trauma experience. This hyper-vigilance may be a positive supervising behavior for the traumatized child’s safety and postpone or prevent behaviors that could throw destruction in the air, touching all things within reach; yet, this level of incessant mental and emotional adrenalin drive has the potential of keeping the primary caregiver in a state of crisis impulses.
Trauma of therapeutic parenting
Therapeutic parenting is not for the faint of heart. The parent needs to put their own desires and needs aside to minister to the needs of the child. Diminishing the grief and stress of the child leads the path towards healing. To demonstrate this form of love, can, in and of itself be traumatizing, for, “The purest love puts positive traits into action when the situation is hard, unnatural, challenges self-control, harsh, not reciprocated, sabotaged and sometimes repulsive.” (Scholl-Henderson 2006).
Trauma has a way of freezing a person at the emotional age the trauma has happened. Traumatized children need to be cared for at their emotional age versus their chronological age. This includes expectations of chores, verbal communication, level of privileges and responsibilities. The debate of nature versus nurture (Feldman 2014) is another component for consideration when parenting a traumatized child. “A child who has experienced severe trauma may not yet have developed a conscience. This does NOT mean the child is ‘bad’, it is just that s/he has not yet reached the relevant developmental stage.”(Hosier, 2013)
The foster/adoptive parent needs to be strong enough not allow their own personal triggers to get in the way of parenting a traumatized child, to do so prevents the child from experiencing safe and rational values. To respond in a trigger moment continues the pattern of volatile behaviors reinforcing the need to keep themselves safe. The method to keep safe often entails volatile behaviors towards the thing or person the child feels has value in the sight of the one they want to hurt, usually the family pet or biological child. These behaviors inflicted upon the new victim have deep potential to be traumatizing.
Trauma within the nucleus family
In addition to the nucleus family witnessing the decline of the mothers functioning, they all have become victims of passive-aggressive behaviors towards their own person. The marriage has the great potential of strain as the child consumes and depletes the energies of the parents. (Foli & Thompson 2004) The siblings, live in fear from verbal threats of physical confrontations, or are expected to give up their social life due to time constraints to care for the traumatized child. The family becomes an ocean full of individual islands competing for their own survival.
The natural life response to preserve one’s own life has taken its place in this family. Exposure to threatened death or serious injury is the defining attributes to trauma. The experiences of fear, thoughts, feelings and beliefs of imminent danger are the triggering traumas in the daily functioning and how this family responds and reacts to each other. (Briere, & Scott 2015)
Trauma from community responses
In public the traumatized child is the picture of, perfect manners causing the questions of why the family is so mean to the poor child, or repulsive mannerisms that result in the community neglecting the family as a whole for fear and lack of understanding of the dynamics and needs of the family unit including the individual participants of the family.
In ignorance the community responses trigger or provoke the foster/adopted child into more trauma resulting in lashing out the only place they may feel safe; their new family. These methods can exist from terms of endearments or pity that place the child back in the place of their abuse. (in their mind) Lack of honoring (uboundaries result in the community person downplaying the new parent’s role of providing and protecting, robbing the foster/adoptive parent the chance to show attunement and attachment to their new child, meeting the primary needs to build trust. (Eshlaman, 2003)
The community inflicts trauma onto the parents or family by lack of acceptance of the boundaries built to protect the child from emotional trauma, insistent questioning of the child’s story, or negative or abusive verbiage to or about the parents and family to others, “there is a loss of privacy.” (Foli & Thompson) It is not uncommon for the enemies of ones household to be their own household members. (Micah 7:6b) Isolation from community participation shows a death of belonging within the community composition. Foster/adoptive families are, at the very least confined to isolation or unattainable from the pedestal they have been assigned for their good works. Thousands of families are scattered around the United States hiding behind private invitation only, to social media support groups, grasping to find someone who truly understands why they make the choices they do for family preservation.
Spiritual and professional approaches to treatment
Intervention at the time of crisis goes a long way in preventing lasting traumatic episodes. Crisis situations do not have to be all about danger, but can also be an opportunity for growth. (Hoff, Hallisey & Hoff 2014) Genuine care and the comfort of presence can be applied to all situations of crisis and trauma. Building positive relationships that produce trust are those who are willing to meet primary care needs, create a safe environment and allow the person to feel the emotions provoked by their experiences. Trauma that explodes like a hot volcano devours anyone that dares to walk close enough to get burned. Trout, & Koloroutis (2014) Note that key elements of therapy to invoke positive change, is about awareness versus personal experience.
In a traumatized foster/adoptive family, therapeutic parenting is a form of treatment for the foster/adoptive child, individualized treatment is productive for each individual member in the nucleus family and family therapy from both secular and spiritual venues.
Treatment Interventions: Traumatized child
Persons wrestling with trauma have an extreme need to control, verbalizes threats of violence yet appears as the victim, has tantrums and is inappropriately demanding. Situations where these symptoms present themselves are most likely areas of triggering memory. Finding the patterns help to know the child and his/her behaviors/ triggers for protection in the future. Treatment interventions for the traumatized child begins with the primary caregiver building a form of attunement and attachment with the child. When others join in a team to protect the child from continual trauma triggers the child’s brain has the opportunity to change the imprinting of brain wave patterns as it learns new truths. (Eshleman 2003)
Behaviors modeled by a safe and nurturing primary caregiver that includes consistency in discipline and behavioral management allows the child to feel some safety in knowing what to expect. Other significant characteristics include; flexibility to meet the moments challenge, self-control to remain calm when personal ‘buttons’ are pushed, promoting self-growth, has others to care for their (parents) need so as to meet the child’s needs, understands the lack of reciprocity from the child, support and confidence from marital partner, ability to help the child resolve conflicts, advocate in the public arena for the child and not taking the child’s behaviors personally. The focus in utilizing these skills is to “treat the cause of the trauma, (grieving) not the symptoms of the trauma.” (Weidman 2014)
Many times the focus is so much on the originating traumatized child and their relationship with a primary caregiver that the other individuals in the family are overlooked. (without awareness) The present fear of threat and danger is a reality to these individuals. Their life has been turned upside down by virtue of role changes, decline in parental supervision for their primary needs and safety, isolation from past extra-curricular activities and the fear of losing their parents. For the mental and emotional health of each individual, they too should have the opportunity for their own intervention to help them cope. Having the personalized evaluation affords for each individual to receive the level of care that is needed for their personal healing and growth.
Family therapy is a place to give everyone a voice into the family dynamics and situations. This time also allows for new skills to be taught to help the family learn and grow in their experience and to build safety plans for future episodes. Put the pieces together, the experiences the children face in each family setting determine their belief and behaviors systems. Many times these are conflicting messages. Wright, (2014) states, “The mark is established by the functions of the mind manifested in the perception, feelings and behaviors of the victim.” (p.214)
Moral rules and attitudes which include spirituality normally are not developed until a child is between 6-10 years of age. When a child has been traumatized prior to this development, mood disorders can prevent observance to spiritual principles. These principles diminish the child’s ability to make a connection of their self in relation to the world around them. (Roehlkepartain, King, Wagener & Benson 2006) The parent who finds themselves in the midst of these traumatizing challenges has the promise of scripture that instructs for the asking of wisdom in which God will give liberally. (James 1:5) The path to showing Christ’s love to meet the needs of all is described in II Peter 1:5 and Colossians 3:16 show us the path to love. Give diligence and add to your own expense (give in energy) Faith to virtue, virtue to knowledge, knowledge to self-control, self -control to perseverance, perseverance to Godliness, Godliness to brotherly kindness and brotherly kindness will add love.
Thousands of families of foster care and adoption find themselves not only caring for a traumatized child, but a victim of trauma because of the child. These families need others to recognize the potential for crisis but care and support when the practice of love becomes unbearable.
Trauma is the thief that robs joy and life from its prey sucking in other victims who dare to become involved. All sense of safety, security and consistency for health and wellbeing is gone. (Wright 2011). Trauma that has no resolution will be torment that resounds loudly in the mind, life and responses of its victim. More attention, research and supports are needed to care for families who ‘live’ with raging trauma in a child who has an emotional level of an infant, mental level of a manipulating teen and the power and rage of a grown man.
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