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Adoption Awareness Month: Adoption and Early Trauma

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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This is the fourth article in our series on adoption and teens for National Adoption Awareness Month. You don’t have to read the first two articles in the series to benefit from the information in this one, but it helps. Our first article, November is Adoption Awareness Month – A Focus on Teens presents the latest figures on the prevalence of adoption in the U.S. The second article, Adoption Awareness Month: The Challenges for Adopted Teens discusses the seven core issues adopted teens face. Our third article, How to Help an Adopted Teen Navigate Adolescence offers advice about how parents of adopted teens can help them work through the challenging issues they may face. This article addresses the types of trauma adopted kids experience, explains how that trauma can often result in emotional difficulties for adopted teens, and offers resources for parents and teens seeking help and support.

 What is Early Trauma?

Our understanding of the long-term effects of early trauma on mental and emotional health later in life is relatively new. It’s only about twenty years old, believe it or not.

In 1998, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente published The ACE Study, a seminal work on what they called adverse childhood experiences. The study, in addition to identifying categories of childhood trauma previously considered separately – if considered as trauma at all – changed almost everything we know about the long-term effects of early trauma and shaped the way mental health professionals approach the subject today.

The ACE Study is widely accepted the origin of a set of mental and emotional healthcare practices now known as trauma-informed care. Since its initial publication, researchers have thoroughly examined the topic and conducted scores of studies that form the basis of the way we support survivors of early trauma.

Click to read our article on The ACE Study:

Expanding Understanding: Adverse Childhood Experiences

That article discusses the study and presents the experiences considered traumatic for children. These experiences include, but are not limited to, the following:

In addition to these experiences, child development experts consider separation from birth parents a significant trauma. Kids who experience these types of early trauma are at increased risk of:

What This Means for Adopted Teens

These facts make it clear why adopted kids are at increased risk of developing physical, emotional, and behavioral disorders later in life.

Many adopted teens meet the criteria above. They’re separated from their birth parents – that’s a trauma. Often, they’re separated for legal reasons, including abuse, neglect, domestic violence, the incarceration of a family member, parental drug use or criminal activity. All of which are considered traumatic, adverse experiences. In addition, many adopted kids – particularly those adopted at an older age – spend months, and sometimes years, living in foster care.  Which, per the list above, is considered an adverse childhood experience, or trauma.

Research on the effects of stress in children shows that one type of stress – toxic stress – can result in physiological changes in brain areas crucial to childhood development. The areas of the brain affected include the hippocampus, the corpus callosum, the prefrontal cortex, the cerebellum, and the amygdala. These brain structures play key roles in areas such as impulse control, emotional regulation, stress management, cognitive function, and rational decision-making.

How Changes in the Brain Affect Teens

When early trauma causes physiological changes in these brain areas, the changes can lead to impaired emotional, behavioral, and social function later in life. These impairments include but are not limited to the following:

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University makes an important point about childhood stress. Toxic stress is, indeed, defined as exposure to the adverse experience listed above. However, the chances those experiences will lead to the negative outcomes described are dramatically higher when the child goes through these experiences without appropriate adult support.

Which means those negative outcomes may be mitigated with appropriate adult support.

But what does that mean, exactly?

How to Help Adopted Teens Process Trauma

There’s no way to go back in time and help an adopted child process their trauma when it happened. It is possible, however, to help them process that trauma when it comes up – and interrupts – their lives in the present. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests adoptive families work to create a home environment that includes stability, predictability, nurturing, understanding, and support. What this means is that at the most fundamental level, an adopted child needs the unconditional love of active and engaged parents. Earning the trust of an adopted child may take time, because children with a history of trauma often expect to experience disappointment, loss, or abandonment. Consistency is key, and trust develops over time through consistent action, not words.

Next, an adopted teen with a history of trauma needs the help of a trained mental health professional. Parents are responsible for creating a loving and supportive home environment. A counselor or therapist with experience working with adopted teens can teach them the skills they need to manage stress and process the complex tangle of emotions related to their trauma.

Children of trauma can move past their adverse experiences and live fulfilling lives that are neither defined nor limited by their trauma. It takes love, support, work, and commitment – but it’s one hundred percent possible. And when a team including the child, the parents, and mental health professionals collaborate on an approach that everyone believes in and believes can work, then a life without becomes more than a distant hope.

It becomes an achievable goal.

Online Resources for Parents and Teens

Theses websites offer high-quality, evidence-based resources for families and teens who need help and support managing, identifying, or treating the long-term effects of early trauma:

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network

The California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare

The Harvard Center for the Developing Child

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Psychiatrist Finder

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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