I’m excited to share this follow-up post in our Hope for Healing series. This information is vitally important not just for adoptive and foster parents, but also for the ones walking alongside these families.
If you missed the introduction post for this series, start here.
Today, Christa is walking us through a brief, easily accessible understanding of trauma, it’s widespread effects and, most importantly, the hope for healing for children from hard places.
Trauma Changes the Brain
There are six known risk factors for healthy attachment:
- Stressful pregnancy
- Difficult birth
- Early medical intervention
These risk factors affect the chemical balance in the brain, brain development, and brain function and processing. Studies of children who have experienced these risk factors show that the levels of their neurotransmitters—the chemicals that carry messages throughout the body—are much different than those of their typical peers. The risk factors also change the child’s stress response system, impacting the way they manage stress and relate to others.
In a typical situation, a child cries to express a need; this causes the excitatory (stress) chemicals in his brain to rise. Then the primary caregiver meets the need and provides comfort, which in turn causes inhibitory (calming) chemicals to rise in the brain.
For children who have experienced one or more of the risk factors, the stress response system cycle is not completed. They express a need and for whatever reason the need is not met and comfort is not provided. Therefore, excitatory chemicals in the brain are high for much longer periods of time. The brain learns to operate on a high level of alert all the time, rather than experiencing discomfort and then being soothed by a trustworthy caregiver.
The Effects of Trauma are Widespread
Children from hard places struggle more than same-age peers with emotional regulation and social interaction.
Because of the early experiences in their lives, these children learn that adults can’t be trusted and that they must manage their world on their own. When a child is constantly trying to manage her environment, the fight or flight fear response is active in the brain and short-circuits the stress response system, which is why the smallest and seemingly insignificant things can upset her.
The normal pathways for reason and decision-making have been shortened, and every message goes right to the emotional center of the brain which is constantly on high alert. The change to the emotional center of the brain is also what makes relating to others—even the loving adoptive parents who are now providing a safe home—so difficult.
Much of her time and energy during the day is spent being vigilant of the world around her and there isn’t any left over for building relationships and trust. It is easier and safer to use behavior (withdrawal, aggression, anxiousness, etc.) to keep others at bay in order to regulate the world in the only way he knows how. Breaking these patterns and re-wiring the brain for trust and healthy relationships can be tiring and difficult, but it can be done.
Not only does trauma change the emotional wiring in the brain, but it also affects physical development. Many of these children have sensory sensitivities or Sensory Processing Disorder (find more information about SPD HERE). They may have language delays, fine or gross motor delays, or learning disorders. Due to both the changes that occur in the brain and the lack of exposure to age appropriate activities, development in these areas will be slower.
For example, if a child spends their first two years of life in an orphanage with hundreds of other children, she likely will spend most of her time in a crib rather than playing and exploring their world. Children start learning and building connections from the day they are born.
For children from orphanages, the ability to process information, make associations, and make decisions may be delayed from the lack of opportunity to practice these skills, which will in turn cause challenges in learning and processing information as they grow older. If a baby spends the first two or three months of his life in the NICU, he may also experience similar delays. There is a limited amount of interaction with the world and primary caregivers because of their severe medical needs, which can cause language and motor delays as well.
Hope for Healing
Dr. Karen Purvis of the Institute of Child Development at Texas Christian University says that relational trauma can only be healed in the context of relationship. That’s why your role, whatever it is, is so important.
For those praying, donating, and raising awareness, your role enables those in other roles to keep on. Relationship and healing aren’t possible without your gifts. You can continue to be sensitive toward families with kids from hard places, and help raise awareness for others who don’t know about the effects of trauma.
For those walking alongside a family with a child from a hard place, your role is invaluable. Loving this child can be tedious and draining before it ever becomes rewarding. Secondary trauma (emotional duress caused when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma of another) is very real for these families. Your support and love for the parents and the family of a child from a hard place is the healing relationship they need. You can continue to be there. Show up when it gets hard. Ask how you can best help. Listen without judging. Work to understand what it’s like.
And for the family in the middle of the battle of bringing healing to a child from a hard place, there is hope! Your love and investment is making a difference. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Seek help from a trained attachment therapist. In attachment therapy, the goal is to help parents and their child connect in meaningful ways in order to meet the needs of the child that were missed early in life and re-wire the damage that was done in the brain due to trauma. Consistent safe and understanding interactions are crucial for changes to be made in the brain at the deep level where the trauma occurred.
In time, attachment therapy and intentional interaction at home can change how both parents and children see themselves. Parents can see themselves as in control, capable of dealing with a child’s behaviors, strong, and loving. The child can see himself as worthy, loved, competent, special, and learn to see the world as a safe, exciting place.
About Christa: I’m a Licensed Associate Marriage & Family Therapist and a Licensed Associate Counselor. I live and work in Bentonville, Arkansas. I’ve been married to my husband Corey for four years – we love all things Bentonville and baseball. In my counseling practice, I primarily work with children and families. I am trained in several attachment and trauma interventions, including Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI), Theraplay, and Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TFCBT). You can reach me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.