I've heard this more times than I could count...
This child that you hoped and waited for.
This child that came to live with you right from the hospital.
This child that has eaten healthy food, slept in a clean bed, been cuddled and loved on for all their days.
And yet. After all of your best efforts. This child has grown and developed and is now demonstrating symptoms of trauma. Sometimes it doesn't make sense to parents and professionals alike so we begin to reach for reasons like, ADHD. The problem is then that we start to medicate with stimulants that can often create more problems for kids with trauma. We are then treating the wrong part of the brain and adding chemicals for a kiddo that doesn't need them. And we get frustrated, because the treatment isn't working and we begin to think our poor little one is really messed up and has too severe of a problem.
But the truth is, we need to be treating the trauma. Because as more and more research is coming out, we are learning just how alive and aware the fetus is in utero. Your child's experience of the world did not begin when they took their first breath. For nine months they were simply protected by a few layers of skin and some fluids. They were impacted by the sounds and stressors all around them, day in and day out, for 9 months.
So even if your child came into your arms in the hospital... what do you know about the mother's pregnancy? Were there arguments, conflict and stress during those 9 months. If she made the decision to place her child for adoption, you can almost guarantee it was a difficult time for her and possibly created moments of conflict in her relationships with those who love her. Any of those arguments, were witnessed by your child. They may not have understood the words, but they felt the sounds and stress.
We have learned that babies in utero can hear the classical music you are playing, it even has a name, "The Mozart Effect". There are used to be albums and now there are YouTube channels dedicated to playlists promising to help your child's brain development. We know that they can hear their mother's voice, and many expecting parents spend time each day talking to, singing to and reading to their baby. So, if we know all of this to be true, then the opposite would also be true. Not only does hearing our voices and sounds help their brain development and ability to bond, any fighting or distressing sounds going on around them will impact their brain development as well.
What do you know about distressing sounds and events that may have occurred during her pregnancy?
Did she get into arguments with family or friends?
Did she lose a job?
Did she go through the break up of a romantic relationship?
Did she experience a death of a loved one?
Did she, or someone she lived with, experience a mental health episode (ex. depression, anxiety)
Then add onto this if there were any traumatic events occurring during her pregnancy, for example,
Was the mother was physically assaulted or robbed during her pregnancy?
Was there is a period of time when she was homeless or couch surfing?
Was the mother raped during her pregnancy?
Did she have a car accident?
Did she struggle financially and possible skip meals?
Did she live or spend any time in a violent neighbourhood where she may have witnessed community violence?
Did she live in a situation for a period of time where she may have witnessed or experienced domestic violence?
For many parents the main concerns in the hospital are drug & alcohol exposure and physical health of the baby. And those are big ones! But there are a lot of other factors that will impact the emotional health of the child, and stories that we may never hear. Because even if you have a strong relationship with the birth mother, sharing stories, like the ones I listed above, requires a lot of trust and strength and vulnerability. And that is a bit of an unrealistic expectation. Some of the events above are quite private and she may want to keep them that way. Some of the events above are horrific and she may never want to talk about them again and that is understandable. There could be any number of reasons you shouldn't ask and they don't want to share of the stress they have gone through over the past year. So you may not get to know all the answers.
Even when it comes to drug and alcohol abuse, the birth mother may under report her use. For example, maybe she binge drank one time when she was only 3 weeks pregnant, when she didn't even know she was pregnant. And, let's say the moment she found out she was pregnant she stopped drinking, she may tell you that she didn't drink during her pregnancy. And that is totally understandable! She worked really hard to be sober during one of the most difficult seasons of her life. She may not even put together that she binge drank while pregnant. But there are possible consequences from that one binge episode. I don't have time to go into that topic today, but I have previously, so check out this blog.
Now imagine that one or a couple of the events listed above occurred during this season of this pregnant woman's life. When we become upset our body increases our cortisol levels and we go into fight, flight or freeze. If it just happens occasionally or from mild stressors it isn't as big of an issue. But if the pregnant mother goes through a period of intense fear or frequent stress those cortisol levels remain high for long periods of time. Since she shares everything with the fetus, those levels are present in the baby, who now also feels stressed. The baby is stressed not just because of what they hear, but also because of the chemicals they are sharing.
When cortisol levels of school age adopted children were tested, they were found to be higher than the average child. What does this mean for your home? It means that if your child did experience in utero trauma they may more quickly jump to fight, flight or freeze because of the stress their mother experienced during her pregnancy.
Another issue that is tough to hear, but a reality of adoption, is that the act of adoption itself is traumatizing. For nine months this baby has listened to and bonded with the voice of one person. The baby listened to her talk, laugh, cry and interact with the world. The baby came to know that voice as home. But then with the very act of adoption the baby is taken from that person and given to another parent. This isn't to say I am against adoption. In many cases I think it is a beautiful solution to a difficult situation. However, it is important to go into this space with eyes wide open.
Whether you are the foster parent or the adoptive parent picking up the child from the hospital, be aware that this transfer of support is traumatic. Just like it would be if you switched a one month old child from one caregiver to another, the same confusion and pain occurs when a baby is taken from his mother at birth.
Again, I'm not saying don't adopt a child. But what I am saying is don't think that adopting a newborn will be easy. While we don't have actual memories of our relationship with our birth mothers in the womb, the relationship does grow and the attachment is real. So if you do foster or adopt a baby from birth, just be aware that they have already gone through some tough stuff and they need you to help them heal. And you can do it.
One final topic I want to mention is fairly new in the research world and that is how trauma impacts DNA. There is some new information coming out that shows that when you go through a traumatic event, it actually can imprint your DNA. So that would mean that if your child's biological grandmother was a victim of trauma, your child may demonstrate some PTSD like symptoms, simply because of their DNA. Again, this is fairly new, but as we create case files about family history of medical conditions, I can imagine a day that we may begin to discuss family history of trauma.
Are you feeling defeated? Wait! I'm not done yet...
My intention is not that you give up. My intention is not that you close the door on adoption. My intention is that you find hope. My intention is that you will look beyond the simple explanation your sister in law or school teacher told you. Keep your mind open.
When you have a child coming into your home and you don't know everything from their history, be flexible. A lot of folks will see your child struggle and offer solutions like Ritalin. And I'm not anti-meds, but I'm saying let's keep discovering.
Let's keep talking...
As your child develops & grows, observe their strengths and struggles always keeping this trauma lens on...
Is your child is hitting their milestones on time?
Is your child demonstrating the ability to attach and bond to caregivers?
Is your child socializing with peers and demonstrating age appropriate social skills?
Is your child able to self soothe?
Is your child able to regulate their emotions in an age appropriate manner?
Does your child struggle with sensory issues?
Does your child have issues with appetite or hoarding of food?
Do you see any evidence of illogical fight, flight or freeze behaviour?
If your child is struggling with any of the above behaviors it could be from a variety of reasons, but one could be in utero trauma. It is important to get a full physical and psychological workup done for your child to look at all factors. But I would strongly encourage you to begin to look at the possibility that their struggle is the result of trauma in their early life.
And if it is, we know that focusing your parenting strategies on connection and emotion regulation will help your child heal. There are some great strategies I have spoken about in my book & in other blogs that will help you navigate this parenting challenge. I'm available to connect with you in a coaching session to talk about strategies. If what you have been trying isn't working, maybe you need to tweak your efforts and look in a new direction.
They may have had a rough start, but you can help them write the rest of the story.
Emotional Trauma in the Womb by Samuel López De Victoria, Ph.D (2018 PsychCentral article)
Grandma's Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes by Dan Hurley (2013 Discover Magazine report)
Research by Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development including analysis of child cortisol levels.
Impact of Maternal Stress, Depression & Anxiety on Fetal Neurobehavioral Development by Michael T. Kinsella and Catherine Monk, Ph.D. (2009 Medical Journal)
Is it ADHD, ODD or FASD? (www.trishjonker.com blog from Oct 2018)
If you need a personal coaching session to discuss some of these topics, how they might be playing out in your home and solutions you can put in place tomorrow, let's chat! You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org