By Joyce Hamelin, an adoptive parent.
As an adoptive parent of five, I am familiar with Developmental Trauma (DT). All of my children have lived through adverse childhood experiences, including physical abuse and neglect, sexual abuse, emotional/psychological abuse, spiritual abuse and abandonment. Each one of my children has experienced at least one adverse childhood experience out of this distressing list, some have experienced more than one; and one child has experienced them all! This child presented intense challenges in the growing years, and the teen years were indeed the most challenging of all. (I will refer to the child in question as “he” in this blog, for the purposes of easy reading.)
Developmental Trauma (DT) can lead to profound brain and body changes that put people at risk over time. The brain and body change in order to adapt to the stress that a person is living and experiencing. At the time, it is the brain and body’s way of responding and surviving—through adaptations—the adverse stressful experiences. During the times of adversity, the adaptations are necessary in order to survive. Thus, the adaptations can be considered healthy, at that time, because it is the survival mechanisms kicking in. However, over time, these adaptations can become unhealthy because the person is now using adaptations in situations where they are no longer needed, thus, they are now unhealthy ways of coping and can further damage the person. Let me explain with a concrete example. When our child was living in his family-of-origin setting, he experienced excessive and frequent physical abuse. He learned that if did not get noticed, he was less likely to be beaten. So, he became withdrawn, spending time in his room and as he got older, time outside the home. He did not seek any adult attention or ask for any physical affection, for fear of the pending blows. This helped to keep him safe in that environment. However, once he moved to our family home, he continued to be withdrawn, isolating himself in his room, not allowing us to physically touch him or comfort him in any way. He would lash out defensively if we tried to get too close to him. In this way, he felt he was protecting himself from further hurt, but in fact, it was making it difficult for him and for us, to forge a healthy attachment bond. He was using his unhealthy, learned-behaviours that kept him safe in his family-of-origin home, in a new setting (our adoptive home) where he did not need the adaptions any longer. These adaptations that kept him safe in his former setting were now undermining his mental and emotional health, by preventing him from forming a loving, lifelong relationship with us, his new family. He would often express deep fear about attaching to anyone and when we would try to love him, he would often scream at us, “You’ll never win me, never!”
If you are an adoptive parent dealing with a child/adolescent who experienced DT, it is important to find out as much as you can about your child’s/adolescent’s life history; and then examine your child’s/adolescent’s earlier life experiences to understand the possible root cause(s) of their problems. It is easy sometimes to think that the child/adolescent is being difficult or dramatic. It’s easy to think that we, as parents, are doing something wrong. It is often hard to love a child or adolescent who is “acting out”. Acting out is a term that you will hear in the school and community. Maybe it is even a term you will use yourself. But it is a term that inadvertently lays the blame on the hurting child/adolescent. It is as if they have control and are misbehaving purposefully. They are not. These so-called “acting out” children and adolescents are often the most hurting of all. Their behaviours are calling out to us. We must hear and look for the need(s) behind the behaviours. When our son screamed, “You will never win me!” with his voice, what I heard was, “I need you so badly I’m terrified. Please love me anyway.”, with my heart.
What we need to understand right now, is that Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD) is not recognized as a formally diagnosable condition. Right now, the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-V) only recognizes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This disorder does not really address the issues of children and adolescents suffering with DT.
If we don’t recognize or address DT, then our children might grow up to have lifelong relationship problems, mental and physical health problems, trouble learning and trouble just living well and doing well day to day. Then, they can have trouble being good parents themselves, and the cycle of DT can be perpetrated on their children resulting in inter-generational trauma. As adoptive parents, we have an opportunity to help minimize the final impact that DT can have on our children.
The first thing is to even recognize the possibility that we are dealing with DT. van der Kolk is a researcher from Switzerland who is proposing that Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD) be recognized in the DSM-V. “van der Kolk proposed the following criteria (organized into three symptom clusters) in addition to the defined symptoms of PTSD. If your child or adolescent demonstrates symptoms of emotional and physiological dysregulation/dissociation, problems with conduct and attention regulation, difficulties with self-esteem regulation and in managing social connections and then at least one of the symptoms of PTSD in at least two of the three PTSD symptom clusters B, C, and D.”(1) (You can find that list in the DSM-V. Just look that up on line.); then, you should be thinking your child or adolescent might be suffering with/effected by DT. We can’t say “disorder” yet, as it is unrecognized. Why does acknowledging or recognizing DT make a difference? Well, because we begin to look at those hard to handle behaviours with a different lens. Instead of blaming our loved one, thinking our child/adolescent is a hellion (or worse), or thinking we are bad parents and doing something wrong, we start to see that the behaviour is a call for help. It is actually a call for consistent, caring, unconditional love. We begin to hear, understand and respond to the needs behind the behaviours.
There is hope for our children and adolescents who suffer with DT. The best intervention is to never give up on them. I remember the advice a psychiatrist gave us early on. He told us, “Never make a promise to your son you don’t follow through on. If you tell him you’re going to buy new underwear at Walmart after school, then make sure, no matter what, you buy that new underwear!” He went on to say, if our son had trouble at school, leave the trouble at school, coming home is a fresh start. If our son had a bad day, then the next morning was a new start. If our son had a bad hour but made even the most minuscule effort to turn it around, then, in that moment we had a new start. You get the drift—we became a family of second and third and fourth and fifth…chances. I found a framed art print that still hangs in my front hall and it became our family motto and we have lived it for the past twenty-one years. This is what it reads, “In this family We do second chances. We do grace. We do real. We do mistakes. We do ‘I'm sorry’s’. We do hugs. We do family. We do love.” Sometimes it seems hokey when I read it, but, in the long run, this is exactly what our children and adolescents need. Heck, this is exactly what we all need.
Schmid M, Petermann F, Fegert JM. BMC Psychiatry. 2013 Jan 3;13:3. doi: 10.1186/1471-244X-13-3. Review. PMID:23286319 Free PMC Article
van der Kolk BA, Roth S, Pelcovitz D, Sunday S, Spinazzola J. Disorders of extreme stress: The empirical foundation of a complex adaptation to trauma. J Trauma Stress. 2005;18(5):389–399. doi: 10.1002/jts.20047. [PubMed] [CrossRef]