Adoption and Secondary Trauma

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More often than not, when we hear about adoptions of an older child we envision a well put together family seeking to provide love and a safe home to a child that is in desperate need of a new life.  We think of a family life that would live out in a “happily ever after” scenario.  The family provides everything the child needs and the child responds with the same love and appreciation to their new family.  While that may happen from time to time, it is rare.  Adoption itself is born out of tragedy.  Something traumatic transpired to put a child in the position of not having a parent or parents.  Some are abandoned, abused, parents are deceased or in jail, etc., whatever it may be- trauma is present.  Most adoption stories are not Hallmark Movies.

This article is not to scare or make anyone avoid the process of adoption (we are a pro-adoption organization), but to understand and be prepared for the situations that may arise after your child is home.  During the adoption process, adoptive parents are required to take training courses to address the hard side of adoption.  These courses are absolutely necessary and it is important to always consider that your adoption may be one of the hard ones. 

How would you handle such a situation?  I remember my social worker asking me the question…”What would you do if your boy decided to rebel and cause problems in your family?”  I will be honest that because I “thought” I knew the boys that I was adopting, this question fell on my deaf ears. I knew I had support but I never dreamed that I would be in a situation that required help.  My advice to any family seeking adoptions is to be prepared for everything.  Use and search for every resource that you can get your hands on! (One book I will mention now is “The Connected Child” by Dr. Karyn Purvis.  We will be doing a post soon on how this book is beneficial.)

Now, back to the origin of the bad behaviors...trauma.  I’ll repeat again that adoption is born out of trauma.  We can at this point understand that children will all handle this differently.  But, I do want to point out a couple of types of traumas to look out for- Secondary Trauma and what I am going to call Referred Trauma.

According to Adoption.com, secondary trauma is, “the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the first hand trauma experience of another. Its symptoms mimic those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” Secondary trauma can affect anyone who works directly with a person who has experienced trauma, including parents.  Many parents experience secondary trauma when they hear about the events that transpired to the child(ren) that they now love.

In my experience, secondary trauma can also be a factor to adoptive parents when the child “refers” their behavior towards a specific parent.  An example would be that if a child was abused by her biological mother, she may refer that pain to her adoptive mother because she had no control or opportunity to direct emotions to her biological mother.  Those emotions are just sitting out there needing to be addressed but the child manifests that in their behavior to their new mom. Again, it is not personal but the effects are personal and create the secondary trauma to the adoptive mom due to the referred trauma of the child.  

Again, I can’t stress it enough to be prepared for such situations.  Do your homework as to “why” children may behave this way and find your support system ahead of the adoption if you can.  You may not ever need it, but if you do - know that you are not alone and there are people to walk in the trenches with you.

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Brandy Torvinen


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