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“…taking hold of the hope set before us…” Hebrews 6:18
Understanding Trauma Triggers in your Adopted Child
I imagine that most of you recall where you were on September 11, 2001, when horrific tragedy struck our nation. While a handful of us reading this post were directly affected through our immediate presence at the events, I believe almost all of us were profoundly affected by the images on television and knowledge of what had transpired. It changed our nation, and it changed our personal worlds. America World Adoption wants to take a minute today to remember this solemn day in our history, and honor those who lost their lives and those who worked valiantly to save lives on that tragic day. Our thoughts and prayers are with these families as they continue their healing process.
Just like the date 9/11 elicits in many of us a remembrance of that fateful day, our adopted children experience triggers that remind them, consciously or subconsciously, of traumas they have experienced. They have been separated from the mother whose womb nurtured them and the father who shares their DNA. Many have known true hunger as they wondered when or if their next meal would arrive. Chaos and danger have haunted the sleep of some of our children, and some relive it even today in their dreams. Some have been very ill to the point of death, and others invaded with painful medical procedures. These traumas, though in the past, and perhaps not consciously remembered, made their mark on your child’s brain and experiential history. Just like 9/11 changed us, these experiences have changed our children.
So how do we heal? How do we move on? As with all losses and tragedies, the path to healing lies in acknowledging the pain and finding the resolution that frees us from the grip of fear and grief. Acknowledgement of our children’s trauma reactions begins with us. Though we may never know exactly what trauma our child experienced, and often they were too young to have verbal memories of such, we can help our child understand the things that trigger their emotional stress. We can see signs of a trauma memory, or at least the emotional side of it, making its way to the surface through things like dilated pupils, skin flushing or getting pale, excessive fidgeting, zoning out, excessive emotional outbursts, lost sense of connectivity, or unusual sensory reactions. These signs often indicate there is more going on in the moment than simple sadness over stopping a game or having to wait in line. Sometimes children enter phases that can last days or weeks where these trauma-related emotions are evidenced by repeated nightmares, self-stimulating behaviors like rocking or head banging, or bed-wetting. Our children often don’t have the verbal skills or cognitive memories to express what is really going on, so it is up to us to put on our detective hat and look for things that might have triggered this particular hard spot. Was there a siren that may have reminded them of a medical trauma, or a growling tummy that prompted a memory of near starvation, or a movie that took them back to their orphanage experience?
Even if they are not able to connect their emotional response to a particular trauma, we as parents can help them take steps to feel safe and protected from those painful experiences. We can try different things to see what helps. It is reported that Sidney Poitier keeps a candy bar in his pocket to remind him that he won’t starve; you can give your child a snack to carry around “just in case.” You can visit the fire station so your child can relearn to associate sirens with help and safety rather than fear and danger. You can talk about the scenes from the movie and ask your child, “What were you feeling when you saw that?”
We can also teach our children calming and self-regulating skills, so that they can recognize when these scary or hard feelings are coming, and things they can do to help calm down, such as deep, slow breathing; ask an adult for help; lay under a weighted blanket; listen to some soothing music; or create a poem or picture that expresses the feelings. Through our patient work in really observing and understanding our child’s experiences and reactions, we can help them develop insight into their trauma triggers and emotional responses, as well as learn new coping skills. This insight and skill is key to their healing. Though their trauma experiences will always be a part of their life history, as 9/11 is a part of ours, our children do not need to be ruled by unresolved fear and grief or seemingly “out-of-control” emotional responses.
With God’s guidance and wisdom, and sometimes with additional help from professionals, we can patiently lead our children to a healthy state where they are no longer hindered by triggers to their trauma histories.
ACT (Adoption Coaching and Training) is a ministry of America World Adoption designed to support families through training, support groups, and individualized coaching. Explore ACT services on our website here, and reach out to us today for a free consultation to make a plan to meet your needs.