Trauma and Behavioral Responses

Psychophysiological reactions to traumatic stress have been known to occur since ancient times. Traumatized people may 1) re-experience the event through obsessive recollections, flashbacks, or nightmares; 2) exhibit avoidant reactions; and/or 3) be easily hyper-aroused and vigilant.

Children whose families and homes do not provide consistent safety, comfort, and protection may develop ways of coping that allow them to survive and function day to day. For instance, they may be overly sensitive to the moods of others, always watching to figure out what the adults around them are feeling and how they will behave. They may withhold their own emotions from others, never letting them see when they are afraid, sad, or angry. These kinds of learned adaptations make sense when physical and/or emotional threats are ever-present. As a child grows up and encounters situations and relationships that are safe, these adaptations are no longer helpful, and may in fact be counterproductive and interfere with the capacity to live, love, and be loved.

The importance of a child’s close relationship with a caregiver cannot be overestimated. Through relationships with important attachment figures, children learn to trust others, regulate their emotions, and interact with the world; they develop a sense of the world as safe or unsafe, and come to understand their own value as individuals. When those relationships are unstable or unpredictable, children learn that they cannot rely on others to help them. Children who do not have healthy attachments may have trouble controlling and expressing emotions, and may react violently or inappropriately to situations.

Children who have experienced complex trauma often internalize and/or externalize stress reactions. Their emotional responses may be unpredictable or explosive and they may react to a reminder of a traumatic event with anger. This person may have difficulty calming down when upset. Since the traumas are often of an interpersonal nature, even mildly stressful interactions with others may serve as trauma reminders and trigger intense emotional reactions. Defensive postures are protective when an individual is under attack but become problematic in situations that do not warrant such intense reactions. Adaptive responses exhibited when faced with a perceived threat may be out of proportion compared to most people’s reaction to a normal stress. These reactions are often perceived by others as overreacting or as unresponsive or detached. Often both kinds of responses can be seen in an individual who has been traumatized as a child.

After becoming highly involved in adoption communities, I have learned a lot more about the effects of adoption trauma that both of my parents may have experienced. Trauma is a constant theme in adoption related communities. The first trauma is separation from the mother who’s womb the baby grew in. When an infant is still preverbal, the body remembers what the brain did not have language to interpret. For adoptees placed with abusive adoptive parents the trauma multiplies. This happens more often than most people might believe, due to the parents’ own unresolved feelings related to infertility and their knowledge that this child is not the one who would have been in their life with their own genetics – but for.

Within the community, it is frequently suggested how necessary it is to find a trauma-informed therapist because a therapist without this specialized perspective could do more harm than good.

Many people continue to reflect on the slap known around the world. Having an understanding of the behavioral effects of trauma, really put “the slap known around the world” event into perspective for me.

In his autobiographical book, “Will,” Smith recounts that as a child he witnessed domestic violence in his home. “When I was nine years old, I watched my father punch my mother in the side of the head so hard that she collapsed. I saw her spit blood. That moment in that bedroom, probably more than any other moment in my life, has defined who I am.”

“Within everything that I have done since then — the awards and accolades, the spotlights and attention, the characters and the laughs — there has been a subtle string of apologies to my mother for my inaction that day. For failing her in the moment. For failing to stand up to my father. For being a coward.”

Seeing the look on his wife Jada’s face, after she was targeted for having a shaved head due to suffering the disease of Alopecia by the comedian Chris Rock, it is quite likely Smith re-experienced that memory in the context of current events. In effect, however wrong, he could make up for his childhood inability to protect the woman he loved. His reaction that night had more to do with that 9 year old traumatized little boy, than the man he had become since then. That man unfortunately is now subject to public reinterpretation. I admit to being a fan of Will Smith movies in general and have loved his easy going personality in most of these.

All this to highlight the extreme importance of understanding the impact of an experienced trauma and the need to seek help in the form of trauma-informed therapy. Domestic violence is a devastating problem that affects individuals all over the world. I recently saw a video of Smith listening to his wife honestly describe her extra-marital affairs. His ability to listen and to take that knowledge in impassively, may have also been a trauma induced behavior from his childhood. The fear of losing the love of a manipulative person and at the same time needing the love of that person perhaps triggered the response the world witnessed.

Can We Just Pretend ?

What to do for this little boy ?

Ok here is my question – I adopted our kiddo when he was 4. He has always known he’s adopted, he’s always been excited and proud of it. He introduces himself as adopted. He has a long story but basically he came to us with the termination of parental rights and two failed adoptions. Lots of trauma and 17 placements.

He’s now almost 7 and in 1st grade. So here’s what’s up…all of a sudden he wants us to pretend he’s not adopted. To not talk about it and let him pretend he came from us. He wants us to make up a birth story. We don’t have biological kiddos, so it’s not like he’s hearing other birth stories here. The kids all vocalize adoption and biological families. His mother is deceased and his biological family hasn’t been open to any contact.

He’s super smart but isn’t able to articulate what created this idea. He just wants it. My question is how to approach this…do we give him this? Do we allow it for however long it lasts, while initially reminding him that he can always take it back? Or do we just apologize that his story is his and he doesn’t have to ever share it with anyone he doesn’t want to but that we can’t just pretend?

I’m at a loss. I want to do what’s right by him and honor his experience but I also don’t want to play along, if it’s harmful down the road. I feel like I will make the wrong decision no matter what I choose.

Someone offered this explanation that makes sense – We had a friend that didn’t want people knowing she was adopted. Said she hated when people would say “oh, she’s adopted”. She just wanted to be like her friends and be a part of the family. Maybe that’s how he is feeling.

Then there was this sad reality (kids really can be cruel) – When I was in high school I had someone make fun of me for being adopted and refer to me as a “dumpster baby” multiple times. I was 15 and shut it down and moved on.  IF that had happened to me when I was 7, I imagine it would have been incredibly damaging and embarrassing for me.

Someone else suggested –  I work with young kids, and I think pretending/role playing is their way of reflecting. In order to understand, “What does it mean to be adopted?” he has to first ask, “Well, what would it be like if I wasn’t adopted? In what ways is it different?” Completely normal child behavior; I’d let it happen.

To which another affirmed –  That’s a great way of thinking about it. Children do think about hypotheticals a lot and that’s discouraged more and more as we age. I think that makes a lot of sense given that he’s 7.

An adoptee suggests –  I would personally ask him if there is a reason he wants to – if someone said something or why ? – and just go with it. I would not tell him he can’t pretend. It may just be his way of coping right now because obviously something is going on in his mind that’s causing him to want this. So I would just ask questions to make sure he’s okay and listen to him and go with it.

And I really, really like this suggestion –  “Sometimes I think of “if” you had been born to me but then, I remember you wouldn’t be the same you, if you had. Your mom, DNA and genetics have made you – you – and I would never want to miss you. You wouldn’t be the same you, if you were born to me.”

Now that is beautifully honest.