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.

Anxiety For The Unknown

Today’s topic is stepping into what’s next when aging out of foster care. I don’t know how that feels but I have stepped into the unknown myself, to leave a dangerous romantic relationship with only a suitcase and $500 and drop myself into the city of St Louis where I knew no one and had not job waiting for me. It is empowering to face such great challenges and survive through them, so I am certain this young woman will be fine. In fact, immediately, from my all things adoption and foster care came lots of offers of support.

Right away came some simple advice with which I agree 100% – Make plans but try to stay in the moment, worry comes from living in the future.

The young lady admits – Everything seems to be slowly working itself out. I do have a lot of anxiety about the unknown. Many of us do but somehow we manage to muddle through. And that is what I found as well. Things begin to fall into place as you take the next logical step forward.

Do you have monetary needs ? Two possibilities were mentioned – Dream Makers project and One Simple Wish (both are said to be on Instagram, I’m not, so you’ll have to look for those if you are and are in need).

You can make a great life for yourself. I’m rooting for you to find that out for yourself. If you are in the Bridges program, they will pay your rent and utilities until you’re 21.

I know that many states do have programs to assist young people aging out of foster care. Many help with finding an apartment and a job, other skills a young adult will need to survive. For many, I think simply the huge shift from no responsibility to a LOT of responsibilities for their own welfare, can be scary. In this young woman’s case it includes her young son. Adding a dependent, which I didn’t have, certainly makes the situation more difficult.

More good advice – start out with making do and then improve things a little at a time. Do all of the things that you can for free, while you can.

Always An Adoptee

Advice from an adoptee – If/when your adopted child says anything that you deem “negative” about their adoption, instead of just throwing around frequently used adoption phrases – please please please consider the long term affect of hearing some of these phrases

1. “Would you have rather stayed in the orphanage/on the streets, been aborted, would you rather have died?”

Yes, sometimes. Adoption is complex and complicated. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t here instead of enduring nights of sadness, depression, suicidal ideation, intrusive questions, all the unknowns, the mental health problems .. I will never stop being an adoptee. It affects EVERYTHING in my life

2. “God/We saved you from your biological family.”

Let us decide that. What was I saved from? I do not know. There are many things adoption has NOT protected me from. So please let me decide in what ways I was saved. It may shift and change. Also, please don’t say negative things about our biological families. Give us the FACTS that you know and allow us to decide where to place them in our hearts and lives. Y’all don’t get to decide if our biological families are good or bad. Many things I was told about my biological family ended up being racist, unkind, untrue, and problematic.

3. “You were chosen”

Maybe. Kinda. But often, not exactly. My adoptive parents chose me between 2 babies. I was laying beside another baby and they chose me. But if they had decided “no, she’s not for us” they would have found another baby – easily. Adoptees often feel like replacements. We know a lot of our parents wanted A BABY – not necessarily “us” specifically. We have to process that – please allow us the space and time to do so

4. “They loved you so much they decided to give you up.”

No. What about desperation? Survival? Poverty? Lack of resources? Addiction? Death? Would you give up your child because you loved them? I was not given up out of love but I was raised to believe so. It made me feel awful about myself and my biological sister (she was not “given up”). Does loving someone mean sending them away forever? Would my adoptive parents do the same because they loved me?

5. “Be grateful for what you have. Be grateful you are not dead/alone/orphaned/poor/etc. You are so lucky to have a loving, stable family.”

STOP telling us how to feel and what aspects of our lives to feel good about. Especially in response to something we have said, please don’t.

Please Imagine losing your mom at a young age and when you tell someone, they say “Wow but you should be so grateful that you still have…” or “You are so lucky that you have a family that loves you!”

How about “I am sorry for your losses and pain. How can I help without overstepping?”

There are days I would rather be dead than adopted. Days when I miss my biological family. Days that I want to return to a place I barely remember. Those are not the times to dismiss an adoptee’s feelings. Imagine how you’d feel hearing these responses.

Birthday Blues

My birthday usually falls near the Memorial Day weekend. Many years, I had a L-O-N-G celebration of existing. It was a happy and self-affirmative occasion.

However, when I began to learn about the trauma associated with adoption, I discovered that the day an adoptee was born is not a happy occasion for many of these persons. It is a reminder of abandonment, rejection or at the least, that the parents from who their life descended are not raising them.

Until an adoptee matures and begins to break through the fog of how wonderful it was that they were adopted narrative, many wonder why they act out or sabotage their own birthday celebrations. What is wrong with them ? Everyone else seems happy to celebrate their birthday.

And now I understand better and can see the difference between my own birthday and an adoptee’s. I remember as well there was some confusion about my own mother’s actual birthdate, though eventually it settled on January 31st and now that I have her adoption file – I see the errors and their eventual correction.

Yesterday, I watched a youtube video the Birthday Episode by My Adoption Story by Lilly Fei and the conflicted feelings, which I remember my own mom having about her adoption are so obvious. Two things stood out for me – when she said she was “found” and how she described the way some international adoptions of transracial children involve the child having birth dates that are estimated based upon physical characteristics because the actual date of birth is unknown.

One adoptee writes – One reason I hate my birthday is because its a celebration of the day I was born and then placed in a nursery just sitting there because my birth mom didn’t want to get attached by holding me. It annoys me that this reason even bothers me, but it definitely does. People who aren’t adopted have great stories about the day they were born and how all these people came to see them and hold them and there are pictures. Yeah that doesn’t really exist if you’re adopted.

Many adoptees feel anger and negative emotions that are understandably directed at their birth family…It is not actually the birthday itself. Yet unavoidably the birthday is a reminder of what happened – back then – so each year, when that birthday rolls around, it all comes back into sharp and painful focus. It is what was done to that baby, for whatever reason at the time of birth, that is the actual problem.

One possible strategy for an adoptee is to change the focus of their birthday. Take a few or even several hours of time out on your birthday. Just you – go somewhere you really like, and reflect, alone, on your current goals and how you hope to achieve them. Keep your thoughts written down. Look at them a few times during the following year. Then when the next birthday rolls around, go over your thoughts again and revise them for the current reality. One adoptee found this kind of birthday event to be helpful in overcoming the birthday blues.

One other suggestion is to deal with all of your negative feelings BEFORE your birthday. Don’t avoid them because then you will feel sad that day. By acknowledging your feelings and seeking to understand what they are trying to tell you, you can then let them go for that day and celebrate the fact that you are resilient, you are a survivor, you are worthy to be loved and celebrated, you rock this life (even though you have that trauma of having been adopted).

For more insight, you may wish to read this Medium essay titled Birthday Blues. Adrian Jones says – “There is one certainty with my birthday: I will find a way to sabotage it. As sure as the sun rises each morning, my birthday will somehow become a fiasco. For most of my life it has been like this. I wish it would stop, but it won’t.” He goes on to write what he has discovered is the source of his pain and the anxiety he feels as his birthday approaches –

“You see, I’m adopted. Born a bastard, I was separated from my biological mother at birth. The woman I spent nine months preparing to meet was gone in an instant. In my most vulnerable state, I was motherless. Without mother. At the time, I was overcome by a high degree of trauma, a trauma that cannot be undone. Worse, this trauma is precognitive. I, like millions of my adoptee crib mates, do not know what life is like without trauma, as we were introduced to life in such a traumatic state. Due to recent scientific studies, we know this to be true. Babies are born expecting to meet their mothers, hear their voices, smell their scents, taste their milk.  When their mothers are not available, they become traumatized. If puppies and kittens must stay with their birth mothers for a few weeks before being adopted, why is it okay to separate a newborn from her mother at first breath?”

There is much more to read in that essay. I highly recommend it.

Family Breakdown

Painting by Mary Cassatt 1889

Some reading I was doing today in a book titled Healing the Split by John E Nelson MD caused me to reflect on my mom’s adoption from a new perspective.

He writes – “While there remains much to learn and study, schizophrenogenic mothers bring a sense of incompleteness to child raising. This is not the same as that mother rejecting her child.”

“Quite the contrary. She regards him as particularly close and significant for her. She needs her child in a distorted way as much as her child needs her.”

This causes me to reflect on my maternal grandfather. His very young mother gave birth to him AFTER her husband, his father, has died. He was her first born (even as my grandmother was her father’s first born and his wife had died but only after the 5th child was born) and remained extraordinarily close to her all her life.

As much as I have blamed my maternal grandmother’s widowed father for not supporting her and my mother, when it appeared that my maternal grandfather (whether this was entirely true or not) had abandoned her at 4 months pregnant – there remains this question in my own heart that can never be answered now. Why did he leave her and why did he not come to her defense when she returned to Tennessee from Virginia after my mom had been born and reached out to him through the Juvenile Court in Memphis.

With the same kind of destructive failure to be supportive that I blame my maternal grandmother’s family for, I do also believe that my maternal grandfather’s mother was not supportive of him. I believe she was not happy he had married my grandmother nor did she want anything to do with the child they conceived while married.

I can never know this for certain but why didn’t he take her back to Arkansas with him, when his WPA job in Memphis ended ? It could be because he was dependent upon his mother since she was caring for his children after their mother, his wife, had died – so that he could go to work in Memphis.

So, I believe the deck was stacked against both of my mom’s natural parents raising her – by her very own grandparents, their father and their mother, one on each side of the parental equation.

Dr Nelson notes in his book – “Any movement toward autonomy leads him to feel that she cannot survive without him, added to his certainty that he cannot survive without her. For him to individuate would destroy them both.” Just the thoughts percolating in my own mind this afternoon related to my own familial adoption stories.

No, I would not give you false hope
On this strange and mournful day

Oh, little darling of mine
I can’t for the life of me
Remember a sadder day
I know they say let it be
But it just don’t work out that way
And the course of a lifetime runs
Over and over again

~ lyrics in Mother and Child Reunion by Paul Simon

What Could Go Wrong ?

Regarding a kinship guardian placement vs temporary foster carer ?

An adoption community acquaintance writes –

I’m supposed to take custody of a relative’s baby tomorrow (hopefully.) The caseworker is coming back out tomorrow to see things are in order for him. He’s been in a foster carer’s home for 5 days and they are already claiming he’s bonded to them and begging the caseworker to keep him. Now I’m scared the caseworker is going to come up with an excuse why he needs to stay with them vs coming to me. Selfish, selfish, selfish.

His mom is on track to start overnights in December with reunification in January. Of course, whatever stuff I have for him, will go with him, when he goes home. He was previously with dad’s mom and she lost custody because she allowed dad to have him unsupervised.

Fostering is about reunification, not adoption.

One responder wrote – THIS is a huge problem for the foster care programs. Does the state/program/whatever get money when an adoption occurs????

Another one noted – 5 days is a transition time, no way to bond enough in that time frame. He is not bonded. He is surviving. He’s clinging to a bit of kindness in the midst of chaos. At five days in, he’s likely still confused every time he wakes up and opens his eyes! When there is family that should always be the only choice. If he can be so “bonded” after 5 days with strangers, imagine how much more bonded he’ll be after five days with FAMILY.

And this advice – Let them know that with you, baby will still be able to spend time with safe relatives, which they wouldn’t be able to do in foster care. (Safe is the key word they will be looking for. They will prefer foster care, if they think kinship will allow “unsafe” interactions.)

And finally, this from experience, a woman writes –

Bonding happens faster with family. My instant “bond” with my daughter was due to her losing her mother and attaching herself to me. She is related to my husband by blood… their connection was unspoken and immediate. Ours was initially her needing me, and later it grew into something deeper. They are confusing bonding with a desperate need for human connection… they could have been anyone and the baby would cling to them after being separated. You might have a true bond that is immediate rather than earned. (I have seen this with my own eyes! My relationship with her is now a true bond and we are very close, but her connection to my husband was just a given.

Way Down South In The Land Of Cotton

It was probably a lullaby from the deep south circa 1840.

There’s a little black boy I know
Who picks the cotton from the fields
As clean and white as snow . . .

And momma sings a lullaby . . .

Don’t you fret nor cry.

Today’s topic was inspired by transracial adoption photos of a black girl in a cotton field with two large older white people. The little girl is actually depicted picking cotton in one picture. I noticed her skirt looks like an old patchwork quilt. Just because something is objectively pretty doesn’t mean you can ignore context.

My paternal adoptive grandparents lived surrounded by cotton fields and as children we loved to go out there and pick cotton. It was never a photography shoot. I grew up in El Paso Texas, on the Mexican border; and so, the slavery issues were never a dominant aspect of my life growing up (though one could argue the point that using Mexican labor was similar).

Y’all think this little girl looks happy? Her eyes are not smiling. She may be content, but many viewers doubted she is happy, especially those with adoption in their backgrounds and those most triggered, whether adopted or not, were people of color. Which is easily understood.

Some see a little girl doing what she must to survive. Adoptees have to develop special coping skills that biological/genetic kids living with their original parents can’t easily understand. Adoptees are very good at hiding their true feelings. It is noted that her smile looks forced, as though she is just doing what the photographer asks her to do.

And she may end up at odds with these people who are parenting her, when she hits her teenage or adult years because many adopted people struggle more later in life with the fact of having been adopted, than they did as children.

I really wish a black family would have adopted her.

The truth likely is that this little girl needed a loving home and was available for adoption by anyone qualified. One can question what qualifications were required.

Do these folks need to learn black history ?… yes absolutely!

The little girl appears to be healthy and thriving. The parents look proud to claim her and provide a good home and hopefully lots of love. It is known the foster care system often fails kids.

Whoever’s choice it was to do the photo shoot in a Cotton field – it was a poor choice. Giving the parents the benefit of the doubt, maybe they were just thinking of a beautiful spot for pictures of their beautiful daughter. I would prefer to assume innocence on the part of the parents and hope someone takes a minute to educate them about why the optics are horrible. The photographer should have known better. It may be a regional thing to take photos in cotton fields. Iowans do that in corn fields.

#BlackGirlsMatter

Difficult Conversations

 

Regarding transracial adoptions . . . the legitimate question was asked –

Do you honestly feel that you are competent enough to explain to your Children of Color what is happening right now in the World?

I have been on the phone all morning with P’s Momma & Daddy.

Checking in… LISTENING… Crying… Asking how I can support them… Admitting my inabilities because I am WHITE… & Handing over the reins to the best Parents to navigate this situation because it is what is RIGHT for a Child we all love!

My heart is so broken…
Broken that this is a reality.
Broken that there are people in this world that can be like this.
Broken that I cannot truly empathize with a part of my family that I love & hold dear.
But I am also extremely grateful that a relationship exists where these very important conversations & interactions are able to happen.

One foster parent answers –

I am not competent and I know that. If anyone has some advice I will gladly take it. I have been letting her view and search for information without obstruction. She’s had questions and I’ve answered to the best of my ability but I’ve also let her know when I don’t know. We went to our local protest on the first day (and early) before they started teargassing. But when we got home we watch live what was happening in the same place where we were just standing. I myself have been reading and trying to learn so that when she has more questions I can do better. But yeah, if anyone has other advice, bring it on.

Another responded with this –

It’s better done by a person of color with whom kids have a safe relationship. I don’t need to whitesplain. Of course I can be there but I am not a POC. I defer to POC.

Yet another perspective was this –

The most aware and capable white person will never be good enough to raise a child of color. This is why I’m absolutely against TransRacial Adoption. Black kids belong in black families. If they aren’t prepared to live life when they are no longer under the umbrella of white privilege, it becomes a matter of life and death.

I would have to say I agree . . .

 

 

When A Parent Dies

When a parent dies, children can end up with strangers – either in foster care or through adoption.  At one time as my husband and I were rewriting our trust documents, having learned about the realities of a foster care system that sends a young person out the door with no resources at the age of 18, we made provisions to lower the age at which our children could access the financial accounts we had created for them.  Originally, we were more concerned about immature mismanagement of the funds.  From this new awareness, we realized those funds might be critical to our children’s survival, if they lost us.

Losing a parent at any age can be life changing but losing a parent while still in childhood robs the child of important supports going forward.  Death is absolute, so no well-meaning person can change that reality.  If there is no other person – another parent, grandparent or extended family willing to step in – then child welfare and the courts step in.

Even for a young child, closure is necessary, even if understanding is lacking.   Death is an important and natural part of life. Whenever possible, there should be an opportunity to be with someone in death, who has meant something to you in life. It is true, it can be a traumatic shock the first time one sees a dead person but it is also instructive. The intimacy of “saying goodbye” before a burial can help heal a young person’s loss, all the way into adulthood.

Even adult adopted children can be very wounded by being deprived of experiencing the death of their loved one.  When my mom tried to get her adoption file from the state of Tennessee in the 1990s, she was rejected (she was a Georgia Tann adoptee).  More devastating than the rejection was learning that her mother had already died and that door to connect with her forever closed.

Never deny a child this opportunity.  Think about it – who wouldn’t go to their parent’s funeral, regardless of age?  The reality is that it will hurt.  That is death.  Every child (adopted, in foster care or otherwise) deserves a chance to say goodbye.