Tag Archives: Parenting

healing childhood trauma

Hello everyone. In this post, I wanted to talk about childhood trauma. To heal childhood trauma, it’s important to understand how trauma affects a child’s development. So, that’s where we’ll begin. If you have not yet read my last post on adoption and preverbal trauma, you can check it out here. Today, I’ll present a very brief overview of brain neurosequential development and how trauma affects this process. I am a trainer and educator to fost/adoptive parents on complex developmental trauma, attachment, and TBRI®.

First, let’s talk about childhood trauma. You can go to this link to learn more about adverse childhood experiences, or ACES, and the impact of negative experiences on an individual’s lifelong health and wellness. We know that children in foster care and children in orphanages have suffered trauma, and their ACE scores are high. The very fact that they are in such institutions is a trauma. Children in foster care typically come into care due to neglect, physical/sexual/emotional abuse, domestic violence between parents. Kids in foster care and kids who have been adopted experience separation, loss, and grief, feelings of abandonment, instability, and have often not been provided with the kind of sensory diet that promotes healthy development. Additionally, many kids in foster care have experienced multiple placements. Prolonged exposure to one or more of these factors can lead to complex developmental trauma, which psychologist Bessel van der Kolk describes as “the experience of multiple, chronic and prolonged, developmentally adverse traumatic events, most often of an interpersonal nature (italics and bold added).” Complex trauma impairs social, emotional, and cognitive development.

Dr. Karyn Purvis, Developmental Psychologist and Co-founder of Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI®), described six early risk factors that influence the way children from difficult backgrounds think, trust, and connect with others: 1) Difficult pregnancy – the birth mother has experienced medical problems, drugs/alcohol, crisis, or other trauma. Persistent and high levels of stress throughout pregnancy affect the infant in-utero. Stress response chemicals in an infant’s brain can remain for up to a month after the mother gives birth.  2) Difficult birth – a difficult and traumatic birth is risky for lots of reasons, including perinatal hypoxia, which can lead to mild neurological insult. 3) Early hospitalization – children who experience early hospitalizations often experience painful touch rather than nurturing, comforting touch in the first days of life. 4) Abuse – the brains of children from abusive backgrounds have been trained to be hypervigilant, or always on guard, to the environment around them. 5) Neglect – children from neglectful backgrounds, e.g., orphanages, often suffer from the most severe behavioral problems and brain deficits. The message they have learned is you don’t exist. 6) Trauma – this may include witnessing an extreme event, like a natural disaster or 9/11, or any number of traumas in the child’s life. A child’s developmental trajectory will change as a result of trauma.

brain 2

As you probably already know, different parts of the brain have different functions. Author and psychiatrist, Dr. Dan Siegel, says the brain is like a two-story house. Emotional reactivity, motivation, attachment, and the “fight, flight, or freeze” response are regulated in the downstairs brain. This is where the brain stem and limbic system are located. I’m not going to discuss all of the structures in the brain, but will highlight the areas that pertain to this discussion. The limbic system is involved in emotions and motivations related to survival, including emotions that are pleasurable, e.g., eating and sex. The upstairs brain regulates executive functioning, thinking, planning, control over emotion and body. It’s where the cerebral cortex or “grey matter” is located.

When you experience a strong emotion such as fear or stress, your downstairs brain sounds an alarm, and a stress response is activated. The sympathetic nervous system triggers the fight or flight response. This causes certain physiological responses to occur in your body. Think back on a time when you felt frightened or stressed. Your heart and respiration rates increased, your pupils likely dilated, and the blood flow to your muscles increased in preparation to fight or flee. This is a survival response. Other parts of your brain are off-line when your stress response is activated. In other words, thinking clearly or executing a well-defined plan become much more difficult when your stress response system is activated.

Now let’s talk about brain neurosequential development. The brain develops sequentially from the bottom to the top and inside-out from the brain stem to the cortex. Our downstairs brain comes much more developed at birth than our upstairs brain. Each part of our brain develops at different times beginning in-utero and continuing to adulthood (the brain is fully developed around 25-years of age). An infant’s brain stem is the most developed region of her brain. When distressed, she needs a responsive caregiver to help her regulate. She has a need and expresses it through crying, fussing, or raging. The need is gratified when a caregiver changes her soiled diaper, feeds her, provides movement, skin-to-skin contact, speech, and warmth. The parasympathetic nervous system helps to put on the brakes and calm the body once the distress has passed. All of these actions serve a very important purpose – to teach the infant how to self-regulate. We refer to this dance as the arousal-relaxation cycle.

Arousal-Relaxation+Cycle.jpgWhen abuse and neglect occur, it interrupts the arousal-relaxation cycle, and consequently, affects the attachment cycle. This leads to serious problems in the development of personality, which has long-lasting effects into adulthood. When the cycle is not completed and repeated, difficulties may occur in very critical areas, including social/behavioral development, cognitive development, emotional development, cause and effect thinking, conscience development, reciprocal relationships, parenting, and accepting responsibility. Furthermore, positive or negative experiences that occur during critical or sensitive periods of brain development alter the development in that particular area, which cascades and alters other areas of the brain. When children experience repetitive activation of the stress response system, their baseline of state of arousal is altered. The child lives in an aroused, hypervigilant state, ill-prepared to learn from social, emotional and other life experiences. She is living in the minute and may not fully appreciate the consequences of her actions. Her brain stem has “muscled up” in fight, fright or freeze mode, as any part of the brain that we use most often is the part most developed. Her ability to control her emotions and body and behave in ways we consider age appropriate may be severely compromised.

As a side note, two Yale pediatricians, Provence and Lipton, found that if caregivers did not meet the needs of infants quickly, they stopped crying within a period of 30-60 days. The infant learns that no one comes. She has lost her voice. Despite the absence of crying, the baby may still be hungry, scared, soiled, or in pain. Additionally, she is likely to have high levels of cortisol, or stress hormones, released in her brain, though outwardly she may appear to be calm and not at all distressed.

Infants and young children need to feel safe. They use attachments with their caregivers as models for future relationships. Caregivers are a secure base from which infants can explore their physical and social worlds. As you can well imagine, children who have histories of abuse or neglect very often have not experienced felt safety or secure attachment. This sets them up for attachment difficulties with foster and adoptive parents and difficulties in relationships with others.

There are numerous theories and therapy approaches directed at parenting and healing children who have experienced trauma, including abuse, neglect, grief and loss. I will delve into this in later posts, but a good resource is Attachment Theory in Practice: Building Connections Between Children and Parents edited by Karen Doyle Buckwalter and Debbie Reed. There is a chapter at the end of the book called The Voice of the Adoptee written by adoptees Faith Friedlander, Clinical VP and co-founder of Kids and Families Together, and Melanie Chung-Sherman, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and psychotherapist. Finally, an attachment-based professional/parenting resource that includes adoptee voices!

We know that traditional parenting does not work with kids who have experienced trauma. With deep fear comes a desperate need for deep control. It’s a survival strategy, as these kids do not know to do anything better. The way they think, feel, learn, process the senses, and interact with peers has been profoundly altered due to trauma. Their stress systems stay on, and the smallest thing or a transition can cause a meltdown. They fight or flee. They have lost their voice. Timeouts, spankings, and lectures are not effective and may further traumatize the child. There is hope. Parents must become healers and help repair their child’s brain by creating the proper environment for change. The brain can adapt and new behaviors can be taught and learned. In the next few posts, I’ll offer more resources. Stay tuned for an overview on attachment and attachment styles in my next post.


Featured Photo by Carlo Navarro on Unsplash

Keck, G.C., & Kupeckty, R.M. (2009). Parenting the hurt child. Colorado: Navpress.

Perry, B. (2005). Maltreatment and the developing child: How early childhood experiences shapes child and culture. Retreived from http://www.lfcc.on.ca/mccain/perry.pdf.

Provence, S., & Lupton, R. C. (1962). Infants in institutions. New York: International Universities Press.

Purvis, K. and Cross, D. (July 2013). The healing power of “giving voice.” Retrieved from http://www.adoptioncouncil.org/files/large/f7bb17e8fba418b

 

what adoptive parents should know

I just returned recently from a trip to Orange Co. I stayed with one of my best friends who adopted a 15-month old little girl from China in 1997. Her daughter is now 15 years old, the same age as my own daughter. We had some interesting discussions on adoption. I realized during our conversations that my views on adoption have evolved since I first learned of my true ethnic identity, reunited with my birth family in Taiwan and dug into the psychology of adoption. I talked to my friend about the documentary, “Struggle for Identity,” which neither she, nor her husband, had heard of. In this post, I wanted to share some more insights from the film on an important topic discussed: what adoptive parents should know… I know you may have read articles and books pertaining to this very topic, but I think that the more it’s discussed, the more awareness will be brought to the importance of this matter.

This portion of the DVD was especially candid, which I totally appreciated. Michelle, an African-American adoptee adopted by white parents, addresses the the topic of “what adoptive parents should know” in this way:

“What parents have to understand is that this is a painful process, a very hurtful process. In many cases, there are going to be issues at every stage of this child’s life that are painful, and you’re going to have to be able to deal with that– a lot of rejection, not necessarily of you, but of your culture and the microcosm of a racist culture.”

Michelle does not mince words. She’s forthright, and I like that about her. What she shares comes from a place of honesty and experience. As difficult as it may be for some to hear her perspective, I agree with her. It’s not that adoption can’t be successful. The fact remains, however, that adoption can be a painful and hurtful process for all within the adoption triad: birth mother, adoptee and adoptive parents. I read somewhere that adoption is a process where all involved suffer loss, whether it’s due to infertility or separation trauma. Likewise, it’s important to understand that adopted kids do not develop in the same way biological kids do even if they are raised by the most loving, stable, well intentioned parents. Identity formation is one such area where development is complex. When I was studying to become a social worker, I wrote a research paper on “Racial and Ethnic Identity in Asian-American Adoptees.” There have been numerous studies conducted in the U.S. over the years. Researchers, Huh and Reid, studied 40 school-aged Korean adoptees (Intercountry, transracial adoption and ethnic identity: A Korean example, International Social Work, 2000). Based on their research, they devised a four-stage model related to age as a framework for understanding ethnic identity development. Although I think it’s hard to “fit every child into the same mold,” I thought their research was interesting and informative.  Click on this link to read the entire article: intercultural transracial adoption. Another researcher, Vonk, approached racial and ethnic identity formation in transracial adoptees by exploring and defining the concept of cultural competence as it applies to the role of parenting. She devised a three-part definition of cultural competence for adoptive parents: 1) racial awareness, 2) multicultural family planning, and 3) survival skills (Cultural Competence for transracial adoptive parents, Social Work, 2001). Click here to read the article. I don’t want to bore you with a bunch of research and statistics, but I think it’s evident that raising a transracially adopted child is different from raising a biological one in many ways.

From the perspective of an adoptive parent, Beth, a white adoptive mom of two domestically adopted children, one bi-racial and the other African-American, comments,“You have to look at your family and decide your family is not a Caucasian family…”  She also says:

I think that as the adult, you have to be willing to change. I don’t think it’s the children who have to change, it’s you. When you show the changes in the way you’re dealing with things, your kids will do the same thing that you do.”

I found her point that adoptive parents must adapt and be willing to change for their adopted child profound. After all, adopted kids have not only suffered the trauma of being separated from their birth mothers (which is far too frequently minimized), but cross-culturally adopted kids are also coming from a different  culture, often country, and rarely speak or understand English. It seems logical that just as transracial adoptees must adapt and assimilate into a new culture, so must adoptive parents adapt and adopt their child’s country of origin in a very deliberate and demonstrative way.

John, a bi-racial adoptee, poses this thought for adoptive parents:

“Before they adopt, parents need to think about why they want to adopt a child of another race. How will they answer that question at different stages of the child’s life?…when your kid totally rejects you and goes back to their culture of origin? What is your motivation, which is really significant?”

Perhaps not all tranracially adopted kids/adults will totally reject their adoptive parents and go back to their culture of origin, or at least not forever if it occurs. More to the point– are adoptive parents willing to think long and hard about these questions? Are they prepared to face the reality that their adopted children will struggle with identity and will they be equipped to help them?

Michelle’s sister, who is also an adoptive mom, comments on the role of parenting a transracially adopted child:

“One useful strategy is humility, which is to say, I’m not going to be able to do all of these things myself. Some of these things I’m going to have to provide the child with from other places that they can find coping strategies.”

In my opinion, adoptive parents do not receive enough education, support and counseling pre- and post-adoption. I have a good friend who has a son adopted from Korea and an older daughter adopted from China. She and her husband are both white. We’ve had a few discussions on adoption, and she agrees that after the child is adopted, there are not enough services or follow up provided to help adoptive parents, especially if the adoptee is experiencing difficulties (with anger, bonding and attachment, and grief, etc.). It’s crucial that adoptive parents recognize that their adopted child will have challenges at some point, and that’s ok. What’s important is identifying the problem and getting help through a support network or therapist who specializes in child development, or better yet, works with adoptive families. I believe that every adoptive family should seek out therapy for their adoptive child if possible– even at a young age (6 years+, give or take a few years), especially if the child is showing signs of developmental delay, behavioral and/or emotional issues, distress or grief. There may be financial obstacles, or the chance thought that your child doesn’t need therapy, but I think it’s extremely beneficial for all involved if you can get it.

By writing this post, I’m hoping to inform and not give the impression that I’m telling adoptive parents how to raise their children. On the contrary, as an adult transracial adoptee, I’m sharing my own views from what I’ve experienced and from what I’ve seen some of my friends who are adoptive parents experience. I welcome your thought and comments (as long as they are respectful).

For more information on the film documentary, or to purchase “Struggle for Identity” and “Struggle for Identity: A Conversation 10 Years Later,” follow this link.

forgiveness

On the way home from dropping my daughter off at school this morning, one of my favorite songs came on the radio, “Forgiveness,” by Matthew West. I was captivated because Matthew played it acoustically on guitar. For me, there’s nothing like an acoustic performance with just the artist’s voice and his instrument. As I listened to the song, a wave of grief struck me. I thought about a particularly painful time in my life. My adolescent years. I thought about my adoptive mom and the difficulties in our relationship when I was a teen. Our conflicts were rooted in a serious lack of understanding. We didn’t know how to work through our misunderstandings and differences. My mom also had an angry streak that scared me to death. She often lost control of her anger when upset or stressed.

One of the earliest memories I have of that anger is when I was in the first grade. I struggled with severe separation anxiety as a youngster. One day at school, like many others before, I had a stomachache and pleaded with my teacher to have my mom called. Mrs. Dent was the sweetest teacher, and I liked her very much, but I’m sure I was her most perplexing student. I watched as she whispered into the ear of another teacher, no doubt about me. The stomachaches had become somewhat of a routine. Finally, my mom was called and she came to pick me up from work. When we got home, she was very upset and disciplined me. I was so confused and cried for a long time. At that age, I had no idea what was going on inside– I just panicked everyday at school when she dropped me off. As I got older, the panic subsided, but the feelings of being a misfit and all alone never went away.

Somewhere during my teen years, everything changed. No longer was I the shy, docile and compliant child. I began rebelling against my mom’s authority and controlling nature. The friends that I wanted so much to fit in with, the “popular” crowd,” had parents that were much more lenient than mine. When I wanted to hang out with them late at night, my mom put her foot down. She could be very domineering and often made decisions for me that I hated, i.e., participating in the marching band at school, forbidding me from participating in clubs I was interested in, etc, etc.  I started drinking with my friends during my freshman year in high school. Drinking gave me a false sense of confidence. When my mom found a liquor bottle at the bottom of one of my bags, she was enraged. I often feared her erratic and angry reactions, which only fueled my resentment toward her.

I couldn’t wait for college and to move out of my parents’ home. It was liberating to get out from under my mom’s control and pretty much do whatever I wanted. I would purposely stay in the dorms during the holidays (although I’d show up for Thanksgiving or Christmas meals) because I didn’t want to be around Mom. After college graduation, I couldn’t wait to move out of Louisiana. I moved to Florida the following year.

When I moved, I knew that it hurt and worried both of my parents, especially my mom. My dad didn’t say a whole lot, but Mom made it clear that she didn’t approve. I know that it left a gaping hole  in her heart. Again, I purposely avoided going home for the holidays. At the same time, I  felt very conflicted inside, guilty for hurting both my parents. Getting away from home was more important to me at the time, however.

When I look back, I realize that the underlying cause of all the conflict stemmed from my struggle for identity. My adoptive parents were ill-equipped to help me face the social pressures of fitting in with my peers, racism, insecurity and acceptance. There was little communication between my parents and I about real issues. I knew that they loved me, but it was rarely expressed in words by any of us.

A turning point came after I became a Christian and had my own daughter. By then, my dad had passed away. I soon learned what it was like to work full-time, have a marriage and family, come home and cook dinner and try to keep a household together (my mom worked full-time as a registered nurse). I understand now what it’s like for your teen to make a remark or cop an attitude  that slices right through your heart. Somewhere along the line I realized that my adoptive parents did the best they could with very little knowledge or support on how to raise a transracially adopted kid. I understand the struggle that they must have felt, too, especially my mom, in the inability to reach me. I’ve come to understand that transracial adoption is challenging, and adoptive parents are faced with a difficult task.

Sometimes people ask me if I’m angry at my adoptive parents for telling me that I was Vietnamese and Japanese and then learning that I’m actually Taiwanese. I might have been 20 something years ago. Actually, I’m sorry that I can’t share with my parents what I’ve learned about myself and transracial adoption. I regret that I did not spend more time with them when they were still alive and that we never had the chance to resolve all the hurts. I know there was an unspoken forgiveness, but there are things that I wish that I’d expressed to my parents that I did not, most of all that I loved them.

As the song ended, I reminded myself of all the good and right things my adoptive parents did. As a mom and adult in mid-life, I see them in such a different way. I remember their generosity, their love, their sacrifice, their desire to see me happy and successful. Despite that painful period, I have many happy memories of my family. I appreciate these lyrics from the song,”Forgiveness”:

It’ll clear the bitterness away
It can even set a prisoner free
There is no end to what it’s power can do
So, let it go and be amazed
By what you see through eyes of grace
The prisoner that it really frees is you

Forgiveness, Forgiveness
Forgiveness, Forgiveness

It took a long time for me to let go of the resentment I had towards my mom. I understand her more today than ever before, and I forgive her as I hope she did  me. Life is so short. I truly wish that I had realized that years ago.

To hear the amazing story behind the song, “Forgiveness,” by Matthew West, watch the video below. And have some Kleenex nearby!