Adoption can be a lot like the Frog Boiling in a Pot metaphor. We jump in heart-first and are deliriously happy to have finally made it through the long, emotional, and expensive adoption process. We relax back to enjoy our new family without realizing there’s a fire beneath the pot we’ve leapt into. As the water gradually warms around us and we adjust and acclimate.
Tantrums evolve into rages.
Late potty training graduates to poop smearing.
And squabbles escalate into fist fights.
Meanwhile we’re unaware of how serious the situation is becoming. By the time we realize the danger, the water is already boiling.
Unfortunately, many children who are adopted have gone through early childhood traumas which can result in a myriad of issues: severe behaviors, sensory processing issues, attention deficits, learning disabilities, attachment challenges, and more. Early intervention is key, but often the gradual worsening of the symptoms makes it difficult to recognize when to get help. As a result, our kids don’t get the early interventions they need which is a delay that has significant impacts on their prognosis as well as the family’s health.
When I adopted my son at the age of 3, there were plenty of warning signs that we needed professional help – at least in hindsight. As things grew gradually worse over the years, I didn’t realize how serious the situation was. When had he gone from toddler tantrums to chasing siblings with a baseball bat? When had he begun to weaponize urination when he was mad? Sometimes, when we are living in these types of situations we are much like the frog in the pot – we don’t realize what’s happening because we are acclimating to it bit by bit. In my case, it took a scary incident for me to recognize the danger and act.
We have dreams and high hopes wrapped up in adoption that make it hard to admit we need help. That’s why it’s so important to understand that, for kids with severe trauma, love alone is not enough. To heal and thrive these children need highly specialized services and, even so, may continue to struggle at some level throughout their whole life.
For the best prognosis, early intervention for childhood trauma is key. This is why every adoptive (and pre-adoptive) parent must know the warning signs and where to find help.
The warning signs
In our pre-adoption classes we learn some behaviors are “normal” for kids who have been in the system. This includes issues related to food, potty training, aggression, hygiene, attachment, and learning. What we often don’t understand is that adverse childhood experiences (ACES) affect each child differently and some children have such severe symptoms they cannot be managed by parents – especially when there are other children in the home. You must know the warning signs.
Here’s what you need to look for:
- Behaviors are creating a safety issue for the child, their siblings, or parents.
- Over time you do not see any improvements; only a worsening of symptoms.
- The child is unable to successfully function in school, daycare, or other settings.
- They are perpetually “in punishment” at home.
- You are being triggered and feeling depression, anxiety, anger, or other PTSD symptoms.
- Your child’s tantrums are lasting hours and/or are violent.
- You dislike your child and begin to dread spending time with them.
- There is not a growing attachment between you and your child.
If you’re unsure, remember, it’s always better to reach out for help early than to wait too long. Waiting is not simply wasted time. It exacerbates your child’s condition and can damage their relationship with you and other family members.
Even more challenging than recognizing you need professional help, is finding it. Children who have been traumatized in foster care or orphanages need more than “trauma informed” resources. They need help from individuals who are experienced working with this specific population of children and their families. If you begin to work with a pediatrician, therapist, or other professional who “doesn’t get it,” don’t stick around. Though well-meaning, those without this specialized background can make things worse.
Here’s what you need to know:
- Your child needs a comprehensive psychological evaluation for the most accurate diagnosis (ask your pediatrician for a referral).
- As soon as your child begins to experience learning or behavioral problems at school ask for a 504 or IEP evaluation.
- Look for therapy services that are for the whole family:
- Outpatient FAMILY therapy (not individual)
- In-home FAMILY treatment
- Know where your local mental health hospital is (google “Mental Health Emergency Care” for your city).
- Contact the police department ahead of time and ask how to reach the CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) should you require law enforcement help.
- If you adopted from foster care, contact your agency about respite, medicaid coverage, and other services.
- Join online support groups to network with other parents and find the best local resources. These are my favorite groups and the ones I’m most actively involved with:
Remember, even in the most severe cases, with early interventions and specialized treatment, there IS hope for kids who have experienced early childhood trauma. Here’s one story where early interventions saved a family.Let's connect!