Published by Fostering Families Magazine (May/June 2019)
Three-year-old Devon, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, had big, chocolate brown eyes and was eager to please. His sister Kayla, 2, was feisty, with gobs of curly hair and dimples. During our pre-adoption waiting period, Kayla screamed for hours on end, seemingly for no reason at all, and couldn’t be consoled. I found Devon elbow deep in the toilet playing with his feces. At mealtime, he’d eat fast and furious then throw up all over the table. Once, I found Kayla hiding in the pantry and clutching a jar of peanut butter.
Despite all this, my husband and I jumped heart-first into the adoption. We understood these behaviors weren’t uncommon for foster kids. We believed all Devon and Kayla needed to heal was the love of a forever family.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t so simple.
By referring to these concerning behaviors as “normal for foster kids,” it’s easy to lose sight of the why behind them. For example, Kayla was frequently left alone in her crib for hours as a baby. When she cried because she was hungry or wet, no one came. These experiences etched an innate sense of insecurity on her psyche.
Devon lost his birth mother at 6 months when he was removed from her care and her parental rights were eventually terminated. His mind couldn’t understand, but his body absorbed the loss.
Leading trauma expert Bessel A. van der Kolk uses the expression, “The body keeps the score,” to illustrate how the body remembers trauma with tragic, long-term impacts for kids like Kayla and Devon – even if they find a loving forever family.
What is Developmental Trauma?
Developmental trauma occurs when a child experiences chronic abuse or neglect before the age of 5. These are the years when the brain is developing rapidly and is particularly vulnerable.
Trauma may disrupt a child’s sequential brain development, according to psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Perry. This can cause, for example, impaired cause-and-effect thinking and poor self-regulation. Their behaviors, emotions, and thinking are developmentally immature because they’re literally “stuck” at earlier developmental levels.
Also, when a child experiences frequent activation of their fight-or-flight response due to abuse, their brains can be overexposed to the stress hormone cortisol. As a result, their fight-or-flight pathway may activate in even minimally threatening situations. Forrest Lien, executive director for the Institute for Attachment and Child Development, explains: “These children live in constant ‘survival mode’. They are hyper vigilant, do not trust others, and feel the need to control their environment at all times to feel safe. Therefore, they do not allow adults to parent them and cannot have healthy relationships.”
Developmental trauma affects each child uniquely and its impact varies in symptoms and severity. The symptoms can include attachment difficulty, self-esteem problems, anxiety, sleeplessness and a lack of impulse control.
Kayla has overcome a math learning disability, has close friends, and is a creative and independent 15-year-old. However, the trauma symptoms haven’t disappeared entirely. She still sleeps on the floor instead of in her bed, and won’t eat in front of non-family members.
Devon, unlike his sister, falls on the moderate to severe end of the spectrum for developmental trauma. Now 17, he lives in a psychiatric treatment facility. He’s physically aggressive and has no close friendships. He has pending criminal charges for assault and will turn 18 with an 8th grade education.
Early Intervention is Key
Like many foster and adoptive parents, I was unfamiliar with developmental trauma and didn’t know the warning signs. I only realized we needed professional help when Devon, at 9, karate chopped his adoptive little brother in the throat and pushed him down the stairs. Regretfully, those early missteps and missed opportunities exacerbated his condition.
To determine if your child needs professional intervention watch for:
- Behaviors that don’t respond to discipline (particularly therapeutic parenting methods)
- Tantrums that last far past the terrible twos and threes
- Persistent struggles severe enough to interfere with home life, school, or friendships
- Feeling frightened for the safety of the child, yourself, or other children in the home
Trust your instincts and err on the side of caution. There’s no harm in getting a professional evaluation, while the cost of not getting help early can be devastating. If you delay, your child may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms including drugs, promiscuity, and self-harming.
Untreated developmental trauma can result in behaviors that cause kids to be expelled from school, institutionalized, or face criminal charges. Other siblings in the home are at high risk for primary and secondary trauma. Parents, especially mothers, may develop PTSD.
This doesn’t have to happen. Your child’s future isn’t yet written. Early intervention can change their trajectory academically, vocationally, legally and relationally.
How to get help
The best place to start is with your child’s pediatrician – but be wary of the ADHD diagnosis they might dole out at first. While developmental trauma may cause attention deficits and poor impulse control, an ADHD diagnosis doesn’t tell the full story. Also, the stimulant medications prescribed for ADHD can exacerbate symptoms. Instead, ask for a referral to a psychiatrist for a comprehensive psychological evaluation and diagnosis.
Developmental trauma doesn’t currently map to any single diagnoses. As a result, your child will likely be given multiple diagnoses to fully cover their symptoms. These may include:
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Anxiety Disorder
- Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)
- Oppositional Defiant Disorder (OD)
- Sensory Processing Disorder
- Developmental Delays
- Learning Disabilities
For a child with developmental trauma, these diagnoses are interconnected and need to be addressed in the context of the underlying trauma. For example, PTSD-like symptoms caused by developmental trauma requires different treatment than PTSD caused by combat according to Dr. van der Kolk.
This is why it’s critical to engage clinicians who have experience working with traumatized children, foster kids, and adopted kids. Work with a psychiatrist to explore medication choices. Get an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) in place at school to ensure your child receives the services and supports to be successful.
Unfortunately, there are no quick or easy fixes to developmental trauma, but there is hope with early intervention.
Love is critical, but it’s not enough
Raising a child with developmental trauma can be incredibly difficult and isolating. The more you understand your child’s trauma history, and learn about the science of trauma and therapeutic parenting, the better equipped you will be to help your child heal. Join a local or online parents support group (I recommend, The Underground World of RAD or Attach Families Support Group), prioritize your self-care, and consider seeing a therapist if you begin to feel overwhelmed.
“Love and time will not erase the effects of early trauma,” says Lien. “The best first step is to secure the child in a healthy family but that is only the beginning.”
Children who have experienced developmental trauma desperately need the love of a forever family, but love alone isn’t enough. Get professional help early, before the behaviors and emotions grow too big and overwhelming.