Understanding Adoption as a Form of Trauma

Many adolescents and youth who were adopted into American families develop substance addiction. While this trend is happening, not many people consider the idea that adoption may be a form of trauma for children and youth adoptees. This lack of awareness has led to a disproportionate lack of trauma-informed support for children and youth in adoptive relationships when they experience mental health problems and develop substance addiction.

Signs and Symptoms of Trauma

Trauma occurs when certain experiences and events — ranging from car accidents to domestic violence — cause feelings of terror, desperation, and helplessness. People who have experienced such trauma may not be aware of their implications, but the negative impacts almost always appear in mental and behavioral patterns. This is because traumatic events have significantly changed or even damaged a person's cognitive, physical, emotional, and social development. The negative impacts can be more profound in children.

Common symptoms of trauma may include mood shifts, anxiety, fearfulness, separation anxiety, inability to relax or concentrate, emotional flatness or avoidance, social isolation, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. In sum, the mental and emotional state of an adopted child or youth can be a damaged place. This may be the reason why many adolescents in adoptive relationships seek substances for self-medicating to deal with the effects of trauma.

Trauma and Adoption

Adoption can be a long process full of highly stressful situations, including a sense of abandonment by biological parents, lack of social and emotional support, multiple caregivers, and uncertainty about one's future. These situations may all lead to traumatic psychological wounds that are invisible but haunting.

First, separation from their biological mothers has interrupted the natural bonding process between mother and child, which is important for a person's emotional development and sense of self-worth. Being adopted into a warm family will not change that psychological recognition deep inside a child. As a result, adopted children often experience intensified feelings of insecurity and fear.

Secondly, sometimes the adoption process may have exposed a child to disadvantaged circumstances such as lack of material and emotional support. Neglect or exposure to abuse and instability can leave deep marks on their mental well-being.

Trauma-Informed Care For Adoptees

The term "trauma-informed" refers to a non-conventional way of diagnosing and treating mental and physical conditions. Instead of asking, "Where does it hurt?" a trauma-informed health professional might ask, "What has happened to you?" to get at one's personal history. Trauma-informed care requires interventionists and parents to be more aware of the trauma history of the young people they are caring for. They need to understand that these unresolved experiences, which were out of the young person's control, had influenced their current emotions and behaviors. Denying these influences does not make them go away.

Apart from reaching out with compassion, the trauma-informed caregiver also needs to apply sensitivity to create a safe space for healing conversations to happen. Even when substance addiction is concerned, they need to respectfully communicate and educate the young person about why there was the need to self-medicate and how not to rely on drugs and alcohol.

Practical Suggestions for Caregivers

Usually, if a young person's trauma-related mental health issues and addiction are escalating, their daily functioning can become chaotic. Do not miss the early signs or pretend that it is just a phase. Explain your concerns to mental health professionals and get a referral to do a comprehensive developmental assessment that can assess the impact of trauma in situations such as adoption.

For parents, if you have adopted children who are struggling with drug addiction or alcoholism, it is important to seek early trauma-informed intervention. Youth developmental specialists who are adoption-competent can begin with an assessment to see if your child's addiction is related to the trauma of adoption.

The entire family needs to reckon with this reality and work together to bring healing. Otherwise, the young person will feel isolated, which might worsen the addiction problem. Parents need to identify and acknowledge their adopted children's strengths and gifts and help them rediscover their self-worth and identity, both of which are less shaped by past trauma but by current relationships.

Lastly, if you are a caregiver to a young person who has been impacted by adoption-related trauma, you need to know how to practice self-care. Dealing with trauma can lead to tension and anxiety building up in your body too. You may want to utilize such practices as meditation and mindfulness every day to release the pressure.

Are you aware that adoption is also a form of trauma? Are you a parent to an adopted child who is struggling with mental health issues and substance addiction? Do you know that substance addiction might be a co-occurring condition with the trauma of adoption? Connecting these parts may help you better understand the causes behind these painful problems with your child. It can also inform you to seek professional help because trauma is a highly complex issue. At South Florida Intervention, we have professionally trained and trauma-informed interventionists to work with parents who are concerned about their children's substance addiction. Our recovery coaches can help educate both these young people and their parents. We take a non-confrontational approach, encouraging parents to become more supportive of their children's recovery. We also provide recovery coaching, parent coaching, sober escort, and detailed case management. We can also connect you with health professionals who are trauma-informed and adoption-competent. Call us at (202) 390-2273.