Are Traumatized Children Hopeless?
–by Julie Beem
I’ve been to a handful of post-adoption conferences this spring and summer. After working with ATN for over a decade, I have been excited by the number of workshops and speakers addressing early childhood trauma, and in some cases citing the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study. I remember all too well the many years when trauma and attachment challenges were not openly addressed at conferences attended by adoption professionals and adoptive parents. A group of adoption professionals once told our founder that while they appreciated ATN’s work of supporting and educating adoptive families, our insistence on talking about trauma and attachment disorders was not acceptable, was anti-adoption, and therefore couldn’t be supported or promoted.
Times have changed! Now many presenters lead with “the vast majority of children available for adoption have endured early childhood trauma.” Some boldly proclaim, “adoption itself can be traumatizing.” I am still both shaking my head at this seismic shift in the adoption landscape, and thrilled to have the world come around to our way of thinking. I sincerely hope that the more people realize the impact trauma has on our children, the more resources will be poured into therapies and supporting parents who find themselves learning more trauma-informed, therapeutic parenting strategies.
Times have changed. I think. I hope. Yet during this same hope-filled summer, I also heard an undercurrent of concern that all this “talk about trauma” is creating a sense of hopelessness in the adoption world. That “labeling” a child as being traumatized is tantamount to saying the child is “brain-damaged with no cure.” The argument manifests in several ways, including an unsettling lack of belief in the growing neuroscientific research that clearly shows the impact of traumatic experiences on young, developing brain. Then too there is a belief that if we tell the world, including adoptive families, that a child’s early trauma could possibly contribute to negative, maladaptive behaviors, everyone will “give up” on the child as incurable. It’s a throw-back to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality: of course our children have experienced trauma but please, let’s not talk about it. We don’t want anyone thinking there’s a problem.
At ATN, we believe that children who have been impacted by trauma can heal significantly. We don’t use words like “brain damage” or “cure.” We have substantial anecdotal evidence that we have collected over our 22-year history. This is further supported by our understanding of neuroplasticity. Advances in neuroscience have helped demonstrate that early and chronic adversities – abuse, neglect, in-utero exposures, unmitigated pain, to name a few – change a child’s developing brain chemically and structurally. These changes are often evidenced by the child’s behaviors. Yet brains continue to develop, at least in part thanks to their environments. Just as the early environment of toxic stress can contribute to a child’s challenges, a warm, nurturing, safe, structured environment can literally change the child’s brain.
ATN members have known for more than two decades that our children’s early negative experiences have had a profound effect on them, and therefore on our families. To not recognize the trauma and call it what it is – toxic stress, developmental trauma disorder – is to ignore the suffering of our children and the struggles of many adoptive and foster families. Will potential parents be “scared away” when told that most children available for adoption are impacted by trauma? Maybe. Will those who aren’t scared reach out more readily for help and resources? Will they learn therapeutic parenting strategies more quickly if they have this knowledge upfront? YES!
That, my friends, is where the hope lies. Are traumatized children hopeless? NO! But they could remain hopeless if we refuse to recognize their needs and do everything in our power to help.