Developmental Trauma


Developmental Trauma

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What potential adoptive and foster parents need to know

As thrilling as it is to make the decision to adopt or foster a child, potential parents need to educate themselves about the possibility of developmental trauma. Not all adopted and foster children experience trauma, but there is always a chance that your child will be one of the many children who, despite all your nurturing and skill, may respond with aloofness, outbursts, or serious misbehavior. The Solo Mom in this situation often wonders what in the world is going on.

In some cases, the problem is developmental trauma. Developmental trauma is a broad term used to describe the long-standing impact of early experiences, such as parental abandonment, rejection, abuse, neglect, or witnessing violence. These experiences can manifest themselves as problematic emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Children with developmental trauma have learned to distrust the world, themselves, and others, often on an unconscious level. This can cause difficulties in managing emotions and situations, along with behavior problems and relational difficulties with a new adult caregiver, and they can range from excessive clinging to rejection or hostility toward the caregiver.

Recent embryology and fetal research shows that trauma can occur at a much earlier stage than was previously thought. Studies show that certain traumas, such as maternal distress and/or parental rejection, can register in utero during the second and third trimester, affecting fetal brain structure even before birth. This means that adopting or fostering a newborn does not ensure that he or she will not have experienced trauma or show its effects later on.

Although this information may seem daunting to foster and adoptive parents, it is by no means a statement that good, competent, loving parents are irrelevant to these children. On the contrary: this kind of love and care is critically important. It also means that a foster or adoptive parent might benefit from learning specific parenting styles and behaviors that can help the child with developmental trauma, along with ways of understanding and advocating for the child’s special needs. Here are some specific suggestions for foster and adoptive parents of children who might be experiencing these effects:

  1. Consult with a professional who has expertise in assessing and treating developmental trauma. The signs of this disorder are highly variable and sometimes more subtle than those we tend to associate with trauma survival. Most children with complex trauma-related problems do not meet criteria for the psychiatric condition post-traumatic stress disorder. If you are interested in consulting a child trauma specialist but are not sure how to locate one, a resource for information and therapist referral is the the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts, which is run by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a pioneering expert in the assessment and treatment of developmental trauma.
  2. Become as knowledgeable as possible about childhood trauma and its effects, and developmental trauma, especially. Two books specific to developmental attachment and its impact on adopted children and their families are Attaching in Adoption: Practical Tools for Today’s Parents by Deborah Gray (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, reprint edition, 2012) and The Connected Child: Bring Hope and Healing to Your Adoptive Family by Karyn B. Purvis, David R. Cross, and Wendy Lyons Sunshine (McGraw-Hill Education, 2007).
  3. Advocate for your child at school if behavioral, social-emotional, or learning challenges are present and interfere with school functioning. Sometimes children and teens are found eligible for individual education plans (IEPs) when an informed parent can frame their challenges in terms of developmental trauma and its effects, especially when joined in advocacy by a helping professional who is knowledgeable about the condition.
  4. Give yourself a break. Parenting can be difficult under the best of circumstances, and a child’s special needs can increase the challenge level. If you have been told or you suspect that developmental trauma is at play, do not blame yourself for difficulties that started before you were involved. The notion that love and good parenting will solve everything is a myth that is particularly damaging for parents of children with developmental trauma.
  5. Realize that your child’s behavior can’t always be taken at face value. A good example of this is the child who is chronically angry and hostile to his or her foster or adoptive parent. Although this easily can be interpreted by the parent as a sign that the parent is not parenting well enough or that the child dislikes the parent personally, this behavior can be an indication that the child feels safe enough to show his or her feelings, often for the first time. In these instances, acting-out behavior is actually an indication of good parenting.
  6. Get as much support for yourself as possible. A therapy client once said about a foster child’s ongoing difficult behaviors: “I signed on hoping to be a teenager’s hero, but I mainly feel like a teenager’s punching bag.” It isn’t always easy to do your best, but try to recognize the ways in which your love and support is felt or appreciated by the child you are raising. Talk to people who will support you emotionally. Ideally, find other parents who are dealing with similar challenges. ESME’s Sisters community is one way to find other Solo Moms who may have similar experiences.
  7. Try to provide, to the greatest extent possible, a sense of safety and calm. This can entail using structure and routines, avoiding punitive and shaming types of discipline, and preventing or reducing sensory overload. Kids with developmental trauma often have sensitive nervous systems and can become anxious when there is too much noise, too many people, too much commotion. Parents can help by keeping household gatherings small, monitoring the noise level in the home, and letting kids know they can retreat from overwhelming situations if they need to.
  8. Maintain hope. Plenty of families work through a child’s developmental-trauma history together and have improvements in their family life they never would have imagined. Seek out these stories, or, better yet, seek out the families themselves. And when you have become one, reach out to parents who are now where you once were. Although parenting a traumatized child can feel isolating, it is actually a gigantic boat that many people are on. There is strength in connection, and hope grows faster in groups.


Need honest answers about foster care and adoption? Sister Chat is a confidential place to post any question you might have.


Susan Lemere is a Solo Mom of two, as well as a therapist, a writer, and an artist coach.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.


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