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Secondary Trauma in Adoptive and Foster Families

The impact of early abandonment, neglect, and abuse doesn't just disappear.

Key points

  • Normal life experiences can’t be enjoyed; they’re perceived as potential sources of pain, hurt, or scarcity.
  • It's important to listen to the stories of those affected by the adoption and foster care systems.
  • Healing from adverse childhood experiences is a daily struggle that can last a lifetime.
Source: Photo Courtesy of Claudia Wolf on Unsplash
Source: Photo Courtesy of Claudia Wolf on Unsplash

My son’s physical education teacher wrote home: “Your son is the only student I’ve ever had whose heart rate monitor registers in the cardio zone throughout the entire class period!” I knew this teacher was surprised, but I wasn’t. My son spent the first two years of his life in a Chinese orphanage and almost died of institutional neglect and malnutrition. His heart rate isn’t a sign of good health. It’s an indication of his trauma. The fight-flight-freeze response he constantly lives with is something our whole family is trying to heal from.

Kids with histories of neglect or trauma engage in the world with a heightened awareness that is hard to turn off. For example, when driving with my son, he isn’t able to relax. Always in a state of hyperarousal, perched at the edge of his seat, wide-eyed and turning his head from side to side as he looks out the windows, he’s on the lookout for cars that might be driving too fast or erratically. He notices all the tiniest details in traffic patterns, the people driving the cars, and the sounds in the distance that most folks wouldn’t even recognize.

Don’t get me wrong, his exquisite ability to notice such things has been helpful at times, but I know this hypervigilance is because his brain is wired for survival. It’s not a healthy state for him or a family to live in, long-term. We’ve learned to adapt over the years, but it’s come with a cost.

I wish my son would be able to relax and trust the universe, but he can’t. Like a tiger in the wild1, always sniffing out potential threats to his well-being, he’s not able to dial back his alert responses. While medications might help, life for him has always felt on edge. Tapping, humming, noise-making, interrupting, and fidgeting, being around him feels like being in a car stuck idling on “high,” and unable to shift into cruising gear. Presenting very much like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), This high-idling, chronic hypervigilance impacts health, learning, relationships, and almost every aspect of his life. It also has affected me, as well as our family’s well-being.

When most people think of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, they think of post-war veterans and survivors of events that have happened and may have passed, yet their brains still register a threat. Survivors of PTSD can attest that once a perceived danger passes, they’re able to rest and digest for a spell as their parasympathetic nervous system calms down and normal focus and cognitive function return.

For families living with a child with a history of trauma, this balance doesn’t quite return all the way. The “perceived threat” (in the case of foster or adoptive families, the primary caregiver or “nurturing enemy[3]) always lurks in the limbic system of the brains in these kids and can feel very much like adapting to how an animal survives in the jungle. Relaxation and calm can’t be savored, because threats and triggers are everywhere. Food (as has been the case for my son and other children who’ve suffered malnutrition), sounds, sights, and smells. These normal life experiences can’t be enjoyed, because they’re perceived as potential sources of pain, hurt, or scarcity.

As Bessel VanDerKolk writes in The Body Keeps The Score, “The engines of post-traumatic reactions are located in the emotional brain. In contrast with the rational brain, which expresses itself in thoughts, the emotional brain manifests itself in physical reactions: gut-wrenching sensations, heart pounding, breathing becoming fast and shallow, feelings of heartbreak, speaking with an uptight and reedy voice, and the characteristic body movements that signify collapse, rigidity, rage, or defensiveness.” (206)[4]

Many families have learned to adapt. But this adapting takes its toll in the form of our own development of complex PTSD. As VanDerKolk states, “The more frazzled we are, the more our rational brains take a backseat to our emotions.”[4] While my rational brain can help me understand where my feelings are coming from (response to my child’s chronic hyperarousal), it can’t abolish emotions, sensations, or thoughts that intrude upon my sense of well-being in our family life.

There’s a deep sense of sadness, loss, and dissatisfaction that comes with living with complex trauma. As my daughter and I recently acknowledged, it’s hard to feel joy because we never know when the next major triggering event will happen. This isn’t to blame my son, it’s just the reality of the trauma he (and we) live with.

It’s near impossible to not wish for easier days, unencumbered and pure, without emotional intrusions that inevitably arise on the regular. That’s at the heart of CPTSD. There’s no rest and reset because we live with it. Daily.

Many adoptive and foster families feel isolated and angry, not only because this has become our reality, but because of the lack of resources available to help us. There’s also a “blame the parent” sentiment that has been very prevalent in recent years, forcing many adoptive and foster parents into underground communities, where we meet with others sharing similar feelings and circumstances, without judgment.

Many adult adoptees and adoptive parents share the sentiment that the “happy forever family” narrative which agencies have needed to adapt to place waiting children in loving homes is more complex than is usually noted. Often, abandonment trauma doesn’t miraculously disappear. The aftershocks reverberate into the families, schools, and communities these kids inhabit.

While many support groups have popped up over the years, we have a long way to go in supporting adoptive and foster families. Family preservation is always the goal, whether it’s through supporting birth families who struggle to meet their basic needs (spiritual, emotional, and physical) or families brought together through adoption or the foster care system.

Acknowledging how adverse childhood experiences (ACE) impact development is where we can begin, followed by listening to the stories and experiences of all those impacted by the foster and adoption systems. While healing is a lifelong journey, it's a good place to start.


[1] Levine, Peter. Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. North Atlantic Books. 1997.

[3] Prange-Morgan, C. The Nurturing Enemy. Psychology Today.

[4] VanderKolk, B. The Body Keeps the Score. Penguin Publishing Group. September 2015.

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