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Why Your Adopted Teen Isn't Bonding With the Family

How to address trust issues resulting from past trauma.

The short answer is yes, while the long answer is maybe. In the field of child development, it commonly believed that how a person comes to perceive an experience or set of experiences in early childhood molds the foundation for the person’s core personality for years to come. To contradict this commonly held belief, it is also believed in the field of neuroscience, that the brain is malleable, meaning that with enough attention people can change even their most deeply ingrained beliefs and behaviors. Regardless of how contradictory these commonly held beliefs in these two fields of study are, they are both true.

As far as beliefs and behaviors are concerned, we are either reinforcing what we have already come to believe, based on consistent exposure to ideas from our association with people, places and things that we are already familiar with, or we are adopting new beliefs and practicing new behaviors based on exposure to new ideas from people, places and things.

A common issue most adopted teens face when residing with their adopted parents, or guardians, is a difficulty in bonding and establishing healthy attachments with their new family. Often, the reasons for these poor bonding experiences come from the teen’s development of trust issues resulting from an early life experience with trauma.

When dealing with a teen who presents with trust issues resulting from traumatic experiences in early childhood, there are two factors parents and guardians must be consistent of. These factors are recurring triggers that reinforce the teen’s trust issues and the teen’s consistent attempts to create a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Parents should be aware of people, places and things that have a strong connection to the teen’s experience of trauma. A strong connection should not be confused with a causal connection. A causal connection would the teen’s cultural or biological heritage of his or her biological parents. While a strong connection would ideologies and life styles that led to the teen’s trauma. Parents and guardians should be aware of people, places and things that present with messages consistent with teen’s attitude of poor trust and poor attachment with others, with the purpose of safeguarding the teen from these identified triggers.

If parents can control for people, places and things that trigger the teen’s connection to his or her trauma, their biggest challenge would be the teen’s tendency to recreate his or her trauma in his or her relationship with others.

For example, let’s say you have a teen who was abandoned by both parents as a toddler or young child, it is common for teens with such histories to periodically test the love and commitment of their new guardians, adopted parents, or foster parents. They will blatantly disregard boundaries of others and may engage in hostilities, breaking of rules and theft of properties. Sometimes they will limit their defiant behaviors to the home, and be well behaved at school, and other times they will habitually create problems for themselves at school and at home.

This attitude of creating a self-fulfilling prophesy where the teen is neither liked or wanted is unfortunately a very effective strategy that works against the teen and the parents involved. As the teen’s defiant behaviors can get so out of hand, that sometimes removal from the teen’s residence comes up for discussion.

The good news is that the teen’s behavior can be corrected for the better, and he and she can improve on their ability to bond with others. The chances of this happening are higher when parents and guardians successful control for outside influences that may remind the teen of his or her past trauma. After which the tendency to engage in self-destructive behaviors can be effectively managed with strict boundaries and practice of cognitive behavioral strategies.

However, sometimes parents may not be able to identify or even recognize people, places and things that are triggering the teen’s reactivity to his or her traumatic experience. It is at this point that work with a therapist is strongly recommended.