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Trauma Doesn’t Tell Time

June 13, 2013

Many frustrated parents regretfully feel as though all of the years that their child has spent in their safe, loving home has not made much of a positive impact on the child. This can leave parents feeling bewildered and incompetent. When I talk with parents about how their child’s behaviors are being driven by their earliest life experiences, many are overwhelmed by that idea that everything they have done to provide a safe and loving family has not helped their child let go of those earliest traumas. Despite years of “safe mom” behaviors, the child’s brain still believes “moms aren’t safe” or “moms leave.” Despite years of never going hungry, a full pantry, and never being told “no” to food, the child’s brain still believes “I’ll never get food again” or “Hungry = Starving”. Parents start to feel hopeless and helpless. When will the child FINALLY believe they are safe? Not going to go hungry? Parents feel justifiably skeptical when I attempt to convince them that their 9 year-old child’s meltdown over being told “no” to a snack right before dinner triggers the part in their brain that believes “I’ll never get food again.” How can this be possibly true when the child has not gone without food for seven years AND mom is in the middle of cooking dinner- an obvious sign that food will be plentifully available very shortly.

UPDATE!!!!  In 2016 I created a webinar based on Trauma Doesn’t Tell Time- my most popular blog post EVER.  This recorded webinar is now available for purchase on my website!!!  CLICK HERE!!!


Traumatic experiences, even the earliest and preverbal traumatic experiences, remain stored in our children’s brains. The normal information processing system that stores memories in the appropriate places in our brain is thwarted by the cascade of hormones and neurochemicals that are released during a traumatic or frightening experience. The memory- along with the images, feelings, and body sensations, remain literally frozen in their nervous system.

We have two types of memories

Simply because things cannot be RECALLED doesn’t mean they are not REMEMBERED by your child’s brain and body. Implicit memory describes how all your child’s memories were stored before 18 months, and most of the memories before 3. Implicit memory includes emotions and body sensations. Your nine-year-old may not recall being left all alone as a small infant but his body REMEMBERS the fear, terror and lonliness when he was all alone, believing no one would ever come back. For experiences that happen past age 3, explicit and implicit memory is BOTH involved with experiences and events. Explicit memory is what we are usually talking about when we talk about memories. Explicit memories are recalled. It’s the image we bring into our head when we think about last Christmas or what we ate for lunch yesterday. When implicit and explicit memory work together, we smile slightly at the positive feelings the memory brings to our body, and we can create a visual image of the memory. Implicit data is stored in our limbic brain (emotion brain)- the same part of our brain responsible for fight/flight/freeze. Our body holds implicit memories even before explicit memory is working. Newborns and even fetuses have experiences encoded into implicit memories. They can’t recall those experiences but they remember them.

Explicit memory is autobiographical. This is the part of our memory that helps us be oriented to time and place. If explicit and implicit information is appropriately connected, then when you recall your favorite family Christmas at Grandma Smith’s home because you smell homemade cinnamon rolls, your brain instantly knows that Christmas is a memory- it isn’t happening RIGHT NOW. If Christmas at Grandma Smith’s house had not been fully integrated and appropriately stored in your memory processing system, you may be triggered by the sweet smell of cinnamon rolls and your body may feel as though Christmas is happening NOW.

During traumatic experiences, implicit and explicit information may not be linked appropriately. The implicit data does not connect to the explicit data. And (here’s the REALLY important part) this implicit data that isn’t connected IS NOT ALTERED BY LATER LIFE EXPERIENCES. This means that all those years in your safe home does not impact implicit information that isn’t connected to the explicit information. When an implicit memory is triggered and there is no explicit memory to help it understand time and place, your child’s body literally feels like the experience is happening RIGHT NOW.

Trauma doesn’t tell time.  When it gets triggered, it doesn’t have access to information that tells your child “Hey! That happened a long time ago! You are safe now!” Trauma seizes your child’s body in the moment and thrusts them back into those terrifying times when the trauma was happening. This happens in milliseconds.

So, trauma momma, cut yourself some slack! You are not responsible for the disconnect in your child’s implicit and explicit memories. It isn’t fair that your child’s years in your family have not impacted their implicit memories, but it’s also not your fault, or your child’s fault. The silver lining here is that it is very possible, with the right help and support, for implicit and explicit memories to get linked up and for those earliest memories to be stored in the right spot in their brain.

Trauma Doesn’t Tell Time is now a webinar!!!  I’ve expanded this article, added in more examples, and created a two-hour webinar that will happen in two parts.  Part 1 is scheduled for August 9, 2016 with Part 2 scheduled for September 20.  Interested in more information or ready to sign up?  CLICK HERE!!!!!

UPDATE!!!!  The recorded webinar is now available for purchase on my website!!!  CLICK HERE!!!

****edited to add: for those of you wondering “NOW WHAT? How do we link up implicit and explicit memories?” Check out my follow up blog post****


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Robyn Gobbel, LCSW is a child and family therapist in Austin, Texas specializing in adoption, trauma, and attachment counseling. She is the founder of the Central Texas Attachment & Trauma Center.

77 Comments leave one →
  1. cherubmamma permalink
    June 13, 2013 7:45 am

    This is an amazing post. I have to remind myself of this fact all the time. I love how well you worded things though. My husband and I were just commenting that if (when) we are able to adopt our cherubs that it is likely we will have “food issues” when our 5yo is a teenager.

    • June 13, 2013 7:35 pm

      Thanks CherubMama for your kind words! Food issues certainly can linger. Good luck with your adoption!

  2. jackie permalink
    June 13, 2013 11:28 am

    I referred to these memories as “ghosts” which linger in our childrens soul, somewhere deep down inside and once in a while they take a peak.

  3. lynn permalink
    June 13, 2013 2:19 pm

    Sending to family members because they really cannot understand what this is all about. They think we are somehow at fault or creating issues through “professionals”.

    • June 13, 2013 7:34 pm

      I hope it helps, Lynn!! Our culture believes that babies don’t remember things. It’s a tough paradigm shift. I hope they can start to be more supportive.

      • cherubmamma permalink
        June 14, 2013 8:30 am

        Our 9yo was adopted at birth via the foster care system. There was no abuse or neglect (or use of any substances during pregnancy). Still…he struggles ALL. THE. TIME.

        I’ve personally come to accept that he suffered horrific in-utero trauma. He basically swam in cortisol for 9 months. He’s got extreme anxiety and occasional issues with aggression (and lying and stealing). His bio mom knew all along she wasn’t going to parent him and the rejection he feels as a result is very profound.

        I don’t know anyone that wants to accept that a fetus has “memories”. But something deeply affects my son. Thankfully my family is supportive enough. But the older he gets, the more difficult things become and I have a hard time dealing with the behaviors.

  4. Sandi Glass permalink
    June 13, 2013 5:32 pm

    Thanks for the reminder, but I do have a question. One of our children was adopted at 18 months from an orphanage in China, with a cleft lip and palate. Of our four adopted children, he was the youngest at adoption. Despite what others might expect, I’m afraid he will have the most life long struggles with the effects of his early months. He has been in our home for 10 years, made great progress in many areas. However, there is still much there that gets triggered very easily – I think it’s worse now that he’s entering adolescence. He very quickly goes into “you aren’t any better than my birth mom” “you are a terrible mom” when something goes “wrong”. I have to say that I’m in a place lately that his “mean” words really hurt. So my question is, if he doesn’t have any explicit memories of his previous life, how do you link up his implicit and explicit memories? How do you heal something that you weren’t there to fix? I can get better, perhaps, at being the Mom he needs, but at some point he’s going to go out in life and no one will be aware of his previous trauma. Is it possible to heal and move on?

    • June 13, 2013 7:33 pm

      Hi Sandi ~ Does your son know his life story? A way to begin linking those memories is to give explicit information to the implicit memories. This is one reason I advocate so strongly for kids to know their stories. Has he had trauma therapy? I’m an EMDR therapist so that’s the therapy I am most familiar with, and yes, through EMDR therapy one can absolutely link up those implicit and explicit memories. You can locate an EMDR therapist at or You are not a terrible mom!

  5. Terrie permalink
    June 13, 2013 8:31 pm

    Very good article! I had never heard this explained in this way. Very helpful to remember when we see our child have a huge meltdown over what seems to be a small thing.

  6. Andrew Cronyn permalink
    June 14, 2013 7:19 am

    Do you have any links to studies that back this up? A lot of it ‘sounds’ true, but I’d like to see some science…

    • June 14, 2013 7:30 am

      Great question!! Most of my information is brought together from Daniel Siegel MD (particularly The Developing Mind) and Francine Shapiro PhD’s Adaptive Information Processing Theory. Siegel’s books have huge bibliography sections if you are interested!

  7. June 14, 2013 7:59 am

    I’m having a hard time understanding why my middle child (who was in fostercare from the beginning ~adopted at 14mths) has more so many more trauma issues than my youngest who was in an orphanage from 2-14mths; had surgery (amputation of a foot)at 2yrs. old and has a prosthetic leg. The youngest who had the hardest start is the most well adjusted emotionally. I just cannot figure it out. I am wondering if temperament plays an important part in all of this.

    • cherubmamma permalink
      June 14, 2013 8:32 am

      I think this is where the phrase “kids are resilient” comes in to play. Personally, I struggle saying that phrase at all. As a foster parent I’ve witnessed first hand how trauma affects children. But still, some kids handle it differently. I most definitely think that temperament plays a part in how kids respond to trauma.

    • June 14, 2013 8:37 am

      Cynthia- this is a really good question with a long, complex answer. But yes, temperament, resiliency, presence of some supportive attachment figure for your youngest, in utero trauma that combined with your middle child’s trauma of birth separation and foster placement…it’s really hard to know, and sooo frustrating to look at every day! For some adoptees, the trauma of relinquishment is enough to bring about severe trauma symptoms. There are so many factors involved in the ‘why.’ Was he in foster care with you for 14 months? If not, that leaves open almost unlimited possibilities of what he experienced in 14 months. I’m sorry he is struggling so much.

    • Margaret G permalink
      July 19, 2013 3:51 pm

      It could be a bonding issue. The child in the hospital may have had someone who was a constant in his/her life during that critical time that fulfilled that role. Sometimes even the sibling bond is enough to complete the neurological development needed for security and normal growth. The child in foster care may have been passed from person to person and never developed the eye contact and bonding needed to have the brain develop an ability for relationships. 14 months in foster care is never a picnic, even with nice people. You will most likely never know the exact reason, but be assured there is one. You just have to work with what you know and have to help your children as much as possible. I will send some prayers your way for your and your family.

    • July 26, 2013 3:57 pm

      that can be (reasonably) explained by the reasons why your children were placed into the out-of-home settings.

      Your middle child could be not just hurt by the foster care experiences, but also by the prenatal exposures, stress and other factors.

      Your younger child could be abandoned simply because of his congenital malformation and could have a much healthier start in life (before birth) probably with much healthier emotional predispositions to begin with.
      This is a very typical situation for example for Russian orphanages, when a baby born with some sort of congenital malformations, especially the disfiguring ones, is surrendered to the state (as parents would not be able to provide his care). Caretakers both in the hospital and In the orphanage (it would take 2 weeks to 2 months to get there from one to another) would routinely take a pity of such kids, frequently at expense of other babies, who were more demanding in their withdrawals.

  8. June 14, 2013 2:22 pm

    wow! part of that could have been a direct statement about my 6 year old son!

  9. InstaMom permalink
    June 14, 2013 2:43 pm

    Thank you, Robin, for this thoughtful explanation. I never get tired of the reassurance that it can (and will) get better with perseverance. My 5 year old was adopted at 11 months, but those first 11 months were filled with trauma and neglect. He’s suffering now because of it. 😦

  10. June 14, 2013 4:12 pm

    SO insightful and true. Our 8 year old (home with us since she was 9 mos. old) just today had a moment in the swimming pool. Her sister grabbed my float and I didn’t go under the water but I made a grasping gesture with my arm to grab the float tighter so I wouldn’t go under and she was hysterical. Sobbing, crying, hitting her sister and telling her through tears, “You could have killed Mommy and then I would be all alone again” (sigh) There are SO many days, I beg God to take away her pain and put it on me, I desperately want her to feel safe:(

    • June 15, 2013 2:04 pm

      Oh my, that must have really hurt your heart. Sometimes I am so astounded by the clarity that children can find to express their earliest wounds. Thanks for sharing your daughter’s story.

  11. Felicity permalink
    June 14, 2013 7:48 pm

    I use to worry what people thought of me when saying how my now 4 year old had to sleep with us for the first two years home and over time it has been getting less and less… But she now comes to our bed in the mornings and sometimes still cries out at night from time to time. All I have to do is go down, rub her back and tell her to go back to sleep everything is ok…I have always thought she has had a deep, deep down issue with being ‘alone’ or crying at night without anyone coming to soothe her… If she is with us she always sleeps with a hand touching us… Now days, I am not worried what people think… I knower believe that all this was when she was young… thanks also for this piece…

    • June 15, 2013 2:06 pm

      I’m so glad you have found freedom from other’s judgments. Parenting is so hard and to know that we all judge each other so harshly is painful. Sounds like you did a great job meeting your daughter’s earliest needs. Nighttime can be a terrifying time for children.

    • Allison permalink
      June 15, 2013 11:56 pm

      Felicity, My bio son slept with us on and off for for years and finally started choosing to sleep on is own more and more from ages 6 through 10. I say if it works, and feels right in your family, that’s what counts. We want to help our children become independent, but each in their own way and in their own time. Bless all you adoptive moms and dads for giving your children safe homes. My parents fostered a couple of children when I was young, and foster / adoptive kids and their famillies have always had a special place in my heart. I wish you all the best.

  12. June 14, 2013 9:39 pm

    This post explains so much! Thank you. I would also add that the book The Whole Brain Child does a great job explaining the implicit and explicit memory. I recently asked my daughter’s counselor if EMDR would be appropriate for her (she was adopted at age 10 and is now 12)? Is any age considered too young? Thanks for this informative and helpful post!

    • Liz permalink
      June 15, 2013 7:36 am

      After the Oklahoma City bombing they had a special team for kids affected (there was a day care center involved). I believe they used EMDR as one tool.

    • June 15, 2013 2:07 pm

      Yes, The Whole Brained Child is one of my favorite books! Everything by Dan Siegel is brilliant. I’ve used EMDR with toddlers so definitely 12 is not too young, if the therapist is skilled in working with children and with healing complex trauma like abuse/neglect.

  13. June 15, 2013 2:21 am

    Thank you for this! We’ve been put through the ringer lately with our son, adopted nearly 3 years ago at age 3. My husband and I keep wondering why in the world all of this is cropping up NOW, after being home with us for nearly 3 years.Your post clears up so much. I’ve been reading books on how to parent hurt children, and it’s helping, although many of the techniques they prescribe are very counterintuitive to our normal parenting style, so it’s really difficult to know the right way to parent him in the mist of defiance or a meltdown. I hope you’re going to do a follow-up post on how to help link up those implicit and explicit memories! 🙂

    • June 15, 2013 2:10 pm

      Colleen- I definitely will write a post on beginning to link up explicit and implicit memories. Therapeutic parenting is tough when we are shifting from a more traditional, consequence based paradigm. My experience is that once we start to truly understand attunement and joining our children in that space, therapeutic parenting becomes much more natural.

  14. permalink
    June 15, 2013 5:15 am

    I’d like to know more about what is the right kind of therapy and where do you find the help. I’ve tried two different attachment therapists in the Atlanta area when our daughter was younger. It helped a little but still need more support. She is now about to be ten years old and has been home with us for eight years.

    • June 15, 2013 2:12 pm

      My own experience is that there should be a combination of attachment and trauma therapy. I use EMDR in therapy, so I’m partial to that! Somatic Experiencing is another type of trauma therapy. Alternative therapies, such as occupational therapy, equine therapy, movement therapy, music therapy, neurofeedback, neuroreorganization can all be helpful with trauma work. Mindfulness training is also showing great promise in the field of trauma work.

  15. Becky D. permalink
    June 15, 2013 6:24 am

    OH yeah our little girl (6.5) has been with us 5 yrs 1st as a foster child then adopted right after age 3. She did have birth family visit until past 2. We’re been doing play therapy/counseling this year. I would never believe the stuff she plays with the puppets if I hadn’t been there for every session. I can’t believe all that fear and helplessness and well everything that was inside the little girl. On the surface everyone said how she miraculous survived her physical abuse and how she is so happy and thriving with us. She is happy with us but there is her past that she needs to deal with.

    • June 15, 2013 2:13 pm

      Sounds like your kiddo is on the path toward healing in her therapy- wonderful! Good luck to your family.

  16. Liz permalink
    June 15, 2013 7:34 am

    And so just what exactly does one do about this?

    Also what do you do if the child will not cooperate with therapy?

    And when they are an adult and still haven’t been “healed” I presume this is a train wreck in the making – actually more like multiple train wrecks (because it is sure a train wreck right now)?

    • June 15, 2013 2:18 pm

      Hi Liz…this is a tough question. I’ll write a follow up post on linking up explicit/implicit memories. There are things that can be done at home, and then I use EMDR to help clients process through traumatic memories. If a child will not cooperate with therapy, it’s true that therapy cannot be forced. I will usually advise momma’s to do their own therapy, work on keeping themselves regulated so that when their child dysregulates that the child doesn’t impact momma’s nervous system as much. Easier said than done! You can also try more experiential types of therapies, like equine (horse). Sometimes these non-talk therapies are easier for children. Once children launch into adulthood, sometimes they surprise us. Once their brain has fully matured, promising things can happen. But unfortunately, sometimes their lives are very difficult.

      • Liz permalink
        June 28, 2013 7:07 am

        My “child” is now 23 (21 on paper)… her path continues to be difficult. She had a baby on a whim and is refusing to take birth control so there will be more. The trauma is now becoming intergenerational… I know many, many kids like her and am beginning to believe the healing is in the cards for relatively few of these kids who were damaged by spent years in care (and yes there is another group who managed to survive relatively unscathed, but there are tons who did not).

    • Stan permalink
      June 16, 2013 8:44 am

      I’m not convinced that continually “indulging” a kid because they suffered a trauma years and years ago makes thing WORSE, not better. Lots of people have trauma, life isn’t fair, you can’t fix what happened 10 yrs ago and dwelling on it is unlikely to improve said kid’s life.

      Kids (like grownups) are much more likely to fall to pieces if they know someone will pick up the pieces. An imperfect analogy: having a breakdown in college is pretty much an upper middle class girl right of passage – parents are sympathetic, have insurance and the support necessary is there. A first in her family to go to college, no safety net provided by others girl has nobody to pick up the pieces if she has a breakdown — and thus tends not to.

      Indulging the little darling because “they had a hard life” harms the traumatized kid – and denies them the opportunity to learn!

  17. Karen Smith permalink
    June 15, 2013 8:16 am

    Please direct me as to where I can learn more bout how implicit and explicit memories can become linked. Thank you!

    • June 15, 2013 6:08 pm

      Hi Karen!!! Check back and I’ll write some additional information about linking up implicit and explicit memories. The book “Whole Brained Child” is a great book for helping your kids integrate their brain. “Mindsight” is a good book for adults. “Rewire Your Brain for Your Love” is about creating integration through mindfulness exercises.

  18. June 15, 2013 11:47 am

    Thanks. This is so true even for people who go through traumatic events as adults and is part of what PTSD is all about. Its good to remember both for children and ourselves as we face memories and feelings that are hard to pinpoint where they came from.

    • June 15, 2013 2:20 pm

      Absolutely! Everything we do in the ‘here and now’ is influenced by the past. “Getting Past your Past” by Shapiro is one of my favorite books about this.

  19. Connie permalink
    June 15, 2013 12:10 pm

    Is this a common theory or is there hard, scientific proof to back this up? Sorry to be so sceptical, but in years past science had to be proven. Now, if enough celebrities say it is true, then it is true,no ‘proof’ needed.

    • June 15, 2013 2:22 pm

      Hi Connie- When I work with kids, I am grounded in the Adaptive Information Processing Theory by Francine Shapiro (EMDR) as well as the memory processing theory presented in Interpersonal Neurobiology (Dan Siegel MD). These ideas are as proven as they can be when it comes to brain processes. It’s good to be skeptical!

  20. Angie permalink
    June 15, 2013 12:37 pm

    I am a 47 year old mom and wife who was abused as a child and this speaks to me so strongly! I have gone thru many counseling sessions but I have found that I still have lingering issues that seemed to be described so clearly in this article. In times of stress I ‘check out’. I have come to recognize it but I don’t know how to fix or change it. It’s almost like watching a movie of my life… I’m just not there and there are no emotions connected to life. This can go on for weeks and then I realize it has ended. This article clarifies the ‘why’ for me… now I want to learn how to be the button pusher who can turn the emotions back on.

    • June 15, 2013 2:24 pm

      Thanks Angie! Have you tried any body based counseling like Somatic Experiencing, Mindfulness Training, or EMDR? It sounds like you have a lot of insight and perhaps one of these types of therapies could help you take control of those emotions.

  21. June 15, 2013 4:23 pm

    What a wonderful post, it is really well written. We have two children adopted from China, one with RAD and one without, but absolutely our non-RAD daughter also has some lingering trauma issues due to this lack of integration as well. We are doing Neurological Reorganization with both daughters now (10 months in with the younger one, 4 months in with the older) and are seeing absolutely astounding results. We combine it with attachment therapy and Have done some cranial sacral therapy here and there as well, but the NR is making the biggest impact on integrating her brain and allowing this amazing sweet and beautiful child to emerge. We are also seeing positive improvements with our older daughter as well.
    I also wanted to point out, as a few people asked for “scientific proof” of all of this- I heard somewhere (quoted by a medical researcher, but can’t recall where) that 85% of all medical procedures have never been through a double blind study, but have been grandfathered in as medically acceptable. Even the medical community has accepted quite some fact without “specific science” behind it.
    Trauma is real, our kids are hurting, and that is all the science I need to know as their Mama. I will do whatever is needed to help them heal and become the amazing wonderful adults they were meant to become.

    • June 16, 2013 7:13 pm

      Kelli, thanks for stopping by and leaving such kind words! I’m glad you are having so much success with NR- I have heard amazing things about NR but have never had a client go through the program. I agree with you that very few things are “proven” and we all are always doing the best we can to take the science that is available to us now and apply that to help our children. Luckily, there is a lot of science available about the brain and memory processing!

    • Margaret G permalink
      July 9, 2013 11:45 pm

      Hey, look! Another neurological reorganization fan! We have been in for four years and have had incredible results. Our mute, low IQ, almost a vegetable, is a chatty, speaking two languages, reading above grade level, computer savy, Power Ranger loving kid! He still has issues, but in a comfortable environment does very well! Go Emily and Nina! Hurrah for neurological reorganization!!!

      This is the first time I have ever seen anyone else even know about it! Thanks for posting!!

  22. June 15, 2013 8:20 pm

    I have two adopted sons. This is the first I’ve read of this sort of thing….will be delving deeper as this rings true for both the 10 y/o adopted at age 3 from Ukraine and the 2nd is 4 and has been with us from 7 months but came from a very difficult biological family situation.

  23. Randi Williams permalink
    June 15, 2013 8:54 pm

    Thank you for the great article! As a parent of a traumatized child it is always helpful to be reminded of this. Can you speak to what happens during puberty to the traumatized child? We have done a lot of work with my daughter when she was younger and had great success with EMDR and many of the therapies you mentioned. Life seemed smooth for a long time and many trauma triggers eliminated or controlled. We are now transferring some of the self regulation skills ie choose own bedtime, fix own lunch lunch when hungry, etc. She doesn’t have these skills mastered yet and when stressors come (preparing for summer camp when she is tired from staying up too late) we are seeing old behaviors like throwing fits or being argumentative emerge. The insecurities of adolescence seems to add to the stress. She has responded well to journaling or asking her to go write out and sort through feelings on own before discussing them with a parent.

    • June 16, 2013 7:16 pm

      Adolescence certainly can throw another wrench in the situation, huh? There are normal adolescent development milestones of individuating. Hormones and neurochemicals are changing, windows of tolerance are becoming a bit small, navigating the social expectations with peers becomes more and more challenging….AND a lot of times trauma work needs to be revisited at major developmental milestones like adolescence. It’s a stormy time even for the teen who has never experienced trauma and loss! Good luck to you!

    • Liz permalink
      June 28, 2013 7:14 am

      Puberty… in the case of my child (and many others I know) things went downhill – really really downhill. Watch what peer group they end up in. Many kids with issues end up at the bottom of the social heap and the behaviors there are often extremely counter productive/dysfunctional (not to mention many parents of those kids have given up and many of those kids often run wild). If your child doesn’t have good self esteem it will be very difficult for them to say “no”. My kid, in anguish, once said to me, “But mom, if I say no then if they don’t like me anymore then what will I do?”. It becomes easy for peers to manipulate kids like this, and in the case of my child, manipulated to have sex in order to keep a boyfriend.

  24. Stan permalink
    June 16, 2013 8:34 am

    Except for all the kids that *do* survive and even thrive *despite* trauma — there are tons and tons of them out there, including me.

    While “theraputic parenting” and tapping and all kids of other beloved by self-proclaimed trauma mamas (and not necessarily proven to work, but, hey, they may well be!) — in the past, kids somehow managed to survive the Great Depression, concentration camps, wars, etc AND go on to become happy, functional grownups. No therapeutic parenting required.

    In my experience, kids tend to live up (or down) to expectations — and indulging a pre-verbal trauma, as justification for bad behaviour a decade later is helpful to said kid, how, exactly? Life isn’t fair, some kids get dealt a terrible hand. Deal with it. The alternative is *worse*.

    Not sure if it matters, but my trauma bona fides are a mum who committed suicide, losing my only sib and almost my dad to cancer and a mental illness (necessitating a psychiatrist in elementary school, plus a short in-patient stay in college) — and got my Masters at barely 23. My BFF (foster care alumna; we met in our mutual psychiatrists waiting room) finished undergrad the same year.

    Childhood trauma is *not* a valid excuse for bad behaviour or low academic achievement!

    • June 16, 2013 7:21 pm

      Hi Stan…I spent a great deal of time with a teen client this week distinguishing between the difference between an excuse and understanding. The past does not EXCUSE maladaptive behavior. But with understanding, we can target the origins of the behavior and more effectively bring about change. For a million different reasons, everyone responds to trauma differently. Not everyone who experiences a trauma develops trauma related symptoms. Many children and adults are able to process through the trauma without too much difficult. We are fortunate to live in a time when neuroscience can give us insight into the impact of trauma and how that translates to behavior. Congratulations on all of your successes!!

  25. June 16, 2013 12:32 pm

    We have had our adopted daughter in our home since April of 2009. Last night we had a birthday party for one of our other children. Our adopted daughter was just getting over a stomach bug and only ate half of her cake and threw the rest away. When my husband put her to bed she was sobbing and he asked her what was wrong. She told him that she was very upset that she had thrown out her cake. He told her she did the right thing and then he said Mom will make you breakfast in the morning. It was like a light went on. She said Oh yeah. Okay. Then she was fine and went to sleep. It’s not like she hasn’t eaten breakfast here for the last 4 years every morning and at the same time every morning….I love this article. It was very helpful for us but even more so for our family members that really don’t understand trauma and attachment. Thank you so much for writing and sharing this.
    Another Trauma Momma

    • June 16, 2013 7:23 pm

      Thanks so much for commenting and sharing your story. I do hope the article will help family members who are less familiar with the impact of trauma.

  26. chinamama4 permalink
    June 17, 2013 10:39 am

    This article is great! Thank you so much for giving me the proper “terminology” to present to family members who basically imply that my son’s behavior would improve if my husband and I just parented him “properly”! And I would like to learn more about your closing statement:
    The silver lining here is that it is very possible, with the right help and support, for implicit and explicit memories to get linked up and for those earliest memories to be stored in the right spot in their brain.
    Can you go into a little more detail and define “the right help and support”? We ultimately don’t care what others think of us (at least not a whole lot!), but our concern is for our son’s well being and peace…

  27. pianomom permalink
    June 17, 2013 11:32 am

    Our 8yo who we adopted at birth has just been diagnosed with RAD. We sought counseling because of his out of control bursts of behavior, which are getting worse as he gets older. I’d love to know that there is real hope out there for him to get better.

    • Margaret G permalink
      July 9, 2013 11:38 pm

      Yes, there is hope. Google Emily Beard or Emily Beard Johnson and contact her about neurologica reorganization.

    • anon74 permalink
      March 12, 2016 12:22 am

      I really wish people would understand that RAD is not a child diagnosis, it’s a family diagnosis and the whole family needs to deal with it. And I’m sick of therapists diagnosing adoptees with RAD for their perfectly normal, reasonable reactions to completely abnormal situations.

  28. Sara permalink
    June 21, 2013 1:13 am

    What a great article! My husband & I were just talking about this today. We are having a difficult time with our five year old acting out a lot. We almost lost him four years ago due to a major complication with his intestines. We wondered if that had an affect on him. Also he was not able to take in solid food(he loved food) for two weeks. To this day he asks for “food and drink” on the hour!
    Thank you for the article!

  29. June 24, 2013 3:48 pm

    So grateful to have found you! We adopted our daughter from China at 23 months. We are now 10 months down the road. She is AMAZING. But, we know she had some pretty awful experiences in the orphanage. And she was traumatized when we traveled home with her. She is doing great in so many areas. But, we see these “freak outs” over specific situations. Twice now, when we have been at a birthday party and the singing ensues, she flips out…starts screaming, asking for me and thrashes around. Afterwards, she collapses and goes to sleep in my arms. 😦 Thank you for such an informative article on “WHY” these things happen even though we are surrounding her with love and security.

  30. Carol permalink
    June 27, 2013 10:43 pm

    This is fascinating. Adopted our son from Romania, when they were 3-1/2 yo. Does this carry into adulthood, early 20’s?

  31. Liz permalink
    June 28, 2013 7:27 am

    In the case of my child – yes in spades. Experiences just don’t go away, they become part of who we are. Experiences that are negative, unless the child comes to terms with them, continues to affect their behavior in negative ways, often in unexpected ways – especially when they are unable/unwilling to deal with their past. I have told my child repeatedly, “Bad things have happened to you in the past. Now your job is to figure out how not to let these bad things affect your future. You don’t have to do this job alone, but no one can do it for you, you have to be willing to face this”. She still gets a lot of mileage out of playing “poor little orphaned girl” and so does not yet have motivation to change/deal with her issues. There seems to be a never ending string of people willing to buy into this (she then burns them out and/or turns on them and then moves on to her next “victim”/”sucker”). I suspect she will have to hit rock bottom before she is willing to do something about her life. This is hard as a parent to watch this cycle is self destructive, but unlike younger children where you have the right to make them do things/go places (and despite their best efforts not to cooperate they may well be “sucked in” to cooperating by a skilled therapist), older kids are less “suckable” and you are less able to “make” them go somewhere without significant coercion and if that is how you get them somewhere they are perfectly capable of extended “sit down strikes”.

  32. Carly permalink
    June 28, 2013 4:49 pm

    Robyn, Thank you for such an understandable, informative article. As an adult abuse survivor who has lived through replays of trauma, I absolutely agree with your article. I have done a lot of work on myself and have found that knowing the truth (however ugly) does set people free. Also realizing I am not crazy when I have a flashback has been wonderful. When I realized that what happened in my past was not my fault, but I have the choice of how it will affect my future is my theme in life. I have both adopted and bio kids, and one of my adopted kiddos has significant trauma reactions. He is in residential treatment and it has been the hardest thing I have ever done to parent him. (He is also 15, lol) Silly me, I thought my experiences would make it easier to relate! However I do have much compassion for others who share similar pasts. I am so thankful there is hope and the human spirit is absolutely resilient.
    A trauma momma and survivor.

  33. July 8, 2013 1:23 pm

    I recently watched a video blurb about potential for organic computer development using slime mold. The commentary talked about how a single cell of slime mold “remembers” and reenacts the exact path of electricity that passes through it. I instantly thought of our kids and how their brains process/remember the traumas they’ve experienced long before they’ve ever known us… one slight trigger and they’re instantly thrown back in time to the trauma.

  34. Margaret G permalink
    July 9, 2013 11:37 pm

    Our adopted one lived in several homes including a crack house with multiple child molesters! He was locked up, in and out of rooms, bathrooms, and closets. When we met him at age 2 he was 12 pounds. He has many unusual triggers and abilities that he developed as a baby to survive, including a photographic and audiographic memory. Since he was always on the floor being kicked, he identified “safe and not safe” by the shoes of people- painted pink toes in sandals and cowboy boots were most definitely unsafe in his world. To this day, if you cover his eyes, he can tell you, up to 27 different people in a radius of about 25 feet around him, the color and type of shoe each person is wearing!!! It’s a crazy ability. Whoever made the culture comment was 100% correct- in our culture children are not accepted as remembering baby experiences. People, and especially teachers, do not believe that he can remember those experiences from so long ago. They refuse to believe that these events still influence his behaviors. Thank you for writing this article. I intend to send it to the school principal as part of the required reading for the people working with our son this fall.

    Also, children with cortisol soaked brains during development and life can change with neurological reorganization or with the programs by Glenn Doman. Google either and change your child’s life.

  35. Kristin Frank permalink
    July 10, 2013 9:07 am

    Thank you so much for this article! My son and I are dealing with his past trauma experiences. It’s still hard to understand all of this, especially when we’re in “the moment.” We now have a fabulous counselor who’s helping us and I know we’ll make it through this. I’m going to share your site with famly and friends so they can maybe understand a little bit better what my son is going through. Blessing to you and your work! BanaChase

  36. Andy H. permalink
    July 25, 2013 6:19 pm

    As a dad, this is extremely frustrating. Nothing hurts more than seeing behaviors in my adopted child due to the trauma caused by people that she should have been able to trust, namely her bio mom and dad. Dads just want to pull out their proverbial tool belt and fix everything, but some things cannot be changed. When I think about that too hard, I find myself getting extremely angry at the people who allowed this trauma to happen…to the point I have to take some deep breaths and go for a walk. If you get some time, some insight directed to ‘trauma daddies’ would be great. 🙂

  37. November 17, 2013 2:51 pm

    Just found this article and your blog! So grateful! We have 7 children, 4 adopted from foster care at ages 1,1,3,5 and 3 more we are in process to adopt. They are currently all 15, 9, 7, 7, 6, 5, 5. The new placement 7 weeks ago has really triggers some regression in 3 of our other kids! And one of ours was removed from bio mom at 10 days, loved like crazy in her foster home, then we’ve had her since 20 months. This article really sheds light on some of the challenges we have experienced with her!! Thanks!!

  38. Lee Ann permalink
    February 25, 2014 8:36 am

    Thank you for this article and the reminders that it gives. We were matched with our daughter shortly after turning 5 via foster care. We were fortunate that she had been with the same foster family for 2-3 years before she came to us. We’ve been a family for 5 years (6 in October, longer than any other family bio or foster before us). We’ve done counseling a couple of times and know it will most likely be an ongoing thing to help her.
    Her struggle now is she is forgetting those “little girl” memories of before being 3 and 4. We changed her name (something she picked) when we adopted her, because we wanted it to be a fresh and new beginning for her. To keep her safe and know she was protected. Her birth Mother was older when she was born and has had lifelong struggles with drugs. We have no idea if she is still alive or not, and she never revealed the identity of our daughters father. Things that will be a struggle for her to understand when she is older, and that breaks my heart.
    Because birth Mom failed in so many ways for our girl, I, as Mom, bear 90% of the brunt of the attitude, outbursts, tantrums and general headbutting. (As my own Mother would say, “It’s why God gave us broad shoulders.) I know one day it will be better and we’ve kept her story simple. Her Mother was sick and could not keep the promise that parents make to their babies to make sure that they are taken care of. But because people loved her, they made sure that she got to people who made her safe and then we were all blessed to be able to choose to be a family. We got to choose each other and its for forever and always.
    Add to the mix of memories fading (as they do, and I’ve shared its 1000% normal and okay), she’s pre-hormonal being 10 (11 in a few months). She shared yesterday that she is sad to forget these memories, because there is no one to tell her when she took those first precious steps. Got her first tooth, said “Momma” or “Dada” first. All the things that kids forget, but the Parents remember.
    So how can we recreate these “missing” memories with positives? Can we? How do I help our Baby Girl with this? I love her more than she knows…and our lives would be so bland and colorless without her. But the arguing and wrestling for control of the relationship is draining.
    Thank you!

  39. January 17, 2015 11:49 am

    Excellent post. I am so thankful to be able to personally experience what it is like to see a child to respond correctly most of the time….after many years of wading through the trauma. There is hope for those still in the thick of the trauma. Robyn, I shared your post on a recent post on my blog along with other great resources.

  40. Robert Hafetz permalink
    October 17, 2017 11:27 am

    Infants only a few days old can record long term memories. “Infants do not think but they do process emotions and long term memories are stored as affective schemas” (Geansbauer, 2002). An infant separated from its first mother will record a memory of that event. Memories of this nature are called preverbal memory representations and they have a unique quality that must be understood by adoptive parents. “Infant memories are recalled in adulthood the same way they were recorded at the time they occurred. It is difficult possibly impossible for children to map newly acquired verbal skills on to existing preverbal memory representations” (Richardson, R., & Hayne, H. 2007). An older adoptee who recalls an emotional memory will experience it the same way it was felt as an infant. Adoptees can have troubling memories that they cannot identify in words. This means that they cannot understand what they are feeling and without a vocabulary they cannot even ask for help. This leads to a cognitive /emotional disconnection. “Children fail to translate their preverbal memories into language”(Simcock, Hayne, 2002).

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