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Is {enter symptom here} Related to Trauma or Attachment?

April 14, 2014

Originally written for and posted on where I have recently been honored to serve on their advisory board.

You knew adoption wouldn’t be easy.  Or maybe you thought it would be.

Just look around… lots of families are adopting.  You know these families from church, from school, or maybe just dance class or the playground.  It was easy for them – they look like happy, normal families.

So maybe you’re wondering – why isn’t it easy for us?  Are we doing something wrong?

Many of you probably did a lot of reading or took a prep class before adopting; in fact, it is likely you heard something about attachment, but it was portrayed as a big problem for a tiny percentage of adoptive families (surely, not yours, right?).

Most adoptive families I know heard about a scary monster called “Reactive Attachment Disorder” and were promised that it is very rare and likely won’t impact their child or, therefore, their family.  In order to help families feel prepared and prudent, adoption counselors and authors tell prospective adoptive families to be on the lookout for RAD warning signs.  These include things like a lack of empathy, a weak or absent conscience, avoidance of physical affection, poor or limited eye contact, physical abuse of animals, and preoccupation with fire.  You think about those symptoms and say to yourself “Well, my child didn’t do any of that…and still doesn’t, thank goodness….so I guess this isn’t about attachment.”

So – what IS IT, then? Maybe your child struggles with impulsivity.  Maybe your child doesn’t seem to be learning from consequences.  Maybe your child is really inflexible, struggles a lot with moving from one activity to another, and seems to be unusually controlling.  Maybe she’s explosive and seems to go from 0-60 in 0.0005 seconds flat.  Maybe an “explosion” looks more like a meltdown, and your child runs to hide on the floor of her shower for a few hours when something (seemingly small) happens. Maybe your child looks like a child who would be labeled “ADHD” or “Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).”  Maybe a doctor has said “depression” or “anxiety.” Likely, you are trying to decide if this is “adoption behavior,” “orphanage behavior,” or just “pre-teen-stuff.”  And now you are reading numerous books, talking to other adoptive families who have had “hard children,” begging teachers to keep trying, learning about strategies to manage ADHD and ODD – and feeling like things are not going the right direction.  You’ve escalated the consequences more and more because your child just. isn’t. learning.  Whatever it is, adoption is a lot harder than you expected.

What if it wasn’t ADHD or ODD or MDD or BPD or any of those other acronyms?  What if someone told you that these symptoms are all about attachment and trauma?

All adopted children experience attachment trauma, even those adopted at birth.  Whether you are fostering a child, adopting domestically, or adopting internationally, without question, your child experienced a significant amount of attachment trauma.  The research is clear that trauma impacts children- sometimes profoundly.  Simply getting on an airplane with people who don’t speak your language and flying to a new country- one that has big houses, water towers, and SUVs- is traumatic.

All children adopted from foster care, the US, or through international adoption have “special needs.”  Experiencing attachment trauma doesn’t mean you child will struggle or display the behaviors mentioned above – but he or she likely will.  Most do. Some of these children adjust to their new families with little difficulty.  Many do not.

Trauma is losing a parent, even if you are too young to have verbal memories of the loss.  Trauma is living in an orphanage.  Trauma is moving to a new home.  Trauma is not being lovingly held and gazed at adoringly by a mother who is simply intoxicated by your smell.

Believe it or not….these traumas (or one or more of many, many others) are most likely what’s underneath the hard things happening in your family.  Inattention, opposition, hyperactivity, anxiety, shy and withdrawn behaviors are all symptoms of attachment trauma.

The good news?  With the right understanding and intervention, your child and your family can heal. More to come…


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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.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. catfishmom permalink
    April 14, 2014 5:33 pm

    An acquaintance is bringing a 4 year old girl home from Haiti today…there will be a million people at the airport and a million people after that. Having been adopted myself and not figuring out how I was affected til my 40’s and raising a child adopted from China this little part of me hopes at some point that I can be of help to her…for now praying for that child and her nervous system and emotional health…

  2. April 14, 2014 6:49 pm

    One thing I have realized working at a church and school is that there are a LOT of children with “developmental trauma”…. I think that is a much better title than “attachment disorder” because developmental trauma impacts kids who are not adopted, too. Yet, the symptoms and behaviors are the same. One of my friends had a son with all the signs….she had Crohn’s disease and when I asked one day how that was impacted by childbirth, she shared that she had a terrible flare up with this troubled son was a newborn and was hospitalized for several weeks. Another child who suffers terribly from anxiety and depression, lives with two adoring, intelligent lawyers – the oldest of five. But this boy ended up in a psych hospital having attempted suicide as a 12 year old – his mom shared with me that she had a terrible case of post-partum depression. And so forth…. I know that this blog is about adoption, but as an adoptive mom I often feel so LUCKY. When my children have issues (and only two of the five do), I get that nice little “out” that they are adopted, These bio parents have to take all the blame on themselves – in addition to trying to deal with their children’s issues. (AND, without the appropriate kinds of parenting advice, at that!)

    While my children’s therapists understand that my children need MORE connection, the therapists dealing with these “regular” kids suggest the very sorts of punishments and consequences that just make things worse – time outs, exclusion from family events, shaming, etc. It breaks my heart.

    • cherubmamma permalink
      April 18, 2014 3:19 pm

      My oldest bio son has a lot of “trauma” behaviors. It has taken us years to finally figure out that his difficulties in life really did start at birth – when the cord was around his neck three times and he nearly died being born. He spent a week in the NICU because he aspirated meconium. As he has aged I relate – more than I ever wanted to admit – to the parents that write about their adopted kids and all the difficult behaviors. A broken fight/flight/freeze response. Lying. Addiction to video games. Addiction to junk food/candy. Depression. Charming to teachers / impossible at home. Running away. And more.

      We adopted a son via foster care at birth. That’s what pushed me to learn more about attachment. That’s what opened my eyes to trauma in general.

      Now I parent five kids – three I keep forever and two fosters. All five have special needs. And you’re right about so many therapists getting it ALL wrong! When we finally stopped trying to treat our kids like “regular” kids, we made progress. It’s all about the relationship and connection.

  3. April 14, 2014 6:52 pm

    This is great! can I link this on my blog? 

    Blessings Carrie Sent from my Verizon Wireless 4G LTE Smartphone

  4. scribblerchick permalink
    April 16, 2014 10:12 am

    As a mom to two adopted children I know exactly what you are saying. There are so few resources out there about RAD, too. A friend of mine who’s a journalist and an adoptive mom has written a terrific memoir about dealing with her child’s RAD, Rescuing Julia Twice.

  5. Joanne Jacques permalink
    April 20, 2014 10:02 am

    My son is 15 now and has severe RAD. Adopted at 2 from Russia. Spent every last penny and lived these past 13 years to help hom heal. stayed home. Every therapist, including trauma therapists all said “the hardest child to treat”. I am losing hope.

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