by Mark D. Lerner, Ph.D.
Chairman, The National Center for Emotional Wellness
Unfortunately, far too many adoptive children have faced traumatic events including, but not limited to, neglect, physical and sexual abuse and various degrees of abandonment. Years ago, I had the privilege of accompanying renowned adoption pediatrician, George Rogu, M.D., on a speaking tour with AdoptionDoctors.com. As the “Adoption Psychologist,” I regularly explained to adoptive parents that by having an understanding of the symptoms suggestive of traumatic exposure, we can identify children who may be experiencing traumatic stress reactions. Ultimately, by identifying symptoms early, we can address emotional, social, behavioral and educational needs. As I often said to parents, we certainly don’t wait to address physical trauma. And, in the same way, we must not wait to address traumatic stress.
How is traumatic stress manifested in adoptive children?
In the young adopted child, we see immature and regressive behaviors—behaviors that have been abandoned in the past are often observed again (e.g., thumb sucking, bed wetting, fear of the dark, loss of bladder control, speech difficulties, decreases in appetite, clinging and whining, and separation difficulties). Older children may manifest periods of sadness and crying, poor concentration, fears of personal harm, aggressive behaviors, withdrawal/social isolation, attention-seeking behavior, anxiety and fears, etc.
So, what is “Adoption Stress”?
Does it refer solely to the experience of adoptive children?
The reality is, when we look closely at adoption, we realize that traumatic stress is pervasive—often impacting several, if not all, of the parties involved. Unfortunately, this traumatic stress, “adoption stress,” is generally not recognized and its impact is misunderstood. Consider the following:
Birth parents, who relinquish a child for adoption, typically experience a great deal of stress. Oftentimes, due to their circumstance, they have little choice or control and must surrender their child for adoption.
Adoptive parents often bring to the table a history of stress. For example, pre-adoption stressors, which may include fertility problems, losses and significant relationship conflicts. There is also stress associated with the acquisition of an adoptive child. For example, there may be serious medical concerns, “misunderstandings,” and heartbreaking disappointments. Finally, post-adoption stress may center around the realization of a dream, tremendous life changes with new responsibilities, and a future marked by uncertainty and fear.
Adoption stress is manifested in the feelings, thoughts, actions, physical and spriitaul reactions of all parties associated with the adoption process—by birth parents, adoptive parents and certainly, adoptive children. By understanding adoption stress and recognizing the symptoms, we can intervene early, educate and empower victims, and prevent acute difficulties from becoming chronic problems.