Coping with Fears and Trauma in Adoption


When I was in first grade, I was attacked by two of my neighbor’s rottweiler dogs. For the longest time I was extremely afraid of dogs. Unfortunately, dogs could sense my fear which caused me to be bitten by multiple other dogs during my childhood. When I was little and encountered a dog my body instinctively pumped me full of adrenaline to either fight, flight or freeze in order to protect myself. Fortunately, I grew out of my fear of dogs and I now have two dogs of my own. My experience was just one traumatic event that made me afraid of something and subsequently triggered a fear response whenever I encountered a dog or even a similar situation.  Children who join their family through adoption may have experienced multiple traumatic events in their lives or have complex trauma, which may be triggered by many different events or reminders of their past experiences.

Everyone has fears. Some of them may be rational or linked to a bad experience in the past but some fears may not be rational. Some people are afraid of spiders, others are afraid of snakes, or heights, and not all of those fears are linked to a bad experience in the past. Some fears are perceived fears or even irrational ones. Our bodies instinctively respond to fear by producing a lot of adrenaline to keep us safe. Have you ever had to give a big speech in front of a large audience and your body froze in fear? To help you overcome this fear someone might have suggested that you picture the audience in their underwear. Or maybe a friend told you a really funny story which settled your nerves and you were able to do your speech. Another stressful event that you may or may not remember was the first time you rode a bike without training wheels. Likely your parents or another adult held the back of the bike seat to help steady you until you were able to learn to keep your balance. Children need their parents to essentially do the same thing to get past their fears or overcome traumatic experiences. Parents can help their child co-regulate their emotions until they can regulate their own emotions, which is very similar to holding their bicycle seat until they’re ready to ride by themselves.

Fear triggers your “fight, flight or freeze” response, which is designed to protect you from perceived dangers or threats. Many children with traumatic histories have fears which trigger them into fight, flight or freeze and they need their parents to help them develop coping skills to overcome this fear. They need someone stronger and braver to hold their bike seat while they learn to keep their balance, hold them when they’re worried, go on a walk with them or just tell them a funny story to help them get their emotions under control. It takes children a while to develop good coping skills for handling fears such as taking deep breaths or taking a break. While we teach those skills, it is helpful for parents to be able to help their child feel safe and regulate their emotions.

Here are some tools for helping kids (in the moment) to regulate their emotions or disarm their fear response:

  • Physical touch – Often a firm hug, holding your child, or rocking them can help them feel safe and disarm their fear. Tickling can also sometimes redirect emotions and help a child get their mind focused on something else.
  • Exercise – Slower exercises like walking, stretching, pushing on a wall, or doing yoga can help to calm the body. Every child has different exercise needs and preferences. For example, while swinging may help some children, the vestibular input may cause others to become more dysregulated. Some detective work may be needed to figure out what works best for your child.
  • Scents – Essential oils can affect your body at the cellular level altering your mood and state of mind. Certain essential oils are calming (i.e. Lavender and Chamomile) and can be used in a diffuser, rolled on the skin, massaged on, added to a bath, or put on a favorite stuffed animal. Our bodies react to essential oils differently so while one essential oil may be calming for you it may have a different effect on your child, so you may need to experiment with different oils. When using essential oils externally some require you to dilute them in a carrier oil, especially when used on children. Please contact your health care professional for any guidance regarding safely using essential oils.
  • Weighted blankets or weighted stuffed animals – Weighted objects provide the body with proprioceptive sensory imput and prompts your body to produce the serotonin (a feel-good hormone) which helps your body to calm.
  • Change of scenery – Sometimes environmental factors such as lighting, noise levels or even an item in a room may be triggering a fear response from a traumatic memory. Taking a walk outside or going on a car ride can help regulate emotions.

To fully disarm fear, children need to feel completely safe in their environment and have positive stable relationships and this takes time. Children with traumatic pasts may also need to work through their fears in counseling. Please contact a trauma informed, adoption competent therapist for help. For more ways to disarm fear and create “felt safety”, Chapter 3 of The Connected Child by Purvis, Cross and Sunshine goes into more detail.

Angela Simpson is an adoptive parent, social worker and adoption advocate. Angela is MLJ Adoptions’ Support Services Specialist and works with families throughout their adoption process. Angela and her husband have two sons and have just recently added a daughter to their family through adoption.