Trauma and the Brain: What It Means for Adoption


The National Child Traumatic Stress Network defines trauma as something that may occur when a child feels intensely threatened by an event in which he or she is involved or witnesses, and it is often followed by serious injury or harm (National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2005). Being separated from one’s birth family, culture of origin, and everything one’s ever known is typically perceived as an intensely threatening event. Adopted children may experience other trauma as well, including witnessing domestic or community violence, poverty, emotional or physical neglect, or direct physical abuse, among others.

According to a recent bulletin published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, caregivers should not pressure the child to talk about the traumatic event, but should be prepared to discuss it when the child is ready. Children who sense their caregiver is uncomfortable with or upset about the event may avoid talking about it. When the child begins talking, the caregiver should listen, avoid overreacting, answer questions, and provide comfort and support. Often providing this support can be very taxing on the caregiver because of the intensely disturbing memories a child may share.

Research demonstrates that early trauma has a long-lasting impact on the brain and brain-development throughout the life of the child. Early interaction with a primary caregiver determines the initial development of the brain areas associated with emotional regulation, impulse control, stress management, interpreting emotions of others, and other critical behavior and emotional functions.

Psychologists used to believe that the brain was “done” by age 6 and the window for changing brain structures was over. New neuroscience has made it clear this is not the case, especially in the adolescent brain. As presented at the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative in Washington DC, the Adolescent Brain Report states from the period of the onset of puberty [roughly age 12] to the mid-20s, the human brain under goes a period of rapid growth and development.

This period of massive change creates interesting opportunities and challenges when it occurs in the lifespan of an adopted child. The Adolescent Brain Report states:

Adolescents who have experienced early trauma—for example, through neglect, physical or sexual abuse, separation from family and community, or multiple moves and relationship disruptions —may find it difficult to trust that adults will be there for them. Their brains have been “wired” to expect a non-supportive environment … During adolescence, young people also may react to earlier traumatic events. The adolescent’s understanding of early trauma may change or deepen, and the trauma may be experienced anew. It is not uncommon for early childhood traumas to be reactivated during this period, leading to the reemergence of problems that were thought to have been resolved earlier… Research bears out the strong relationship between trauma and emotional and behavioral challenges and underscores the importance of adults being attuned to young people’s experiences of trauma and loss.

Adolescent brain changes also mean good news for adopted families. Because of the plastic nature of the brain, brain structures can change when the adopted child enjoys corrective experiences and relationships. “Young people who have experienced abuse, neglect, or separation from family in early childhood can develop resilience when supported by safe, nurturing, and caring adults. They can learn to thrive when provided with positive new learning experiences and developmental opportunities.”

The Adolescent Brain Report recommends creating opportunities for adopted children to make sense of their life histories and current experiences by acknowledging the loss inherent in adoption. Recognizing those losses and the accompanying grief will help with identity development and relationship-building.

One key factor in any young person overcoming trauma is a caring, supportive relationship with at least one person – just one, “single nurturing relationship has been found to make a major difference in a child’s life.” Being connected to caring and supportive adults creates an excellent opportunity for the brain to alter itself, readjusting to reflect healthy growth and development.

MLJ Adoptions is a Non-Profit, Hague-Accredited adoption service provider located in Indianapolis, Indiana, working in Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Pacific Isles. We are passionate about serving children in need.