Secondary Trauma in Adoptive Moms

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This is a heavy topic and one that I’ve put off writing about for far too long. I know there are other mommas like me out there. I know because they email me and private message me and the desperation is evident in their words.

I wanted to share some information about secondary trauma and provide a few suggestions to help combat it before I share a bit about my personal story of living with it.

Secondary Trauma in Adoptive Parents - symptoms, treatment and my personal experience with itSecondary trauma, which is also sometimes referred to as vicarious trauma, can affect therapists, first responders and primary caregivers. By bearing witness to the trauma of others, you can take some of that trauma on for yourself. You can imagine that in adoptive parents whose children have endured abuse, neglect, abandonment, or unspeakable evils prior to coming to them, that trauma can become something they themselves can begin to take on.

The DSM states that trauma can affect those who survive a traumatic event, those who witness a traumatic event or those who hear of a traumatic event that affected someone of significance to them. It then stands to reason that parents who hear of their adopted child’s past trauma would be at risk of developing secondary trauma.

Some of the signs of secondary trauma include:

-having difficulty talking about your feelings
-feeling diminished joy towards things you once enjoyed
-feeling trapped
-having a limited range of emotion but anger and irritation always being present
-having an exaggerated startle response
-intrusive thoughts of your child’s history
-feelings of hopelessness
-trouble sleeping
-problems with intimacy
-feeling withdrawn and isolated
-feeling impatient
-questioning your worldview
-feeling detached
-low self-image

There are some strategies that can help combat symptoms of secondary trauma. Exercise that increases your heart rate for at least 12 minutes a day, five days a week, can decrease symptoms. Focusing on your breathing and using mindfulness have also been shown to help. For mindfulness, you can use yoga, a mindfulness app on your phone, gratitude, prayer, or meditation. Finding a support group of others who have walked a similar road can be therapeutic. Individual or family counselling may also be helpful.

For myself, I find that yoga is helpful once I am actually in the class, but rarely make the time for it. I do regularly use a combination of prayer and purposeful gratitude.

Hearing about your child’s past trauma can trigger your own trauma history which is also something to be aware of. If you find that your symptoms are worsening or significantly interfering with your life, seek the help of a licensed therapist.

One further note regarding trauma: secondary trauma can occur from hearing about your child’s past trauma but, as a foster or adoptive parent, you can also be at risk of developing full PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). This can happen as a result of your child’s behaviours, for instance if you are attacked or placed at risk. PTSD can also occur if your spouse or other children are harmed or if behaviours occur that require legal intervention. If you suspect you may be suffering from PTSD, seek help from a medical professional or licensed therapist.

My own story of secondary trauma and PTSD:

I didn’t realize for a long time that I was suffering from secondary trauma. It wasn’t something that was talked about in the adoptive community. I knew that I was struggling. Certain aspects what some of my kids had gone through before they came to me haunted me. While it’s normal to feel sympathy for someone else’s suffering, particularly someone you love, there is a point where it can become unhealthy and I had reached that point. I was taking on their suffering. My secondary trauma left me feeling weak and run down and I believe that it put me at greater risk for PTSD.

I strive to keep my children’s privacy, so I won’t publicly go into details of what triggered my PTSD, but I want to share with other adoptive moms (and dads) that it is so important to take care of your own mental health. Being purposeful about practising self-care is a must.I am now in therapy for my secondary trauma and PTSD and have found tremendous healing with the use of EMDR. It feels great to be myself again!

If you suspect that you may be suffering from secondary trauma or PTSD, I urge you to look into therapy and practising self-care. It can make a world of difference.

Helping a Child Through TraumaHelping a Child Through TraumaRecognizing the Signs of Reactive Attachment DisorderRecognizing the Signs of Reactive Attachment Disorder

Books for Connected Parenting

(This post may contain affiliate links. For more information, see my disclosure policy.)

What is connected parenting? While connected parenting can certainly be used with any child, the term is most commonly used to describe a type of parenting adopted children who may have experienced early childhood trauma. It looks different than other parenting methods in that it focuses on connection before correction. It takes into account the child’s past hurts and tries to facilitate healing through the parent-child relationship.Connected parenting is also sometimes referred to as therapeutic parenting. If you are new to this parenting style, these books can serve as your guide.

Books for Connected Parenting

Connected parenting is also sometimes referred to as therapeutic parenting. If you are new to this parenting style, these books can serve as your guide. I would recommend starting with The Whole-Brain Child and The Connected Child.

The Whole-Brain Child will give you a better understand of the “why” behind your child’s behaviours. It will also help you understand how your own brain works and give you a better sense of why you react the way you do to certain triggers which can be immensely helpful in parenting children who’ve experienced trauma.

The Connected Child is written by the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, one of the founders of  The Institute of Child Development at TCU. I am privileged to have been able to speak several times. She truly was such an incredible woman who pioneered much of the research on attachment and trauma in children.

Join me for a free 5 part email series, Little Hearts, Big Worries offering resources and hope for parents.

Helping a Child Through TraumaHelping a Child Through Trauma

Recognizing the Signs of Reactive Attachment DisorderRecognizing the Signs of Reactive Attachment Disorder

How Adoption Impacts a Marriage

(This post may contain affiliate links. For more information, see my disclosure policy.)

I love adoption and do not write this article to deter anyone from adopting, but to strengthen the potential success for families who do choose this road. One of the things that is spoken of very seldom within the adoption community is the effect that it will have on your marriage relationship.

Though the actual statistics seem illusive at best, divorce rates among adoptive parents are reported to be higher than that of the general population. Parenting children with special needs and infertility are also two factors that increase divorce rates and those are present in many adoptive homes. While that is not good news for adoptive parents, there are things that can be done to help protect your marriage.

Some of the things that can place a strain on even the strongest of marriages for adoptive families include:

Public Scrutiny – When people birth their children, for the most part, strangers don’t come up to them at the grocery store and question their parenting choices and decisions. Adoptive parents are scrutinized for everything from what type of adoption they choose to pursue to their choice to bottle or breastfeed, to their discipline methods, to their stand on Immunization, to their changing or keeping their child’s first given name, to the way in which they choose to incorporate their child’s culture, to their decision to be or not be a multi-racial family, to their methods of attachment, to the foods they feed their children. People stare at us in public and come up and ask us questions almost every time we go out. Add to that the pressure to be the best parent possible because a birth mother is entrusting you to raise the most precious thing imaginable or an entire country has allowed you to take one of their most important natural resources and that’s a pretty weighty thing!

And then of course there is that most intrusive scrutiny of all – the home study. This is where a complete stranger comes into your home and because they have the title of Social Worker, they are allowed to ask you all kinds of intimate details and give their opinions of your parenting (even if they are 19 years old and have no children or nieces or nephews, but I digress!) and they ask about your sex life and about your childhood and about the whys of all the decisions you’ve made. I am not saying that checks and balances should not be put in place. I am merely pointing out that all this public scrutiny and pressure can put a strain on a relationship over time.

Sleep Deprivation – This is not unique to adoptive families but can be exaggerated by things such as time change/jet lag in the case of international adoption, drug or alcohol exposure of a baby prenatally, and of course the most obvious – that adoptive families tend to have larger families, making their years of sleep deprivation longer. Lack of sleep can change your perspective on many things and if you’re too tired at the end of the day, you don’t take the time to talk or perhaps to do other things that may be critical for a healthy marriage.

Special Needs – Adoption increases the chances that you will have a child with special needs and this alone ups your chances of divorce. Of our five adopted children, five have special needs. Among the most obvious special needs of adopted children are those related to prenatal exposures such as FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorder) and Fetal Drug Effect, sensory processing disorder, ADHD, Reactive Attachment Disorder, and Developmental Trauma Disorder or PTSD.

Parenting a special needs child creates less time together as you run around to specialists and appointments and make decisions that most parents don’t even have to think about and you and your spouse may not agree on the answers. Then there is dealing with the everyday, be it medical crisises or behavior or safety issues. It can be exhausting. You can also read these tips for parenting a special needs child.

Infertility – Many come to adoption after years of infertility. The stress of that and the strain that can put on a relationship, on a sex life, on finances, is significant. Some infertility treatments cause mood swings for the wife which can be pretty unpleasant in a marriage too. So now these couples who have already suffered so much hurt and loss and grief embark on another road of ups and downs where the outcome is not always clear and the scars of the years of infertility are still there. The hurts are often still raw and for some, that pain never goes away. For others, they come to the realization that adoption wasn’t meant for them to be Plan B but was God’s plan A for their family all along.

Financial Strain – The number one cause of divorce in Canada and the United States is conflict over finances. Adoption affects this in the following ways…infertility treatments are very expensive and some couples have already wiped out all their savings on that before they even get to adoption…domestic open adoption, private adoption, and International adoption are all very expensive…adoptive families tend to be larger which is expensive in itself. So adoption costs more (unless you adopt kids in the care of the Canadian or U.S. government in which case that is free but their risk of Special Needs is much higher and caring for Special Needs kids is more expensive, so the rule still applies) than birthing your children which could lead to additional financial stress.

Disparity – In almost all cases of adoption, one spouse wants it more than the other. Sometimes, they both really want it, but often one is the driving force while the other is going along with it to make their spouse happy. That can obviously cause tremendous strain later on if there are problems adjusting. This type of disparity gives room for a lot of resentment to build.

Conflict – In any marriage, there are so many potential areas for conflict but the ones added by adoption may include things like disagreeing on birth family contact, discipline with really challenging behaviors, how to work on attachment, how to deal with questions in public, what to tell your children regarding their history, and adopting future children from the same birth mother.

There is a lot of talk in the adoption world about preparing yourself for attachment issues and toddler tantrums and parasites but preparing your marriage is rarely, if ever, mentioned.

Those that are still waiting could add some books to their reading list other than the typical parenting and adoption books. I would recommend starting with “Love and Respect” or “The Five Love Languages“. For less financial stress, I would HIGHLY recommend you getting “The Total Money Makeover” by Dave Ramsey. Not only will it help alleviate some of the financial stress, but it will get you communicating as a couple about it.

The first year home with your child may be difficult on your marriage.  As a couple, you will have far less time for each other and your relationship will undergo some major changes. As a family, there is a lot of adjustments to be made, so if at all possible, just get through that first year any way you can and don’t make any life-changing decisions until after that first year.

I am by no means an expert on marriage. There were years where my husband and I barely managed to stay together, but we held on and have now been married for 21 years. When we were at our lowest point, marriage counselling helped, as did changing our communication styles, but what we found to be the most effective prescription for our marriage was instituting a weekly date night. I have suggested it to other couples who have seen it turn their marriages around as well. We have some set rules for our date nights to increase the impact they have on our marriage. We have a set night each week that is our date night regardless of circumstances. If we can’t find a babysitter, we have an at-home date night. If we don’t have much money, we do something that’s free. Putting in that time commitment and being able to be a couple once a week instead of just parents was the magic for us.

Protect your marriage by:

– working on your communication,

– putting in place weekly or at least monthly date nights,

– budget, attend marriage counselling or marriage retreats or seminars,

take care of your own self-care and encourage your spouse to do the same.

Join me for a free 5 part email series, Little Hearts, Big Worries offering resources and hope for parents.

Date Night Ideas

Self-Care for Foster and Adoptive Families

(This post may contain affiliate links. For more information, see my disclosure policy.)

We have all heard the parenting analogy of having to put on our own oxygen mask before putting the masks on our children. The thinking behind this being of course that we must put our mask on first to make sure we are conscious to put the masks on them. As caregivers, we must take care of ourselves so that we are able to give full and proper care to our children. However, actually putting this into practice in our everyday lives is difficult for most parents and it can seem nearly impossible for foster and adoptive parents. 

Self-care for foster and adoptive families is critical. It can make the difference between success and burnout, thriving or breakdown.Self-care is even more important for foster and adoptive parents than it is for other parents because foster and adopted children require more from their caregivers and the stakes are much higher.

Foster parents are in very high demand. There are not enough foster homes in this country to meet the growing number of children entering into foster care. There are even fewer foster parents who are qualified to meet the needs of the growing number of children entering the child welfare system requiring specialized care. This results in greater demands being placed on existing foster families, which often results in foster parent burnout. With such overwhelming demands being put onto foster parents, how do they make time for self-care?

Adoption disruption rates are also on the rise. Adoption disruption occurs when an adoptive family is unable to continue to care for their adopted child and that child is placed into foster care or another adoptive home. Though a failed adoption is obviously a worst case scenario for a child who has already lost his or her birth family, it is also devastating for the adoptive family. It is not something that any family resorts to lightly and the judgment and guilt the family experiences during and after the failed adoption is both heartbreaking and debilitating. 

Not all adoption disruption and foster care burnout can be prevented, but by laying and maintaining a solid foundation of self-care and making it non-negotiable in your household, you can help protect yourself and your family from some of the pitfalls that may otherwise await you. Consider self-care the best shield of protection your family can have.

I am not an expert in self-care. After our two sons were born, we were foster parents for eight years. We went on to adopt three of our foster children and then adopted two children internationally. In the course of what would be eleven years between when we began the journey to expand our family and when we brought our last two children home, I made a lot of mistakes when it came to self-care. Later, when I began my work as an adoption advocate, I heard first-hand countless stories from others who were suffering because of what boiled down to a lack of self-care. 

It is my hope that others who are on the journey to adoption, have already adopted, or are fostering can implement solid self-care strategies to help protect their families. I still am better at talking the talk than walking the walk, so writing this has also been a good reminder to myself. Self-care is something that is a conscious decision and something that doesn’t come naturally for me, so I hope that you will join me on the journey and we can find our way together.

Self-care is both simpler and more complicated than people realize. Particularly when it comes to the dynamics involved in foster care and adoption, there is a lot to consider. I have written a book on the topic of self-care for foster and adoptive families that addresses such things as:

  • things you can do regarding your home, relationships, finances, and education in order to prepare
  • building a support network
  • 12 steps to survive the triage stage
  • Post Adoption Depression Syndrome (PADS)
  • loss
  • actionable, sustainable ways to practise effective self-care

You can read more about the book as well as hear from those who have read it by clicking here or clicking the image below.

For today, you can begin by ensuring that you are taking care of your body and that your basic needs are being met so that you can better care for your family.

Join me for a free 5 part email series, Little Hearts, Big Worries offering resources and hope for parents.

This is part of a series written by moms of special needs kiddos on the topic of self-care. You will find wonderful self-care suggestions shared by these moms.

7 Practical Self Care Activities for Stressed Out Special Needs Parents | My Home Truths

Self-Care for Foster and Adoptive Families | The Chaos and The Clutter

What Happens When You Ignore Self Care | This Outnumbered Mama

50 Self-Care Activities You Can Do Together With Kids | And Next Comes L

Why You Should Keep a Journal as a Part of Your Self Care Routine | Kori at Home