What symptoms suggest that an adoptive child has been exposed to a significant traumatic event?
First, it’s important to understand what traumatic stress is. Traumatic stress refers to the emotional, cognitive, behavioral and physiological experience of individuals who are exposed to, or who witness, events that overwhelm their coping and problem-solving abilities. More simply stated, traumatic stress refers to the feelings, thoughts, actions and physical reactions of people who experience seemingly overwhelming events in their lives.
In the case of young children, immature and regressive behaviors, behaviors that have been abandoned in the past, are often manifested 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.
Children who are quite verbal may discuss the nature of their exposure to a traumatic event if they are asked. Caregivers can specifically ask the child to talk about a “happy time” in their life—something that made them feel good. Following such a discussion, the conversation could shift to a discussion of a “sad time”—a time when the child was hurt or had something bad happened to them.
Many children who are not particularly verbal will act-out their thoughts and feelings concerning prior traumatic exposure in their play. Look for aggressive play—play that provides a window into the conflicted mind of a traumatized child. In the same way that we respond to the physical needs of the adoptive child, we must also address psychological needs. Emotional, social and behavioral problems, precipitated by a significant traumatic event, are all too common among people who were adopted.
By understanding traumatic stress and knowing the symptoms that are manifested in young children, we can intervene early and ultimately make a difference in the life of the adoptive child.
Dr. Mark Lerner is a Clinical Psychologist and Traumatic Stress Consultant who focuses on helping people during and in the aftermath of traumatic events. He is the President of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress (www.aaets.org) and the originator of the Acute Traumatic Stress Management intervention model (www.atsm.org). Dr. Lerner wrote and produced the newly released audio book, Surviving and Thriving: Living Through a Traumatic Experience (www.DrMarkLerner.com).