It’s National Adoption Week, and a call to arms to those who could become parents to a child in need, but also to the government to ensure the support for these children is lifelong.
Why do these children need lifelong support?
As an adopted parent, you so often hear comments such as “isn’t she lucky” or “well she won’t remember what happened to her when she was a baby” or “she looks so normal”, which in some ways are true, yes she’s lucky to have the care now that every child deserves, yes she won’t remember what happened to her, and yes she does look ‘normal’, however the thing to remember is that once a child is adopted the trauma doesn’t just leave the body when the new front door shuts.
The first months of a baby’s life help them to learn their role in the world, and the brain develops pathways that are the foundations of how they view the world. A child who experiences love, care and attention learns that when they need help their primary caregiver responds to keep them safe. A child who doesn’t experience love and care learns how to survive in a world that doesn’t care for them. They learn to cry and scream if that helps get them attention (even if it’s not kind attention) or or to be quiet if no-one ever comes, and so the pathways form, and these don’t change as soon as they step across the threshold of their forever home.
Imagine this, one day you are with your family, it’s all you know and you have learnt to be safe there, and then the next day a stranger comes and takes you away and you find yourself in a new home with new adults. It’s a scary thought! This is the reality of an adopted child, from one day to the next they lose everything they know.
What happens to their brain?
It goes into survival mode; the stress response is activated and pathways built that remind the child to be hyper-vigilant and ready for change to happen again. It took my daughter 12 months to have a cuddle at bedtime!
They often say adopted children have 3 ages – their experiential age (old beyond their years, having experienced things we can never understand), their chronological age (the age they are) and their developmental age (often younger than their years due to the gaps in their development). This is why they need lifelong support! In some ways they are always playing catch up developmentally, but also need to be encouraged to be the child that they are, to be free to play and explore.
All of the above doesn’t make for a relaxed nervous system or a calm brain, in fact it makes for a body flooded with cortisol, a highly active amygdala and deeply rooted survival behaviours. Why should we expect them to trust adults, when adults haven’t kept them safe?
Where does mindfulness and compassion come into this story?
As an adopter, it is very easy to fall into compassion fatigue, caring for a child who has experienced early childhood trauma often feels like a one-way street, it’s relentless and you don’t often get much back. For me mindfulness and compassion have helped me, intrinsically, to be aware of the mother that I am (not the mother that I thought I would be), to accept myself as the mum I am (not the perfect parent but I am good enough) and I have enough tools in my self-compassion toolkit to look after myself and be kind to myself when I need to be.
And mindfulness has helped me to support my daughter to explore and understand her feelings, to teach her tools to regulate herself, and also to have the tools for us to connect with each other, even when times are tough. I often use sound to help regulate mine and her nervous systems.
It took 12 months for her to cuddle me at bedtime, and 3 years for her to start to be secure in the knowledge that I am not leaving her. The milestones take a long time to come around, but they are big when they do, and I am thankful for the attitude of patience which helps me to keep going.
Adopted children are warriors. They deserve all the support, kindness and understanding that they can get.