Early trauma, attachment and lockdown

22/12/2020 (previously published)*

Lockdown is difficult for all children, but adopted children and those in the care system can experience some specific challenges related to their trauma.

It was heartening to see that there has been some acknowledgement of this through the announcement that part of the adoption support fund is being brought forward to support adoptive families at this time. A series of changes to the approval process have also been announced for those whose journey adoption is in limbo due to the COVID-19 crisis.

So, why would an adopted or looked after child be impacted differently to any other child? It comes down in large part to how they react to change and stress, which is a direct impact of the trauma they have suffered through their early experience.

Coping with change

Many adopted children struggle with change, some in pretty extreme ways. Change means uncertainty and that can be a direct trigger for trauma relating to their removal or other turbulence in their past.

Routine can help all children but the disruption experienced through not having all of their needs met means that adopted children can really progress when they have some certainty and structure. This is certainly true for our little one.

The pandemic has forced all of us into new ways of being. Suddenly our little one wasn’t seeing her child minder, going to soft play or engaging in other activities that have come to provide certainty and comfort. We saw her behaviour change along with her sleep patterns.

Fight, flight or freeze

If a child experiences early trauma, it directly impacts their brain development. They become stuck in fight, flight or freeze responses, which are associated with the primitive brain. Early nurture, much of which we take for granted ­– such as rocking a child, responding when they cry and meeting all their other needs creates a sense of safety. This feeling of certainty means that they can then develop the more complex thinking functions of the brain.

If the basics of early nurture don’t happen or are interrupted, the child becomes focused on merely getting by. Sally Donovan in her 2015 book The Unofficial Guide to Adoptive Parenting says “they become hard-wired not to trust others and take control of their own survival.”

If a child has been adopted and is receiving consistent nurture, they can gradually improve their trust levels and work through some of the impact of their trauma. But it doesn’t just go away. Once there it is an indelible print in their make-up. Change and uncertainty can put them right back in the place of mistrust.

The COVID-19 pandemic is providing challenges for all parents, but if you are bringing up a child with significant trauma, it really can put pressure on the resilience of the family.

Testing the attachment

A placed or adopted child often needs additional reassurance. They need to know that you will not just meet their needs now but continue to do so. They have no way of knowing if you will disappear from their lives like birth family members or foster carers or other significant people may have done.

They have no innate trust and younger children particularly will often test the attachment that they’ve made to you. They might deliberately regress or present at a stage typically associated with a younger age. Or as our little one does, they may call just to check you will come.

As many adopters do, we use ‘re-parenting’ techniques, meaning that we seek to fill in gaps that may have been missed early on. For example, if a child is acting like a baby but is in fact 3 or 4, they need to be met where they are as it fulfils a need and helps them through the trauma.

We’ve seen our little one test us more and at times regress more than usual during the pandemic. In many ways I see this as a positive thing. She’s telling us what she needs and we can then respond accordingly.

Thriving through adversity

Despite the challenges, annoyances and difficulties of the lock-down, in many ways we’ve become closer as a family. I don’t want to indulge too much in searching for upsides in a horrendous health crisis that is hitting the most vulnerable hardest. But we’ve been able to simplify things and focus on what really matters.

Her trauma and challenges have presented in different ways, but with support she is adapting. Of course it will be great when she can have social interaction again and can go to soft play and do other things she enjoys, but for now we’re discovering ways to keep going, stay well and find strength in each other.

*Originally published on Medium in May 2020

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