By Gail Heaton, MA
The circumstances which led a child to enter foster care or be available for adoption can alter the child in profound ways, impacting relationships in their new family. If you have adopted a child or are fostering a child and also have other children in the home, there are some things your resident child needs to know about the effects of these early experiences on their siblings.
Each child differs in their degree of resilience to adverse experiences, but they all will be affected in some measure by these five things:
- They have experienced trauma.
Regardless of the circumstances leading to the loss of one’s birth family, being placed in state care or available for adoption is traumatic. Additionally, many of these children suffered abuse and/or neglect in their original homes. Neuroscience studies show children with complex developmental traumas differ in their development from children who have not been abused or neglected. Trauma significantly alters brain chemistry.
Traumatized individuals frequently develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attachment disorders, emotion dysregulation, anxiety, hair-trigger anger, needing to be in control, impaired thinking and reasoning, depression, and poor self-concept.
2. Their attachment system is weakened.
Children who come from trauma and neglect backgrounds often have difficulty expressing intimacy in their new family. This can impede sibling relationships. Attachment issues often plague the adopted or foster child. The parental role is to meet the needs of children so that they can grow and develop physically and emotionally, but where parents or caregivers do not or cannot meet the needs of their children, the child learns that they can only count on themselves. They do not trust others and will have difficulty forming bonds. This disrupts the attachment system. It will take time for the new child to settle in and feel like they are a part of the family.
3. They are often in a constant state of fear.
The child can be physically safe in their new foster or adoptive home, but past traumas encoded in their body are easily reactivated. Often, it’s the little things that can trigger them. Something that happens to them in the present, which might even be a neutral stimulus, can trigger a deep fear response. Hunger, abuse, or abandonment that occurred months or years ago can still trigger terror today, which in turn leads to
out-of-control behavior. If a child feels threatened, hungry, or tired, the primitive brain jumps in and takes over.
Fight, flight, and freeze response. Exposure to trauma can leave a child in a state of constant hyperarousal, locked into a fight/flight/freeze response (FFF). These responses are helpful for survival during crisis situations, but not helpful if the child is frightened about something that they need not be. When the child experienced chronic crisis due to early trauma or neglect, this FFF system can become hyper-stimulated. It’s as if they are constantly on the lookout for danger. This child may be overly sensitive to sudden noise or unexpected changes in the environment, which elicit fear.
4. They have strong survival skills.
An infant whose needs are met with inconsistently nurturing ways will eventually believe that he is alone in the world without anyone to meet his needs, so he must develop survival skills in place of trusting others to care for him. In a very short time, he will learn that being superficially charming, stealing, lying and manipulating will make his unstable life work for him.
These behaviors have served him well during trauma, but do not help him to fit into a new family. He will need to learn other coping mechanisms besides those old survival strategies in order to thrive in a family. It will take time for the child to learn and trust new ways of having their needs met. Asking for their needs to be met using their voice will take time and patience.
5. They won’t have a sense of permanency.
Children entering foster care or adoptive homes often believe that this placement is temporary. With inconsistent caregivers in their early life, they have not experienced the permanency that family brings. They
might be overly cautious in forming relationships with new siblings when they think the placement won’t last. Stability in the new home will feel foreign to them because they are used to an ever-changing and unpredictable environment.
This list is not meant to frighten your resident child. These are some of the challenges that their new brother or sister are dealing with in their life. Use discernment in talking about these things with them, and in age-appropriate ways. When you discuss these with your resident child, let them know that you will need to spend extra attention on their sibling, but that you are still here for them too.
We’ve made this information available in a comprehensive yet still approachable format for your resident children ages 5-9 and 10 and up. Check out our age-appropriate workbooks for kids.