It is not uncommon for adoptive parents to come to us feeling out of options for their difficult child and overwhelmed about what could have created all of these DSM diagnoses and intense feelings and behaviors.  Especially if the child was adopted at or near birth.

“We adopted our son at birth. We brought him home from the hospital ourselves and have done nothing but love him.”

Does this sound too familiar? If so, then why are you now being told that all of that had something to do with the issues today?

First and foremost, it is important not to be too hard on ourselves or even our child’s birth parents. At this time, it is most important to find our child the help that they need. Understanding the diagnosis and its origins may help one decide on the most appropriate course of treatment.  Quality and traditional parenting techniques may no longer be a solution – our child’s condition will likely require trauma sensitive interventions to heal.

Fetal Trauma

First we need to understand there are many developmental milestones for your child that occur prior to birth.  Your child began feeling and learning in the womb. According to Samuel Lopez De Victoria, Ph.D., your baby learned to be comforted by the voice and heartbeat of his mother well before birth[1] – a voice that was not yours. In the case of adoption this connective disruption has an impact on the brain and body.

Paula Thomson writes for Birth Psychology, Early pre- and post-natal experiences, including early trauma, are encoded in the implicit memory of the fetus, located in the subcortical and deep limbic regions of the maturing brain. These memories will travel with us into our early days of infancy and beyond and more importantly, these early experiences set our ongoing physiological and psychological regulatory baselines.”[2]

Clearly, chaos outside of the womb, for example, may affect children in utero. This includes arguments, a chaotic home environment or an abusive spouse, and other rambunctious noise that may seem harmless to the fetus.  If the mother drinks or smokes, or is generally unhealthy, this also impacts in-utero development, including the sense of safety and self-worth for the child.  Critical brain development is also stunted.

Mothers that end up placing their child with adoptive parents are also likely to feel increased stress during their pregnancies.  Many are very young, have many other children or are emotionally or financially unable to support a child.  Each of these stressors could expose unborn babies to cortisol, making them also stressed.  The baby is then born anxious.

Surprisingly, babies are also able to sense a disconnection or lack of acceptance from their mother while in the womb – leading to attachment issues and developmental trauma down the road.

Genetic Memory

Beyond these connection concerns, trauma can also be an inherited condition.  Recent studies indicate that trauma resides in the DNA, allowing mental disease and behavioral disorders to be passed down for generations.

In the end, adoption itself is a form of trauma.  Without the biological connection to their mother, even newborns can feel that something is wrong and be difficult to sooth as a result. This effect has the potential to grow over time – even in the most loving and supportive adoptive homes.

Summary: Humans, and the brain, develop through experience.  Adverse experiences stunt this development.  And development starts way before birth – even before conception.

[1] http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2010/06/29/emotional-trauma-in-the-womb/

[2] https://birthpsychology.com/journals/volume-19-issue-1/impact-trauma-embryo-and-fetus-application-diathesis-stress-model-and-neu

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