Dealing with Fear in Foster and Adopted Children

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The Power of Fear

Fear is powerful. How do you respond when you are afraid? Do you respond more harshly? Do you yell more? Do you shut down? Do you run away? What happens to you physically? If you tune in to your body when you are frightened, you realize all the physical reactions in your body: blood pressure rising, breathing quickens, muscles tensing, jaw clenching, sweat increasing, pupils dilating, and so on.

Fear in Our Children

Researchers in the trauma field say that even children who were too young to remember being hungry, beaten, abandoned, neglected, and so on have feelings of fear…fear of danger, of hunger, of loneliness, etc. Only, unlike children who experienced these events at older ages before adoption or foster care, these infants and toddlers do not have specific memories they can address in therapy or with trusted adults as they get older and develop language. They do not understand why they have these fears; they are just there. The bookThe Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk M.D. highlights the way the body remembers trauma even when an individual does not have an explicit memory of a traumatic event or circumstance.

No matter the age of the child when they experienced trauma, fear will inevitably affect them greatly and interfere with adults meeting their needs and with education as well. Dr. Karyn Purvis, author of The Connected Child and one of my favorite experts in helping kids from hard places find healing, states that there are six major risk factors to developing what she calls “The Neurochemistry of Fear.” (Watch a video of Dr. Purvis discussing The Impact of Fear.) Of these six risk factors, four can occur in loving, biological households: difficult pregnancy, difficult birth, early hospitalization, and trauma (medical, accidental, etc.). Kids in orphanages, foster care, and who are adopted often have had some or all of these in addition to one or two of the remaining two risk factors: abuse and neglect.

The Neurochemistry of Fear

The Neurochemistry of Fear–a reorganization of the brain and how it works due to harm–changes the way kids think, trust, feel senses, react to stress, and learn and how their brain develops. Years after they are in a safe, loving environment, a measure of their neurotransmitters will often show levels that are far from baseline levels, resulting in what Dr. Purvis describes as a beautiful child who looks perfect sitting in a classroom being told to read while their body is basically acting as if they have their finger in a light socket! This results in teachers thinking the child is being willful and defiant or lazy.

The results of the “neurochemistry of fear” are extremely far reaching and way beyond what can be tackled in this blog. I was once in a trauma training that rocked my world and sent me home looking at my children differently. If you were around a TV in 1987, you likely remember seeing the “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs.” commercials.

The trauma training I went to reminded me of those commercials. The pictures I saw were from research that compared pictures of a 3 year old brain to the brain of a 3 year old who had experienced trauma. Wow! I went straight back to one of our children’s teachers the next school day and showed her. She borrowed the packet I’d received, and she, my husband, and I quickly began looking at the child in a whole new way and seeking out new ways to help.

The Good News…

The good news is that the brain can be rewired. The hard part is it takes a long time and many different types of interventions, and these children will always be at risk and need help throughout their lives when new situations present themselves. As I said before, this is a topic we will revisit over and over again. Just remember, that beautiful child who appears to have no limitations likely has a whole host of undiagnosed, chemical and physical differences that can result in confusing behavior and reactions. Become an expert. Learn as much as you can. Be willing to experiment. Read books like The Connected Child and put into practice strategies to help your child feel safe to improve their reactions. This will give you and your child(ren) the greatest chance at success.

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