Monday, June 6, 2011

Raising a Healthy Adopted Child: Emotional Triggers

Welcome to the first post in my summer series about the Health and Education of the adopted child. Since June is Emotional Health Month, let's dive right in and start with the emotional triggers that many adopted children share.

A trauma trigger is "an event causing traumatic memories or feelings to resurface." (Wikipedia)

When talking about events that happened before a child has the capacity to remember them, it is referred to as "emotional memory." In many adopted children, the emotional memory of being cold, alone, hungry or sad can become easily triggered, causing the child to "overreact." This overreaction is actually a very useful coping mechanism; it is the flight or fight response to a threat of survival.

Our therapist explained to me how the amygdala, the area of the brain that processes emotions, can, through repeated trauma, become oversensitive. An oversensitive amygdala translates to an overreaction to a mild trigger. For example, Mae would scream when she was cold. Even though I would diligently put her little mittens on her hands, she would continue to scream. If I didn't warm her immediately, it could escalate to a full "episode." Why?

Because (our therapist and I surmise) she had been cold in the orphanage but no one had met her need for warmth. When a need is not met that is perceived as a threat to survival, the amygdala goes on alert, firing on all pistons and urging, "Flee! Flee!"

There is a beautiful story that drives this point home like no other:


One cold early Spring morning a beautiful, healthy baby girl, 3 days old, wakes up to find herself alone on a deserted street, hungry and cold. Her mother does not answer her cries, and in fact no one responds for hours. The baby, increasingly agitated and distressed, screams with primal urgency. Eventually a stranger happens by, picks up the crying baby and delivers her to the police station. Through several more intermediaries, the baby is eventually delivered to the local social welfare institute. ...

Eventually the baby stops crying altogether because she has learned that crying rarely draws anyone to her. She is often lonely and scared, especially at night. The sounds of other babies crying and in distress cause her great anxiety, which she learns to tolerate by shutting down and withdrawing deeper inside herself in an attempt to protect herself from the constant stressors in her environment.


Read the full article here.

This was an article that made my understanding of Mae's emotional memory much clearer. Our therapist agreed that it was a solid explanation of the whole picture of emotional triggers. Our babies may have been pre-verbal, but they were not pre-emotional. Understanding this piece of their history can help us de-escalate "episodes" before they go to far.

Another piece of advice from our therapist was to articulate Mae's feelings for her. As a little child (and even today), we'd say, in an angry-ish way, "Wow! You're angry! That made you so mad!" Oftentimes, rather than ramping her up into a full-blown tantrum, this simple comment would seemingly relax her. She'd nod emphatically and need a hug. And move on. Amazing.

I used to try to avoid triggers altogether, but as she aged, I worried I was turning her into a spoiled child. A daily example is when she talks back to me. "Please brush your hair, Mae." "I WILL! STOP TALKING TO ME!" might have earlier been ignored by me in an attempt to prevent her from escalating.

In the last year or so, however, we've instituted House Rules into our home. A violation of the House Rules earns the offender a time-out. As I mentioned earlier, time-outs on the steps work much better for Mae than being sent to her room. With these practices in place, she is learning, albeit slowly, to speak to me politely. And I am teaching her to be respectful, while still showing her that I love her (remember, all time-outs end with a hug!)

Our adopted children have more on their plates than our biological children. They have pre-verbal, stored, emotional memories of grief, loss, and for some, intense anger. Understanding why and working to help them manage these feelings is one of the most important ways we can help our children develop into emotionally healthy adults. Understanding the emotional triggers behind their behavior can be the key to their happiness.

Thursday's post will focus on Attachment and Bonding, an area with which many families struggle.

Does your child have any triggers? What have you found helps with those triggers? Do you have any advice for families struggling in this area? In what areas do you struggle?

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