Anyone who is regularly exposed to trauma and suffering is at risk of developing secondary trauma. First responders, humanitarian workers, and ministers are but a few examples of people who regularly bear witness to suffering and trauma and who are, thus, at risk.

First Things First: What exactly is trauma?

Anything that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope at the time can be experienced and processed in the mind and body as trauma. Signs that you have experienced trauma (including secondary trauma) are: hypervigilance or over-arousal, avoidance of traumatic reminders, negative changes in how you think or feel, and re-experiencing the traumatic experience. If you experience all of these, it’s possible you may be suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Parents Can Suffer from Secondary Trauma

Children who have gone through traumatic experiences can become easily fearful and dysregulated, resulting in challenging and difficult behaviors. Because these behaviors serve as a way for their child to communicate and express how their trauma has affected them, parents are, thus, being exposed, on a regular basis, to their child’s trauma.

Regular exposure to their child’s trauma leaves parents vulnerable to secondary trauma.

Parents who are experiencing secondary trauma may: feel anxious, tense, easily overwhelmed, and have sleep difficulties; re-experience their child’s aggressive, suicidal, or self-harming behaviors or details of their child’s trauma; feel as if they have changed and are not themselves anymore; or wish to escape or avoid their child or their child’s behaviors.

Adoption can be Trauma, Too

As one life ends, another begins. For adoptive parents, there is a poignant truth: for life with your child to begin, their life – their whole world, as they knew it up to that point – had to end. When a mother gives up her child, especially during the first few years of childhood, the bonding process is suddenly and unexpectedly disrupted. Overwhelmed and helpless, attachment wounds and trauma often develop which can be difficult and complicated to repair.

Secondary Trauma in Adoptive Parents

It is not uncommon for adopted children to externalize their confusion and upset – their attachment-related wounds and trauma – with disruptive, impulsive, defiant, or aggressive behaviors. Alternatively, some internalize their struggles and may self-harm, dissociate, or strive to be perfect, compliant, or successful.

For adoptive parents, it can be very difficult and confusing trying to make sense of these behaviors. They may realize their child is suffering, but feel helpless and overwhelmed at what to do. Trying to raise a child who is suffering from the trauma in their past means parents are being directly exposed to the raw reality, upset, fear, confusion, and grief of their child’s trauma. Take these examples shared by adoptive parents:

“I was a pretty relaxed, calm, confident mom prior to adopting. I now am easily overwhelmed by anxious thoughts, even when I am not interacting with my…child. And just an overall sense that I am not who I was and have trouble experiencing joy even during really happy times.” – Allie

“When my son comes home…my anxiety increases. I am afraid anything will set him off. When he rages, I can’t stop shaking…My stomach also sometimes gets a sick feeling when I can tell his mood is going downhill.” – Julie

“The first few months, I was on high alert constantly, quick breathing…anxious about things that would normally not stress me out, had no memory…massive headaches, angry all the time, physically tense and exhausted, nauseous at the start of every day.” – April

“When I have quiet time I’m literally replaying his violent/destructive tantrums in my head.”- Karen

“Constant hypervigilance over any behavior that…might escalate to full-blown crisis. Inability to deal with other stressors in life…Emotional neediness.” – Melissa

“Feeling like I am not who I once was, decreased ability to do anything…outside of daily activities.” – Katie

“Feeling like the shoe will drop any time…I can almost always feel cortisol pumping while my heart beats faster. Lots of anxiousness.” – Kerry

“Anxiety seeping into every area of my life…Poor sleep…Just a general feeling of ‘I am not okay’ which was very out of character for me. A lot of crying and hiding.” – Kristen

“When it’s time for my daughter to come home from school I feel myself getting anxious, wondering if she will come home raging or in a good mood. And sometimes we start out in a great mood…then she turns on a dime and starts raging. I also feel distant from others and feel as if we don’t have the freedom to do things that other people with school age kids can do easily…” – Christina

“I feel distant from people because they will not really understand and being with others can be such triggers for my son.” – E.A.

Adoptive Families Specialist: Perspectives from a Colleague 

Marshall Lyles, MA, LPC-S, LMFT-S, RPT-S, at the Center for Relational Care in Austin, Texas, specializes in working with children and families who have experienced attachment wounds and other traumas. In this interview, his gentle, caring nature and considerable knowledge help shed light on secondary trauma in adoptive parents.

Amy: What kinds of symptoms or struggles do you notice in adoptive parents who are suffering from secondary trauma?

Marshall: Some symptoms seem more pervasive than others.  Many parents describe feeling burned out, chronically overwhelmed, or fatigued. It can become increasingly difficult to maintain compassion and the desire to nurture, while simultaneously feeling guilty about this. We may shut down and withdraw or be on edge a lot of the time. There can be hopelessness, anxiety, and seemingly unending frustration. Other issues may be more specific to the experiences parents went through during the adoption journey or to the experiences of their adopted children. For me, the saddest struggle happens when parents don’t understand the nature of their symptoms and begin to experience shame. They often pull away from relationships for fear of being judged (or have actually been judged) and the aloneness makes all these other hardships intensify.

A: When you tell adoptive parents that secondary trauma can sometimes develop from parenting a child who has experienced trauma, are they usually surprised?

M: At times, parents do seem surprised and wonder why they weren’t prepared for that possibility. However, many times they seem relieved. It’s as if having a name for such an invisible struggle helps to understand it. This can impact some of the shame and aloneness parents may be experiencing as a result of trauma symptoms.

A: How do you work with adoptive parents to help them when they are suffering from secondary trauma?

M: Parenting an attachment-wounded child often surfaces previously unknown relational issues for the adoptive parents. This is a really common phenomenon, but one that complicates an already stressful situation. Much of the time, therapy focuses on the child’s needs. This is certainly understandable as many adopted children deserve therapeutic attention. In my opinion, therapy can’t begin and end with the child especially when the parents are struggling with their own unresolved struggles. I often recommend that parents seek their own help from a therapist who is familiar with attachment and trauma. Also, there are many support groups and therapy groups, as well as Facebook groups, specific to adoptive parents. Therapeutic group experiences are a great possibility because community is desperately needed after feeling isolated and alone.

A: Do you have any suggestions for adoptive parents for how they can take care of themselves?

M: This is a topic that often seems simple at first glance, but can be exceptionally difficult to execute. Self-care takes time and parents don’t often feel they have that to spare. It can feel like we are having to take time away from meeting our children’s needs if we are then focusing on our own. Spending time taking care of ourselves, however, is absolutely the first step to good parenting.

We have many dimensions to ourselves: physical, relational, spiritual, emotional, etc. Pick an area of need and start as small as needed. It just needs to be something that gives you life. I’m hesitant to even list examples because it isn’t a checklist mentality. What is self-care to one person may feel like work to another. Know yourself and give yourself permission to receive care. If this is a struggle for you, it is a great subject to work on with a therapist. I can think of few better ways to help a little one come to believe they are deserving of care than to model it.