The Brains of Adopted Children

Adoption is a wonderful step forward for families. However, children can bring their trauma with them, especially if they were adopted later in their childhood. This could alter family dynamics, as adopting children at different stages of their lives can feel different than imagined. There are cases where adoption, at any age, can feel seamless. This happens with cases like long-term foster placements and adoption from birth. No adoption story is the same, but parents that learn about their child’s brain, can better understand them. Pediatrics and Child Health give a comprehensive view of a child’s brain during different stages of life for adopted children.


Infancy and Early Childhood

Babies will attach to and bond with their main caretaker in infancy. They will see their caretaker as their source of comfort, love, communication, and parenting. Adopted babies should be met with love, patience, and tender care. They need understanding of the challenges they face from the womb, like fetal alcohol syndrome or complications from premature birth.

When these small children reach preschool age, they can often share their adoption story. But this is without fully understanding the difference between their adoption and other children living with their biological parents. Many do not understand the difference between a “biological” parent versus an “adoptive” parent. When they reach kindergarten to first-grade age, they may form a more appropriate sense of time. They begin to understand the events that happened to them in the past, even if they don’t remember them.

It’s important to give children their birth or adoption story early so that they can process their adoption appropriately.

School-Age Children

At school age, children begin to further understand the world around them and how that can shape their experiences. They begin to develop operational thinking, logical planning, and a sense of how to grasp the world they live in. They’ll know and understand that most other children live with at least one biological relative. They’ll begin to realize that their birth story, timeline, and family structure are unique. Children that are adopted by parents of different ethnicities may recognize this earlier. They need to come to terms with the fact they are different. 

When children are adopted at this stage need a longer adjustment period than children who are adopted much younger. They’ll also need help to establish comfort, routine, trust, and a mastery of their new space to feel safe.

Adoptive children with prior trauma may need extra support at this stage. They need lots of reassurance that they are loved and wanted despite their difference in upbringing from their peers. Parents should emphasize the positives and strengths the child has. Similarly, parents should give them tools to talk through the things they are feeling or a healthy coping mechanism. 

It is helpful to teach children their birth story in a positive light, promoting bravery and love over abandonment. Telling children at this stage that their biological parents did love them, but gave them up because they could not properly care for them is appropriate at this time. Answering general questions from the child about their birth parents is also acceptable.  

Teens and Adolescents

In adolescence, children are learning how to garner their independence. They are learning about what that means as they are or were independent of their adoptive family. They may feel a strong sense of wonder around their past and how that led to who they are today. They’re more able to think of different outcomes, and where they would be if they weren’t adopted. They may be wondering what they would be like or what experiences they would have lived with. They are becoming mature enough to grieve their past and to fully comprehend their feelings for what could have been. Some teens experience significant trauma and attachment issues both before and after adoption that needs to be worked through.

At this time parents should allow their adopted child freedom to discover their independence. Parents should also show that they are loved and wanted. Teens may test their adoptive parents, not because of any ill feelings, but to ensure they won’t be abandoned again. They may not consciously know they are doing this, but it’s a natural response to abandonment or trauma.

Let us help

Adoptive families and children face many hurdles. This doesn’t mean that biological families don’t also face hardship. However, adoptive families need to discuss with children their birth story and the differences in their biological and adoptive identity. Sometimes the trauma of adoption or experiences surrounding it can be overwhelming and lead to various issues. These include: attachment issues, abandonment issues, and behaviors that make life at home difficult. When these behaviors become too much for adoptive families, call Havenwood Academy. 

At Havenwood Academy, our staff is here to help teens work through their trauma, attachment issues, and mental health issues. They learn to develop coping mechanisms and heal from the pain that might come with being adopted. For adopted teens, they may be processing the past, present, and wondering what their future identity will be. 

Call us at (435) 586-2500 for more information on our inpatient facility.



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