Adoption, Developmental Trauma, and Neurofeedback

The act of taking a child in need and integrating them into our own family is one of the most powerful gestures of love we, as human beings, are capable of showing. However, navigating the adoption process and coping with the trauma that often comes can take a significant toll on adoptive families. We often meet with parents whose adopted children are struggling with attention and focus, emotional regulation at school and at home, oppositional behaviors, and anxiety and depression.

It’s estimated that between 2-4% of Americans have adopted a child, but more than a third of us have considered it. Many adoptive parents aren’t familiar with developmental trauma and don’t anticipate its effects when they begin the adoption process. At TNNFB we use neurofeedback to heal that trauma and relieve families and children who are struggling to cope in the years and decades after adoption. In this article, we’ll look at the common struggles of adopted children and at the existing and emerging support systems and techniques around them, neurofeedback being one of them.

Adoption and Developmental Trauma

Adoption is often associated with developmental trauma, which is a type of trauma that occurs early in the child’s development. We’ve written at length about it in our article on PTSD, but it’s important to highlight how developmental trauma impacts adopted children, many of whom have experienced adverse life events before joining their adoptive families.

The Impact of Pre-adoption Experiences

Broadly referred to as adoption trauma, these pre-adoption experiences may involve the time spent in institutional care, foster care, or subpar caregiving environments. Even when children are adopted at birth, their brains can be affected by their mother’s situation during pregnancy and the disruption of the bond between the baby and birth mother. These experienes may cause the child to stay in a permanent state of fight-or-flight, making them incapable of properly regulating their emotions. This can result in difficulties with:

  • identity and self-esteem
  • attachment and trust
  • grief and loss
  • developmental delays
  • rejection and abandonment
  • siblings and family dynamics

Fortunately, however, both our brains and behaviors are malleable, and studies have shown that placement in a nurturing environment can neutralize these early life experiences and lead to recovery across all areas impacted by adoption trauma. Also, it’s important to note that while adopted children are more likely to have a mental health condition than non-adoptees, they are also much more likely to receive therapy for their struggles than their non-adopted peers.

Attachment Issues in Adopted Children

Dysregulated attachment is strongly correlated with adverse early life experiences, and as a result many adopted children encounter difficulties with forming secure attachments. Let’s take a closer look at this.

Attachment Theory and Adoption

Attachment theory, developed by psychologist John Bowlby, explores the deep relationship between infants and their primary caregivers – usually their mothers. It highlights the important role of early relationships in shaping a child’s emotional and social development. According to this theory, a secure attachment forms when caregivers consistently respond in an appropriate manner, with warmth and predictability, to the child’s needs, creating a safe base from which the child can explore the world around them.

When the relationship with the primary caregiver becomes dysregulated, so does the child’s inner sense of safety. Instead of exploring the world from a place of confidence and love, the child does so from a place of insecurity and fear. This then leads to the child developing a dysregulated attachment style:

  1. Anxious attachment develops when the primary caregiver is inconsistent in their responses to the child’s needs, alternating between warmth and emotional unavailability. As a result, children (and adults) with an anxious attachment style become clingy, need constant reassurance, and find it difficult to calm down after becoming upset.
  2. Avoidant attachment forms as a result of a consistent pattern of emotional unavailability coming from the primary caregiver. With their emotional needs unmet, these children become self-reliant and close in on themselves, not seeking comfort from others and becoming emotionally distant.
  3. Disorganized attachment is the result of a relationship with the primary caregiver that is marked by inconsistency, abuse, and neglect. Children with this style of attachment may approach their caregivers for emotional support but then act out in their presence. Disorganized attachment usually forms as a result of severe developmental trauma and is the most challenging to navigate.

Challenges in Forming Secure Attachments

Unfortunately, adopted children often have an insecure attachment style. As adults, these children tend to seek out other insecurely attached people as partners and perpetuate a cycle of grief and difficulty for themselves and their respective families.

Early intervention through therapy is important, but what’s even more powerful in helping these children regulate their behaviors is forming secure attachments with other caregiving figures (or partners, later on in life). Adoptive parents play a crucial role in this regard, as they can turn things around by consistently and predictably showing up for their kids, and patiently helping them overcome their challenges.

Helping Adopted Children Overcome Their Trauma

Once in a stable and nurturing environment, adopted children can slowly and steadily begin to heal from their early life adverse experiences and blossom into the well-adjusted, thriving individuals their adoptive parents envision them to be. Some tools that can be used throughout this journey include:

  1. Trauma therapy, where children can understand and heal from early neglect through techniques such as play therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EDMR).
  2. Attachment-based intervention, which is focused on helping children and adoptive parents form secure and loving attachments and strengthen family ties.
  3. Support groups, as they can help adoptive children and their parents foster a sense of community and share their stories in a safe and open environment.
  4. Stability and routine, which can help adoptive children regulate their emotions, nurture trust in their new environment, and heal from developmental trauma.
  5. Patience and unconditional love, which are by far the most important ingredients to the child’s healing journey.

Neurofeedback for Adopted Children

Neurofeedback is a tool that can be successfully used alongside conventional therapy to help adopted kids heal from developmental trauma and balance out their emotions. At Tennessee Neurofeedback, we have helped hundreds of adopted children (and adults!) over the years to regulate their brains and manage symptoms through the power of EEG biofeedback. Neurofeedback is especially helpful for kids and adults whose trauma occurred so early in life that they can’t remember it and therefore cannot process it verbally in traditional therapeutic settings.

How It Works

In a neurofeedback session, we monitor brainwave activity by placing electrodes on the scalp to identify unusual patterns. For instance, many adopted children have increased beta wave activity in the frontal regions of the brain, which is associated with anxiety, hypervigilance, and difficulties in emotional regulation. Some also exhibit decreased alpha wave activity in the parietal regions of the brain, which can cause difficulty with relaxation, concentration, and self-regulation.

With neurofeedback, we try to bring these unusual patterns back to normal through the power of operant conditioning. In simple terms, we use “rewards” – in our case, pleasant feedback tones and screen brightness – to encourage healthy brain patterns and weaken negative ones. For example, when we notice a decrease in beta wave activity in the frontal region of the brain, we would use a pleasant feedback tone as a reward. Over time, this conditioning helps improve brain function and reduce symptoms of adoption trauma.

Numerous studies highlight neurofeedback’s positive impact on adopted children. One such study published in the Journal of Neurotherapy underlined how neurofeedback therapy led to notable enhancements in externalizing/internalizing issues, aggression, anxiety, depression, and attention in adopted children with abuse or neglect backgrounds.

Final Thoughts

Adopted children can heal from trauma when placed in nurturing environments. Secure attachments with loving caregivers, open communication and emotional regulation, and neurofeedback therapy can all come together to positively impact the experience of adopted children and their families, ultimately enabling them to become happy and well-adjusted adults.

To learn more about how neurofeedback can help adopted children overcome their trauma, make sure to get in touch.