Parenting From a Hard Place

Holt’s director of clinical services explains new understandings about trauma and attachment, and the basic elements of parenting children who come “from hard places.”

Hands[3]What’s in a name?

Plenty, is what we in the adoption field now understand. In her article “Family Foundations,” adoptive mom Shila Henderson describes how she and her husband helped their older children overcome the effects of trauma they experienced before coming home to their loving family. Some children with past traumas exhibit behaviors that, at one time, may have caused parents to give up on them. Thankfully, research is now guiding adoption parenting. This provides us with fact-based understandings of what drives the behavior of our children who come, as renowned child psychologist Dr. Karyn Purvis says, “from hard places.” The current information stresses that attachment is a reciprocal relationship between parent and child. This places responsibility on both parent and child to form a healthy bond — lying to rest the concept that the child is damaged and to blame for difficulties in attachment and/or behavior, as was implied by the old Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) diagnoses. If we must assign a name to the myriad behaviors and issues with which children from hard places struggle, it would be “Complex Developmental Trauma.”

Unlike “RAD,” this name captures that for most of these children, their behavior is not an inherent part of their core self. It is a reflection of the neglect, abuse and trauma that they suffered at such tender ages. I say “tender” because their experiences literally become a part of who they are. It changes their brain and nervous system, alters their neurochemistry and leaves them teetering on the brink of their “fear threshold.” When other people inadvertently cross a child’s threshold of fear, it often sends the child into a fight, flight, freeze or flock reaction. Neuropsychiatrist and author Dr. Dan Siegel calls this response “flipping your lid.” When this happens, we no longer have access to our “thinking brain.” Our more primitive reactionary brain rears up, takes over and kicks our thinking brain off line. In kids, this could mean a tantrum that just doesn’t stop; aggressive behaviors to things or living beings; total shutting down and not responding; running away; or wanting to be near others. The key is that for them, they are fighting for their life — adding an intensity to their behaviors not seen in tantrums of typically developing kids.

In Shila’s article, she has nicely laid out the elements of parenting that help to heal the altered brains of children from hard places. First, parents need to be open to whoever their child is, and not, as Shila put it, the child they thought would be joining their family. This includes realizing that your child missed a lot of the nurturing experiences that contribute to normal brain development, and recognizing the need to provide these missed experiences — sometimes by literally treating your newly adopted child like a baby. Part of the human developmental process is to be truly dependent before being able to achieve true independence. Many children from hard places have a pseudo-independence that parents and teachers often mistake for true independence. Don’t overlook these kids, thinking they are fine, because they are not! When their levels of the stress hormone cortisol are tested, they often have astronomically high results.

Also critical to this healing form of parenting is to show through words and actions that you are worthy of their trust. Use playfulness whenever possible, even when you need to correct your child’s behavior. Playfulness and simple play with your child calms the primitive reactionary part of their brain — helping to foster their trust in you. Another calming activity that helps change the brain is meditation, which strengthens the thinking part and helps it to contain the reactionary part of the brain.

The children coming home today are older and what they need from their adoptive parents is so much more complex. Shila’s story captures the many essential qualities of successful adoptive parents today   — including flexibity, openness to learning, ability to comfort kids through tough emotions, self-awareness, accountability and reaching out for support. None of us can be everything to our kids all the time. The key, though, is to be accountable and able to say we are sorry when we blow it. This can be even more powerful than getting it right the first time.

To learn more about Complex Developmental Trauma, please read “The Connected Child” by Dr. Karyn Purvis, as well as “The Whole Brained Child” and “Parenting from the Inside Out” — both by Dr. Dan Siegel. For more resources on parenting children from hard places, check out the “Healing Family Series” at the TCU Institute on Child Development; online parenting courses through the Mindsight Institute; and Empowered to Connect.

Abbie Smith  | Director of Clinical Services

Click here to read “Family Foundations” by adoptive mom Shila Henderson.

Editor’s Note: Holt International offers counseling services to all adoptees and their families. Email Abbie Smith at for more information.

One Comment

  1. Pingback: The Connecting Space: A Place to Grow in Trust-Based Connections with Your Child

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.