You knew adoption wouldn’t be easy. Or maybe you thought it would be.

Just look around… lots of families are adopting. You know these families from church, from school, or maybe just dance class or the playground. It was easy for them – they look like happy, normal families.

So maybe you’re wondering – why isn’t it easy for us? Are we doing something wrong?

Many of you probably did a lot of reading or took a prep class before adopting; in fact, it is likely you heard something about attachment, but it was portrayed as a big problem for a tiny percentage of adoptive families (surely, not yours, right?).

Most adoptive families I know heard about a scary monster called “Reactive Attachment Disorder” and were promised that it is very rare and likely won’t impact their child or, therefore, their family. In order to help families feel prepared and prudent, adoption counselors and authors tell prospective adoptive families to be on the lookout for RAD warning signs. These include things like a lack of empathy, a weak or absent conscience, avoidance of physical affection, poor or limited eye contact, physical abuse of animals, and preoccupation with fire. You think about those symptoms and say to yourself “Well, my child didn’t do any of that…and still doesn’t, thank goodness….so I guess this isn’t about attachment.”

So – what IS IT, then? Maybe your child struggles with impulsivity. Maybe your child doesn’t seem to be learning from consequences. Maybe your child is really inflexible, struggles a lot with moving from one activity to another, and seems to be unusually controlling. Maybe she’s explosive and seems to go from 0-60 in 0.0005 seconds flat. Maybe an “explosion” looks more like a meltdown, and your child runs to hide on the floor of her shower for a few hours when something (seemingly small) happens. Maybe your child looks like a child who would be labeled “ADHD” or “Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).” Maybe a doctor has said “depression” or “anxiety.” Likely, you are trying to decide if this is “adoption behavior,” “orphanage behavior,” or just “pre-teen-stuff.” And now you are reading numerous books, talking to other adoptive families who have had “hard children,” begging teachers to keep trying, learning about strategies to manage ADHD and ODD – and feeling like things are not going the right direction. You’ve escalated the consequences more and more because your child just. isn’t. learning. Whatever it is, adoption is a lot harder than you expected.

What if it wasn’t ADHD or ODD or MDD or BPD or any of those other acronyms? What if someone told you that these symptoms are all about attachment and trauma?

All adopted children experience attachment trauma, even those adopted at birth. Whether you are fostering a child, adopting domestically, or adopting internationally, without question, your child experienced a significant amount of attachment trauma. The research is clear that trauma impacts children- sometimes profoundly. Simply getting on an airplane with people who don’t speak your language and flying to a new country- one that has big houses, water towers, and SUVs- is traumatic.

All children adopted from foster care, the US, or through international adoption have “special needs.” Experiencing attachment trauma doesn’t mean you child will struggle or display the behaviors mentioned above – but he or she likely will. Most do. Some of these children adjust to their new families with little difficulty. Many do not.

Trauma is losing a parent, even if you are too young to have verbal memories of the loss. Trauma is living in an orphanage. Trauma is moving to a new home. Trauma is not being lovingly held and gazed at adoringly by a mother who is simply intoxicated by your smell.

Believe it or not….these traumas (or one or more of many, many others) are most likely what’s underneath the hard things happening in your family. Inattention, opposition, hyperactivity, anxiety, shy and withdrawn behaviors are all symptoms of attachment trauma.

The good news? With the right understanding and intervention, your child and your family can heal. More to come…

If you or your family needs immediate professional help, please consult this directory.