When Beauty becomes the Beast


In writing this article I hope to provide the reader with a view of the inner workings of the adopted child’s brain/body system, its response to being separated from biological parents, and its learned reactions to early trauma exposure. If you are an adoptive parent, my hope is that after reading this article, you will be better equipped to look at your child in a different light, a light of increased awareness and understanding. You will have a better understanding of the causative factors behind your child’s behavior, allowing you to be more available to help your child heal from the early exposure to separation and trauma.

In this article I will make many references to the brain/body system rather than to solely the brain or the body. My belief is that the brain and body are inseparable, and work in harmony with one another. For instance, when you feel panic, your brain sends a signal through your body, your pulse accelerates and your body temperature fluctuates. It is with this fundamental knowledge of brain and body behavior that I have been able to pioneer an approach to family treatment that has proven to be highly successful and mutually rewarding to both parent and child. I hope my interpretations will assist you in your task of parenting your child more effectively.

Stress is a common occurrence in daily life. It is an unavoidable natural aspect of our existence. In a healthy situation stress activates the brain/body system to protect, assist, work, live and love. Stress can be the driving force behind our basic need to achieve a healthy state of well-being. When stress becomes prolonged, overwhelming, or chronically unpredictable; it transforms itself into trauma. If stress becomes pervasive, uninterrupted, or out of control; damage can occur to the brain/body system. Consequently, the brain may become unable to shield itself against this bombardment of stress. Once the brain senses that an environmental threat, such as abuse, is unpredictable or overwhelming, the brain will make the necessary adaptations to defend itself. Those adaptations usually manifest themselves in the form of extreme sensitivity, aggression and disconnecting.

When an adopted child has experienced trauma in her early formative years, she is left with a very scared monster lurking inside her brain/body system that I call the “Beast.” Though ghastly and threatening in appearance, this Beast is simply a terrified creature that is constantly on guard, trying to defend the “Beauty” hidden beneath the Beast. The Beast is with her always, waiting for the time when the child feels threatened or afraid. It is at this moment that the Beast roars to life. Seemingly out of nowhere, the Beast erupts from within and Beauty is nowhere to be found.

Adopted children who have experienced early, recurrent trauma are, by their very nature, sensitive children. They are often more sensitive than biological children, but until recently, not much thought has gone into why this occurs. For these children, the initial break from their biological parents is an area that has received scant attention from the scientific community in the past. Recent research has shown that this initial break is, in fact, traumatic to the infant’s brain/body system. Regardless of the environment in which the child is placed, the physiological break from the biological parent is an overwhelmingly stressful event. Such an event could be compared to the terror a small child may feel when he finds himself suddenly lost in the middle of the shopping mall. An immediate sense of panic pervades, the parent is lost amongst all of the other shoppers and the child feels scared, alone, and helpless! Even the comfort of a stranger is only reassuring to the extent that the child may momentarily stop crying. However, in this type of situation, the parents are eventually found, and the child is restored into the calm containment of his parents’ arms. For the adopted infant who has been removed from his biological parents, his cry is the signal of his immense pain and fear. Therefore, when the cry of that infant quiets we naturally assume that he is comforted. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case for this child. As we examine the impact of early stress on the brain /body system, consider the implications of such an experience.

The extraordinary sensitivity demonstrated by an adopted child stems from her early exposure to stress, which has usually resulted in trauma. As the brain/body system continues to be bombarded by traumatic events such as loss of a biological parent, neglect, abuse, lack of physical contact or in utero drug exposure; it adapts itself to this stressful environment. The brain/body system will work diligently to protect itself from any future harm. We must remember that the threat/stress sensor inside the brain is fear-based. This means the immediate primary emotion of the human species is, in general, that of fear. As the exposure to threat and stress continues, the brain/body system responds in a manner similar to persistent terror. Over a period of time, the stress-producing events may diminish or even cease, but by this time it is probably too late. The brain/body system has adapted and is prepared to react. If the exposure to trauma has occurred during the period between conception and thirty-six months, the brain pathways form around the negative adaptation, locking into place a highly sensitive brain state, in order to be on guard against future threat. Hence, the Beauty becomes the Beast anytime she feels threatened or scared. The fear response can begin in a millisecond and can be triggered through any of the sensory pathways (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, or temperature).

With this new understanding of the brain/body system and its effects on your child’s behavior, you should be able to see your child from a new perspective that is rarely offered. A screaming, kicking, biting child should no longer be viewed as an angry, out of control child; but rather, a child who is scared by some trigger within his immediate environment and is solely dependent on the stress reactions his brain/body system has learned from exposure to early trauma. Research demonstrates that in times of high stress, our cognitive thinking becomes greatly distorted, leaving us susceptible to high states of emotional arousal with little clear thought. Therefore, in addition to having a child who is highly dependent on his learned stress-response, you also have a child who is incapable of demonstrating the ability to have clear and effective cognitive thinking in the midst of feeling threatened.

In closing, I would like to add that when parenting an adopted child it is imperative to consider traumatic experience or exposure and its subsequent effect on your child. A view focused solely on child behavior will lead to feelings of parental rejection, blame and helplessness; undoubtedly causing the same feelings within the child. I encourage you to work diligently to view your child from the perspective that her brain/body system is creating a constant sense of threat or even terror within her. From this perspective, I am certain that you will come to a deeper understanding of your child’s behavior and you will be equipped to take the steps necessary in making her feel less threatened. In doing so you will assuredly create an environment of increased security and acceptance, resulting in a calmer state of the brain/body system, which will in turn diminish negative behavior.

Written by B. Bryan Post, PhD, LCSW

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