Source: Diaga Ellaby / Unsplash
Almost daily, my husband tries to warm up to our cat, Nina, who joined our family from the Humane Animal Welfare Society (HAWS) many years ago. In his kindest, gentlest voice, with treat in hand, he’ll gingerly squat down to the floor. “Here Nina, come baby.” Her liquid green eyes grow big and scared as she slinks away and darts around the corner, feigning disinterest, until I present her with the same treat, which she eagerly gobbles from my palm. “I didn’t do anything to her, but she hates me!” My husband imparts. ,I try so hard! Whatever, Nina.”
“It’s not like she’s trying to dislike you.” I’ll say I know her limbic brain—the fight-or-flight center—becomes activated whenever a perceived threat (in this case, my husband) comes near. We surmise she suffered some kind of trauma at the hands of a man when she was a kitten, months before joining our family.
While it may seem like a strange comparison, the enduring effects of traumatic early life experiences on brain and behavioral development in human infants have been demonstrated in clinical studies since the 1950s. These studies have shown strong emotional and physical stunting of orphaned and hospitalized infants who had been separated from their mothers.
Extensive research conducted at the Emotional Brain Institute at the New York University School of Medicine, has demonstrated that early caregiver abandonment, abuse, and/or neglect can continue to hijack the brain’s experience-based system, leading to emotional and cognitive deficits and a view of the world as a dangerous place. These early-life traumas go beyond the normal programming of the brain and initiate a pathway to pathology, which can often have a delayed expression until the child approaches periodolescence.
In the foster-care and adoption world, this dynamic is often called “blocked care/blocked trust, The neglect, trauma, or abandonment suffered in a child’s earliest years can trigger a lingering fear response—an involuntary, anxiety-based apprehension around the concept of accepting and receiving care and affection. Reflexively, adoptive or foster parents grow weary of trying to love a child, who struggles to receive or give it themselves.
In an article published by the National Council for Adoption, M. Corcum and L. Qualls state that when a child is exposed to early abandonment, trauma, or neglect, their brain develops strategies to cope. “These strategies focus on self-preservation and identifying the next potential threat. These are protective behaviors that may continue after joining their adoptive families. We know our children are safe now, but they do not. In their deepest core, a river of fear runs through their veins.”
Similarly, “Brain imaging has shown that the emotional experience of being rejected activates the same pattern in the brain as physical pain. When a parent approaches a child anticipating a positive response and instead gets a negative reaction, it activates the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which in turn activates the social rejection system. As a result of repeated rejection, the parent may respond to the experience the same way they would respond to physical pain, by drawing away and protecting themselves.”
In time, the continued experience of parents weathering their child’s constant rejection is likely to grow stronger and reduce their capacity for compassion and empathy toward the child. As one mom in an adoptive parenting group shared recently: “I feel like I’m depressed and just going through the motions. After years of trying to love my child, I’m tired. The sabotage. The rejection. The thwarting of me at every turn. I hate this life and the fact that I just don’t care anymore, but it’s self-preservation at this point. I give up.”
One adoptive couple shared how their son, adopted internationally as a toddler and now a teenager, has become physically violent with his mom as the years have progressed. “I’ve had to lock myself in my room because my son gets so angry. He tried to push me down the stairs when my husband was at work. We’ve attempted to get help and have even called the police when he gets out of control, but no one seems to understand. They always want to blame us—the parents—and because we’re resentful and sad and ashamed, we hide. We’re forced to go underground, until we find other foster and adoptive parents who get it.”
The child is usually the focus when parents finally reach out and seek help, and treatment is frequently centered around parent reform. This can further reinforce feelings of shame, guilt, and resentment. I often hear, “We didn’t cause our child’s trauma, but we’re shouldering all the fallout and the blame for his/her behavior.” It’s a cyclical pattern with no easy solution.
In her post Compassion Fatigue: What Every Social Worker Must KnowSarah Naish states: “When we add in the stresses and strains experienced by foster and adoptive parents from trying to access resources in an underfunded system, often battling with schools AND social workers who have not been adequately trained in the impact of long-term trauma, we see the full, bleak picture.”
She continues: “It’s not rocket science. It’s just a simple shift from problem-solving strategic interaction to an initial empathic response. This helps to change brain chemistry and to ‘unblock’ the brain.”
To his credit, my husband hasn’t given up. He understands that Nina needs time and consistency to calm down her fearful brain and there is, once in a great while, a pay-off.
The issue of blocked care/blocked trust is not one that’s usually talked about openly, for fear of judgment. But as Naish and other specialists in adoption and foster care can attest, adoptive families often harbor secret feelings of shame and guilt because of this biological/brain dynamic–and feel stuck. It’s a reality that requires dedication and help in the form of resources, compassion for parents, and empathy for children in weathering challenging interpersonal dynamics.