When working with adoptive families, I often hear them express the idea that if they adopt an infant, the child will not have the same “problems” that adopting an older child might. While it seems to be a widespread belief, this idea that an infant is a “blank slate” has been disproven in recent research on the brain.
A child’s brain is developed in utero, and what a mom experiences during her pregnancy affects a baby’s development. If a woman is in a violent relationship, or even if she is anxious because her pregnancy was unplanned, cortisol levels rise and the child’s brain adapts to that perceived threat. If she is struggling with the decision to abort, make an adoption plan, or parent, the baby feels the effects of that turmoil.
This is where parenting using Trust Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) is essential. TBRI gives parents a framework for how to respond to their children’s needs. It encourages connecting with and empowering children while also correcting behaviors. It asks the parents to look at their child’s behavior with curiosity, searching for the root of the issue in order to correct the behavior at its core.
Parents who use TBRI methods, even imperfectly, see improvement in their children’s emotional problems, hyperactivity/inattention, prosocial behavior, conduct problems, and overall difficulties. When adopting an infant, you may not be considering these future issues. But how you parent now, when your baby is tiny, affects how they respond to the world when they are older.
Take Ginny for example. She was a child that I worked with, adopted at birth into a loving family. Before she reached the age of two, Ginny began having big “meltdowns” and tantrums. She was emotional and strong-willed. At times, her parents would describe her as defiant. As she grew older, she tried manipulation and lying to get her needs met. When angry with her parents, she would scream that she wanted her “real parents.” Her behaviors weren’t completely out of control, but they were difficult to manage.
This child, who came to her parents at birth, needed to be parented differently because she was different. She came to her family through the unique bond of adoption, and she had needs that were not being met using traditional parenting styles. The way her brain developed in her biological mother’s womb affected how she reacted to everyday stressors, and her parents needed additional support and training in order to parent her effectively.
Ginny’s parents began seeking out TBRI resources when she was about eight years old. They attended the Empowered to Connect simulcast and read books such as The Connected Child and The Whole Brain Child. They sought the counsel of TBRI practitioners in their area. And slowly, they began connecting with Ginny on a deeper level. They used empowering strategies to help her navigate a world that was confusing to her. They learned how to correct her behaviors that stemmed from in-utero trauma and her brain development rather than willful disobedience. Ginny and her family continue to face challenges, as all children will, but through using TBRI they are now facing those challenges as a united front instead of adversaries.
As you consider adoption as a ministry or a way to grow your family, do a little research to see what parenting techniques your new baby may need. Read The Connected Child by Dr. Karyn Purvis. Check out the TBRI website, https://child.tcu.edu. Talk to people who have children who were adopted as infants and are now a little older. It will make all the difference in the world to the baby that you bring into your home and heart.
-Natalie Balch, LICSW, TBRI Practitioner, foster parent and Director of Social Services at AGAPE of North Alabama