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Brain Chemistry and Children Who’ve Been Adopted

Is it possible that mental problems might be behind the erratic behavior of our 6-year-old son who we adopted who we adopted through the foster care system? His behavior is maddeningly unpredictable. He alternates between tantrums, running away, hiding, aggression, and wild hyperactivity. To top things off, he seems to regard us with feelings of distrust and won't let us get close enough to him to help in any way. I'm beginning to think that all of this might actually be based on some kind of issue with the hardwiring of his brain that won't allow him to understand or accept our love. Does this sound feasible?

Many parents in your position jump to the conclusion that their child is “defiant,” “strong-willed,” “incorrigible,” or even some kind of “bad seed,” but it’s entirely possible that your son doesn’t actually have conscious control over his own attitudes and actions. As a matter of fact, nothing is more likely.

You didn’t offer specifics concerning his pre-adoption history, but if he came to you from the foster care system, as you say, then we feel pretty safe in assuming that his background has been marked by abuse, neglect, or hardship of some kind or another. If this was the case, it would go a long way toward explaining the mental and emotional issues you detect in his behavior.

Early childhood trauma has a profound impact on the brain. We know that many things happen in the mental, emotional, and neurological development of children who have been subjected to harm during the beginning phases of life. Dramatic alterations in their basic brain chemistry affect how their stress system reacts, the way they think, the way they trust, and the way they connect with other people. This is not just a “software” problem – as you’ve guessed, it’s a matter of “hardwiring” in the central nervous system.

Think of it this way. When a nursing child snuggles close to his mother’s breast, looks up into his mother’s eyes, and sees his own expression mirrored in his mother’s face, his brain wraps these sensory images in a network of positive neurochemical links. But if these warm and comforting experiences are lacking, or if a child’s interactions with a primary caregiver are frightening or traumatic, the growth of the “primitive brain” follows a very different path. Though it’s a bit technical, allow us to explain:

  • When life is lived in a state of heightened fear and constant emergency, the brain reorganizes itself around the need for self-protection. Survival functions – “fight, flight, fright, or freeze” – take center stage. The individual becomes hypervigilant, continually on the lookout for danger and threats. High stress reactivity inhibits brain functions that are not absolutely essential for escape or survival, such as language development and the ability to process sensations. Sometimes this can lead to pain agnosia, or the inability to perceive and react to pain.
  • Chronically elevated levels of stress-related hormones, such as cortisol, can cause significant damage to the limbic system (including the hippocampus and amygdala, which control verbal and emotional memories), producing symptoms similar to those connected with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The normal diurnal cortisol cycle is disrupted. Reduced integration between the right and left hemispheres and a smaller corpus callosum (the bundle of nerves connecting the two sides of the brain) appears to have the effect of inhibiting development of the left hemisphere. This asymmetry of brain function can lead to a number of undiagnosed learning disorders.
  • High levels of stress hormones can also bring about a dangerous imbalance between excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters. Levels of dopamine, glutamate, and phenylethylamine (PEA)-the three brain chemicals most commonly associated with mental illness – are raised, while serotonin, a substance associated with the regulation of fear and agitation, is reduced. In some cases, alteration of GABA receptors (gamma aminobutyric acid), the brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter, may trigger seizures similar to those associated with temporal lobe epilepsy, including tonic (tensing of muscles), clonic (convulsions) and absence (“check in, check out”) seizures.

You’re absolutely right, then, to be asking yourself whether your son may be suffering from the effects of altered brain chemistry. On the surface, this condition can easily be mistaken for other problems, such as mild autism or bipolar disorder. Children of abuse and trauma are essentially disconnected children. Though their behavior seems to indicate otherwise, they desperately want to be attached to someone at a deep and meaningful level; as a matter of fact, some of the most violent among them can also be the most tender-hearted. Unfortunately, the neurochemistry of fear gets in their way.

If you’d like to discuss this information at greater length, call our counselors for a free consultation. Each is a committed Christian and a licensed family therapist.

And for more information about parenting adopted children, you might consider a therapeutic parenting model developed by the late Dr. Karyn Purvis called TBRI (Trust Based Relational Intervention). We recommend you visit the webpage of TCU’s Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development, which has a free one-hour “Introduction to TBRI” online video designed to help parents understand their child’s brain development. You can find other resources through their online store.


The Connected Child

Forever Mom

The Whole Life Adoption Book

Empowered to Connect

The Out-of-Sync Child

Fostering or Adopting Children from Difficult Backgrounds (resource list)

TCU’s Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development

The Out of Sync Child

Empowered to Connect

Focus on the Family’s® Foster Care and Adoption Program: Wait No More®

Adoption articles and broadcasts

Other Adoption articles

Attachment and Bonding


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