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Identifying Neurochemical Factors in the Adopted Child’s Behavior

How can I tell to what extent my adopted child's erratic behavior and moods might be based on neurochemical issues? I'm not sure about the details of his background before we adopted him, but I have a hunch there was some kind of neglect or abuse. It's been more challenging to raise him than we first anticipated. It would be helpful to have a clearer idea of what we're up against. What's the best way to assess his situation? And is there anything I can do to address the problem?

If you know little about your child’s history, we suggest you take some deliberate, intentional steps to find out more. This is especially important if you suspect that he’s been subjected to neglect or abuse. It may require time and effort – investigation, research, visits with social workers, and phone calls to former foster parents – but however you do it, you need to become a skillful detective and learn to discern the signs of early childhood trauma through careful observation. If you can get a handle on your child’s past, you’ll be in a much better position to cope with his present situation and help shape his future.

There are several known risk factors associated with neurochemical imbalances in the brain and central nervous system. The presence of any one of these factors increases the likelihood that your child’s behavioral issues are actually an expression of hypervigilance – a tendency to be constantly “on the watch” for danger – which is in turn a symptom of neurochemically based fear. Early childhood abuse, neglect, or trauma all significantly contribute to this situation. So does stressful pregnancy, a difficult birth, or early and extended hospitalization. If you discover that your child’s first and most neurologically formative experiences of life in this world included any of these circumstances, you can be fairly certain that he’s dealing with neurochemical issues.

When parenting a child from a painful or abusive background, it’s important to realize that “misbehavior” often conceals a subtle cry for help. It’s possible that many of the aggravating things your child does can be best understood as survival tactics. In particular, be on the lookout for any of the following:

    • Dissociative behavior. The child pulls away from contact with other people, seems hypervigilant, overly reactive, and overly sensitive to touch, sound, and visual stimuli.


    • Emotional instability and neurochemical fragility. The smallest thing can “set him off” and cause a “meltdown.”


    • Inhibition of language. The child is below his expected age or grade level in terms of speech development.


    • Fight, flight, fright, or freeze. The child displays instantaneous fear-related reactions to external stimuli.


  • Poor self-image and bleak outlook. The child’s perspective on life, himself, and other people shows signs of deeply embedded negative belief structures.

If and when you do come to the conclusion that your child is struggling with ingrained fears based on the effects of neurochemical changes in the brain, there are a number of strategies you can use, both at home and at school, to address the situation. Generally speaking, the key is to deflect attention away from the “problem” and come up with ways to introduce new patterns of thought.

  • At home, you can counteract the brain chemistry of fear by touching your child, getting down on his level, encouraging eye-contact, and doing everything in your power to help him feel safe (be careful to respect his “personal space” so that you don’t inadvertently set off a “fight, flight, or freeze” response). You can give him a voice by making sure he understands that his concerns are heard and acknowledged. You can encourage physical exercise and playful engagement and take advantage of opportunities to introduce him (gently) to new situations.
  • At school, you should make it your mission to act as your child’s advocate. Help teachers, day-care workers, and other adult authorities understand the implications of his traumatic background and his special needs in the present moment. Be aware that kids with fear-based behavioral issues don’t always function best in standard classroom settings and explore the options for accommodating his unique learning style. If he does better standing than sitting, or if frequent breaks or snacks help to ease the learning process for him, see what can be done to incorporate these elements into his school-day routine. Help teachers and administrators become aware of how a classroom’s physical environment affects your child – loud noises, harsh fluorescent lighting, or strong smells can easily send neurochemically fragile children into a meltdown.


If you’d like to talk over these suggestions at greater length, give our Counseling department a call. Our counselors would be more than happy to discuss your concerns with you over the phone.

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: Bring Hope and Healing to Your Adoptive Family

The Whole Life Adoption Book

Adoption & Foster Care (resource list)

Fostering or Adopting Children From Difficult Backgrounds (resource list)


TCU’s Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development

Empowered to Connect

The Out of Sync Child

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

Preparing for Adoption

Adjusting to Life After an Adoption

The Adoption Journey (includes lists of books, broadcasts, articles and referrals)


Attachment and Bonding

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