#2…Churches should become trauma and attachment-informed

C4EC adoption series image 2Today, Shannon Dingle continues her series examining adoption and the church authored while serving as a Key Ministry Church Consultant. Today, she looks at the second of five ways churches can love their adoptive and foster families…Become Trauma and Attachment-Informed.

Adoptive and foster parents know about trauma and attachment, so their churches should too.

But what does that mean?

Attachment is the act of bonding, usually focused on the child bonding to his or her adoptive or foster family but also applicable to new parents bonding to their family’s new child. Children who have been adopted or who are in foster care don’t have the typical attachment process of biological children. Even a child adopted at or soon after birth spent months in the womb hearing a different voice than the mother they went home with, and research has shown that bonding of a child to mother begins with those first sounds and smells in the womb and soon after. For children who have learned not to trust adults (for example, if trusted adults have abandoned them or died or lied or hurt them), attachment can be even harder. This affects behavior, nutrition, learning, self-worth, and more.

Trauma includes a constellation of previous experiences a child has that could have a negative effect, including abuse, neglect, loss, grief, starvation, medical mistreatment, and being witness to violence. That’s a long list, isn’t it? And it’s not comprehensive. Every child is different, and so are the responses of each child to their own trauma histories. That said, research shows that trauma can impact children’s developing brains. Research indicates that childhood trauma is sometimes misdiagnosed as ADHD, early trauma leads to changes in brain chemistry and development, and institutionalization of children leads to higher rates of lasting sensory processing issues. And that’s just the tip of iceberg on what experts have to say about the effects of childhood trauma.

So, church leaders, what can you do to become trauma- and attachment-informed and to then use that knowledge to serve adoptive and foster families well?

  1. Just say no to romanticizing adoption and foster care. Can there be beauty there? YES! But is it borne out of hard places? YES! God calls us to care for unparented children, so we should be willing to say, “Here I am, Lord, send me,” but we aren’t serving anyone well if families dive in after being presented with a glamourized version of the realities of adoption and foster care.
  2. Give high fives instead of hugs. Okay, that’s not a firm rule, but please resist the desire to shower our kids with affection. Ask us first. That might sound harsh or like we’re helicopter parents, but the reality is that our kids might not understand who to trust or how to know what love is. God designed children to learn about love for the first time in a family environment: the womb, then their parents’ arms, and so on. Those moments of early feedings and middle of the night soothing develop a child’s brain to know that mom and dad are their secure sources of affection. Sometimes well-meaning folks forget that many kids in adoptive and foster placements never learned that. One of my children showed this to the extreme with what experts call “indiscriminate attachment.” In layman’s terms, she would willingly go with any adult, with no preference for me or my husband. For her to learn healthy attachment, she needed us to be the main sources of affection.
  3. Same goes for food and gifts. Once again, ask us first. Kids learn to trust and attach to caregivers through nourishment (i.e. food) and provisions (i.e. gifts). Getting those from us and from others can be confusing, especially at first.
  4. Let us enter children’s ministry on our timetables. In other words, be flexible. Understand that our kids might need to be with us more and in the nursery or Sunday school less, and please help us navigate that reality for the season in which it applies to us. Be willing to change some rules if they don’t make sense for us. For example, the nursery program for our ladies’ midweek Bible study program is run by a precious woman who gently pushes moms to go to their own small groups instead of lingering, and that works for most kids. But when our youngest cried so hard she ruptured a blood vessel in her eye when we finally started putting her in the nursery? We both knew that wasn’t working for our family, and we adjusted accordingly.
  5. Don’t say, “Oh, every kid does that.” We feel dismissed by those words, and they show that you don’t get it. Let’s return to the previous example. Did my daughter’s reaction look like typical separation anxiety? Yes. Was it? No. Many of the attachment- and trauma-related behaviors for kids in adoptive and foster families might look like the usual kid behaviors, but they’re different.
  6. Respect our children’s privacy. To love our family well, you don’t need to know the specifics of our children’s history with attachment, trauma, and life in general. Some families choose to share limited information, but most of us consider our children’s stories to be theirs to own and share on their own timetables.
  7. Finally, understand that every family is different. Every adoptive and foster family deals with attachment and trauma differently, so this entire list might not apply to all the families in your church. So be willing to listen and learn from us before acting based on assumptions.

By reading this post, you’re already showing great love for the adoptive and foster families at your church because you care enough to learn a little about how child development might differ for our kids. Thank you for that.

Updated January 6, 2018.



About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
This entry was posted in Adoption, Advocacy, Controversies, Families, Foster Care, Hidden Disabilities, Inclusion, Strategies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to #2…Churches should become trauma and attachment-informed

  1. Thanks you for this timely post about attachment and trauma. I too have been writing about trauma and have a blog coming out today on attachment issues. I ran a therapeutic child care for years and had many children with attachment issues – some very severe. I agree with everything that you have said and wish I could have had your articles years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Alexis says:

    Well the churches are involved in others stuff nowdays. for example in my country churches don’t pay any taxes and the priests started doing bussiness and things. they just have their daily job at the church and that’s all. no special program, no anything. they are involved in making mone. this is very sad 😦


  3. Kat says:

    So good! Another piece to this that doesn’t get out there, the affect this trauma has on adoptive parents and primary care givers! Living with the affects of this trauma in your home day after day causes many caregivers to develop a form of PTSD. While this is hard for people to understand it is real and causes a very difficult set of challenges that many parents don’t understand let alone be able to advocate for that understanding in their faith communities.


  4. adoptmomof6 says:

    Reblogged this on Adoptmomof6's Blog and commented:
    We our blessed with a church that understands. We are one of the few that does. Please share this……


  5. Kathryn says:

    Yes yes yes! Encourage everybody to treat adopted kids differently! Based on no evidence other than that which comes from the adoptive parents whose adopted kids are holy terrors years and sometimes even decades after they’ve been adopted.

    I adopted three drug/alcohol-exposed girlies who’d been in and out of foster care for their entire lives at ages almost-17, 8 and 7. They were held to the exact same standards as my biological daughter (who was loved from the second she was conceived by her adoring, college-educated bioparents aka my husband and I), who was 17 at the time of the adoption.

    All four girls were college grads by age 23, never had any legal issues besides the occasional speeding ticket and are lovely, happily married with kids and gainfully employed young women.

    Kids have a habit of living up (or down) to expectations. I am horrified every time I hear well-intentioned adults making excuses for adopted kids who experienced trauma (yes, being adopted is itself traumatic).

    All of the self-proclaimed “trauma mamas” I know are the ones who’ve had pathetically low expectations for their adopted kids (the vast majority of whom were adopted as newborns/toddlers, when they were way younger than my adopted 3) … whose kids lived down to expectations.

    Adoption, drug/alcohol exposure, trauma & neglect don’t doom a kid! Mine are living proof!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sorry that you thought I was trying to communicate a message of lower expectations for children who have experienced trauma. I definitely wasn’t! (And I’m not a fan of the “trauma mama” name, though I’ve definitely seen it around and, at times, used in cringeworthy ways.)

      As I parent our six children, I hold high expectations for all of them. But that doesn’t mean I parent all of them in the same way. I take into account their backgrounds, their disabilities (such as cerebral palsy for one and epilepsy for another), their personalities, and other uniquities so that I can adapt my parenting in such a way that will enable those expectations to be feasible for each one of them. In other words, I’m not advocating a change in what parents or churches do (the end goal or mission statement) but how they do it if shifts are necessary so that those expectations can be met.

      Every child is different, regardless of their background. All I’m advocating for is that we, as parents and church leaders, respect those differences and learn from research (and by that, I mean independent peer-reviewed scholarly research, not just the anecdotal evidence you mention, though I do see value there too) so that all of our kids can know the God who loves them unconditionally and be able to love Him and others in return.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Kathryn says:

        Fair enough. Perhaps I’ve been on the receiving end of too many *parental* tantrums when their adopted little darlings managed to sneak into the “coffee hour room” and eat way too many cookies. If you don’t want your kids snarfing cookies, keep a closer eye on them.


    • Kathryn…I agree that we shouldn’t treat adopted and foster kids with kid gloves every time we here that they are, BUT the majority of these kids have suffered and we have to be careful to not judge a child and parent when we don’t know their story. I had mine from a very young age and raised them both with love and care like any other kid. However, my youngest as she aged started to have major abandonment issues, anxiety, depression, suicidal tendencies, self-harm, etc…that all stemmed from her loss of family despite all the love we gave her. Her own psychologist said, “This poor child has had some major abandonment in her life and it is now come to a head.” As much as your girls turned out great which I am very happy for you, unfortunately there are a huge number of children who have dealt with some pretty bad traumas in their life starting at birth. I’m not throwing out excuses, but instead facts regarding my child as well as others, but I wouldn’t want someone with the viewpoint that you just shared about how you were horrified at hearing of those excuses share that with another adult who most likely did go through that horrible event in their life and they are still trying to heal. And I certainly wouldn’t want someone with that same viewpoint to help my child either. I work with teens and know a lot of adopted children and teens and believe me, they aren’t making it up or trying to get attention. They are hurting so badly that suicide is their only option. I hope that you don’t take offense at what I am sharing but instead maybe see things through another telescope.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: To love adoptive and foster families, (4) let our kids be kids… | Church4EveryChild

  7. Thank you for this message. I am the children’s church director at the church my husband pastors and we have just received our license to foster and we would like to pursue adoption. This is helpful information for me to keep in mind as we prepare for placements and to help others with new children that come through the church. God bless.


    • drgrcevich says:

      Hi Dixons, Nice blog. Thanks for the example you’re setting through your faithfulness. Keep us posted on your ministry and adoption adventures!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Please, please, please feel free to reach out if you have any questions or want a sounding board or need a sympathetic ear as you continue forward. Foster care and adoption is not easy, but God is faithful, and part of that (at least in our adoption experiences) has been the grace and love we’ve found in the community of other adoptive and foster families. In other words, I’m here to be part of that community if you need it.


  8. Leslie says:

    Best wishes to all of the adopting parents. It is surely a calling, and devotion beyond most! I am an adopted child, adopted at 6 weeks old. I was raised in a normal family, and always told I was loved. Accepting that we are as children a little different,is the same as each of us having a different fingerprint.. How you are loved and raised, is individual and that bond needs daily nurturing… Our lives are sometimes no different than other children, just that our parents didn’t physically have us. But the love is a beautiful walk with unknown to love uncondiotionally.Yes we had some struggles, but what family doesn’t?Love is taught, just as racism is! The best example I have ever seen is the story of the egg, a brown egg, and a white egg. When you crack them open, they are the same inside! If you show devote love, in time like any relationship, the love will be trusted and returned . It shouldn’t be expected at first sight,and each child has different boundaries, and I agree in the boundaries of the adopted child and letting them accept things as they can and when they are ready. Scripture tells us that life will not be easy or fair. Faith and Love is what gets us through… All adopted children eventually understand this! Some always search for their identity… Some never will…. I was 44 yrs old when I was found by my birth sister. It answers questions about where I came from,and as an adult I could handle the facts and digest them, and embrace new relationships without disrespecting the ones I already had. It then becomes a choice, but this time of the adopted child to peruse or not peruse the unknown love of the birth parents. Trust in The Lord, and know that Adoption is a calling, and some may not understand this. Let them not understand, it’s ok, set boundaries and pray for those who don’t ,but know that God calls some to do the work, His work, and it’s not easy, but He sees the Work, the Love, and the Commitment of the task to step out in Faith to the unknown, just as Jesus did for each of us.. Bless you all!


  9. Mandy Wilson says:

    Thank you Shannon for your insight. We currently are raising 4 teenage sisters who come from a history of abuse neglect and a whole lot more. It is encouraging to know we are on the right track. We also recently lost care of an abandoned baby we had raised for the last year. We are missionaries in Guatemala (my husband and 3 bio kids) and because we no longer work for the organization she was “under” nor are residents the judge removed her form our family and put her in an institution. My heart breaks everyday for her loss. She was thriving in our care and has regressed from the very little contact we have had. She is Gods first and we continue to advocate and fight for her.


  10. drgrcevich says:

    Hi Mandy,

    Thanks for sharing your experience…and everything your family is doing to share the love of Christ with kids in Guatemala who need to experience that love!


  11. Pingback: How does a Foster Carer Thrive | Our Fostering Journey - Love Beyond Kinship

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