Preparing for Primary and Secondary Adoptive Trauma

This month, we’re featuring some different voices from the world of adoption. The following post is written Renaut van der Riet, an adoptive father and pastor. He shared his adoption story on the Lifesong blog a few months ago (take a look at that blog here). And now, he’s offering some great insight and advice on adoptive trauma.

In his words…

If you’ve ever read or heard me talk about my adoption journey, you know that I often describe that integration of two families as driving a couple of tractor-trailers straight at each other at 100 miles an hour with the hope of making one, larger tractor-trailer. However, an impact like that doesn’t produce a single, larger truck. It produces a burning and broken mess. It can take years, and sometimes even decades, to pick up the pieces and turn the carnage into one drivable vehicle.

This analogy will sound brutal to those unacquainted with adoption. But the reality of adoption is as brutal as it is beautiful. If you step into it with the romantic idea that two will become one seamlessly, no one in your family is going to make it out of the crash. To survive, you’ll need to have clarity about adoptive trauma and a biblical community willing to do real life with you.


Prepare for the Presence of Trauma

Even if your adoption experience doesn’t unfold violently (like a massive car wreck) it will always involve trauma. There is no version of adoption that doesn’t involve trauma. At some point, the trauma your adoptive child or children have experienced is going to manifest. When it does, it will affect everyone in the family, because the great news—and the terrible news, too—is that you are all in this together.

If you want to stay for each other and not against, you’ll need to understand from the beginning that there is no such thing as adopting a “typical” child. The majority of people who have a biological child enter their first pregnancy with the assumption that they are going to have a child who will be, for the most part, typical.

Few people roll into pregnancy expecting that they will need to contend with medical, cognitive, or emotional exceptionalities, which is why it can be shocking when an ultrasound or blood test uncovers something out of the ordinary. When that happens, you’ve got to recalibrate expectations and make a plan for loving your child well based on who he or she is, not what you expected him or her to be.




Stepping into adoption requires a similar clarity of expectations. In adoption, it isn’t always immediately obvious that trauma is present for that child, but at minimum, an attachment was broken at some point; that, in itself, is deeply traumatic.

Caring for your son or daughter as an individual starts with acknowledging this reality. Caring for your household means recognizing your adoptive child’s primary trauma will also affect everyone else in the family and the interpersonal relationship dynamics in your home. Whenever there is primary trauma, it will always produce secondary trauma in the environment in which it lives. How amplified that secondary trauma is will depend on the severity of the primary trauma and the level of dysfunction that already exists in the household.

I’ve learned that trauma has a way of finding dysfunction and then amplifying it, like giant speakers. Even under the best circumstances, the first few years of your adoption journey will require everyone to live in a loud house, emotionally speaking.


Don’t Do It Alone

Ongoing, regular access to trauma-informed care will help turn the volume down over time.

In this journey, the line between perception and reality is so quickly blurred, and therapy will help clarify where those lines are. When you adopt, you are bringing together real, wonderful, beautiful people who have been deeply affected by the pain of this planet. Unconsciously and with no ill motive or desire, these people can inflict a great deal of harm on one another, just by trying to navigate new relationships and relational dynamics. No one is the bad guy in this scenario, but if you don’t get outside help, it’s really easy to start pointing fingers.

I’ve seen it happen in our story and in others’. The primary caregiver in the family—usually, that’s Mom—becomes emotionally eroded from dealing with all the trauma relationships to such a degree that she is living in a state of constant adrenal fatigue and battling depression. She’ll start to question her sanity. She’ll become critical of herself and everyone else. Dad will listen (mostly) with compassion until his secondary trauma kicks in, and then he just makes it worse.

I will tell you from experience—if you entertain questions like, “What if she is really the problem?” for too long, they will turn into “If only I could get rid of the problem. If only I could get rid of her.” When that happens, it’s hard to come back from that place. A good therapist can help you navigate the trauma you’re all experiencing, as well as the trauma responses, so you can keep your most vital relationships intact.


Friends Who Will Preach the Gospel to You

Intimate friendships are just as critical to your family’s survival. You and your spouse need close, authentic relationships with people who will listen without judgment or assumptions, who understand the adoption journey, and who will preach the Gospel to you.



Perhaps the hardest part about moderate primary and secondary trauma is that from the outside looking in, it can appear that you, the parent, are the challenge. When I tell people what my adopted teenager with primary trauma does, it sounds like what typical, non-trauma kids do, and it’s easy to think that the behavior is the same.

But it’s not. The kid who has experienced trauma acts out those behaviors 100 percent of the time, and it’s deeper. If you tell someone this, though, and that your children are slowly killing your wife and marriage, you sound like the mad person in the padded cell who thinks everyone is after him.

This perception of your family, especially when it is expressed by those closest to you, can be deeply damaging. So are statements like—
“You need more faith.”
“You need to pray more.”
“You just need medication.”
“Your poor child.”

Here’s what you need: The Gospel.

Jesus, in his journey to redeem us, took on the weightiness of our brokenness. He died on the cross and rose from the dead. When we choose to participate in the work of redemption by making adoption part of our story, we are choosing to take on the weightiness of the trauma our kids bring home. We may feel like we are dying too.

But we must remember that Christ—and Christ alone—will resurrect our story, often through the community around us. Surround yourself with a good therapist and good friends who understand adoptive trauma and are willing to preach the Gospel to you, to shout Jesus to you, like it is going to save your life. It will.


Renaut van der Riet founded Mosaic Church in Winter Garden, a suburb of Orlando, Florida, in 2002. He and his wife, Brooke, have eight children, four of whom are adopted. They’ve founded both Axum Coffee Company, a chain of coffee shops and restaurants that gives 100 percent of its net profits to support social-justice initiatives around the world, and Love Made Visible, a nonprofit that equips families, individuals, churches, and agencies in the United States and around the globe to care for orphans and vulnerable children.


Lifesong helps adoptive families bring healing to their children.

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