Friday, April 15, 2011

A "Stress Shaped Brain"

I've always tried to keep this blog honest and truthful about our experience with international special needs adoption, while not wanting to say anything that would scare someone away from making the beautiful wonderful choice we made when we decided to adopt Zoya.  Well it's not big secret the last month has been pretty lack of posts is partly due to no time and a million commitments, and partly due to just not wanting to depress all my blog readers right along with me! Being a parent is definitely the hardest job on the planet! Being a first time parent of a TWO YEAR OLD with special needs who has lived in a less than desirable orphanage is hard! Any one of those things on their own is hard and then to put them all together complicates the matter even more. Don't get me wrong, we wouldn't change our path for the's just that the right path isn't always the easiest path. Like any other parent, I second guess myself all the time and wonder if I'm going to make a decision that will ruin my child's life. So much of what I'm going through is SO ABSOLUTELY NORMAL as confirmed by all my mama friends.

Zoya has had a rough past several weeks emotionally. Lots of adoptive parents say that right around a year home they notice changes in behavior like this. I'm not sure why around a year home or if its just a coincidence. Zoya has also been getting her last two bottom molars for over a month now!!! Ouch. These have by far been the hardest for her. Zoya has also gone through such a huge global developmental burst within the past month, which also sometimes causes some changes in behavior. She is MISS INDEPENDENT and there is no convincing her otherwise. She has had a big burst especially in speech and gross motor skills, but even more so in independence skills! Ha!  Zoya has definitely learned to cry...I so remember when she didn't know how to cry and I worked so much with her to teach her when it was appropriate to cry. Now I'm kicking myself! Haha, not really, but you know. Like any other kid, Zoya now cries....when she's hurt, when she's sick, when she gets in trouble sometimes, when she is get the idea. The difference with Zoya is that she has NO IDEA how to self soothe and she CANNOT calm herself down when she gets upset. I guess it's a great thing that she seeks us out to comfort her and most of the time as long as she can be glued to us after she is upset, she is okay. I don't mean glued to us for ten minutes, I'm talking she often needs to be glued to us for hours after getting upset. I'm not sure why she goes through cycles with this, but I sort of think it's almost to check and see if we're still going to be there for her....and she checks sub-consciously by going through these cycles of clingy-ness. I have no idea if that's even close to whats happening but it's my best idea :)

We've always been very aware that Zoya needs us to keep somewhat of a structure for her....more than non-adopted children, especially during the first year home. Lots of people don't understand this, but I know our schedule and structure has been exactly what Zoya needs. Anyways, I struggle to understand the cause of Zoya's behaviors because she is so complex. I always say, "Is it Zoya's personality? Is it down syndrome related? Is it orphanage related? Is it two year old related?" I am a "fixer" and if something is broken I will figure out what I need to do to fix it. With Zoya, I've racked my brain asking myself all these questions, knowing that every other 2 year old goes through many of the same behaviors. But there is a difference in Zoya's emotional I already said. We knew internationally adopted children often suffer from the neglect they faced in their lives prior to being adopted. I guess I just always thought Zoya was young enough that she wouldn't be phased by any of it. I'm learning that it will always be a part of her, even if she doesn't remember what happened to has shaped who she is.  I've struggled all along with guilt...this crazy guilt that I have nothing to do with...this guilt that MY DAUGHTER spent her first two years in a pretty bad place without ever learning the things most babies learn naturally....things like trust and self soothing. I feel horrible about it. I know I can't change it. At what point do I just let it go? Can I let go of it? I think I always have to keep it in the back of my mind to remind myself that Zoya has different needs than other kids who weren't adopted.  Lots of books talk about "family age" which would be how long the child has been home...for Zoya that is about a year old then. They suggest treating your child emotionally and behaviorally as a child of that age instead of their real age. I forget that sometimes because Zoya is so much like a two year old.

I've been reading "Parenting Your Internationally Adopted Child: From Your First Hours Together" by Patty Cogen. Some things really struck me when I was reading this....especially where they talk about the "stress-shaped brain." Here is a little excerpt that describes Zoya's emotional responses pretty perfectly:

Resiliency is the ability to bounce back from a stressful situation, without getting stuck in stress-based reactivity and the fight-or-flight response. Resiliency is needed to manage or control strong feelings-hunger, fatigue, excitement, joy, anger, and grief. Resiliency includes behavioral and emotional self-control. It helps a child to calm down after a fall, to wait patiently when hungry or tired, and to handle separation.

Resiliency in the “child next door” is the result of the child having been well protected and well supported by a parent. Resiliency in a child adopted from overseas is that and more. Beyond providing support and care, parents of an internationally adopted child must teach the child’s brain to override its automatic stress responses. The child must learn how to use the most advanced, conscious part of his brain, where rational choice and the conscious ability to self-soothe reside. In short, parents must help create and activate the “brain supervisor”—the part of the brain that uses conscious choice and reason—which can soothe the overreactive, negative, fight-or-flight “workers.”

What we know about how the stress-shaped brain operates comes from many studies or neglected, abused, or traumatized children. This research has demonstrated that cortisol, a hormone that calms the stress response, is significantly lower in such children. Thus these children have difficulty calming or remaining calm under even minimally stressful conditions.

Basically, I think Zoya reacts to stressors the same as other children at first, but then is unable to calm herself because her "stress-shaped brain" is not producing the right amount of cortisol to help her calm down or soothe herself as typical children could.

Here is where it gets tricky...I don't want to overplay the "stress shaped brain" thing...I want to keep it in the back of my mind but not focus on it so much that it becomes an excuse. I think this is probably only a small piece of the puzzle with Zoya's emotional distress lately.  Zoya is capable of overcoming so she has already proven to us...but figuring out how to overcome this is proving to be quite tricky. It's already hard enough to balance love and discipline, then to throw this into the mix...things get about as clear as mud for me! It will likely be a part of who she is forever but I know I can help her learn, in time, to regulate her emotions a little bit differently.

And then I think to I doing anything right? You know how that goes! Parenting has been a lesson for me in losing a little of my pride (along with some of my confidence Ha!). Zoya is my lovey girl who I wouldn't trade for the world. I just want to do everything I can to help her be the best she can be...and when you don't know what to do sometimes you end up feeling pretty awful. It's part of being a parent. For me parenting has been learning how fierce my love is for this precious girl, my daughter. It's been  learning what it feels like to wear my heart on my sleeve, loving so deeply it hurts, and experiencing such a powerful connection with this little soul that she and I are now forever entwined as one...each of us needing the other to survive.  It's been a crazy beautiful road so far, and the bumps are what remind us that sometimes we need to slow down and enjoy the ride a little more.

And of course if you made it to the end of this post you deserve some Zoya cuteness!!

(P.S. Mya is still throwing up blood and shouldn't be after being on the meds for a few days so she will have to have a scope done next week...the other possibilities are a really bad ulcer or something worse I'd rather not type. Praying it's an ulcer).


  1. Zoya is precious and gets more beautiful every day!
    Praying for Mya.

  2. Praying for your family to see great improvements soon. God's love will guide you gently through. One of my favorite hymns at church is "When the storms of life are raging, stand by me." I have that posted near my desk at work and when I feel particularly anxious about something I look at it and I say it out loud. I feel a sense of peace most of the time after that. He truly picks us up and carries us through our storms. I will pray for Mya, too. I have a "baby dog" that recently suffered illness and is now a lot better and I spent a lot of hours in prayer for him. I think God knew that I still needed him in my life a while longer.

  3. Hang in there Sarah. God gave you your precious little Zoya for a reason. :) Praying for all of you, including Mya!! Hugs!!

  4. Before I had 3 kids, I knew everything about parenting - LOL!

    Even when they're your "natural" kids, they can differ so widely from "normal" kids and it can be hard to find the answers. Hang in there - you're doing great!

    My thoughts go out to your doggie. I hope it's nothing too serious.

  5. Wow! Thank you so much for your honesty here! And I will certainly be ordering that book! What you said really hits home for me in my line of work as a social worker working with children who have aquired brain injuries. I always am trying to not focus on the brain injury part...maybe it's their personality, maybe it's a teenager thing, etc.

    My rule of thumb is to always remember the facts (diagnosis, previous history) but to never let the facts determine the possible outcome. :)

    Praying for your family, Miss Maya included!

    Brooke Annessa

  6. oh she has the cutest button nose!! here is how we thought of our little Russian when he came home at age 2. it was as if those two years just didnt count. so he was really like a baby. he didnt know even how to put his arms out to go into the sleeves of a shirt if I put his hand in. he was HELPLESS and he CRIED nonstop for MONTHS. Even now 6 years later he still relates to younger kids better. he is smart academically but he is just emotionally younger. but in time he learned and for the most part acts like an obnoxious 8 year old with adhd. he came from a rough place. he was 15 pounds at age 2. By contrast our Ukrainian kids were smaller stature but not too much and were much closer to their real age when they came home but they had their moments too(still do!) August will be a year with the newest 4. Last october was a year with the 2 before that. I didnt find a year to be a milestone. (not that it cant be just it wasnt for us) hang in there Mama. every first time mom asks herself ALL of these questions. what am I doing wrong? is it me? is it them? is there something more wrong? is this how other kids act? etc. adoptive moms ask this too! so we adoptive moms get a double dose of the what ifs! she is just so darling. I will be thinking about you and hope that things let up a bit and smooth out. Ethan too very much liked structure!

  7. Oh she looks so happy in the pictures! She really is a cutie pie. My daughter is 15 months and over the past 2 weeks she has become a little monster.... I dont know if I should laugh at her behavior or give her a time out. I love that you really take all factors into consideration. All will work out.... :)

  8. Praying for you! A "stress shaped brain" is so difficult to figure out. I have 3 that have Reactive Attachment Disorder (all from US foster care) and all three are so very different. Their brains are stress shaped to the point of disrupting their lives. I have seen one get almost completely better. One is starting to show improvements. The other one (who came out at the youngest age and should have been the least affected as far as most would think) is fighting attaching so hard that he makes himself miserable.

    Your little one has attached and is seeking you for comfort. That is GREAT! You have to be doing lots "right". :) Hang in there. She is at an age where behaviors can be challenging and children with Down Syndrome are "extra" stubborn. :)

  9. I love the honesty - I think potential adoptive parents would really appreciate this post and what-to-maybe-expect for their own new family member(s)!

    If Zoya's family age is 1-year than she is developmentally doing good in regards to self soothing. It will come; she needs that continual reassurance from you that she didn't have at the orphanage whenever her needs were not being met. You'll probably find her comfort/cling time slowly becoming less and less. Have you thought it might also be connected to separation anxiety? Like "I know my Mommy and Daddy will comfort me if I get upset... I hope they don't let go!"

    I'm no expert by ANY means but that is what I feel in my heart reading your post. I have an 18-month-old and the tantrums and inability to soothe herself when she gets really worked up, etc., etc. are just so normal. I think it's a normal process for any child though I can definitely see how it might be a more difficult process for an adopted child, especially one with special needs. But I believe she'll get there with time and patience and a whole lotta love which you guys have in abundance!!!

  10. Still praying for Mya.

    Oh that sweet little girl takes my breath away. Rest assured there is one thing I can guarantee you, the challenges will be many but the rewards will well out weigh them all the time. Rewards of smiles, hugs, loving kisses, tender words of "I Love You Mommy", may they fulfill you forever and ever and help ease those fears of the unknown.

    I love you all!

  11. HI Sarah,
    You are being way too hard on yourself. You should try to step back and see how amazing your baby is, and how amazing you are as her mom. Please, for your own well-being!!

    Take care, you are doing a great job. Praying for Mya to get better soon.
    Sue M.

  12. I love reading updates on sweet Zoya! We've been following your journey from afar. (well not too far- just in Cleveland!)

    My "typical" 7 year old daughter had the exact same kinds of reactions/tantruming/clingy-ness as a 2-3 year old, and beyond. What Zoya is experiencing is not unusual for a two year old, at all. With our daughter, we have realized that when she has artificial dyes (especially Red 40), she can't get a grip on her emotions- even at 7. Have you considered that for Zoya?

    I am blown away by both Zoya and you! You're doing an amazing job loving her just as she needs to be loved. Reading your blog has been a blessing for our family.

    Hang in there and know you're doing a great job!!!!

  13. Hey, Sarah! I am sending you an email so I won't make too long of a comment here:-) Liz

  14. Sarah...breathe and give yourself a break!! You seem to be a loving mama and all of us loving mamas make mistakes and we all have days we don't want to talk about. You are doing a fantastic job!!! Love your way through it and you will get there just the way you are supposed to!!
    Sunnie in NC

  15. Thank you for that posting Sarah...cause I've been feeling exactly the same way. Lots of guilt that I'm not doing all I can do; I want nothing but the BEST for Bryce and so he can blossom. Being home almost 6months now and I am just filled with anxiety; I LOVE this little boy than I could ever imagine.
    Again, THANK YOU for your honesty. It really helps :). We need to catch up some time on the phone (between both our crazy schedules, LOL)

  16. You are absolutely amazing and you guys are so blessed to have such an amazing daughter. I hope that one day I can make my dream and another little person's dream come true too. I hope I can be half the mother you are to Zoya! Hang in there--

  17. Claire is my bio daughter and younger than Zoya (she's 15 months), but she is also miss independent and getting her bottom 2 molars too. I understand the drama of wanting to be left alone and and then wanting someone by her side NOW. And my daughter can self soothe...:) Hope things get a little easier when those teeth get in!