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Supporting adopted children: Polyvagal theory

Friday 02 July 2021
Adoption sibs

How do we use research to help adopters and their children post-adoption? Read more about Action for Children's adoption support group sessions.

Every month, our adopters, prospective adopters and staff come together online. They offer support to each other and learn new skills for parenting. We met to talk about Polyvagal theory, the way the nervous system functions and how it helps us.

What is Polyvagal Theory?

The Polyvagal theory explains how the autonomic nervous system works together to keep us safe.

Doctor Stephen Porges’ research identified that in addition to the ‘fight, flight and freeze’ responses of the nervous system, there’s a third type of nervous system response. The social engagement system. This system helps to build connections and positive relationships functions.

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How does Polyvagal Theory help adopted children?

Because the brain reacts slightly after our nervous system, we're not always making conscious choices when we react.

Adopters learn how their children's responses may be different to other children. Most adopted children have suffered abuse or neglect early in life.

Adopters learn how their children's responses may be different to other children.

The impact on the nervous system of early difficulties is that the fight, flight or freeze response is overactive. Adopted children may display reactive behaviours despite no obvious threat.

By understanding how the nervous system works, adopters can better understand their children and learn to adapt their own responses.

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Action for Children’s support group educates adopters to look behind behaviours. To attend to the emotional trigger driving the reaction in their child instead.

Adopters can consciously question:

  • Are they sensing a lack of safety inside themselves?
  • Are they sensing a lack of safety in their relationships or environment?
  • How can I increase my child’s sense of safety?

Accepting touch can be very difficult for adopted children

For example, accepting touch can be very difficult for adopted children. What feels pleasant to most people may feel painful to a child who isn't used to touch, or has been harmed in the past. This may trigger the fight, flight, or even freeze response.

By understanding Polyvagal theory and trauma in children, adopters can adapt their approach. They’ll learn techniques to build trust with their children. Over time, this can undo the effects of early childhood trauma.

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Adopters learn techniques to build trust with their children.

Learning about your own responses and triggers

The theory helps adoptive parents to understand their own nervous system responses, too.

It's not uncommon for children to block the nurturing care of their adoptive parents at first. They may not trust adults or feel worthy of their love. Parents feel rejected and without realising, feel "danger" in the relationship.

It's not uncommon for children to block the nurturing care of their adoptive parents at first.

For adopters this sense of rejection can be hard. It may trigger an automatic response in them and a sense of not knowing what to do. By being in tune with their own triggers, parents understand how to stay calm. Empowering them to stay in tune with their children's needs.

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A note from our team:

“Bringing a polyvagal understanding into adoption and parenting traumatised children is a game-changer. It provides not only an understanding of why our children may go from 0 – 500 in five seconds with no apparent trigger or change. It offers a way to respond to these dramatic changes in behaviour by building safety – inside, between and around our child. It works for us too!” Clare, Social Worker

Bringing a polyvagal understanding into adoption and parenting traumatised children is a game-changer.

Clare

Get in touch

Action for Children support groups give parents enhanced support after they’ve adopted. Our network helps adopters to grow, develop and engage with other parents who’ve adopted. Enquire to learn more about adopting with Action for Children.

Interested in adopting?

Request your information pack or call us on 07921 404465

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