Adoptive parents: survival mode, stress, and coping strategies

I know Pete and I are far from the only adoptive parents who feel that they are constantly living in survival mode. We lurch from one crisis to the next, dealing with phone calls and emails and meetings with multiple sets of professionals to try and set up and maintain a network of support around our children and deal with whatever shenanigans they’ve got themselves into. This week: school exclusion (again). Next week: SEN panels and Tier 4 visits (both concerning because we’re not being given all the information about what’s going on). The week after: EHCP discussions and TAC meetings. Many of us are living similar lives, trying not to sink under the pressure of so many demands on top of the challenges of everyday parenting of children who’ve experienced trauma.

Here comes an understatement…

It is stressful.

Tent alone in the mountains - this is how many adoptive parents feel when they're in survival mode.

A current example from our family

After the Christmas holidays, which are always hard work, it was a difficult start to the term. Our nine-year-old, Joanna, was excluded for two days in the first couple of hours of term: the transition was too much for her and she became violent.

Despite us doing a transition visit at the end of the holidays, school didn’t provide a timetable, her TA didn’t come and say hello, and there was no meaningful preparation. So she went in on Monday morning still unsure who her 1:1 teaching assistant would be, and then the class topic had changed slightly from what she was expecting and the morning breaktime had shifted a bit. All this information to process as she adjusted back into the noise and bustle of the school environment was just too much for her and she blew her stack. We maintain that she shouldn’t be excluded for their failure to meet the needs specified in her EHCP, school are adamant they have to consider the safety of staff and pupils, so we are at an impasse.

We met with the chair of governors, according to the complaints policy. She was defensive and showed no understanding of the effects of trauma or about therapeutic parenting. Her suggestion: ‘Have you tried telling her not to hit people?’

Groundbreaking. If only we’d thought of that before.

There’s a SEN meeting coming up at which they’re going to discuss an alternative specialist placement (again). This has been ongoing since an emergency EHCP review in April last year which followed Joanna’s scaling of a 7-foot school wall to abscond. (Read the details of that week of delights here.)

The impact of long-term stress

The effects of living with long-term stress can be huge: physically, psychologically, socially, financially. There is research on the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) on people in later life, but I’m not aware of any such research on the adoptive parents/foster carers/kinship carers/special guardians of those children and the impact of caring for traumatised children and young people on their carers’ wellbeing. There is some on post-adoption depression, but I don’t think that is that same thing. [Edited to add: Since this post was first published, I’ve discovered this article by Wendy Thorley and Al Coates. Not sure how it escaped me before, but it addresses these issues and is well worth a read.]

(While we’re on the subject, if you experience child-to-parent violence and/or aggression (CPVA) and haven’t seen it already, you can take part in some current research by Al Coates and Wendy Thorley into the causes and the issues faced by families. Details of the research are here, and it’s open until 5 February 2018.)

Physical effects of stress

Adoptive-parents-survival-mode-stress-and-coping-strategiesPhysical effects can include

  • heart disease
  • gastrointestinal issues
  • diabetes
  • weakened immune system
  • high blood pressure
  • insomnia
  • tension-related headaches and backaches
  • chest pains

Stress can also increase the time it takes your body to recover from an illness or injury.

My own experience is that at times of heightened stress (eg when dealing with exclusions and disputes with social workers) I get headaches, a cough, a sore throat, and have trouble sleeping – I tend to wake up at 3/4/5 am and can’t get back to sleep. This in turn affects my ability to function at full capacity, and it becomes a vicious circle. This is where I find myself right now: barely able to stay awake during the day, when I need to be doing school runs and replying to emails; unable to sleep at night in order to have a chance of fighting off the sore throat and whatnot. Urrgh.

The psychological impact of stress

The psychological impact shouldn’t be underestimated. I’ve said it before: adoptive parenting can have a huge impact on our mental health. Ongoing stress (clinically known as chronic stress) can cause depression and anxiety as well as the physical symptoms. One of the main issues is an increased amount of cortisol (a stress hormone) in the blood for longer than is healthy. This article on the effects of chronic stress on the brain is a tiny bit scary.

We learn all this stuff in terms of how our children are affected by their trauma, but rarely do we stop and apply it to our experience. We advocate for them in school, explaining that of course they can’t focus on learning when their brain is being run by an oversensitive amygdala. But we also need to cut ourselves some slack too. Stress can cause memory problems, stop the production of new brain cells, and affect your decision-making. It can also increase your chances of developing dementia. Oh joy. (This article from the Americal Psychological Association has more on the effects of chronic stress.)

If you want to understand more about the impact of all this on your own ability to cope, and on family dynamics, this video from Helen Oakwater is amazing. She explains about ‘windows of tolerance’ in terms of self-regulation, how these impact on how easily our fight/flight/freeze response is triggered, and the impact of all this on family relationships, especially when we have more than one traumatised child. Well worth 20 minutes of your time, I promise.

The financial impact of stress

If you’re employed and having to take time off for meetings, for unexpected childcare due to exclusions, due to stress, or a combination of these things, employers can be less than delighted. Many adopters find that they need to go part-time to accommodate it all, or give up work entirely.

In our family, Pete works full time and I am nominally self-employed, though the amount of work I take on is much less than anticipated because who knows when the phone will go and I’ll need to drop everything and zoom off to collect Joanna again, or make myself available for a meeting. My career is not exactly developing in the way I’d hoped. My employment prospects aren’t great. Financially we get by OK on Pete’s income with occasional parental top-ups, but others are in real financial difficulty as a direct result of their being adopters. I really feel that our government is letting these families down and that it is scandalous.

What can you do to beat stress?


You’ll be unsurprised to see me advocate self-care as usual. I am a big believer in taking whatever moments of respite, calm, and rest are available to me, however imperfect they are, because you never know when the phone is going to ring with another request to collect a child from school, or an email will land with Yet Another Form. Take what you can. Watch or listen to something that makes you laugh. I called a self-care day yesterday: reading, sleeping, booking a cleaner to come and do a deep clean before the Tier 4 SW descends. If your circumstances permit, I heartily recommend taking a day off for the sake of your mental health in the same way that you would if you had the flu. I appreciate that this isn’t always straightforward for adoptive parents though. Remember that imperfect, insufficient self-care is better than none at all.


I find it helps to offload in a safe place. My problem is finding an appropriate safe place. Twitter is great, but sometimes you need a face-to-face conversation and you don’t want to worry your mum. My adventures in therapy this time last year resulted in me finding someone in our town, but without the specialist knowledge or experience to be much use. After that I asked our GP for some recommendations. Obviously there’s nothing available locally on the NHS, but she recommended a team of ‘expensive’ psychotherapists. I emailed them saying I needed someone ‘robust’ who wouldn’t be alarmed by accounts of my children’s behaviour. The person they have suggested seems, from a quick Google, to have CAMHS experience. Naturally she is a 45-minute drive away, because this stuff is never convenient. So we’ll see how that goes.

You can find a registered psychotherapist here. You may be able to get this funded by the Adoption Support Fund if the application calls it ‘therapeutic parenting training’. Don’t forget, if you need help right now, The Samaritans are there 24/7 and you don’t have to be suicidal to call them. There is also the Adoption UK helpline if you want more adoption-specific help.


When I’m stressed, leaving the house is the last thing I want to do. I want to hibernate, disconnect the phone, close the curtains, and hide from everyone. But technically this is unhelpful. Pete and I have resolved to drag ourselves out for a half-hour walk at lunchtime (we both work from home a lot) and grudgingly admit to feeling better for it. Those pesky endorphins, being right all the time. I’ve also taken to reading while on the exercise bike at the gym, which makes the whole business that much more bearable. I can’t say I look forward to it, or that I’m not ready to collapse in a heap afterwards, but I do feel better for having done it.


  • You’re not alone.
  • The stress of parenting traumatised children, coupled with the demands of accessing and managing the circus of  ‘support services’ is an Actual Thing. It is often completely overwhelming and it is OK to say you’re not coping when you’re not coping.
  • Please don’t suffer in silence. Find someone you can talk to.
  • Practise self-care, however imperfectly and inadequately. Here are some self-care ideas.
  • You might also like to read my post 10 mental health challenges for adoptive parents.

What are your stress levels like? How do you fight stress in your own life? Please share your experiences in the comments.




  1. Lou
    11 January 2018 / 6:28 pm

    Wow, thank you for writing this. We have been adoptive parents for nearly 6 years and my stress levels are through the roof. I suffer sever depression and anxiety… I honestly thought I was the only who suffered.

    • 11 January 2018 / 6:32 pm

      Hi Lou, thanks for commenting. You’re definitely not alone. There’s quite a crowd of us in similar circumstances on Twitter if you want to join us for a chat/rant/wail any time, or you can email or message me if that would help.

    • Terri
      24 January 2018 / 5:22 am

      Lou, you are probably in the majority, not minority. This has been a well hidden secret, but it’s starting to come into the light. You aren’t alone!
      Find Facebook groups that deal with your child’s diagnosis. You’ll find lots of empathy and encouragement.

  2. Pickle
    12 January 2018 / 4:38 pm

    Thank you for this, it made me cry as I felt like I was reading my life – we’re on an endless round of exclusions for violence. emergency EHCP meetings, CAMHS & no sleep.
    I thought we were the only ones too. What do you do? Dare you look to the future?
    I have anxiety, ptsd and insomnia & have recently started having panic attacks. I want to say self care is SO important, but don’t leave it too late.
    I’m only still standing because there’s a staff member at my children’s school who will always listen & gives great hugs. She has no idea but on one particular day things got so bad she was quite literally a life saver (mine).

    • 12 January 2018 / 5:35 pm

      Thank you so much for your comment. I’m so sorry you’re in this hard place too, but I’m encouraged that so many of us are speaking out so we know we’re not on our own. There is hope. There will always be that one person who helps us. I take it a week at a time (sometimes an hour at a time). If you ever need a chat, my inbox is always open. Please look after yourself. x

  3. Nicky
    13 January 2018 / 8:36 am

    Hi Hannah, thanks for sharing a great read and so true. I have a friend in a similar position so I know there are offers suffering. I have an adopted 7 year old who has Sen and have a full time demanding job so I am struggling to keep all the balls in the air. My saviour is the school… they are unbelievable and totally get him. So unbelievably supportive and adapt all the lessons to him, providing 121 and sensory input where needed. My husband struggles though and I find myself exhausted as I have to try and support him too. He does majority of drop offs and pick ups. I try v hard to get me and friend time as that’s the only thing that keeps me sane. Shame we can’t find a local support group as face to face is so much better. Thanks for finding the time to share xx

  4. 14 January 2018 / 10:52 am

    What a wonderful post. I’m not an adoptive parent but it I was I think I would be beyond relieved to find this post. Have you got a group for adoptive parents? I feel like you’d be a great facilitator.

    • 15 January 2018 / 10:25 am

      Hi Emma, thanks for your comment. I don’t have an in-person group but the Facebook group is coming soon. 🙂

  5. Terri
    24 January 2018 / 5:25 am

    Hannah, I’m very impressed at Joanna scaling a 7 foot wall! Get that girl in gymnastics! 😂

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