Withdrawing for Protection


My daughter was 15 1/2 months old at the time of her adoption. She had been in foster care since she was 1 month old. Though very physically delayed at the time of adoption, she was saying a few words of Chinese. She was alert, animated, vibrant, busy, engaging and related.

At first she seemed to adapt remarkably quickly and focused intently on learning English. However, within a few months, she began to withdraw from the world. She stopped babbling and imitating. She no longer acknowledged understanding English, although occasionally she would give herself away. It became clear she understood a lot but didn't want anyone to know. Her vocabulary diminished to a single word: "bye, bye." Her play became disorganized, repetitive and ritualistic. She didn't acknowledge my coming and going. When I went to work she would get very busy and act like she didn't care. Sleep became a problem. She forced herself to stay awake at night, often falling asleep sitting up, or she would wake screaming in the middle of the night and be very hard to calm.

She started strangling and hitting her stuffed animals - mainly her favorites. She played "abandonment" games. For example, when walking with her doll stroller and bear, she would suddenly vehemently throw the bear out of the stroller and walk away. I would cry for the bear, begging to be taken back. Sometimes she would relent and pick him up, only to throw him out again a few steps further on.

I had enrolled her in Early Intervention shortly after our return. She qualified for occupational, physical and speech therapy. The therapists, who had initially been pleased with her progress, now suggested that she had PDD, an autistic spectrum disorder. I consulted with more professionals who also supported that diagnosis. Because I am a social worker specializing in trauma I found this difficult to accept. But, when I suggested that her symptoms might be emotionally/trauma based, they invariably responded as though I were in denial, unable to accept my child's condition.

With each consultation, I became more depressed. I began reading. In the process I looked through my old FCC newsletters and found Nancy D'Antonio's article on Holding Time. I connected with it immediately. At first I hesitated to call Nancy, fearing that it might not have made a difference in her daughter's behavior. Finally, I called, and we began going to the Mothering Center with her. When I met Nancy's daughter, I was both relieved and impressed that she was articulate, well-behaved and very connected to her mother. Nothing like the little girl described in Nancy's article. I began to have hope.

Although I will never know for sure what lay behind my daughter's withdrawal, I believe that she was traumatized by the fact that her whole world in China had suddenly disappeared. As she began to attach to me, she became terrified that it might happen again. She could not count on the stability of her world or the people in it, and withdrew to protect herself from further hurt.

Now, 2 years later at age 4, the autistic-like symptoms have faded to reveal an affectionate, social and vibrant child who is very connected to the world and people around her. She talks nonstop. While she still has some difficulty with emotional regulation and is still healing from her early traumas, it is clear that she is well on the road to recovery. I am grateful for having found the right treatment at such an early age. I know from my work with traumatized adults, that healing is much easier the sooner it is begun.


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Oh, little prince! Bit by bit I came to understand the secrets of your sad little life. . .

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery