September 19th, 2007
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Most adopted children who have been traumatized develop some sort of dissociative disorder. The most common is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but many abused adopted children, particularly those who suffered ongoing trauma for a long period of time, develop even more severe disorders. The younger a child is when the trauma begins, the more severe the dissociative disorder is likely to be.

So, what is a dissociative disorder? Let’s start by explaining dissociation in general. The best description I have found is from Martha Stout’s book, The Myth of Sanity: Divided Consciousness and the Promise of Awareness. My description is a summary of the way she explains dissociation in her book.


Imagine a continuum. On the far left is “normal” dissociation that everyone experiences. Think about when you go to a movie theater and “lose yourself” in the movie. During the movie, your focus is on the movie itself, and you “forget” that you are sitting in a dark room filled with people. That is dissociation in its most basic form. Everyone experiences this form of dissociation at some point in his life.

In the middle of the continuum is PTSD. Here is a description of the symptoms of PTSD from one of my posts on the Hoping to Adopt blog:

Children with PTSD can experience the following symptoms:

  • Nightmares or very vivid memories (flashbacks) of the trauma
  • Avoiding places or things that remind the child of what happened
  • Inability to recall or talk about what happened
  • Feelings of numbness or loss of interest in things the child used to care about
  • Feeling jittery or grumpy
  • Difficulty sleeping or keeping the mind on one thing

From Assessing Health Risks: PTSD; RAD

On the far right of the continuum is dissociative identity disorder (DID), which used to be known as multiple personality disorder. DID is one of the most misunderstood disorders, thanks in part to Hollywood’s portrayal, making the disorder look like several people are sharing one body. I will write a post explaining all about DID. For now, what you need to know is that it is the most extreme form of dissociation.

Between PTSD and DID is a whole range of dissociative disorders. Some people experience personality fragments (which I will explain in a later post) that hold the dissociated memories and/or emotions. Other people retain memories of the trauma but have dissociated the accompanying emotions. Because dissociative disorders manifest in many different ways, it is easier to refer to them relative to PSTD and DID rather than to describe them on their own.

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One Response to “Abused Adopted Child: What is a Dissociative Disorder?”

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