If you haven’t checked out Reddit’s Adoption community, it’s time. Here’s an example of the amazing support you’ll find in the adoption sub. This post, written by a parent who’d like to be anonymous, is in response to a heartfelt plea from another adoptive parent. I’m telling you…go: Reddit.com/r/adoption
As an adoptive parent, I feel for you and appreciate that this is incredibly hard. And hard in ways that are triggering. And hard in ways that are deeply despairing.
We fostered a 9 year old with the intention of adoption and finalized last year (2 years later). He had been through a lot – the adults around him have consistently failed him. Instability, violence, abandonment, inconsistent schooling, serious felony activity.
Our first months were actually very harmonious. As we built trust, it got very intense. Defiant. Screaming. Running out of the house. School refusal.
This is where I get you. Holy crap this is the hardest thing I’d ever seen or done. I’ve never been good at self-care, had some of my own unprocessed issues, and could not get a hold on how to help him. I was depressed and desperate. But a few things helped.
My suggestion is that you immediately need to embrace two thoughts.
- It is harder for her. Majorly. Exponentially. Crisis level. Imagine going through what you are now with fewer words available, less brain function, less history of what success looks like, no ability to reach out, no one to talk to who knows you well, little understanding of self, no books to read, nothing. Navigating all this. It’s major. It’s bigger than those of us who were not adopted can possibly understand. I’m not saying you don’t know this, but it’s gotta find a way in.
- Your self care now has a major goal. It’s for all of you. And it’s tough. It may be the hardest thing you ever do, but you all need this.
1. Am I mentally healthy enough to make this child a major priority – right where she is at?
2. Are my therapeutic interventions working? Are they focused on getting me and our family to a healthier place?
3. Can I get the help I need to get regulated and strategic enough in my response to create health?
4. What environment do I thrive best in? (Assume that is one that is relaxed, trusting, comfortable, where you can let loose and be real.)
5. Can I create that for her too?
The system really blindsided you in a sense. That is awful and they need a course correction, but the good news is there is a lot of information out there that will clarify what these kids go through. It’s always been there. You just have to go get it. Like now.
Please seek out adoption-competent and trauma-responsive therapy if that’s not who you are already seeing.
It may truly be that you need to let her go, but get a heck of a lot of adoption-competent and trauma-responsive help. Be an open book with therapists, tell them exactly what is happening – especially the hard stuff, even when you lost your $%&.
Her actions are absolutely to be expected.
I hear that you were surprised and unprepared. And I feel that big time. But this is heads up textbook for what she’s faced/facing.
She isn’t going to be able to verbalize it for a long time. But it has to come out somehow. All that sadness, and shame (misdirected of course). All that anger from being separated and disconnected from what she knew. The lack of control. The mystery and being rudderless.
She is using her body and voice to shout I AM HERE. I AM HERE. I AM HERE. I HAVE A RIGHT TO BE VERY MAD. I DON’T KNOW YOU. I’M IN PAIN.
It will not be logical or linear. Not her job. Not possible.
Our therapist early on told us our only job was “to be a soft place to land.”
This was a major shift for us. We are all told parents must be tough, disciplinarians, correct every off behavior, teach respect. I believed all of that. And it’s not without some merit, but so much is overridden here.
We decided we had to lead with “soft” and “soft place.” When we deviate from that, things get worse.
It was a slow start.
And we did that through self-care, tons of reading, getting our triggers 30% more in check, and remembering we were not parenting a typical child in most ways.
He is developmentally much younger. It sounds like she is, too.
Regarding consequences: she’s too young and too traumatized to learn that way. They (counselors) need to be helping you find other methods. She has not had agency. Things won’t land the same way.
I’d also do a lot of reading around auditory processing and trauma. Can she understand the countdowns you mention?
Are they working?
If they aren’t working, ya gotta pivot.
The pivoting is exhausting, but worth it. And some months, we suck at it. But now about 2 years in, we’ve learned several things:
-Isolation makes it worse; we only walk away to calm down or self-care and then we must come back. Time outs = no.
-Telling him he can’t go somewhere doesn’t work at all. He’s used to disappointment, punishment, disconnect. Not a help.
The pivot is almost always to getting to the calmest place possible.
Not reacting with intensity.
No raised voices.
No shaming (read everything you can on shame and consequences).
-Rigid thinking is a brain thing. Inability to self-regulate is developmentally appropriate and staying inconsolable, intense, etc. is both the reality of small kids, and also connected to trauma. Had to learn this over and over and over again.
This goes doubly for kids who have been exposed to drugs in utero and have had brain issues.
-Remembering it’s about him. It sounds weird, but remembering it is about him, his process, his need for love and trust where there had not been any, his growth, his stability shifted things for me. I have to be the adult. The one who either gets my !@#@ in check or finds another responsible adult to be regulated.
Don’t get me wrong, I still have and sometime have a lot of challenging thoughts and fears. I still screw up, and I still need to focus on me, but it’s freed me to get myself on my own track of learning how to parent a child who has been through adult-created hell and to have him on his own track of building ease and comfort and trust.
-Respite. I had to find ways to take breaks. Sometimes a parent handoff to my spouse, sometimes calling a friend, sometimes just breathing while he is watching a movie or at school.
-Read. I’m a moderately regular reader, but now read pretty much constantly. The information we need was not given to us. The books on trauma and care of kids whose adults have failed them weren’t relatable until I was deep in. Now they are a godsend.
And read everything you can by adoptees. The happy, the angry, the bitter. These voices may not be speaking directly from her experience, but over and over again, I get insight into his behavior and needs from listening to folks who have been there.
This is the big secret in the process that agencies still don’t get.
Adoptees who are sharing what life has been like for them are peerless as our educators.
Shifting our focus to read books by adoption therapists and adoptees has been essential. And focusing our reading on trauma and child development.
This is one of the very best.
Adoption Therapy: Perspectives from Clients and Clinicians on Processing and Healing Post-Adoption Issues.
There is a website called Land of Gazillion Adoptees. No, they are not writing for us, but their words and resources, to me are part of trying to understand what his voice might say were he not his age and still with so much fresh pain and challenge. Love me through it. Respect my story. My privacy matters. I’m not magically healed because I have a new pillow and home. It has to be ok for me to feel rage. (Please pardon the putting words in mouths of others – but these are what I have heard that have shifted how I parent).
I just want to say that walking away if you know you are going to have to fake a robust investment in her health, if you can’t parent this child, may be quite humane.
She needs adults who want to get on track ASAP and who can work on it literally every day. And it’s undeniably exhausting.
I wish you peace and for her, so much comfort and safety and health.
Continued from Part 1
Needless to say, we broke up.
Seven years later, I saw him. We chatted (in real life, not online) for a few minutes and exchanged addresses. I was attending college out of state. For two years, we made casual connection via letters (yes, on paper, written in pen). I tried to explain what I’d meant, all those years ago. He said I did a better job this time.
We were both dating other people.
Life happened. We lost contact again.
During that time, our respective relationships ended. I decided not to date anyone seriously for a year; at the end of the year, I prayed.
“God, if you could send me someone exactly like him, but a Christian…that would be perfect.”
God did one better.
A year later, we were dating, doing our best to follow God. Together.
I wanted to marry him when I was thirteen. I wanted to marry him nine years later. When he asked me, on Christmas Day, I couldn’t speak.
We’d discussed engagement and even picked out a ring but he fooled me. “Let’s wait to get engaged until you finish your Master’s degree.” Next year.
Then he bought the ring, created an elaborate, beautiful scavenger hunt and asked me to marry him. I was so shocked and overcome, I stood with my mouth open, gasping like a landed bass.
When he’d waited long enough to be concerned, he asked, “Are you going to answer me?” With one word, I gave him my whole heart, forever.
A year later we tied the knot. Jumped the broom. Got hitched. Smashed the glass.
Best. Decision. Ever.
Feed Him before Midnight
Learning the rules of cohabitation is one of the most important lessons in marriage. Food guidelines are especially important to communicate.
Determined to get it right, I cooked elaborate meals upon arriving home each evening.
- we both worked long hours (7 pm or after) and
- Hubby had hypoglycemia; he needed to eat frequently to maintain sugar levels.
We rarely dined before 8:30 pm, and often ate much later. When Hubby breezed through the door around 7 pm and made himself a PB&J, I took offense. My homemade chunky pasta sauce wasn’t worth the wait?
Hindsight, and all that. I should have prepped meals to pop in the microwave, enabling us to eat earlier.
As it was, we had a daily tiff about the sandwich because I saw it as a personal affront to my culinary skills. He just needed to eat something. Anything. For a while, he acquiesced to my inane request and waited for dinner. During which time I made the acquaintance of Mr. Hyde (also known as Hungry Hubby).
Have you seen the candy bar commercials “for when you’re hangry” (angry because hungry)? It’s a thing.
I learned we could both be happier if I had a PB&J waiting for him. We still ate dinner together. Win-win.
Argument. Screaming match. Fight. Spat. Tiff. Row. Scrap. Knock-down-and-drag-out. Rumpus. Squabble. Brannigan.
Doesn’t really matter what you call it. Our first years were peppered with provocation. We both grew up in…vocally demonstrative…families. Angry? Yell. Mad? Yell. Annoyed? Yell.
The greater our passion surrounding a topic, the higher the decibel level.
I once heard a preacher say, “Church is the only place people shoot their own wounded.” He was wrong.
In the art of war, Hubby and I were Picasso and Van Gogh. We tossed barbed words, insinuations, blame and comparisons like grenades. We wounded each other with abandon.
Sometime around year five (during a lull in the storm), Hubby asked, “Have you ever noticed? We only yell about stupid stuff we blow out of proportion. If an issue is important, we work together to solve the problem.” He suggested we decide to stop screaming. We agreed.
Other than a stint in year seven when we were both acting like idiots (and I’ll admit freely that I was being the bigger idiot), we’ve managed to uphold our arrangement.
One of my proudest moments: last year, a counselor asked our children how they feel when “mom and dad have a big fight.” The kids looked at each other, confused, then said, “Daddy and Mama don’t fight.”
With a condescending grin, the counselor said, “Sure. So…how do you feel when they yell at each other?” The kids shook their heads.
“When they argue,” he tried.
“Daddy and Mama just work together on everything. They never fight,” the kids told him.
Since then, we’ve had a couple arguments (mostly stemming from occasional hormone fluctuations during which time I may become…unreasonable), but overall, we hold to our agreement.
Feel free to steal this idea; eliminating fights is great for the blood pressure.
As I mentioned above, Year 7 was not our best.
We almost broke up for good. Hubby had a bag packed in the trunk of his car. We discussed logistics. He said I could keep the house. I said I’d probably move out of state. We thought we had no options.
It’s easy to feel alone in the midst of a struggle. Even more so when it involves marriage; you’re separated from the person who should be your best friend.
If you’re smart, you don’t involve mutual friends, family members or work colleagues (they’ll take sides, hold lifelong grudges and give bad advice since they have no vested interest, respectively). That means, though, that you experience solitude in the grief.
Thankfully, a slightly older couple befriended us with the intent to mentor us. They could see our struggles; they’d been in similar straits and recognized the signs. Thanks to their care and committed support, we survived.
Help came from two other odd sources:
- Recognizing that a large percentage of our troubles stemmed from my issues, I went to a counselor who looked and sounded like Elmer Fudd, but everything he said made sense.
- Our good buddy freaked out, telling Hubby, “You can’t leave. You’re the only normal married people I know!”
Fight, but not each other.
Another friend told us to be like mules.
“When horses are threatened, they freak out and run around, accidentally kicking each other. Predators can take them down. Mules put their heads together and kick out at the danger. Keep your heads together. Your spouse is not the enemy.”
Here’s what we learned: Love is a choice, not a feeling. Fight for your relationship. Anything worth having comes at a price. We fought—against our own selfishness and desire for an easy out—and won.
If you’re thinking about divorce, this guy has some good advice.
Fight FOR each other.
(Photo: Steven Depolo)
This last year with our girl has been H-E-double hockey sticks (or any other L-shaped item). Some is normal kid stuff. Times four thousand. I’m pretty sure some of it is hormones; after all, she’s turning eleven. She is becoming a lady. Or, rather, a LAADI, which involves the following:
- Awful Attitude
- Disobeying Intentionally
Annnnnnd, she hates me.
Actually, we all (parents and counselors) know that she harbors an incredibly deep anger toward her birth mom. The spite and hurt are plain in her actions and her eyes. Her oppositional behavior has been escalating. She ignores or does the exact opposite of almost anything I say. She finds underhanded ways to prod her brother into a meltdown. She feels better when he is the “bad one” and she is the “good one,” which is how she sees their places in her world.
She says she enjoys the feeling of “sneaking” or deceiving us. Admits with abandon that she does her two daily chores (filling the dog’s water bowl and cleaning dishes) “in a slow or wrong way” on purpose. And the dishes…I mean, we have a dishwasher. It’s not like she’s scrubbing pots.
This year has been American Water Torture (since we’re in America, that seemed like a more appropriate title). Not waterboarding. I’m talking about that drip-drip-drip landing on the forehead. The insanity of waiting for the next drip to drop. Some of the issues are very small, but they are CONSTANT. I’m exhausted and irritated.
On vacation, the kids—who usually get along pretty well—fought every morning. On the third morning, Hubby and I realized we could solve this. “You stay in your room until we come get you.” Morning four, I woke before seven a.m. and didn’t release the hounds until after 9 a.m. Two hours of blessed peace. It was amazing.
Until then, I was unaware how much I needed a break. I gained new perspective. Our girl has been getting incredible amounts of attention for her shenanigans. We talk to her, try to reason with her, try to dig out the impetus for her behavior. And sometimes we yell, like when the dog’s water dish is empty and it’s 97 degrees outside. Not proud of it, but hey, I try to be real.
Here’s the epiphany I reached while walking on the beach. (Alone. Ahhh.) She will continue to make these choices as long as she perceives some benefit (attention).
Hubby and I discussed. Here’s what we told the kids:
- You are 9 and almost 11. It’s time for you to be more responsible.
- We should not have to ask you whether you washed your hands (with soap), brushed (with toothpaste) or are wearing underwear. We also should not have to stand over you OR go behind you OR encourage you during your chores.
- A responsible 9 or 11 year old deserves a later bedtime.
- 4 year olds require someone to watch them every minute and tell them what to do next.
- 4 year olds get an early bedtime. Really early.
- You decide (via your actions) whether you are 9, 11 or 4. Once you make that decision, your bedtime that day will be adjusted accordingly.
- If you act like a responsible 15 year old, you will get a responsible 15 year old’s bedtime and possibly some privileges (not including learning to drive) on non-school nights.
Our son took this to heart and has been doing things like holding the driver door open for me, making sure my feet are in, then closing the door. We just returned from vacation, so we all had extra chores yesterday to get the house back in order. He did his in record time.
Our daughter has not, thus far, decided to act like a 9, 11 or 15 year old. Luckily for her, we had to be somewhere last night and tonight which means she hasn’t suffered the bedtime, but tomorrow night we have nowhere to go, so…
This morning, en route to the counselor’s office, I felt like smashing my head against the steering wheel. Many times. I just want her to be a happy and successful kid. It’s a team effort, and she’s NOT PARTICIPATING.
During vacation, Hubby tried to help her grasp the idea of “thinking of others.” It didn’t go well.
“I think of others all the time. I think about whether they’ll like my shirt, or whether they’re going to talk to me, or…” She just didn’t get it. After several tries, he suggested that she make a list of the ways she knew I thought of her and cared for her. She actually came up with a decent list, which encouraged me. It’s progress. Then he asked her to make a list of the ways she shows her care for me.
He then asked for a list of the ways she shows the opposite of care. “I lie to Mama. I do the opposite of what she says. I’m rude to her. I do chores in a bad way so she’ll do them over.” (That last, for the record, does not happen. She’s hoping.)
The list kept growing. I’m glad she acknowledges the issues, but it also concerns me that most of this is conscious. There were a couple people who experienced my pre-teen rebellion, but it was rarely directed at my mom. In my pre-teen hormone frenzy, I probably didn’t always treat her right, but it was generally not intentional…she fed me (her chicken tetrazzini, probably misspelled, was AHHHmazing). I knew better than to bite that hand.
So, back to the counselor’s office. On arrival, she was out of sorts before we entered the building. She realized the conversation that was about to happen. (I was hoping the counselor would leave me in the waiting room to read blogs on my phone, but no dice.)
We settled onto the cliche—I mean, the couch. The counselor prodded, our girl evaded. I mentioned she’d been asking about her birth parents over the last few days. Suddenly, she said, “Well, the reason I’ve been disobedient is because I keep thinking about my birth parents and then I get angry and then I don’t want to do anything so I take it out on Mama and Daddy.”