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Care for Disrupted Families: Part 1

“If we sweep disruption under the rug, will anyone notice?”


Photo Credit: uni multimedia

Adoption disruption is an unfortunate—and often glossed-over—part of the adoption narrative.

Like mental illness in the 1950’s, stories of disruption are minimized, ignored and even hushed. If you’ve been involved in the adoption/foster community for any length of time, you likely know of a failed placement.

The failed placement may even be your own.

We’ve experienced disruption. If our two adopted children had voiced their initial thoughts (wishing death and destruction on us), they might have found themselves in another home.

Thankfully, we were oblivious. About a year ago, our son described his daydreams of the first few months: locking us in the house and burning it to the ground. Our daughter fantasized about bashing our noggins. “But we didn’t know how much we would love you, back then.” Charming.

Parents and children alike need care after a disruption. Both sides need healing.

On arrival in our home, our two were reeling from their own recent disruption. In their minds, two families kicked them out in swift succession (they didn’t fully understand the second family was a temporary situation).

As they dealt with the grief, we (uneducated and ill-prepared) muddled through. Often, we reacted to their behavior instead of responding to the underlying pain. Had we been better equipped, we could have handled the situation with more understanding. We received very little up-front information and didn’t grasp the situation in entirety until much later.

Here’s some information I wish we’d seen earlier. Knowledge we would have been thankful to use. Feel free to pass it on! 

Healing after Disruption: the Parents

 1. Normalize the wide range of strong feelings experienced in a crisis that, like a death in the family, rocks the souls of parents and immediate family members. Feeling raw for a long time is a normal expectation after living through a disruption. Families who experience a disruption are survivors of chronic trauma and need interventions that address more than grief and loss.

Our disruption happened during a temporary respite situation; even so, I saw myself as a failure for months afterward. I can’t imagine the stress and loss after a longer-term placement. Encircle friends or family members who’ve experienced disruption. If you’re a personal survivor, seek out a support group. You can even tell your story here. 

2. Because parents in a disrupted adoption come in conflict with personal, public and cultural beliefs about parenting, they may be blamed and misunderstood. Try to avoid seeking validation from those who may not have the knowledge nor the capacity to understand.

This applies to foster and adoption situations across the board, not just disruption. Individuals with no foster/adopt experience may, on occasion, provide insight. However, they don’t have the understanding another foster parent or social worker possesses. In general, we’ve learned not to ask for advice from other non-adoptive parents—no matter how experienced they seem—because most of the time, their wisdom just doesn’t apply.

For instance: child with bio-mom has tantrum because she won’t give him candy in his bedroom. Bio-mom leaves room, shutting the door. “Call me when you’re done.” 

Foster child, traumatized, has similar tantrum, apparently about candy. Tantrum is actually about grief and loss. Child needs to be held and assured of security.

3. Join with parents who have experienced disruptions to validate and honor your efforts. When others you expected to support you withdraw, build a new support system with those who are in the know.

When we adopted, some of the people we expected to support us (mostly because we’d supported them and cared for their kids) vanished from our lives as soon as they realized these kids aren’t perfect. On the other hand, a family we barely knew called, visited, checked on us and made certain we knew we weren’t alone. Let go of expectations. Try not to be hurt or angry when someone doesn’t “come through” for you. Plenty of people care. Join a support group or form one of your own. It doesn’t have to be official.

4. Pay attention to the impact of the disruption on children within the family. Help them find their voice and grieve what happened to them.

We thought the kids were ecstatic when “monster baby” (their name for the loud creature invading their space) left. And on some level, they were thrilled. In a deeper place, they worried. Could they be “bad enough” for us to kick them out, too? What if they screamed and cried?

5. Couples will need to spend time on rebuilding the foundations of their marriage that may have been rocked by the disruption experience.

Thankfully, in our case, this didn’t happen. However, if our adoption had disrupted, I imagine we’d need time for ourselves. If you’ve experienced disruption, seek a counselor familiar with loss and grief. Give yourselves time. Work together.

6. Put words around the pain of disruption as a first step in reclaiming your lives in a healthy way.

Speaking about pain can diminish the enormous blackness. We use this tactic with the kids often: “you’re worried, I can tell. Say it out loud. What’s bothering you?” Writing helps, also. Keep a journal. Start a blog. Get it out of your head; the longer we hold pain inside, the stronger it becomes.

7. Practice describing how you personally were affected, telling your story with a focus on yourself rather than on the child or on the adoption.

Find your voice, whether writing or speaking—for YOU and for THEM. As you draw strength from the telling, others will find connection and the knowledge they aren’t alone.

8. Don’t get stuck blaming social workers. Rather, practice reclaiming yourself through giving up the role of teaching others until you feel healed enough to advocate for change in a way that you may be heard.

I used to cringe when I called the social worker who placed the baby in our home. Will she think I’m incompetent? Does she roll her eyes when my number appears on her phone?  Researching disruption has been therapeutic for me. I now know I’m not the only foster parent to call her, frantic. I also realize Hubby and I are not the only adults with regrets; she probably felt responsible/guilt for the disruption since she talked me into taking the baby.

9. Move towards honoring and paying homage to the memory of your relationship with the child.

Remember the good moments; savor the memory of what you did right. Although permanence wasn’t attained, you made a difference in the life of a child. Even if it ended in unfortunate circumstances, the child will be impacted positively by some of the time in your home.

10. When you are able, make a list of the good you found inside yourself around your heroic efforts in raising this child.

“Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…” it’s cliche, but true. Even when it doesn’t work out, every placement is an opportunity to learn something about ourselves.

For me, our disruption was the moment I knew for certain that the two kids we adopted come first. I’d love to assist every child in the world. And up until that time, I tried to help as many as possible.

Hubby and I worked with the youth in our church. We volunteered with a fabulous child development organization, Compassion International. All of our friends’ kids saw us as extra parents.

The day we agreed it was no longer in the best interest of our children to keep any other foster children, I found focus. We still volunteer on occasion and we still love the other kids in our life, but they don’t come first. The two kids who live in our house are priority.


As you or your friends recover from disruption, know that you’re not alone. Our disruption was “mild” in the sense that we hadn’t had time to attach, and it was never intended to be a long term placement. My examples don’t come close to the depth of loss others have survived.

If you’ve experienced a more difficult disruption, look for others with similar life trauma. Find a counselor with disruption experience—and keep in mind that to seek counseling isn’t an indication of weakness. Getting the support we need enables us to be healthy enough to continue providing help and healing to others.

Feel free to share your story below. We’re here to support, not judge.

Up next: Care for Disrupted Families: Part 2 (the Kids)


*All quotes directly from the Fact sheet.


UPDATE: Adoption = Brain Scan, No Cats Part 3

Update on today’s earlier post:

While our girl was getting the best sleep of her life, a nurse walked me through the labyrinth that is the hospital to show me the pediatric waiting room. I asked about food (having skipped breakfast in solidarity with the hungry child) and she took me back down to where the restaurants make everything smell less like a hospital.

I asked if eating in the waiting room was okay. “Absolutely! No problem at all. You’re probably starving, right?”

After scouting around, I found Au Bon Pain. (Side note. If you’ve never been, but have opportunity, GO. They have the BEST sandwiches. Split roasted chicken breast on ciabatta bread with tomato pesto, sun-dried tomatoes and fresh mozzarella and asiago cheese. Stop drooling on your keyboard.)

Managing to get back to the waiting room on my own was something of a feat for this directionally-challenged gal, but I made it. Another couple sat on the other side of the room. Bright colors and shapes assaulted me from every corner, and high-pitched cartoon mouse laughter pierced the air. Personally, I thought the environment was a bit over the top, but I was stressed and hungry.

I bit into that sandwich and relaxed happily into my chair, then noticed the couple staring at me with accusation in their eyes…in that “perpetrator alert” kind of way. Mouth full, I had no way of saying, “I’m supposed to be here; what’s your issue?” I turned away a bit to imagine privacy and looked straight at the huge sign: “ABSOLUTELY NO FOOD OR DRINK in this room. Think of the children. They have empty stomachs.”

Now, the nurse told me I could eat in here, but these people didn’t know. I managed to choke down the bite in my mouth and explained. They laughed, waving away my guilt and exchanging glances. “Suuuuuuuuuure the nurse gave you permission.” There were no children present, so I stopped enjoying the food and scarfed it as quickly as possible, lest a mournful, hungry child should appear.

A nurse whisked the skeptical couple away (I ineffectively tried to hide the remains of my meal) and then came back for me. Our girl was fine and in recovery. I had an overwhelming urge to apologize and explain about the food, but instead mashed my guilty conscience back into his school locker (that’s where I keep him) and followed her.

Baby girl was arching her back and banging her head on the mattress when I arrived. The nurse said it was normal and asked me to hold her other arm while she took out the IV. I could barely hang on. Evidently children coming out of anesthesia acquire some kind of crazy supernatural muscles. Or, maybe they’re always that strong but they hold back. Anyway, we managed to still her long enough to get the IV out and a bandage on her arm.

She began thrashing again, asking for help to wake up (which was a bit heartbreaking, since I couldn’t do anything to assist). After calming down, she started asking questions about whether she was recovering and how many days she’d slept. Being a caring, amazing, empathetic mother, I thought of her future prom date and pulled out my cell phone to record, since the nurse said some kids say really funny stuff coming off the sedation.

I had somewhat mixed feelings when her coherence arrived quickly. (No prom footage.) She will be grateful one day. Her brother was disappointed, since he managed to be extremely loopy during his heart surgery sedation and was hoping to hear a good story.

We left the hospital in true glamourous Princess fashion: wrapped in a blanket, wheeled out in a green carriage with an entourage. Okay, actually it was a wheelchair and the entourage was just the nurse and me, but she thoroughly enjoyed the ride and returned the thin cotton blanket with a grudging air.

The nurse left us to wait outside the hospital (valet parking sounds cool, but it wasn’t as glamorous as I’d expected). I pushed the chair to a metal bench and sat beside her to wait for our vehicle. A woman, 40ish, walked past us pushing an older woman. I said, “I’m pushing you now, but one day, you’ll probably have to push me—just like that lady.” She turned to me in surprise. “I was just thinking that!” Smiling, she patted my hand.

We stopped at the grocery store to get chicken soup and popsicles. Nothing cheers her up like soup-in-a-cup and sugar on a stick.

As I write this, she is fast asleep. So far, so good. Hoping to have some answers in a few weeks.

Our journey so far, if you’re just tuning in:

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