"originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of the NACAC adopt talk magazine."
After having two biological sons my husband and I decided to adopt in order to expand our family, and in 2010 we welcomed a sibling set of four—three girls and a boy, ages 3, 5, 7 and 9—into our lives and hearts. Despite knowing families often faced challenges in the early stages of placement, I was unprepared for the reality of what would occur—that it would be the greatest challenge of my life, and that it would kick my feet out from underneath me. I felt as though I was drowning in trauma and a safe shore was too distant. All six of my children, both biological and adopted, were drowning with too. I couldn’t even save myself, let alone everyone else.
My children tested from day one. It took every bit of emotional strength, willpower, creativity and resourcefulness to endure that first year together. It was critical to have support. We learned parenting adopted children and can be drastically different from parenting adopted children, early on our Children’s Aid Society put me in touch with a Child and Youth Counselor who helped make sense of behavior.
When I think of what our children had been through in their short lives, it is ridiculous I felt they should have settled in easier. Our children had moved many times in foster care (for our youngest, we were her fourth home in her first three years on earth) and they had experienced instability and abuse. They had a variety of issues that would make it hard for them to cope, such as intellectual disabilities, FASD, and anxiety. As well, they’d had an adoption disruption, spending well over a year in a “forever” home only to be sent back. Obviously the children were in need of some very deep healing.
Immediately the children unleashed unbridled rage. Small things set them off, like not getting a preferred cup at dinner. The children destroyed rooms, flipped furniture and broke things. With four traumatized children, it was not uncommon to have temper tantrums all day long, every single day, both at home and in public. They bit and scratched their own arms and faces, and pulled out their hair. They often attacked me, biting and punching while shouting swear words and threats. Our youngest was only four when she bent a metal lock hurling her tiny body at a door to get to me. During tantrums, their primal screams were unlike anything I’d ever heard before. Lisa assured me the rages were normal, even healthy, and that they would subside.
Fear and anxiety were key elements of our days. Our oldest daughter had panic attacks. During the day she was jumpy and nervous. A touch on the shoulder could make her jump to the ceiling. She questioned everything, and had a deep worry she would die. Zach was afraid to step foot outside because of bees or storms. The only way Zach eliminated his fear of insects was by carrying around a “therapy chicken.” He’d earned a new pet, and he loved the beautiful, white Silkie. By spending time with his hen outside, he gradually learned insects largely ignored him and he was safe. We spent a large amount of our parental energy figuring out ways to overcome challenging behavior. Sometimes we discovered it by asking others, like Lisa and sometimes we found it in books, and with the pet chicken. We stumbled upon ways to help by sheer dumb luck.
Attachment concerns were intertwined with anxiety. Olivia was terrified to let me out of her sight in case she lost me forever. It was nearly impossible to get her on the school bus, or for me to leave her to go out. Some techniques got her to school for only a morning, (like giving her a bracelet I wanted back) and sometimes for a while week (like promising a pink cake on the weekend). She was so panicked about losing me that she threw herself in front of moving vehicles to prevent me from leaving. It was heart-wrenching! Despite smaller strategies, In the end, it was by forcing both of us to endure the torment my leaving and returning that her faith in me was built, that we’d never be separated for good.
The kids really struggled to sleep—they stayed up late, woke early, and ransacked the kitchen. Months passed and the original four members of our family became as traumatized as the adopted children. We were so afraid to wake up the children (who were light sleepers) that we didn’t turn on a TV, play music, or get snacks from the kitchen. We were worn out and couldn’t stand more screaming. We sat in the living room each night, and stared at each other in shock and dismay. This was not what we’d signed up for. It was difficult not to question our decision to adopt. I often wondered if I would be able to help my children, if anyone could, or if they had been too wounded, too unloved to be able to function and attach like “regular” kids. It became necessary to work through my own trauma. I saw a wonderful counselor who told me the feelings of failure and incompetence that were surfacing were normal, but not actually true. He confirmed what Lisa said, that my children trusted me enough to show their darkest selves and that I was showing them what true love and acceptance were.
We are three years into our adoption journey and the children have healed. When I reflect on our first year it seems a dream. Our bonds are solid, the children are secure. The incredible anger has been purged, the crippling anxieties dissolved. They stand on stage at school concerts waving at me, and run into my arms with joy just like the “regular” kids. They trust I will always be there. We can be apart, always confident we are soon together again. The rages, the runaways, the self-harm and attacks—it’s all gone. With the trauma vented and explored, my true children have been revealed. Loving, affectionate, trusting, and happy children who are free to grow up in a loving home.
Parents often want strategies to deal with behavior. The hardest part about parenting is that some tricks may not work for your child, or they work for a short time but then a parent must come up with something new. Parents must be creative, always looking for new ways to handle behavior.
One tactic I love is reward systems. Children always learn more from positive rewards than by punishment. The Shepherds implemented a certificate program, and actively watched for good behavior and rewarded it. Even small things, like saying ‘please’ warranted praise. Having printed certificates handy was a quick way to give feedback to a child. The Shepherd children proudly displayed them in their bedrooms. High-fives and hugs also affirm behavior and most kids will seek more.
Punishment needs to be used sparingly. In the early months Olivia, the Shepherds youngest would cry at night and keep everyone up. While most biological kids don’t sleep because they want attention, Olivia was in deep mourning. I told Christen that grief can’t be punished. Unfortunately, only holding Olivia and letting her cry, no matter how many times a night she did this, was the route to healing. Again, positive rewards went a long way, and when Olivia slept she earned treats. All children have needs that must be met, and they will seek to do so. Zach needed to be “babied” so he would cry after he wrecked his room. Punishing him wouldn’t have worked he needed to vent. Although cuddling him after that behavior seems ironic it met his need to be cradled developmental stages) and he also benefited from having an outlet to express his anger. The room destruction and need for cuddling waned.
The key is to know what a child’s needs are before they act out. Some kids scream in order to feel heard, if you can message to your child that you hear them, that validation could result in less screaming.
Although no one wants to hear this, anger cannot controlled. Kids need to unleash their long-standing sorrow and confusion about their lives. We don’t allow children to hurt people, and they need to be put in separate rooms when anger erupts—we can even offer consequences when children misbehave, but the truth is most kids need to vent. They don’t have the ability to work through all of their memories and grief, and so anger is the result. It is really hard to believe a child destroying a room is a positive step in healing, but with each explosion healing occurs. Sadly, it is the primary caregiver who often takes the brunt of rage. Olivia and Zach lost their tempers with Christen, physically attacking her. It’s not acceptable, and kids must be stopped, but they trusted Christen to see them at their worst. She was their safe place to fall, but also their safe place to unleash. After a few months, this behavior stopped. They are affectionate and loving with their mother and now would never thinking of hurting her. Parents must believe the turnaround will happen, and that there is nothing wrong with an angry child.
Not only do kids need to vent years of sadness, they also need to test. It was routine for the Shepherd kids to explode and then ask if they were being sent back. They claimed they hated their new home and family. Constantly affirming that a child is loved and accepted no matter what (but that the behavior isn’t accepted) is what it takes to prove a forever family. Kids will try and outlast a parent and adoption can resemble a strange version of Survivor. Parents must stay strong. In the end, children shed their protective armor and attachment results, although the length of time that takes can vary.
Anxiety often eases as children attach and feel secure. Serena required toys piled on her at night to feel safe. (Parents can also buy weighted blankets for this.) She learned mantras (positive thoughts) and deep breathing exercises to calm herself down. Her fear of abandonment subsided as trust was gained, as she watched her siblings explode yet never found themselves unloved, and in time the panic attacks and fear went away. On the other hand, Zach suffers from clinical anxiety, and because of his intellectual disability it is harder for him to find ways to relax. Like Serena, he gravitated to deep-breathing and meditation, but unconsciously Zach uses sensory seeking behaviors to regulate himself, whether it is rolling on the floor or spinning a toy in front of his eyes. His sensory processing issues likely won’t go away but by enlisting professional help, the Shepherds are helping Zach gain tools that might work for him to meet his sensory needs as an adult.
Vicarious trauma is something caregivers must watch for. Anyone spending time with a traumatized child can find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer pain the child experiences, and it is common for us to take it on as our own. When a parent feels inadequate, overwhelmed, resents their child, or think the adoption isn’t working, they need support. Parents need breaks. Connecting to counselors or support groups can help.
Parent must not give up. If parents look for the positives, have faith in themselves, continue to role-model healthy coping strategies to their children, and find support for themselves while they meet the challenges of parenting an adoptive child, loving families are the result. Love, acceptance and consistency are the main components of healing, and children can attach, despite the odds. The Shepherds are a great example of this.