Expecting a child who has lived through a disrupted adoption to believe in the permanency of a new parental commitment is a very tall order. Think about it: How many adults get hurt in a relationship and then walk confidently into the next one with an open heart and mind? Each time we are hurt, we develop strategies to protect ourselves so it does not happen again. The same thing happens to children.
Human beings are biologically wired for survival, born with a brain that will adapt to the external environment to keep us alive. Attachment theory teaches us about how early relationships are crucial in setting the blueprint of how we relate to others. Children whose needs are consistently met learn the world is a safe place and their needs matter. They learn about healthy reciprocity in relationships and, if they have the capacity, cause-and-effect thinking and emotion regulation.
So what happens when a child’s needs are not met? When there is no reliable adult to respond to cries for hunger, touch, and comfort? Experiencing abuse or neglect in the early chapters of life changes brain development. Negative interactions with adults become the map by which the child functions. Children learn that their needs don’t matter, adults are not safe, and they are not worthy of care.
Given this foundation, imagine what happens when children experience a disrupted adoption. These children are rejected by the caretakers who made an intentional commitment to love and care for them. They may have been told that these new parents would be there for them, accepting them despite their difficult beginnings. These children are extremely vulnerable and often develop a tough, self-protecting exterior.
Disruption reinforces the negative relationship map formed during the child’s early years, and in fact may deepen the wound. Remember, the brain’s job is to keep us alive and take each experience and use it to survive. Children who have experienced a disrupted adoption will be even more skeptical about the possibility of a loving, forever family and less able to trust. It makes sense that a child may be terrified of closeness and be unable to believe she will ever be wanted. Disruption breeds disruption.
When parents are caring for a child who has experienced a disrupted adoption, they must first understand how difficult it will be for the child to establish a healthy relationship. The parents have to be particularly intentional about how they care for the child, giving her time to heal and learn to trust. Below are some specific strategies to help:
- Create a consistent and predictable environment. This means having a predictable schedule and letting the child know what to anticipate each day. The more concrete a parent can be, the better. Children who have had unstable beginnings have had many painful surprises so their bodies are extremely sensitive to change. A child can be physiologically triggered by small changes, but parents can help them understand and manage the feelings that emerge. Structure keeps us safe because there are fewer surprises.
- Assume your child is doing the best he can based on his experience. When you see negative behavior, look behind it—think about how this behavior may have helped him survive in another setting. Respond with empathy and curiosity—even when behavior makes no sense.
- Be aware of eye contact, voice tone, touch, and movement to ensure you are communicating safety and acceptance. Children who have been hurt will be extremely sensitive to the environment and may become agitated or uncomfortable with loud voices, fast movements, and dramatic communications. If your child has trouble with eye contact, don’t force it. Parents have to modify their communication styles to build a safe relationship foundation.
- Make time to play and enjoy one another. Find something you have in common and both enjoy (art, sports, pets, food, music, games, etc.) and spend a few minutes at these activities each day. (You can build duration over time.) Feeling happy in the context of relationship is very therapeutic for the parts of the brain that need strengthening.
- Focus on the process of what is going on rather than making assumptions based on beliefs of right and wrong. For example, a child might take food and hide it, then lie about what he’s done. When asked if he took the food, he has a tantrum. It would be easy to be angry because he “stole” the food then “lied” about it and then deflected the blame by having a tantrum. This scenario is fairly typical and well-trained parents learn to stay calm, not react to the content, and focus on calming the emotions.
- Don’t take the child’s words personally. Hurt children terrified of closeness may use nasty, hurtful language to push you away and protect themselves. Some may use language as a weapon to try and make you feel as bad about yourself as they do about themselves.
- Be aware that your child may reject you before you can reject her. Remember, she has learned that adults are not reliable and they hurt children. The parents’ job is to recognize this protective behavior for what it is and not fall prey to the negative cycle.
- Make life as simple as possible. Limit the number of transitions, activities, and people the child must negotiate relationships with on a daily basis.
- Celebrate small successes and apologize when you make mistakes. Learning to apologize with ease will help you feel more comfortable being self-reflective and observing what you are doing. Developing a relationship with a hurt child is very difficult and you will make mistakes. Learning to forgive yourself when you make a mistake is critical to committing for the long run. Make sure you take time to acknowledge small successes. They matter!
- Use language to describe emotional states and model how to repair when things don’t go well. For example, you might say, “Mommy was tired today and when the plate broke I had a big angry feeling and yelled awfully loud. I am sorry if I scared you. Next time when I am tired and start to feel angry, I will try to use my breath to calm myself down so I don’t yell. I think I am going to start practicing keeping myself calm with breathing. I am going to practice breathing in, holding my breath and counting to four, and then blowing it out like a bubble while counting to four again. That really helps me stay calm.”
- Expect the child to be developmentally younger than his age. Create an appropriate environment for the child’s developmental age rather than chronological age.
- Provide an opportunity for your child to express grief about the loss of the former family and let her know however she feels is okay. A parent may have ambivalent feelings about the former family, but it is important to give the child the space to have her own feelings.
As professionals placing children who have experienced an adoption disruption, our challenge is to ensure that parents have the tools and support to manage this difficult journey. We are asking parents to be strong enough to manage immense day-to-day challenges that often force them to confront the most vulnerable parts of themselves. Parenting a child who has learned to survive in adverse conditions is hard and takes tremendous commitment, focus, and effort.
Professionals need to make sure that the family has the preparation and support needed to be successful. Pre-adoption training should provide a thorough understanding of attachment, trauma, the brain, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, grief and loss, identity, and the corresponding parenting strategies. Learning how overall development (cognitive, psychological, and neurological) is affected is also important. Parents must be open to doing their own therapeutic work because their vulnerabilities will be exposed during this type of parenting.
Peer support from other adoptive families can help parents normalize what they and their children are experiencing and give hope for the future. There is nothing like another parent who understands. Professional guidance can help parents understand the reasons children may struggle and learn the best techniques for building trust. Together this support can enable parents to stay in a positive relationship with the child.
Unless we’re all careful, disruption can breed disruption. Children who have been displaced one or more times become expert at survival. But they are rarely experts at living happily and successfully in a healthy family. To heal, these children must be placed with well-prepared, well-supported adults who can stay committed even on the darkest days. The new parents must be self-reflective, open to exploring their own historical issues, and learn new ways of responding and managing their own emotions and ideas about parenting. It is incumbent upon the professional community to ensure that parents have the tools and support to succeed. No one can do this alone!
Learning to trust was, and still is, one of the hardest things I have had to do in my 23 years. When I was five, I was taken from my first family and placed in a children’s home. Life there was really hard. Just before my ninth birthday, I was adopted by a family in New York. Ten months later I was shocked to hear that they were thinking about getting divorced and wanted to find me a new family. I did not know that could even happen. It did.
Being a child who was never safe was really hard. Because I never knew what to expect as a child, I lost the ability to tell safe from terrifying. My stomach would experience a nauseating flip with just a simple change in my routine or environment. To me, it felt as if a life or death choice was approaching. My body could not tell the difference between being told to wait a minute for something and truly being threatened if I did not get something at that very moment. When a child grows up with the confusion of what is safe and what is dangerous—who is safe and who would hurt them—it really changes how the entire world looks.
As a young child, I was hurt by a raised hand. As I got a older, one of the hardest lessons I learned was that people—people who gave me their word that I would have safety and a permanent, loving environment—could hurt me 10 times worse with their words and actions.
Growing up, the words love and trust were only air-filled words. Adults saying anything about love or trust or anything remotely along those lines meant nothing to me. I had no idea what they meant. It was just the same story I’d already heard from a different person.
When my now-permanent, loving family first came to adopt me, nothing had changed. I was still scared of the words love and trust. I was prepared to push before being pushed. It didn’t matter if they did things very differently from the two families and other adults who had cared for me. I just knew they had no idea what I had been through, and they never really would.
It took consistency from them to change things. I needed them to show me over and over and over again that they love me, that they care for me, and that they aren’t going anywhere. I needed them to be patient with me. It took almost 10 years for me to lose all trust with grownups, and it wasn’t going to take a couple of weeks or months for me to turn that around.
I can only imagine how hard it must have been for my parents and family. They were taught that in a relationship you give and take. For me, all I could do is receive, push away, and not give back. In the beginning, everything was one-sided. They gave and gave, and I didn’t give in return. I know they had to put in more effort than they had ever imagined.
It helped me when my parents put their frustration, sadness, and their motivation to help us get through this into therapy. It also helped when they put in a lot of time to research how to better understand this thing we were going through. That’s all anyone can do—try to get information and support, and try to work on what they’ve kept inside and never worked through.
Your child doesn’t want to see you as a “perfect parent” every moment, a grownup who only has the power to set consequences and the power to say no. For your children to better relate with you, let them see you feel the emotions of sad, goofy, upset, and ecstatic and try to show them a different way, a healthier way of expressing themselves. Be there on the good days and on the hard ones. It’s worth it! I promise.