Parenting Our Adopted Child
“You don’t have to feel like you’re walking through a minefield anymore,” our therapist informed us. “She knows you, she has been with you over a year, she knows the expectations and rules of the house. You don’t have to be overly concerned about her early trauma. You can relax now. It’s all about you parents being consistent and matter of fact with her. She’ll work through it.” I didn’t feel relaxed about parenting our adopted child.
We had adopted a child just under four years old from the state foster system. She had been in our home for about fourteen months. She still seemed very agitated and anxious. She had multiple tantrums every day over little, random things. She still required a lot of supervision, like a toddler would, not a five year old. Our therapist told us she is developmentally delayed– her social skills and emotional tolerance are two-three years delayed. So in other words, we had in our care a toddler in a five year old body.
My background is in social work with children. I started babysitting when I was twelve and continued to care for kids through graduate school. I worked in a pre-school. After college, I worked in foster care making home visits. I raised two children as a stay at home mom. Yet, nothing prepared me for caring for our adopted child. I felt powerless, ignorant, and dependent on our therapist to e-x-p-l-a-i-n her to me. The required classes that my husband and I took as part of the adoption process went into great detail on fetal alcoholism syndrome, the cycles of domestic violence, and the long-term effects of sexual and physical abuse. I definitely learned some things and felt refreshed on topics I had studied as a professional. But still when it’s happening in your house, it’s different from the job. There was such a disconnect with her intelligence and her emotional reactions. Usually a parent can talk eye to eye with a kindergartener, and go over what went wrong at the playground with another kid. With her, she just looks at me while I am talking. It’s Charlie Brown and the rest of the Peanuts world in her head, with adults making wah wah wah sounds. It’s so frustrating to have conversations with teachers and parents. What I really want to say is: my kid is different. She is delayed. Don’t you get it? She’s five but really, she is a toddler. Would you have a 1:1 talk with a toddler? No, you wouldn’t. At that age, you gently lead them away from the situation. You shake your head and say, “no.” You frown and say that is not ok.
I had to request my caseworker to change us to a therapist willing to work with US. The counselor that helped my kid prepare for her forever home told me point blank: I am her counselor and my job is to help HER. She refused to do any family work with us. I pleaded and got my request granted five months later. We worked with an amazing person, a therapist specializing in foster and adoptive homes. She observed my child and me interact in a playroom office for three sessions before she said anything to me. She interviewed me alone. She read through the caseworker’s reports and the reports provided to her on the work done by the former counselor. Then she said, “Ok, here is what’s going on.” Here is most likely the way it was in the foster home. Here is the deal with why she is behaving this way when you say such and such. I cannot find the best words to describe how I reacted. The fog cleared. It was like being in a foreign country and a translator or native turns to you and explains the customs and practices of that culture. And your reaction is ohhhhh, now I get it! Oh, now that makes sense why that happened the way it did yesterday! Oh, now I understand why the waiter kept asking me that same question.
Parenting a kid that I had not raised since birth involved a different style of parenting. There I wrote it. It’s true. I can completely admit that now, I view her differently than I do the two kids I raised from birth. There were so many behaviors, reactions, and idiosyncrasies that were confusing and maddening to me. I felt like I kept my cool, most of the time, around her. I have never been a physical parent, but I do raise my voice from time to time. For the most part, the kids know when I am serious about something because I talk very calmly and seriously. To my spouse, to my biological kids, and in my head I could not understand what was happening day in and day out. I was moody, easily irritated, hypersensitive. She presented with behaviors related to trauma. Yes, she did. But in addition to that, I needed an understanding of the developmental delays and how those delays manifest in behaviors. I needed a translator, a really good therapist to interpret this to me. Plus the experiences she had in her foster home shaped her in a way that I would not have been able to understand from self-help books or conversations with other adoptive parents. I was also guided through parenting practices that just seemed different from what I had done with my older kids. I had to learn to be consistent, like 99% of the time. I had to learn to be matter of fact. I had to resist the urge to be spontaneous, goofy and light hearted about things with her. It sounds strange, but it has worked. My child responds best to structure, consistency, and black and white situations. If I let her do something once or twice, she thinks that is the new rule. When actually it isn’t ok to eat dinner on the couch in the living room. We did that just on Super bowl Sunday. Huge tantrum when I made her return to the dinner table, to join the rest of the family for mealtime. Like we do all the other days of the year.
I feel so blessed that we worked with the family therapist. With my background, my experience, my open eyes, I was blind sighted on many many situations. I would not have made it this far without professional help. I do not feel you can do this alone. You cannot do this with help from just your partner, your close friends, your family, your clergy, your support group, self help books. Part of the process involved me just being honest to our therapist, telling her everything that was happening which was not so pretty. And as part of her profession, she was not judgemental or biased. I really needed that support.