I’m going to take off my homesteading, wholesome living hat for a bit and put on my adoptive parent hat. If you haven’t adopted or cared for a child from hard places, feel free to skip this one. Unless you are a parent, particularly the parent of a toddler, then you may find the following thoughts helpful as well.
We are approaching the two-year mark home with our boys, and while my husband and I still consider ourselves novices when it comes to parenting adoptive children, we have learned a thing or two from our experience thus far. The most important, besides seeking and relying on God for the duration, is to not freak out. Let me clarify. You may freak out to your spouse, your dear friend who’s been with you through the whole shebang and craziness that is the adoption journey (bless his or her heart), your parents, in-laws, pastor or whoever you feel is a trusted, safe person to expose and work through whatever insanity or radiant happiness (because perhaps you’re the one in a million who adopted a child who adjusts well to being removed from the place she’s known as home and plopped down in a completely different home, family and culture than her own) you’ve found yourself in.
However, the minute your adoptive child senses you might be worried, uncertain, displeased, upset, angry or disappointed in him or her (or perhaps just in general), shut down will most likely occur. It can last for hours, weeks and months. Lessons learned, gains made, skills mastered and sometimes even basic common sense is out the window as trauma rears its head. Often kids from hard places do not have the emotional tools needed to understand or even properly read emotion so they are often relying on their caretakers to be their emotional thermometer. If mom or dad is showing they are uncertain or are freaking out in some way, shape or form, then child will too and her response may look nothing like mom or dads. The child will go right into fight or flight. It’s what’s gotten them through in the past and it will take quite some time (think years) before they learn new coping skills.
Think of toddlers or that new mom who is hesitant to drop baby off at nursery. Toddlers do not have coping skills. Babies do not have coping skills. If she senses mom is hesitant to drop off or leave, usually baby will cry. She can sense mom’s apprehension and worry. If mom or dad drops their little one off confidently with a smile, baby or toddler is usually fine. No crying. No fighting and begging mom or dad not to leave. I recognize this is not an exact comparison and babies do react differently than I’ve described. However, ninety-five percent of the time this is the dynamic we’ve seen in our own family when we have a babysitter or take our little ones to their class, etc.
So what’s a new adoptive parent to do? Here are a few things we’ve found helpful.
One. Fake it till you make it. (We got this advice several times over when we first came home with our adoptive sons). At first we were aghast. Who wouldn’t fall in love with and adore their new adoptive children from the very first time they saw them on gotcha day? Who really needs to fake it? Well, we’ve since discovered, it’s actually pretty common for new adoptive parents not to feel all lovey-dovey towards adoptive children initially. Attachment takes time. Lots of time. Lots of bonding. Lots of doing life together. Purposefully choosing to find ways to connect. In the meantime, as attachment is growing, fake it. Smile at your child. Spend time with them. Care for them. Choose to love even if you don’t feel like it. Your child may freak out at your attempts. They may not be used to love. Unconditional love. He or she may push you away time and again to test if it really is unconditional. This is attachment. It will be one step forward and three steps backwards as he or she finds footing and learns what it is to be loved, what it is to be in a family. This is normal. You will get through. You may see some pretty interesting behaviors as this happens. Don’t freak out. Take a deep breath and count to ten. Try to reframe the behavior in your mind to see what is behind it. For instance, your child just (fill in the blank) because she needs to know you’ll always be there no matter what. This is not the time for lectures or consequences or freak-outs. This is the time to gather her in your arms and reassure her of your love for her. Later, you can go out for coffee with your trusted friend and let out all the craziness that will be going through your mind. But, in the moment, with your daughter. Don’t freak out.
Two. There will be surprises. Lots of them. Remind yourself of this over and over. Most likely, you have not had this child in your family since he or she was born. You do not know everything about him or her. You do not know how he or she ticks. Something will inevitably come up. We had one child who arrived on gotcha day with several scars from surgeries we knew nothing about. We also found out the same child had a completely different diagnosis than what was in the file. Don’t freak out. It is not the child’s fault. Absolutely, take some time to process. Work through it. Cry. Vent to your safe people. It will happen. Even if child arrives healthy and seems well-adjusted and even if everything in their file is accurate, something will come up at some point- happy or sad. There will be surprises. Don’t freak out.
Three. Read The Connected Child by Karen Purvis. Read it before adopting? Read it again after. Now, don’t freak out. There are more resources. Google “Trust-Based Relational Intervention”. See, I told you. Don’t freak out. There are many helpful resources out there for parenting children from hard places. You are not alone. Not even close.
Four. Adjust your expectations. Are they adjusted? Okay, now adjust them some more. This is how it goes. Sometimes expectations need to be lowered. Sometimes they need to be higher and sometimes they just need to go out the window entirely as you bond and attach (and even long after attachment seems secure). People warned us of this in advance. I remember telling people before we traveled to China, “We have no expectations really.” Bologna. We are all after all human beings and the minute the child is sitting in front of you, expectations – good or not so good- begin forming in our minds whether we want them to or not. Your child may meet those expectations or they may not. They may meet them today or they may meet them in a decade. They may never meet them. Don’t freak out. You will find a normal. It will most certainly take time (again, think years). It may look different from what you’d imagined, but it will happen. Even if it means adjusting to something hard, you will and, most likely, once you are there in your new normal, it won’t be as hard as you’d imagined it would be. Don’t freak out.
Five. Hang on to God Almighty and know beyond a shadow of a doubt you are in for the ride of your life. The highs will be higher than anything you could have ever imaged and the lows will feel like the closest you’ve ever been to the pit of hell. Seriously. Only God knows the plans and future of each of our kiddos- the adopted ones, the biological ones, the fostered ones, the neighborhood ones- all the kiddos. Just in case you haven’t realized it yet, allow me to point out, most of what I shared above also pertains to our relationship with our biological kids too. There will be surprises. Expectations will need to fly out the window. There are lots of times when love will need to be a choice. Don’t freak out. When it’s tough going and answers are nowhere to be found, know this. God has you. He’s carrying you. He knows your exhaustion. He knows how much work and hope you pour into those littles each and every day. He knows your expectations and your fears. Your fear of failure. Your fear the child you prayed for and love will never adjust, never thrive or realize how much they are loved. Your fear of not being enough. He knows you’re worried it will never get better and you’re terrified you don’t have the energy to keep on going. Don’t freak out dear friend. The God of the universe is walking alongside you, equipping you moment-by-moment and singing love over you so you can pour it all over and around those he’s brought into your home. Anchoring you. Anchoring them. He will carry you atop waters so deep and so heavy you never could have imagined being surrounded by such a storm so you can carry those littles when their courage falters and fear is closing in around them. And, one day, when those clouds fade and the sun is shining warm on your skin, you’ll look back across all those waves to the shore you so boldly left on your journey into parenthood and you’ll know it was all one hundred percent worth it because in all the crazy and uncertainty, you’ve realized, beyond any shadow of a doubt, He is faithful. He is able.
And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work, until it is finally finished.