Yep. I've thought about it. Done. Finito. Sayonara. How far will a tank of gas get me?
Five years ago it was fall break and Karl and I were driving back to Indiana from visiting my parents in Wisconsin, with our 16 year-olds, Phoebe and Lianne, both adopted from China. Lianne needed to read and take notes on the book, 102 Minutes, about 9/11, an important book to be sure, but the worst possible read for an ENL (English as a New Language) student who had procrastinated and was now forced to do her homework in the car. I don't know if you've read it, but it's long, emotional and incredibly technical. Reading it aloud to Lianne made me want to gouge my eyes out.
About an hour into our seven-hour drive, Lianne began the meltdown sequence. She was overwhelmed and had convinced herself that I didn't care, I wouldn't help her, and she would fail. Talking, cajoling, explaining, and reasoning weren’t going to stop the inevitable emotional crisis.
Karl had a meeting in Chicago, so we got off the highway and headed downtown to drop him off. Lianne was in a silent, brewing fury in the backseat by this time, and Karl was reluctant to leave. In my crazy optimism and desire to handle every situation, I told him it would be fine.
I was thinking, “We’re only a couple of hours from home. It will be okay.” We got on Interstate 80/94 and I was in the far-left lane, keeping pace with Chicago rush-hour traffic when Lianne refused to buckle her seat belt, and started playing with the lock on her door. Suddenly, I heard the sound of wind as the back door opened! I swerved over onto the far-left shoulder, threw the car in park and flew out of the front seat. I yanked Lianne's door the rest of the way open and she tried to make a run for it!
I ran after her, grabbed her, and wrapped my arms around her. She kicked and screamed. I picked her up and stuffed her feet first, into the driver's side door. (As an aside, I lift weights to work out. It has come in handy quite a few times – a 16-year-old in full-raging tantrum can be deceptively strong). She kicked everything off the console as I climbed into the seat holding her tightly. I could feel my heart pounding wildly in my chest.While Lianne kicked and screamed threats at me, I said, "Phoebe, honey, can you reach up here and press the triangle button for Mommy?Can you call Daddy for me?"
I have a weird underreaction to stressful situations. Sometimes it's annoying because I can seem insensitive, but that day it was very helpful. I talked to Lianne until she eventually calmed down and stared ahead catatonically. I kept praying that a kind motorist or a diligent cop wouldn't stop to see if we needed any help. I could just imagine the conversation, "Yes, officer, this really is my daughter. No, officer, I'm not involved in human trafficking."
About a half hour later, we were still on the shoulder of the highway when Lianne suddenly looked up and said she was sorry. I asked if she was really okay, because Mommy couldn't drive during rush hour and hold onto her at the same time. She nodded and started picking up the things she had kicked off the console.
We finally made it home. Lianne grabbed paper and went right to the kitchen table and started doing homework. I would have liked to go straight up to bed, but I had to clean up my disaster of a house before the window cleaners came in the morning. I trudged down the stairs to the basement and walked back up carrying a tall stack of dirty dishes. I kept thinking, "God sees me. He's here. He knows what's going on." One of the glasses had moldy green juice in it, and when the dishes shifted in my arms on the stairs, the glass tipped over and spilled on my white carpeting. I stood for a minute staring at the disgusting stain and thought, "This is what my life has become, an ugly blot on what used to be beautiful." I sat down on the steps and started crying. What had happened to my life? What did I think I was doing adopting another child? I obviously had made a mess of my life and hers.
Phoebe and Lianne heard me and came over. They took the dishes from me and hugged me and told me everything was going to be okay. Phoebe got me a drink and Lianne brought over the apology letter she had started writing when we walked in the door.
I didn't give up that day. I did what you would have doneand what I needed to do as a mom. I told them I was okay. I forgave Lianne. We cleaned up the mess on the stairs. Little by little, with God's help and the help of our many good friends and family, we started cleaning up the mess that was our life. It was a long, hard process, but we rejoiced with every victory and focused on being happy and loving each other regardless of how we acted.
Lianne was baptized the next year and she is a powerful example of how God changes lives. She has a reputationof being calm and extremely loving toward all who know her.
Lianne has given me her blessing to tell this story. We may have been through hell and back as a family, but hey, we're back.
Many adopted children transition relatively seamlessly into their new families, or may experience only a brief adjustment period. Certainly not all adopted children were disrupted from their biological families due to traumatic events. Having two kids adopted from orphanages, in addition to being foster parents, we tend to view our children’s behavior through the lens of their trauma. I realize not every adoptive family is in this situation, but for those who can relate, this article is for you.
Our first child is biological. Naturally, we assumed that the same discipline techniques that worked for her would work with any child, adopted or not. Our first run in with challenging behavior came when we noticed that our newly adopted daughter didn’t cry. Not when she hit her head hard, not when she pinched her finger in the door, and definitely not when she was disciplined. Soon after that came a barrage of other bizarre behaviors that had us scratching our heads: Hoarding food in her pillow case, locking herself in the closet, avoiding eye contact and extreme tantrums. So, we did what many uninformed but well-meaning parents would do. We disciplined her more intensely. Sharing that brings tears to my eyes and reminds me of the utter helplessness I felt. We had no clue what was wrong with our little girl or what she needed. Over the decade that followed, God put some amazing therapists, behavior specialists, elders and friends in our lives. These individuals taught us how to help our children heal, while somehow preserving our sanity and our marriage. As a side note, our daughter was eventually diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). We are still learning, but here are a few tips we have gathered from books, professionals working with our children, or good old-fashioned trial and error. This is not stuff pulled from a text book (for any professionals who may be reading, please don’t cringe at my over-simplification). Here are practical suggestions we use in our family daily for our kids with a trauma history.
1. Try thinking of your child’s negative behavior as their survival skill. At one point or another in their young lives, this behavior kept them alive. It served a purpose. The behavior worked. For one of our children, I like to call his survival skill “sabotage.” He was the master of disruption and damage. Any time things were quiet and running smoothly, he could find the perfect way to throw a wrench in it. Because he was removed from a home where he experienced severe neglect due to parental drug abuse, he likely had to misbehave in some pretty big ways to elicit any sort of attention at all. And in his world, zero attention meant he might not eat or get changed that day. Upon joining our family, he did anything he could to sabotage the family peace. If his sister was working on homework, he would slam the laptop closed on her hands. If brother was building a Lego tower, it got smashed. Any attention, even negative attention, was the goal. Other children may hoard food, compulsively lie, steal, or charm total strangers. Thinking of these behaviors as the ways our children stayed alive in seemingly impossible situations, helps me to have compassion. It also helps me to depersonalize things. This child is not trying to get under my skin or drive me crazy, he is only responding in a way that, at one time, made perfectly logical sense.
2. If a particular negative behavior is the survival skill, then it’s our job as parents to show the child a couple of things: A.) That behavior doesn’t work anymore (i.e. isn’t going to bring about the outcome they desire) and B.) His or her needs are met now and therefore that behavior is no longer needed. This is a very tall order. However, once we understand the child’s goal in the behavior we can begin to make it ineffective for him/her. If you took any introductory psychology classes you may remember this principle: Many creatures (including little humans) will continue to engage in negative or harmful behaviors if the payoff is rewarding enough. Take, for example, a young children who bites. For children seeking attention, the “reward” for biting is tremendous. There is crying, and screaming. There may be running around and very big reactions on the faces of the adults in the room. The biter typically gets immediate attention (either placed in time out, scolded, taken out of the room with mom or dad, etc.) In this scenario, for someone seeking attention, biting may be just the way to go! Unless it doesn’t work anymore. What if the “victim” is showered with all the attention? After all, owies need lots of kisses and maybe even a popsicle. And definitely some snuggle time with mom or dad. What if the biter is completely ignored? No pay off, no reward. I am not suggesting that we allow children to hurt others without consequence. On the other hand, we may be reinforcing a child’s negative behavior without even realizing it.
3. How do we communicate that the negative behavior is no longer needed? How do we let our kids know: “I will pay attention to you even if you don’t hit, bite, lie, or sabotage this family event”? All kids, especially kids with a trauma history, benefit from having their needs met on a consistent basis. Predictable, consistent, patient need-meeting. When our children were very young we took advantage of opportunities like a little fall or skinned knee. We tried to immediately run over, pick them up, show empathy, apply a Band-Aid, snuggle, etc. We probably looked silly to on-lookers, over-reacting this way! But these were great teaching moments. All their lives, prior to coming to us, our children were told “You’re ok, brush it off, don’t cry, take care of it yourself.” We wanted to communicate just the opposite, “We want to take care of you, we know how to take care of you, and we will do it every time.” As our children got older, we used activities that involved an element of risk such as riding a roller coaster or playing in big ocean waves. Inevitably they would become afraid or unsure. Guess who was right there meeting their need for safety and reassurance. Our kids needed lots of repeated experiences with being cared for. Obviously, there are no quick fixes, but we have seen steady improvement over time in our children’s negative behavior with this sort of consistent need-meeting.
4. Use corporal punishment with extreme caution. Children who have been victims of physical abuse, sexual abuse or neglect can be further traumatized by corporal punishment. Any form of discipline is only effective when the relationship is intact. A secure parent-child relationship results in the child wanting to please you and being concerned by your displeasure. Without first establishing a relationship that is meaningful to the child, one of trust and mutual concern, I believe corporal punishment can be quite damaging.
5. What are other options of discipline for young children? Thankfully there are a lot! One of the most effective ones we have found for our kids (from toddler to teen) is the use of logical natural consequences. For example, if an item is broken because of abuse/misuse, chores can be done to earn money to repay the value of the item. Thrown dinner plate equals a hungry belly until breakfast the next morning. Hurting another child may mean playing alone for the remainder of the afternoon, so that everyone can be safe. I like natural consequences because, not only are they quite effective, they also take the pressure off having to think up arbitrary ones. Often, I only need to ask myself, “What would be the outcome if an adult did not intervene in this situation?” and then allow that to play out. It goes without saying that this is applied within reason and always with the safety of the child in mind. Other discipline techniques we have used with young children include color charts, earning and removal of privileges (with a visual cue such as marbles in a jar, or moving a clip). We also have used both “time-out” and “time-in.” Keep in mind that for some adopted children, getting sent to their rooms or isolated in a corner is exactly what they want. It means they get to avoid the relationship. A time-in is where the child gets removed from the activity but spends her “reflection” time right next to mom or dad. This may not sound all that punitive, but if you asked our kids, they would take a time-out over a time-in any day! We’ve also found it helpful to use discipline techniques appropriate for our child’s emotional age, which may not always match their chronological age. We have a pre-teen right now who, when she is cornered or feels shame, demonstrates the emotional maturity of a 6-year-old. In these moments, it’s most helpful to revert to simple, logical consequences, maybe even visual cues, and very little talk.
6. Read all you can on the effects of early trauma on a child’s developing brain. This is not mere psychological theory. It is hard neuroscience that has been proven across many studies. Some of these effects include poor understanding of cause and effect, impulsivity, poor recall, and chronically high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. All of these can wreak havoc on a child’s ability to follow rules and directions. I have lost track of the number of times I have said to my adopted children “WHAT were you THINKING?” Well, that is part of the problem. They weren’t thinking. Or at least not thinking clearly and effectively. One of our favorite books on this topic is “The Connected Child” by Karyn Purvis. This is a quick read and explains in layman’s terms the effects of trauma on the brain. It also includes some pretty awesome tips on bonding, attachment and behavior management.
7. Continue to seek many advisors. As the number of adoptive and foster parents in our fellowship grows, that is a great resource for sure! At the same time, don’t limit yourself. Get advice from a wide variety of Godly families. It can be tempting to feel misunderstood if we discipline our adopted children differently from those around us. We can even be tempted to close ourselves off from advice. We all have blind-spots that are seen by others with great clarity. I wish I had time to list all the golden nuggets of parenting advice we have received over the years. Some of it was “trauma sensitive” and some if it was not. At times a piece of advice was not appropriate for our child in that moment, but we filed it away and years later were able to implement it and benefit from it. Lastly, by all means, get professional help when needed. Our daughter with RAD? She’s goofing around with her friends at church camp this week. We don’t have what the world would call a perfect happy ending, but our kids are light years from where they started. If you are dealing with difficult behaviors, there is hope, and God will lead you in the path of healing. Pray to stay open to advice, and ever listening to the Spirit’s guidance as we raise our awesome adopted kids.
That is the question! The emotional heartache of a second miscarriage led to a myriad of questions, the most daunting of which was “Should we adopt?” Wow! How do you answer that one? For my husband and I, and several other couples with whom I have had the pleasure of working, there is no quick, easy answer. It is not a “one-size-fits-all” proposition. Here are some ideas to get you started if you are considering adopting a child.
All over India and the surrounding countries, hundreds of thousands of little girls are killed or abandoned every year just because they are girls. It was always my dream to adopt one of those little girls. I remember praying for years, begging God to let me be a mother to a little child who needed a family.
Being an adoptive or foster parent is one of life’s greatest joys. I also believe that we need to practice self-care in ways that are slightly different from parents of biological and neurotypical children. To be honest, it has taken several years of unhealthy comparisons and guilty feelings to be able to arrive at that conclusion! I am still learning how to maintain a healthy balance between work, play and rest, and these are the lessons that seem to surface most often.
My biological family consists of my older brother and my single mother. My biological father has now been in prison for over 21 years, as long as I have been alive. For a while, the three of us were all we had. My mother’s parents were murdered and my dad’s parents are addicted to drugs. I didn’t have a lot of extended family growing up until God sent us to the West Metro Church of Christ in the Detroit area. My mom was getting assistance from a crisis pregnancy center and a woman who volunteered there, named Janet, reached out and shared her faith with my mom. Because Janet was willing to share her faith, I was given the opportunity to have a chance to be where I am today.
There are many things I have learned from Lianne since we adopted her six years ago, at age 13. If you were to ask my family, they would say one of the most important things is kindness. For instance, living with three other women (my teen daughters) meant that we all had our "cycles" about the same time every month. You can probably imagine what that was like, and it wasn't the sweet bonding time that the book, The Red Tent, talks about, either.
My name is Kiana and I’m 34 years old. I was met and baptized in the teen ministry in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1998. I’m currently in the singles ministry in the Asheville Church in North Carolina. In my current position I research youth with special healthcare needs and the transition to adulthood and adult healthcare.
I have a clematis vine that climbs the outside of our screened-in porch. Unfortunately, from the inside we can’t see the beautiful flowers, only bare vines and a few green leaves. It's not very pretty, but it does a nice job of blocking the view of a busy road. A while back I noticed a couple of cardinals spending more than their fair share of time on the vine. Then a nest snuggled in its branches. And most recently, two sparsely feathered babies, instinctively craning their necks toward the sky. So tiny and magical. The kids set up a little viewing stool on the porch and starting referring to them as “the babies.” And suddenly from our side of the screen we were no longer staring at bare twigs, we had a birds-eye view of miraculous.