Parenting Adopted Children: Why it is so Difficult!

I came across this article written on a blog site called Emerging Mama. The writer, Monica, does a great job of explaining why this is so. Read the article below and if you would like the link to the original post click here.


We were well into the third year of our family’s new normal, before I had come to the realization that things really were different for us. That no, all kids really don’t do this-whatever “this” may mean at the moment-and that we were not imagining the stress. We were not imagining the frustration. It took nearly four years to accept that the challenges we were facing couldn’t simply be dealt with by working harder or doing more. It took nearly four years to come to terms with the fact that living in a family with children who have experienced early childhood trauma(s) can be an isolating, lonely, and oddly enough traumatizing endeavor, with very unique and difficult challenges. So few on the outside can understand what it’s like to live inside our walls. That is not to suggest whatever is inside our neighbor’s walls is more or less difficult, just different perhaps. Below is my imperfect attempt to give words to some of our family’s daily struggles.

  1. Invisible Disability. Children who have experienced in utero and/or childhood trauma have disabilities that may not be visible to the untrained eye. Our children can look physically healthy and happy, and yet their physiology has been altered by one or more traumatizing events in their lives. Their biology is different. Their brains are physically different. Because 80% of brain cells grow in the first two years of life, the damage experienced during those first years can and does manifest over the course of one’s lifetime. How our children respond to day-to-day stressors is often outside the norm. Our children can and do achieve in school and in other environments. Yet, sometimes they cannot. They can be behaving in socially acceptable ways one moment, and becomedysregulated the next. Disability is defined as “a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities.” When children who have experienced past trauma are “triggered,” their disability shows its face. And yet, while focusing on the behavior or the child, the disability itself, the underlying causes, often remains invisible to eyes who have been taught that disability needs to look, act or talk in a certain way.
    Just because the disability may not be familiar to you, that does not mean it doesn’t exist.


  2. There is SO Little Understanding. While I cannot speak from their perspective, I often wonder if trauma parents today may feel in any way similarly to the way parents of children on the autism spectrum felt a decade or so ago. Living with a general diagnosis that doesn’t quite hit the mark? Confused about how to advise teachers, coaches and other caregivers? Parental instinct and daily realities constantly tell us something is not quite right, but so few resources are able to help us correctly identify what is going on AND what to do about it. Trauma mamas and papas often find support, comfort and professional resources in private online groups or through private conversations with others living this reality. One of the most frustrating parts from my perspective is that not one of our countless home-study visits or adoption agency meetings leading up to our adoption(s) consisted of someone telling us, “This will be the hardest thing you have ever done. Line up the therapists and begin counseling immediately. For your kids, for your family, for your marriage.” Other than a brief online training about RAD, or reactive attachment disorder, which was presented as an extreme and unlikely reality, trauma and it’s likely realities, as they would present in our home, wasn’t even broached.Perhaps that is because the DSM (Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders) is not even sure how to classify trauma and attachment disorders? There is progress being made, however, and there seems to be chatter about reclassifying PTSD as “a spectrum disorder.” This gives me hope, as so many of our children are definitely on trauma and attachment spectrums. Yet, due to lack of understanding in society, or worse, judgement, we often retreat to our safe places and speak nothing of this. We are simply too tired, to be quite honest, to do more than what is essential each day and yet we desperately need more professionals who understand trauma to be vocal advocates for trauma informed awareness and education. We need those who know and understand to help move society from a place of so little understanding to a place that provides knowledge and resources for parents, teachers and caregivers.
  3. Few Integrated Solutions. Because traditional parenting methods do not work on children who have experienced trauma, because consequences have no lasting impact, because reward and punishments systems do not encourage positive behavior, because our kids often lack cause and effect thinking in the moment and because there is so little understanding in society as a whole about how trauma operates, if often feels like our family is David facing Goliath, with the whole world stacked against future healing and wholeness, through no fault of our child. Yet, there are approaches and systems, or more accurately lifestyle modifications, that do show promise for bringing healing to children who have endured trauma. Trust Based Relational Intervention,  Connected Parenting and Therapeutic Parenting are amazing approaches that truly understand how trauma has impacted our children, why our kids behave they way(s) that they do, and how we should parent our kids to foster healing. These techniques require consistent effort and focus, and are contrary to way most of today’s adults were raised. They are HARD. Personally, I get it wrong more than I get it right. Yet, when I understand that my child is always operating out of fear of the worst case scenario happening again, I can better understand and better respond. Unfortunately, because schools and the greater systems of society do not often operate under these “connected” principles, parents are again alone, either shielding our kids from systems that don’t understand or trying to piecemeal a plan together that is not a win-win, but is also not a lose-lose. Again, we need advocates! We need the training and education to leave academia and enter our educational systems, pediatric offices and our parenting models. 
  4. Secondary Trauma. Maybe you, like I, have learned this the hard way? Maybe you, like I, lived in denial for a long time? Maybe you thought you could solider through or shake it off? Maybe you tried to convince yourself your were imagining things? The truth is, however, I have come to learn the hard way that being the parent and primary caregiver to a traumatized individual or individuals, and constantly being exposed to their trauma, means that there is a high likelihood that I am living with secondary trauma. According toAmy Sugeno, a LCSW and trauma therapist, “Many parents describe feeling burned out, chronically overwhelmed, or fatigued. It can become increasingly difficult to maintain compassion and the desire to nurture, while simultaneously feeling guilty about this. We may shut down and withdraw or be on edge a lot of the time. There can be hopelessness, anxiety, and seemingly unending frustration. Other issues may be more specific to the experiences parents went through during the adoption journey or to the experiences of their adopted children.” In short, many adoptive parents are living with secondary trauma. So busy caring for the needs of those around them, that we forgot to remember we need to be cared for too.

If you can relate to anything written above, you are certainly not alone. The pain is real. The struggle is real. The trauma is real. The isolation is real. More so, the hope is real and the healing can be real too. For our children and for us. While it may seem like no one understands and it is true that few actually do, there are professionals who can relate. There are communities of parents you can join who will support and encourage you. There areapproaches to loving and raising our kids that show promise.

And while we, as parents, certainly need professionals to advocate for our children and families, to educate the educators, and to help us heal, the truth is that YOU will likely become your child’s biggest advocate. I want my child to succeed in school, socially, and in life. Therefore, my choice is to either continue to view myself as minuscule and paralyzed David who is facing a monstrous Goliath, or remember that when David was armed with wisdom and knowledge of a greater plan, he was able to not only face the giant in front of him, but begin to dismantle it. And as daunting as that may seem, perhaps that is exactly where you and I need to begin? By sharing the realities of trauma and the education we have received with everyone who influences and interacts with our children, we can help to begin to move in a new and healing direction.

What has been the biggest challenge of parenting trauma in your life? Where have you seen the most hope and healing? What words of wisdom can you share with others along this path? 

Repairing the Relationship

I went to a 2-day conference this past weekend and saw one of the founding “fathers’ of play therapy, Dr. Garry Landreth. He has been working with children as a play therapist for 50 years! Among many of his rich and interesting stories about the field of play therapy, were the pearls of wisdom that Dr. Landreth gave us. One that I found to be very powerful, especially for us parents is “It’s not what you do that is important but what you do after what you have done.” So, as parents, we goof! For example: instead of patiently answering our child’s question, one that s/he has asked for the 100th time, we grow impatient and respond inappropriately and out of frustration. Our child walks away hurt or gets angry back. We have bruised the relationship with our child. This leaves us feeling bad/guilty/sad/ _______(Fill in the blank.).

We give lots of importance to what we have just done. We berate ourselves because we have not lived up to our standard of being the perfect parent. Therefore, if we follow the words of Dr. Landreth, we will want to shift the focus of what we have just done over to repairing what we have done, thus repairing the relationship with our child. How do we do this? It’s not hard but the hardest part for many is admitting that we made a mistake, that we were less than perfect. It is important to model being less than perfect, model making mistakes and how we recover from these mistakes. Mistakes are an important part of learning. If we weren’t meant to make mistakes, erasers would not have been invented!

The repair is really quite simple the “what you do after what you have done” part of the equation.

1. Allow for a cooling off period. Let yourself cool off and gain composure. Your child may need to have a cooling off period too. This can be from 30 minutes to 2-3 hours. See my post on the cycle of anger.

2. Tell your child what you did not do well. Admit that your performance was less that perfect. It’s okay for your child to see this part of you, to see that people are not, nor need to be, perfect.

3. Say, “I wish I had ________ instead of __________ (What you did). This is a very important part as it also teaches your child what s/he can do as an alternate behaviour. So in the example above, losing patience, you might say, “I really did not handle that well when you asked me that question over and over. I got frustrated and yelled, I’m sorry. I wish I had said instead ‘I’m  frustrated by you asking me the same question over and over, so please don’t ask me again.’ ”

4. There are no buts in this equation. Do not say, “I really did not handle that well when you asked me that question over and over BUT it frustrated me.” But implies that you had good reason to blow up, that you are not responsible for your actions. This is not what you want to model.

Now you have just repaired the relationship and modelled it for your child. Try it next time you “goof” and I can assure you that you will have many opportunities to practice these 4 easy steps of making repairs!!

Share your successes or your challenges.


Building Bonds: Playing With Your Children

Many parents believe that when they sit down to “play” with their kids, they should have a craft or something similar to do with them. Yes, crafts are fun! It is a good way to spend time with your kids and they learn many skills from this. This activity is structured and directed by you, the parent.

There is a lot of value in unstructured play between the parent and the child. You know how you hear time and time again, try to spend one-on-one time with each child individually and you wonder how you will ever be able to find the time to do this. Well, playing is a really easy way to have this one-on-one time and strengthen bonds between you and your child. It requires no planning, no structure, no scissors, no glue, paint or any other material. All it takes is a regular time, even as little as 20 minutes per week to play with your child.

Now here’s the really easy part. Sit down on the floor with your child, surrounded by some toys and then just let your child decide what to play with. As your child is playing, give him/her your full attention and just comment on what is happening in the play. “I see that you’re taking the baby for a walk in her stroller.” but don’t make any suggestions of how the play should go. Just listen and watch and try to put yourself in your child’s world. See the play through their eyes and you will also get a glimpse of how they view the world. Your child may ask you to take on a role in a play scenario and do as s/he directs you to do. It may mean that you have to use a different voice to go along with the character that you’re playing. Abandon yourself to the play while following your child’s lead. It’s okay to ask your child how s/he would like you to act or what s/he would like you to say if you’re not sure. This says to the child, “You’re important and I want to do this right, just the way you want it.” You are after all in the child’s world now.

This type of play is invaluable for strengthening the parent/child bonds. You’ve carved out a time to be completely there for your child and your child feels valued. By witnessing your child’s play, you do get the opportunity to understand your child better and you get to just have fun on your child’s terms. It expresses to your child that s/he is important and what s/he does is important.

Have fun!!


Attachment and Games

Mother Goose sure knew what she was doing when it came to nursery rhymes.  These often short ditties are loved by kids because they are rhythmic and fun!  Think about when you recite nursery rhymes to your child; you are sitting right next to or facing him/her, both of you are actively engaged and focused on each other.  What a great bonding moment that strengthens attachment. Children respond to rhythm because they spent nine months in their mother’s womb listening to the beat of her heart, the rhythm of her breathing and the rhythm of her body.  It is very familiar to them. “Pat-a-Cake, Pat-a-Cake” is great for building attachment because it is also a clapping game which involves very active involvement between child and parent.  You both need to be looking at each other and very aware of each others actions.  Then there are those moments when you miss each other’s hands and this usually evokes lots of giggles – more positive interaction.  “This Little Piggy Went to Market” and “Round and Round the Garden” are other games that, apart from being enjoyable for the child, help with attachment.  Let’s not forget “Peek-a-Boo”. “I Spy” is a favourite with children.  Change it a bit so that what you “spy” is something on each other and then you have a game where there is a great awareness of and focus the other.  Yes, you’re building attachment.

“I spy with my little eye something that is (a colour) / something that starts with the letter ___.”

Here are more games.

“Air” Hockey with Smarties:  Place a Smartie on the table and using bendable straws, move the smart around until one person scores a goal.  The person who scores the goal is fed the Smartie by the other. Licorice Race:  You and your child each put an end of the same liquorice string in your mouths and chew, chew, chew to see who can eat the most of the licorice string before it “runs out”. ”

Stacked Hands”:  Place your hand flat, your child’s hand on top, yours over top of your child’s and then your child’s on top of all that.  Remove your hand from the bottom and place it on top of the stack.  Then it’s your child’s turn and just keep stacking the hands.  For an extra challenge try this with more people.

Hide and Seek:  Especially if you are making comments like “I wonder where my wonderful Billy is?”  “When I find Sally, I’m going to give her a big hug!” ” I hope I find Joey soon, I love to see his big, bright smile!”

Do not Drop the Donut:  Place your finger through the hole in a donut and have your child see how much of the donut s/he can eat before the donut falls.

There are many other games that have the added bonus of building attachment and I’ve listed just a few.  I’m sure that you can even make up some of your own.

Do you have any games that you would like to share with the rest of this parent community?  Feel free to post them!

Teens and Attachment

Sometimes our teen’s behaviour looks very little like an attachment behaviour and at those time we wonder if we really want to be any closer to them!!  They are belligerent, mouthy, sassy, rude and foul tempered.  Is this really all about hormones?  I think not.

Teens and toddlers have a lot in common; they are both trying to identify themselves and become independent.  Remember when your toddler used to play in a room away from you?   S/he would come back to the room that you were in and check to make sure you were still there.   Your child was actually trying out independence by being apart from you and then coming back when s/he needed reassurance.  A teen is doing the exact same thing by pushing you away when s/he wants independence and then reconnecting for reassurance, comforting or acknowledgement.  An elastic band best describes this attachment and separation process for an adolescent.

Developmentally, teens are in the process of learning to live independent of their parents.    Our role as parents is to encourage and support our children while they are doing this.  We encourage good decisions and choices that we see them making; “You were really taking care of yourself when you decided not to go to that party the other night – the one that got out of control.”  We also guide and help with problem solving; “I see that its’t working out for you.  Would you like us to look at this and see if together we can come up with some solutions for you?”  If they say, “No.” then reply with, “I’m here if you change your mind.”

A good book on talking to teens: How to Talk so Teens Will Listen and How to Listen so Teens Will Talk  by Elaine Mazlish and Adele Faber