Welcome back to Adopted, Now What?
In this episode, Becky Walker talks about your adopted child’s behavior not being what they sometimes seem to be, the importance of communication and the relationships created through adoption. She also shares how many things in the early life of the child, actually even pre-birth, can have an impact on this.
Listen to the Episode here:
Uncover the Real Reason Behind Your Adopted Child’s Behavior
At this moment, I am feeling very grateful for those individuals that helped me produce these podcasts and make it all seem so easy to get these out for listeners. Today, I want to talk about the behaviors of our adopted children not being what they sometimes seem to be. I am going to give you some examples to help you know what I am referring to. For instance, when an adoptive parent is struggling with their connection with an adopted child, I often hear the adoptive parent say things like this, “I think she hates me. I’m a failure as a parent to this child.” When my own adopted daughter came to live with me, we didn’t get along at all. I remember many, many times that I interpreted her behaviors and the things she said as an indication that she hated me. At one point, when she told me that she wished that anyone else in the world other than me were her mother. I suppose I felt like it was proof that she hated me.
It’s a reminder that we are all just human after all. As humans, we are created to live in a relationship. We want to be loved. We crave connection and belonging. It hurts when we are faced with statements that suggest that love and connection is not existent or even that it may not be possible. These sorts of tragic statements and thoughts and the impact they can have is of course by no means unique to interactions between adoptive parents and their adopted children. Tragic statements can and do occur in almost all human relationships, and all too often they do.
Right now, I am focusing on communication and the relationships created through adoption. I haven’t met a prospective adoptive parent yet that hasn’t awaited the fulfillment of the adoption with great anticipation, hope, and visions of the tremendous joy and love that they are going to bring into the life of their adopted child and in turn, the joy and connection that they themselves are going to experience. This was certainly my experience. I feel confident that it probably was yours too.
This is very natural, because no matter the details of the whys behind the initiation of each of our adoption journeys, there are commonalities in our stories of wanting to share our love and the abundance of our lives, however that is defined for each of us. To share with a child who needs what we have to offer, who is in a life situation that was not of their choosing, who needs and deserves nurturing, love, kindness, support and encouragement, who is not able to fulfill their own needs, who is dependent on someone like us to intervene in their lives.
I love stories and pictures of adoptive parents and their adopted children that have had a smooth, happy transition into the family life created by their adoption. I am so grateful to those parents and their families and their friends. I am grateful for the inborn nature and resilience of many children that despite the odds are able to transition into the new family created by their adoption and feel secure and loved from the moment they come into their new homes. I am very grateful for the adoptive parents in those situations, for their ability to be present and provide the nurturing love, care, and presence that result in the quick establishment of a true and healthy emotional connection with their adopted child.
We should never lose sight of the thousands and thousands of adoption stories of this type because they do occur every day. I hope this is your own experience. I am also grateful for those adoptive parents for whom the path to a connected relationship with their adopted child is not so easy or which can even be exceptionally difficult. My experience fell into this difficult spectrum and is a huge motivator for me to provide help to other such parents.
Make no mistake though. My motivation also comes from the experience of my adopted daughter. I care deeply about the pain, fear and uncertainty that she has experienced in her journey. Including the pain and fear that she experienced when she was still in the baby house and orphanage in Russia, as well as the pain and anxiety that she experienced after she came to live with me because of my not being aware of what was really going on with her. My not knowing how to communicate and interact in ways that did not trigger survival strategies that her brain had developed, and by my not being aware that simply providing a safe and loving environment is not enough to allow a child to feel loved and safe.
The things that seemed logical and intuitive to me were often frankly no help at all and not the truth of what my daughter needed to thrive. Why are some adoption stories, some transitions of adopted children into their new families so difficult? There are numerous factors that can impact this.
Let’s start with a possible expectation that I mentioned earlier. If we give a child a safe and loving environment, that will be enough for them to feel safe and loved. It seems to be so logical, and it is. But that sometimes is not sufficient. Many things in the early life of the child, actually even pre-birth, can have an impact on this. Studies show that the fact of being separated from the birth mother has an impact on the child’s responses. Then, if additional trauma, while the baby is still in uterus or after birth result in anxiety in the brain. It then will develop coping strategies to keep that little human being safe.
This phenomenon has been demonstrated in mouse studies where the impact of separation of the baby mouse from the birth mother and the introduction of stressors will result in the baby mouse having an acceleration in its physical development and will forego normal baby mouse activities. Instead, starts doing activities related to providing for its own safety and survival. Not an actual thing for a baby mouse to do in the absence of trauma.
Scientists are extrapolating these findings into the human population as being similar to what occurs with babies when they are separated from their birth mothers and when they experience other trauma. Research published by Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D. and colleagues at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University indicates that, “Early exposure to child abuse or neglect, family turmoil, neighborhood violence, extreme poverty, racial discrimination or other hardships can prime biological systems to become hyper-responsive to adversity.” There are a variety of ways in which these coping strategies that a child’s brain has developed can show up after a child comes into its new adoptive family.
I will start with the first occurrence in my own adoption story. My daughter was six years old when we finalized our adoption in Russia. We had had a number of interactions with her prior to the adoption being finalized. We got to care for her in our home in the US for a couple of weeks. We had multiple opportunities to play with her in the orphanage in Russia prior to the finalization of her adoption. During all of these interactions, she was loving and demonstrative, allowing and returning hugs and displays of affection. But as soon as the adoption was complete in the Russian court, we drove to the orphanage after dark. It was very, very cold. There was lots of snow. We had a four-hour car drive ahead of us in the dark to get back to Moscow. The car was very cold when we got into it. She and I climbed into the backseat and I automatically reached out and pulled her to me to help keep her warm.
In that moment, my world as a new mother shifted in an unexpected way. She purposefully and forcefully pushed me away from her, and from that moment forward would not allow me to touch her, other than to bathe her or dry her hair. She would not allow me to hug or kiss her. This became my new normal. As you can imagine, I was confused and dismayed.
There will be other times in this podcast when I will share other parts of my story. But today, I want to say that what I later came to understand was that my story is not all that unusual. There are many, many similar stories. One that stands out in my mind is the story that Tina Traster tells of her experience with her adopted daughter in her book, Rescuing Julia Twice. She describes her experience when her baby Julia was handed to her, “Finally, he lifts Julia and hands her to me as though she were a piece of glass. The transfer is awkward because she doesn’t seem to have the natural instincts to hold on to my arm or lean close. It didn’t feel the way I thought it would to hold a baby. There was a tension, a resistance.” She goes on further to say, “It’s like she’s there but she’s not. She doesn’t cling to me or look me in the eye or seem to enjoy being held. She doesn’t reach for my hand. I know it’s not a hearing problem. It’s more like there’s a wall.”
There are many other stories of this type. The good news is that there is a lot of understanding today of the nature and causes of this and other phenomena that adopted children often display. I do not intend to scare off prospective parents with this information. In fact, I want more parents and families to join in the adventure of opening their arms, hearts, and homes to the vast number of children in our world that need a family to be a part of it. I can’t think of a better calling and a better thing to do. Rather, my objective is to encourage openness about the reality of what occurs with adopted children so that prospective and current adoptive parents can prepare themselves and get the information and education and training that will help them navigate these issues in an informed way. That will allow them to recognize the signs and symptoms of early childhood trauma to be able, to observe the disruptive behaviors of their adopted child as a set of clues to the feelings and underlying needs of the child.
A pivotal juncture in the healing of my relationship with my adopted daughter was the day I heard the following: “All human behaviors are clues to feelings and met or unmet needs.” Let me say this again because this is extremely important. All human behaviors are clues to feelings and met or unmet needs behind those feelings. That is so important. It changed the way I view my daughter. In fact, it has changed the way I view and experience all of the interactions in my life. That realization alone was one of the most important in changing my approach to my interactions with my daughter.
Previously, I had fallen head first. In fact, I probably did some swan dives into the traps of thinking that the behaviors of my daughter were totally intentional. Intentional from the aspect that she was premeditated in her pushing me away. Intentional in not allowing me to kiss her, hug her, stay in the same room with her, play with her, demonstrate my love and affection for her. That she intended to cause hurt when she told me that she would rather have anyone else in the world be her mother other than me. It felt so purposeful in the face of all the effort I had put forth. But suddenly, I could see I had, through my own expectations about how people reciprocate when they are cared for, when they are saved from a life that does not nurture and provide for them. I could now see that I was only stepping into my own trap set by my own expectations.
Suddenly, it made sense that the way I had interacted with other children in my life, two stepsons, numerous nieces and nephews, children that I had taught and sent to school, the children of my friends, simply was not relevant to the feelings and needs of my adopted daughter. I came to recognize that her actions, her behaviors, pushing me away, kicking holes in her bedroom door, trying to run away, biting, kicking me, refusing to hug me, never letting me cuddle with her, were not actually a rejection of me at all. Instead, they were her pleas. The only language she had to communicate safely with, the strategy her brain used of inflicting pain on me, so that I could know the amount of pain she was experiencing inside. Her repeated attempts to be seen exactly as she was, a child that needed me to be curious about her behaviors, rather than hurt by them. She needed me to be curious enough to decipher the clues that she was giving me about her needs for safety, stability, choice, belonging, fairness, love, and connection.
I wish so much that someone could have told me what I needed to know all those years ago so that I could have helped my sweet, sweet daughter sooner. So that I could have spent that time helping her get in touch with her feelings, helping her practice the actions that lead to the emotional maturity that had been preempted by the trauma in her early life. I want you to know though, I recognized that she was doing the best she could with what she had to work with, and I realized I was doing the same. I provide myself with self empathy.
I end this podcast today in gratitude for the lessons I’ve learned and for the opportunity to share them with you. I look forward to being with you next time.
- Jack P. Shonkoff, MD
- Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University
- Rescuing Julia Twice
- Online Newspaper Article:“Young Mice, Like Children, Can Grow Up Too Fast”
Author: Alison Gopnik
Date: March 23, 2016
Source: Wall Street Journal, www.wsj.com