I wouldn’t trade my 23-year adoption journey for anything. Yet on numerous occasions, I walked in the dark – much more than expected – and occasionally do today. Frankly, I was emotionally unprepared for the unpleasant surprises associated with early childhood trauma.
Amid the excitement of adopting my children, no one used the words developmental trauma, attachment disorders or therapeutic parenting. No one said, “Love can’t conquer all.”
Instead of pie-in-the-sky observations – that prospective parents perceive as promises, I desired facts. The truth. Here’s the letter I should have received well before the placement of my first three sons.
Dear Mr. Peterson,
Thank you for your continued interest in Andrew, Michael and Brandon. We have read your home study and see a possible fit with your family.
For children whose parental rights have been terminated, adoption is an incredible opportunity. We want them to thrive in their new home. We want them to reach their respective potential. Therefore, we use the term forever family.
The design of each placement is permanency.
The goal is healthy, functioning relationships.
However, perfection is not guaranteed.
When behavioral challenges erupt in the future – and they will, you must be ready.
They won’t go away on their own. In fact, they could recycle after a period of personal development.
To avoid disappointment and frustration, your expectations must remain realistic. Otherwise, the adoption could disrupt. That means parents return the children to us before the adoption is finalized in court. No one wants that to happen.
The downside of adoption is abandonment. Children lost the family that gave them life. In other words, you can’t erase history – nor should you try. It’s a part of their lives and must be respected.
Throughout the years of parenting, you will invest time talking about a birth family – one that you probably never met. Your children will have many questions, especially during adolescence. Some won’t be easy. You might even hear hateful comments.
“I never asked to be adopted.”
“You’re not my real parent.”
Although the feelings are intense, do not take the words to heart. Remain empathetic. And never over-react in a heated moment. Your child will long remember your response, particularly if it’s hurtful.
You must be aware of the early trauma. Nearly all adopted children bring their past trauma into the new home – whether from neglect or abuse. Although these experiences range from mild to severe, none can be overlooked.
They all left a lasting imprint on the brain, often before the development of language skills.
In other words, the children may not have expressed their fears with words but with maladaptive behaviors that enabled them to survive emotionally. For those behaviors that became habitual, they won’t be easily undone. Lying and stealing are two of the most common.
In the case of Andrew, Michael and Brandon, we don’t have all the facts about their initial years. However, we do know they were removed from their birth family for neglect. We do know their birth mother drank alcohol during pregnancy – which brings additional challenges from permanent brain damage. And we do know they spent several years in foster care.
Unfortunately, the whole truth may never be known.
Healing from past trauma can take years, even a lifetime. This means that the process of bonding – or attaching to you in a positive and healthy way – might not happen automatically. It may never fully develop and could lead to a diagnosed mental health condition.
Moreover, traditional parenting techniques won’t be enough. To build lasting connections, you will need to parent differently than most families in the community.
This means becoming a therapeutic parent.
Because of your children’s past, you must always make them feel safe first and foremost. You must provide high structure that enables nurturing.
Being consistent is imperative. Keeping their world small with meaningful boundaries is essential. This encourages your children to rely on you more than anyone else. And throughout the day, your efforts to parent must remain highly intentional to overcome their traumatic past.
Since progress can be painfully slow, you must be incredibly patient. Everyday. Always.
Eventually, you might feel your child is moving in the wrong direction – in spite of your efforts. If this happens, you must seek additional trauma sensitive treatment.
But finding qualified providers won’t be easy. They might come at a price. And not all professionals understand trauma – even when saying they do.
No doubt, you must research and read. Again and again. Then you can advocate with knowledge, not merely your opinion.
This includes educating others about early trauma, especially extended family members. This will reduce the possibility of triangulation – where the adopted child pits other adults against the new parents to create chaos, to manipulate and to gain control.
With that scenario, healing is impossible.
Although some funding for post-adoptive services is available, it’s not enough. Demand exceeds supply.
Should expensive out-of-home treatment become necessary for your child, we will attempt to work with you but cannot make guarantees.
If birth mothers use alcohol or various narcotics during pregnancy, trauma occurs in the womb. The brain damage in most cases is permanent. Severe neglect after birth can also change the brain. It’s called developmental trauma.
Although early milestones may be met, difficulties with learning are probable – especially when rigor increases in middle and high school. Homework will likely create daily battles. It might be impossible to complete. Unwelcome calls from teachers could follow.
If special education becomes necessary, a high school diploma might be out of reach.
With reasonable expectations that build on previous successes, children can learn basic concepts and functional skills. They just do it differently and take longer.
Lastly, we must mention complex behaviors – the not-so-welcome kind at home or school.
They have meaning. They’re rooted in control.
They also cause great pain for families.
These behaviors can become severe, put others at risk of harm, create property damage and strain family relationships. Although parents might feel compelled to impose harsh penalties, most children don’t respond to logical consequences. Cause and effect makes little sense to them.
The same goes for parents who shame the child. That approach only adds to feelings of unworthiness.
At the end of trying day, a stressed-out parent can easily escalate the behaviors they desperately want to eliminate.
Many children with past trauma believe adults can’t be trusted. To survive, they took care of themselves – even as infants. In a new home, they might resist their parents’ efforts to assume responsibility for their care.
No wonder, they’re afraid of the unknown. This fear is real and can turn into anger. And no one wants to raise an angry child.
You will need to learn the difference between discipline (to teach) and punishment (to take away). Not an easy task!
Due to ignorance about trauma, you will likely be blamed for your children’s problems. Documenting behaviors – both appropriate and inappropriate – in a daily journal is highly advised. This paper trail will allow you to communicate effectively with educators, mental health providers and child welfare case managers.
We’ve described a lot of negatives in this letter.
Our objective is not to scare you away. We’re simply being honest about the challenges, while providing hope. We look forward to finding the most appropriate family to adopt Andrew, Michael and Brandon.
Thank you again for your interest. Let us know if you have further questions or need clarification.
The Adoption Team
Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special: Working Smarter Not Harder to Raise Every ONE
To follow Craig’s progress in writing a book about raising his six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love
To follow his son Andrew’s inspiring story, “Like” his special Facebook page. Andrew Peterson Goes for the Gold