I expected a little teenage “attitude” during my adoption journey – but never the level of anger seen in five of my six children.
Over-the-top. Aggressive. Anti-social. Habitual.
The intense anger started around age 15. And lasted until 21. A long six years each time.
Interestingly, this behavior came years after the “honeymoon” period. It came well after the start of puberty. It came in spite of medication and regular visits with the psychiatrist and several trauma-informed therapists who knew their stuff.
Sadly, the seeds of anger were sown before their adoptions were finalized. That’s a huge part of early childhood trauma that society doesn’t understand – or wish to acknowledge.
Children don’t simply “get over” their past,
As if it never happened.
Anger lingers above the surface,
With a myriad of overwhelming emotions below.
While outsiders view parental neglect or abuse with a heavy hand, the involved children are usually much more forgiving. Over time my oldest son and daughter taught me a valuable lesson about blood and family ties. They’re permanent.
In far too many cases, the over-riding issue in child welfare cases is poverty, lack of education and the resulting stress – not a lack of love.
The “trauma of adoption” is very real too. In my case and probably many others, birth mothers never stop loving their children – and vice versa, regardless of circumstance.
I lost the mom and dad who gave me birth.
I lost my sense of identity.
I lost my extended family.
Each by itself is huge. Together they are a mind field, even when adoptive parents wholeheartedly attempt to keep stories of the birth family alive.
Meanwhile, the young brain is under constant stress. And the anxiety is something most adults wouldn’t be able to handle. That’s when early trauma turns into “developmental trauma.” Many milestones that parents take for granted never happen or fall short of completion.
Even with awareness, empathy and appropriate interventions, the underlying trauma condition refuses to quickly heal. Sure, band-aids cover the symptoms. Yet the child – now a teen – knows something isn’t right.
And may never be right.
Imagine feeling that way – with no end in sight.
The unanswered questions multiple – sometimes never asked. The truth often remains a mystery. Through the daily chaos at home, “the second set of parents” struggles to respond. I know that I did, especially when my patience wore thin.
In the early years of my children’s adoption, I did my best to honor their birth families, their personal histories and their sense of loss.
But the questions of about their past kept coming and coming and coming.
Emotionally-struggling teens trying to make sense of complex adult-like situations. Surviving the uncertainty surrounding them by exerting control in the wrong places.
At any cost to themselves, their parents, their families.
That’s why the process of healing can take years to begin. The teen must be ready. Forcing does no good and furthers regression. Neither does shaming.
And that’s why full recovery may not occur until middle age – or never at all.
In lieu of facts about my children’s past, I took the high road and listened. However, I couldn’t bring closure to their past pain. No matter my approach. Frankly, my compassionate responses offered only temporary relief. In fact, they probably enhanced their anxiety.
After all I was their “forever” parent. They had heard the same phrase hundreds of times. ”How lucky you are to be adopted.” So, not surprisingly, they expected me to work magic. To never say “I don’t know.”
A no-win situation on both sides.
Years later as young adults, several of my children described the triggers in their adolescent lives. They came from every direction, whether at school or in the community – some of which they couldn’t readily identity. But they existed nonetheless.
Sounds. Smells. Images. People touching them or coming too close. People acting fake and talking out both sides of their mouths. People willing to quickly judge – rather than asking the right questions.
Always reminding them of their unworthiness – thus fixated on sabotaging any means of success.
The environment provided one toxic experience upon another. Yet ironically it also provided fertile soil for the seeds of trauma to grow. Deep roots emerged.
Repressed anger bloomed in response to all the events in their lives. A never-ending growing season.
If wearing my children’s shoes, I’d be angry too. But I couldn’t absorb their anger and reflect it. The best I could do was wait for the angry moment to pass – each and every time.
- Carefully selecting my words or using no words at all.
- Never reacting. Avoiding escalation and “fight or flight,” by understanding the role of the amygdala in the brain.
- Remaining emotionally available. Taking no words personally.
- Practicing forgiveness.
- Starting fresh the following morning without an ax to grind.
- Saving consequences for the right time and place.
- Finding opportunities for personal success which, in turn, will cultivate more success.
- And modeling grace, so one day my children can do the same. DCP
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 journey in raising his six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love
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