Abbie Smith, LCSW, shares how parents can help older adopted children heal from the trauma in their past. To learn more, contact us about Holt’s adoption-competent therapy program, and the resources available for your child and family.
An older child without a family has many life experiences we can’t even dream of. In Mongolia, Holt is working to provide children with indoor toilets and warm showers. In China, children with HIV are treated like “lepers” of centuries ago. In the Philippines, children growing up without families find shelter in cardboard boxes and warmth from burning trash. The lack of love and nurturing care in orphanages can be a trauma in and of itself. Their experiences vary, but the trauma many older children experience ultimately impacts their growth and development. But there is hope. With the right training, parents can help their older adopted child to heal.
Parents, however, cannot do this alone. And nor should they be expected to.
They need professional and personal support from others who understand the commitment and dedication it takes to help a child feel safe in the world after such a difficult beginning. You can think of these kids as being off course in their development, or some may even be developmentally stuck at the age when the trauma occurred. Helping kids recover from early adversity requires parents who are able to learn new ways of parenting and learn from a variety of sources such as Holt parenting groups, adoption-competent therapists and books. Most critical is parents’ understanding that these horrible beginnings necessitate a different parenting approach. — an approach referred to as “trauma-informed parenting.” This term has become much more common over the past decade as we now know that healthy attachment is a critical component of trauma-informed parenting.
It’s hard to know exactly how older children will respond to the stress of international adoption. Often, they have a hard time seeing the big picture and the benefits of having a family. Developmentally, they may not be able to think beyond their immediate distress and believe the heartache and fear they experience in the transition will define their future. Others, from some experience in their past, have some resilience to draw on and are able to cultivate a more positive outlook. For all children, the transition is fraught with fear and tension. They worry that their adoptive parents will not love them, they worry about being able to learn English, they deeply grieve the relationships they left behind, or because of cultural norms and expectations many older boys in long-term foster care worry that their foster mother will die without their protection and support. Many girls who are quiet, obedient, academic and seem like they have eased well into their new American life later share that this compliance was in fear of being sent away. What a burden of worries and troubles for children to carry while going through one of the largest, most difficult transitions in their life: international adoption.
But over and over, we’ve seen many Holt parents successfully bring stability and healing to their child’s life. It is our mission to provide the very best training and tools to our adoptive parents, staying on top of the most relevant research so that we can equip you as well as possible.
But as the parent, you remain the pivotal factor.
If you’re considering adoption, you may wonder what specific qualities will make an adoptive parent successful as a parent to an older adopted child. Here are a few:
Curiosity is an important quality of successful adoptive parents, and it can be expressed in many ways. Your first curiosity should be about your child’s history. Do you truly care and show curiosity about the difficult things that have happened to her? Second, be curious about the emotions that drive her behavior. Behavior is a child’s language when they don’t have words for what they’re feeling. It’s how they communicate if early in life they learned that no one responded to their cries, denying their “voice.” Third, be curious about physical issues that could be underlying her behavior. Kids with traumatic histories have a very low tolerance for dehydration, low blood sugar or lack of sleep. Curiosity means being a good detective by discerning minute clues about what your child needs. Curiosity is also wanting to know about what other adoptive parents are doing — what have they tried, what worked and what didn’t work? Parents should also be curious about what researchers say about new techniques to calm a child’s fear and foster attachment. Maintaining a curious mind can leave the parenting relationship open for all sorts of possibilities! Being curious about your child’s behavior crowds out blame, judgement, self-doubt and hopelessness. Curiosity keeps your mind moving forward and your parenting relationship growing.
Combine curiosity with flexibility and you have a winning combination! Curiosity helps discover what your child needs to heal, and flexibility helps you respond well to these needs. Flexibility means being able to try new things. This could mean not doing what your parents did — because you’ve learned about the “different” kind of parenting your child needs from you in order to heal. It also means being flexible when your friends or relatives criticize your different way of parenting, and creating an open environment for them to be curious about your healing form of parenting.
Older children bring enormous opportunity and blessing to everyone in their adoptive family. Parents are challenged — in a good way — to become more engaged and curious about what makes their child tick. Cultivating our ability to respond with curiosity can enrich our relationship with everyone in our lives. Responding with flexibility in our parenting lays the foundation for a child to heal from their past.
Abbie Smith, LCSW
Do you live in Oregon or Illinois? There’s a Holt adoption-competent therapist right in your state! Or, If you live in a different state, contact us for referrals to adoption experts near you. Learn more here, or contact us for a consultation!