One adoptive mom shares the lessons she and her husband learned as they helped their children overcome the effects of early trauma.
When I was a little girl, I had two life dreams: become a doctor and have ten kids. Well, I didn’t become a doctor (although I’ve watched enough episodes of Grey’s Anatomy to become a pseudo doctor), but I did have ten kids! Five came through the miracle of birth, and five came through the miracle of adoption. Three of our children were adopted at older ages: 6, 7 and 10. It’s been one of the most challenging experiences of my life — but infinitely rewarding!
The more I’ve parented, the more I realize that each child is different and what works for one, won’t necessarily work for another. Lessons come through trial and error — and lots of mistakes. Wisdom comes through the shared gift of those who have journeyed ahead of us. I still have much to learn, but some lessons have become family foundations.
The first lesson was to prepare, prepare — but NOT for the child I thought would be joining our home. I learned to put aside ideas of what my child’s personality and development would be like, because the short description we were given pre-adoption was just a snapshot in time. Once our child came home, the “shy child” began to show her true spicy-girl colors and the “overly active leader” melded quietly into the family fold. I learned that the still, smiling photo on our fridge would become the loud, giggling child who would also tantrum, throw up and wet the bed — just like any other child, and yet different than any other child.
I learned to read books that helped me understand the effects of trauma, abuse and neglect. My favorites were “The Connected Child” by Karyn Purvis, and “Attaching in Adoption” by Deborah Gray. An incredibly helpful article was found online: Deborah Gray’s “Top Ten Tips for the First Year of Placement.” I learned to ask the advice of fellow adoptive parents and discovered the most important tip was to treat my newly adopted children like babies, allowing them to regress, be dependent and repeat developmental stages. Older kids have to be taught how to play, make friends and trust. We had practiced attachment parenting with our babies and found the same principles worked well with our older adoptees — answering their needs quickly, finding ways to touch and even allowing them to sleep in our bedroom when they first came home.
I learned I can’t erase my children’s past. I can only come alongside them and help their wounds heal and scar — even though they sometimes break open again. I now know that even children with the most tragic history miss what they’ve lost and the people they’ve left — even if that person hurt them the most. Every child was loved by someone — even if it was only their crib mate. They’ve lost their culture, language, friends, nannies and foster families. They’ve lost their birth families.
I learned to constantly ask myself if I was a person my child would WANT to bond with. Was I making myself easy to love and showing them through my words and actions they could trust me? When I messed up (again!) did I apologize? It helped that we’ve never used physical forms of discipline, but it was also important to carefully and positively engage my children when they needed to learn a family rule — and we kept only basic rules in the very beginning. I kept my newly adopted kids nearby, in order to monitor, teach and bond. We played simple games, danced, laughed and teased; playful silliness helped ease their fears.
I learned that food = trust. Giving my kids open access to healthy foods taught them they didn’t need to hoard food — it was always available! When they first came home, it meant allowing them to keep non-perishable food in a backpack in their bedroom, even though our general rule is to keep food in the kitchen. It was an emotional need. And honestly, they did need to eat frequently because they had a lot of growing to do from lack of proper nutrition. Our daughter, adopted at age 10, gained 20 pounds and grew 6 inches her first year home — and she still wore a size slim! She needed nourishment that wouldn’t have been found by only allowing meals. Another daughter needed lots of familiar foods like rice, noodles and cooked greens.
My kids thrived on structure to their days, routines they could count on, and follow-through on the smallest of promises. Did I tell them I would go to the store to buy pencils for school? Then I must! In the same regard, if I wasn’t sure we would be getting ice cream after dinner, then I shouldn’t mention it! Our daughter loved to repeat the same outing every single Friday — the library, the duck pond, then McDonalds (and yes, because our daughter took a long time to attach I was not above bribing her with a Happy Meal!). Even now, we keep a calendar of weekly activities posted in our kitchen. All our kids like knowing the schedule, but our older adoptees check it the most.
I’m so thankful for all the adoptive families and professionals who helped us along the way. Adopting an older child has given a lifetime of lessons, with many more to come, I’m sure. And the very best lesson? The best lesson is learning that a leap of faith results in the incredible joy of watching my children grow, change and begin to imagine their own life dreams — dreams of becoming a shoe designer, or a video game creator or, perhaps, a doctor.
Shila Henderson | Portland, Oregon