The Invisible Disability

In a recent article, I wrote about the difficulties parents can face with their “child from a hard place.” The hard stuff doesn’t get enough exposure. The time it takes for older children to securely attach is not clearly laid out, nor is the pivotal role parents play in building the environment that creates safety for their child to open up and let the love in. Anyone adopting a child who is old enough to walk is adopting “a child from a hard place.” These kids have differences that love and typical parenting cannot transform into the loving bonds of a secure attachment. These differences impact all areas of their lives, like their ability to get along with peers, teachers, family members, to learn in school, to organize themselves, to play sports, to just plain tolerate input from their seven sensory systems. These differences usually are not visible; they are hidden away in alterations in brain structure and brain chemistry. These differences pack a huge wallop though! They really are an invisible disability.

There is another aspect to this invisibility. Our kids seem to hold it together out in public but as soon as they walk in the door at home, someone pulls the switch and their differences are front and center.  That cute and adorable persona is gone and they fall apart.  These are not 10-minute meltdowns of a difficult transition home, but meltdowns that color the whole family’s evening. These meltdowns are not soothed by words, hugs, parental apologies, kisses, or controlled by promises of a reward for turning around the behavior. The meltdowns our kids have behind closed doors are the “fight for your life” meltdowns. The primitive area of their brain hijacks the thinking part of their brain, and they truly believe they are fighting for their lives. They can pose a threat to pets, siblings and, depending on their size, to parents as well.  Their lashing out includes hitting, kicking, biting, spitting, throwing things and breaking things; there is no limit to what might happen. These displays of intense fear or rage are not over once the child calms down. They can leave the parent exhausted, scared, and trigger deep-seated grief about your child’s struggles. Everyone can end up in pain, including the siblings. It doesn’t really help when well-intentioned professionals or friends tell you that the reason she acts this way around you is because she trusts you the most. Well some days you probably wish s/he didn’t trust you quite so much!

In the past, if there were problems in an adopted child’s behavior, the child was blamed and usually labeled with Reactive Attachment Disorder. Today, most parents shudder with fear when they hear this and are enveloped with hopeless. Many flaws exist with this label. One obvious flaw is that attachment is a two way street, it is back and forth, a reciprocal relationship. Each member responds to the other.  If attachment is not being established, whose responsibility is it to seek out help? The child can’t, so that leaves it to the adult to find a way to build the relationship. Just like teaching children with differing abilities, the curriculum is adjusted or the way the material is presented is altered to meet the abilities of the child. A child who can’t see is not expected to read text.  They are provided with brail. A child who can’t hear is taught sign language, and their whole family learns sign language. These differences are very visible and we are easily reminded to change our approach to them. This is not a far cry from our “children from hard places.” Some major differences though are that our children’s hidden fear can cripple them and be directed at us in very hurtful ways. It is hard not to view it as intentional, but it may not be. Our children often have sensory processing issues that can be so painful for them that they lash out aggressively. Our children have altered brain chemistry that causes them to over-react to minor inconveniences and explode as if they are fighting for their life. They come to us with very few skills for coping with stress, and often all they have to choose from is what we all are born with, fight, flight, or freeze responses.

For older kids, toddlers and up, expect about two years of parenting to create the relationship of caring, loving reciprocity. Some parent-child “dyads” need longer than this and some never reach this place. There is a parenting “style” that can greatly reduce the time traditionally needed for creating a secure attachment with children from hard places. This “style” is taught in the Trust Based Relational Intervention parenting approach. This is research-based, and has been successfully used by parents who are willing to change their thinking and interactions with their children.  The key to success is creating felt safety in your child. Felt safety is needed to allow changes in a child’s brain chemistry and brain structure that leads to trust. Once a child feels safe, they develop trust in you. Developing trust is the lesson of the first year of life. All those times an infant’s cries are soothed in the first year result in trust. This is followed by the second big lesson in life: the parent is in control.  Trust then control, this is the natural order of things.  This is what Karyn Purvis, Ph.D. calls investment parenting; it takes thought, mindfulness, commitment, self awareness, time, and a willingness to wait for dividends. One other thing it takes is support. Maybe sharing this article with your non-adoptive parent friends will increase their understanding of what can go  on in the privacy  your home.

5 Comments on “The Invisible Disability

  1. I agree 100% but would argue you do not need to limit this to children “old enough to walk.” Children adopted at ANY age, even at birth, can have their brains affected by the trauma inherent in adoption.

  2. Abbie:

    Excellent article on “The Invisible Disability”. You covered this extremely difficult aspect of older child adoption very well. At times I thought you had been in our home!! We have and continue to live through this with our two oldest adopted daughters from Romania and India respectively.

    While you touch on many of the issues that parents/child face often times there are deep seated scars that the adoption agency/parent doesn’t even realize until well after the adoption has taken place. Also, I can’t emphasize enough that it is the parent’s responsibility to get help. We have worked extremely hard with therapists, psychiatrists, the school system and the judicial system to get our daughters the help they need. While this has at times been more than frustrating and often felt like we were the one’s on trial, looking back it has been that help that has allowed our girls to make tremendous strides and give us the feeling that we have turned a corner to some degree.

    Keep up the good work, this insight is necessary for all parents to understand what they could be facing and they need to have a sobering reality check to make sure they have the intestinal fortitude to deal with the problems they will (not might) face.

    Andy Bailey

  3. Abbie,

    Based on our own personal experience, no truer words were ever spoken. Hannah is doing well now, some seven years after we adopted her in China. Fortunately, we had help from a particularly knowledgeable and caring mental health professional who wisely, but judiciously, has treated Hannah with a medication. I have no doubts that it has helped.


    Steve Brandt

  4. I can so related to this article. Both of my children were adopted in the U.S. following 3 and 4 years in unstable homes affected by drug and alcohol abuse, as well as domestic violence. The “invisible disability” isn’t limited to international adoption. After 9 years we still work on aspects of attachment on a daily basis with a team of qualified professionals. People often criticize my parenting, not understanding what my children have been through and not understanding where their behaviors come from. I feel I’m tested daily. However, my children are very precious to me and I’m so glad I chose to adopt.

  5. We were totally unprepared for the rage out 6 yr. old son adopted from China was capable of. From the day he arrived in our home he was angry a year and a half later he still works hard at making every day a challenging day. We continue to struggle to find mental health professsionals who will help him. He has made some progess but it has taken a huge toll on our family. It is like the joy has been sucked out of our home. We are very isolated by having a child going through this adjustment. Our older son can not have friends over due to his little brother’s temper tantrums and date nights for mom and dad don’t exist. I would tell anyone adopting an older child research a lot, talk to a variety people who have adopted older children, and prepare your self for an exhausting journey ahead.

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