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You Ain’t Crazy

Since our last newsletter, Holt hosted Jayne Schooler, author of “Wounded Children, Healing Homes,” in an excellent webinar about understanding the impact parenting traumatized children has on adoptive parents. I want to provide you with a review of that presentation.

We all have expectations in life. Understanding and managing expectations is a critical issue. When it comes to parenting, there exists a very fine line between wishes, hopes, dreams and expectations. Parents who are mindful of family life end up downsizing or shifting hopes and dreams (aka expectations) as they get to know their child’s unique gifts. Families that don’t do this are typically the ones that encounter the most difficulties, sometimes even ending in a disrupted adoption.

Jayne Schooler presented ten common parental expectations that cause difficulty in attachment:

  1. Our love will be enough.
  2. I will feel love and connection to this child quickly.
  3. This child will step into our family and easily learn how to function within our “rules,” goals, and ambitions.
  4. This child’s needs will be just like those of our biological children.
  5. Our child will fit well into our extended family and be welcomed by them.
  6. My friends and acquaintances will validate my role as parent in our child’s life and support us through the adoption process and beyond.
  7. Our child will see us as her family and forget about her birth family and her past.
  8. We can do for this child what was not done for us.
  9. We will not do to this child what was done to us.
  10. I will never feel any regrets or ambivalence in adopting this child with a traumatic past.

Jayne brought into her presentation the new term describing that better conceptualizes what struggles our children face – “complex developmental trauma,” or what used to be called “reactive attachment disorder.”   I recently wrote about this concept in Holt’s magazine. This phrase captures the reality of what your child may have experienced and how it impacts them as they try to adjust and bond in their adoptive family. When we are in a calm state, we have access to our entire brain to help problem solve whatever comes our way. However, if something puts us in an alert mode, we access a smaller portion of our brain, and it’s not the “smart thinking” part of our brain. If whatever put us into an alert mode continues, we can be pushed across our fear threshold and into our primitive brain, responding with only fight, flight, or freeze.

Many children with trauma history live in a state of constant fear, it is all they have ever known so they don’t realize what feeling calm is like. Fear is an extremely powerful emotion and living in this state for a long time creates a global neurological affect that includes: setting up protective strategies, suppressing the conscience, shutting off access to the cortex or the thinking part of our brain, altering brain chemistry, preventing the child from being able to discern the needs of others, and suppressing the child’s voice, resulting in what is labeled “bad behavior.” Jayne listed six domains of impairment, they are: attachment, biology, emotional regulation, dissociation, behavioral control, cognition, and self-concept. What an exhaustive list! Fear affects children in a variety of different areas and ways, and the increasing strain on parents is incremental and may not be noticeable on a daily basis. Jayne had a very startling analogy of a frog in boiling water. Apparently if you put a frog in a pot of room temperature water and heat it to boiling, the frog does not detect the rising temperature and dies. However, if you put a frog into a pot of boiling water the frog will jump out!  Suddenly parents may find themselves getting overwhelmed, angry, and frustrated. They may even start feeling like they can’t do this anymore.

How does this happen? Remember the attachment cycle you learned about in your parenting classes? The baby has a need, cries and parents relieve the baby’s stress (hunger, wet diaper, is cold or hot), baby is soothed and then all is calm again. Baby then comes to know the parent as a source of comfort. Older children’s needs are often colored by their hyper arousal, which looks like bad behavior. Parents are human and can get caught in a “negative responses” cycle, which doesn’t fill the child’s need. Some therapists say, the child is miscuing the parent about what they need. This creates a downward spiral.

There is research clarifying the impact on moms. Here are the facts: sixty-seven percent reported marital issues, 61% financial stress, 77% anger/rage, 50% were on medication for depression, 77% felt isolated and 93% wanted to run away from it all.

A questionnaire was also given to a small sample of dads.  Here are three questions and the dads’ responses: 

  1. Does your wife seem to be struggling more than you in the relationship(s) with your child(ren)?

              48% of dads said their wives were struggling more, 34% said “same,” and 18% said “less.”

  1. Are you purposeful in spending quality time with your wife to work through the issues that your children are facing?

              54% said “no,” 35% said “yes,” and 11% said “sometimes.”

  1. Are you purposeful in spending one-on-one time with each of your children?

              75% said “no,” 20% said “yes,” and 5% said “sometimes.”

Caring for a child who is in the throes of traumatic reactions to daily life experiences can lead to parental trauma as well.  This is called vicarious trauma, and paying attention to the warning signs is vital. How do you know if this is happening to you? Here are the symptoms to watch for in yourself or your spouse: no time or energy for yourself, disconnection from loved ones, social withdrawal, a short fuse, or cynicism, negativity, irritability, diminished self-capacities, unclear thoughts, nightmares, and despair or hopelessness.

If this sounds like you then there are some guiding principles. Seek a mentor or a circle of support, connect with a therapist for yourself and an adoption competent therapist for your child, be honest about your expectations and be willing to downsize them, contact your social worker even if it is years since you have last talked to her or him and open a conversation about post adoption emotions.

Abbie Smith, LCSW | Former Holt team member

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