This is a guest post by author and therapist Ron Nydam (PhD). Ron specializes in helping adoptive family’s develop and connect in a healthy, positive way. His latest book, Wise Adoptive Parenting, helps families better connect to their children, and adoptees feel heard and understood. You can pick up your very own copy by clicking here.
Many parents who are new to the adoption journey wonder what it takes to make good things happen in the development of their children. They may wonder day after day how to find a way to be effective with their children who frustrate their first attempts at helping them manage his or her behavior. Parenting quickly becomes a guessing game as to what might work and might not work when a child’s behavior is out of control, or over the rails in terms of everyday family life.
Quickly, this becomes a complex interaction with no easy answers to helping a child live successfully in a new family.
So many variables come into play. Neglect, to name one. There may be neglect in the early days of a child’s life. So much so that a child bangs his or her head on the side of something because even physical pain is better than the profound silence and deep emptiness of ongoing neglect. Prenatal drug use may result in lifelong cognitive difficulties whereby thinking clearly is by itself a difficult, or impossible, task. And, as we know so well from recent news media, the sexual abuse of children is all-too common in today’s world. And, quite understandably, such an early tragedy in life will have profound impingements on healthy normal development.
Moments of dissociation that adoptive parents may observe in their children abused in this way become understandable when we think about how the child has to mentally and emotionally manage such a trauma. PTSD (Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder), as the diagnosis has come to be called, is not really post–traumatic. Your child is not beyond trauma; your child is living with, and coping with, trauma day after day after day. In fact, a child becoming post-traumatic is the goal in effective parenting.
A child becoming post-traumatic is the goal of effective parenting.
As human beings, we must bond to other people in order to grow up well, and to be whole as emotional and as spiritual persons. From the beginning of time we were built for connection.
Our kiddos need this. But often times, real, healthy connection can be tainted from early experiences that were traumatic.
Spiritually speaking, it is quite understandable that adoptees who are growing up may find the idea of a loving God very difficult to believe. A loving father in heaven is quite difficult to imagine when an abusive father on earth is a child’s first father experience. Understandably, these first injuries to the soul may cause major issues in and adoptive family’s life. It’s not the child’s fault. They are behaving from a place of fear, and fight, because that’s what they learned in their past abusive environment.
And in these circumstances, children can hold a family hostage with the power of their negative behavior. This renders methods of parenting, that may work for other children, in-effective. The “thick” psychological defenses they have constructed in order to survive make parenting an incredible challenge.
A very well-meaning family heard the call and the challenge to adopt a little girl from China. These parents believed that parenting this little girl would be quite similar to parenting their biological children. On one occasion, as her older siblings squealed with delight when their father held them up in the air by their legs, she screamed in terror! She was beside herself with her tears and fearful of her father’s grip.
These parents made the mistake of assuming that what is good for one child by birth is good for another child by adoption. Specifically, with regard to parenting methods of discipline, they discovered that things were certainly not the same. This little girl hardly ever allowed a hug. Consistently she fought snuggling up in the neck of her new mother. Arguments to convince their daughter to behave in a certain way, to brush her teeth for example, had very little traction in managing her behavior. Timeouts were a horrible experience (re-experiencing abandonment once again), and any threat of a consequence would only lead to more distress in their daughter.
It was only when they learned that they needed to approach their situation with unemotional objectivity, name the problems they were having, and calmly discuss the options, that some progress was made in helping this precious girl manage her life and her world. The biggest movement came through choosing to pursue her and connect to her even when she pushed them away.
Bottom line: these were parents who refused to give up on her. And that was a game-changer. They were quite determined to manage the significant stress of being her parents and committing themselves to her care, despite the newly learned reality that traditional parenting methods were in-effective. As a mother and father, they had to face the challenge of re-learning how to respond in a more stressful way to her trauma.
So what’s the point of all of this? When push comes to shove in the adoption narrative; through all of our trauma training, and attachment understanding, research and understanding (which are all highly valuable), it is still the relationship that matters most. Children who have experienced major trauma in the past need to know they have parents who will never give up, even through the excruciating moments. Despite testing, and therapy, and training, the most important thing you and I can do as we parent these precious children, is work to connect with them day in and day out. This is the key to becoming an effective parent. Even when our children fight the very arms that love them.
How has your relationship with your children changed the game for your family? What are you still struggling with?