When our first daughter was born, everything was just as it should be. She was full-term. Her birth-mom did not drink or smoke or use drugs. She took her pre-natal vitamins and ate a healthy diet. Our daughter was placed in our arms just minutes after birth. From the moment she entered the world, all was right. She developed appropriately. She walked and talked on time. She ate all the right foods and transitioned to a big girl bed with ease. We were absolutely certain there would never be a bump in the road with this child. We were convinced she would have smooth sailing as she developed and matured.
When our subsequent children were adopted, they came from a much different beginning. Many of them suffered pre-natal drug and alcohol exposure, abuse and neglect. They were in multiple foster homes and in and out of the foster care system for years. Some of our children were so malnourished their hair had turned orange. Trauma played a significant role in the lives of our other children. Their start to life effected their development. One daughter didn’t speak until she was 4 years old. Another child feared lack of food and hid things under the bed. Another acted aggressively toward others as a way to combat fear. Still another child did not sleep through the night for almost 7 years.
As it turns out, none of our children have had a perfect life. In their humanity they struggle just as we all do. However, our daughter who had a healthy start to life is now a part of a family which includes those who have not had the natural advantages that a healthy start provides. She has suffered secondary trauma as a result of watching her brothers and sisters struggle through their own trauma.
We can’t imagine our family without all of our children and if we could go back we wouldn’t change our decision to adopt every single one. As we look back, we have learned four key things about helping our typically developing child cope with our non-typical family.
- Give all children a safe place to share. Often it can be difficult to hear our children struggle through relationships with their siblings. It is tempting to jump to defending the other children or even our own choice to adopt them. Don’t. Just listen and provide a safe place for your child to share. Chances are, once they know they can share openly, they will also feel a desire to share the good along with the difficult parts of their life. When our daughter was 10 she informed us that she was going to adopt children with FASD because she knows how hard life can be for them and she has learned what it takes to be patient. As parents, we knew how hard this life had been on her and we wouldn’t have guessed that she was feeling a sense of purpose as a sister in this family. Thankfully we had our ears open and ready to hear her heart.
- Seek a greater support system. It is good for our children to know they have our support but there are some things they will just never want to share with mom and dad. It is important to seek out caring and educated adults for our children to add to their support system. This could be a teacher, an adult adoptee, an adult sibling of an adoptee, an extended family member or even a professional. Sometimes our children who are developing typically get lost in the shuffle. Finding a therapist who will encourage all the children and work with the family as well as the child who is not exhibiting the extreme behaviors can be a healthy choice for all families.
- Carve out time. The child who is not seeking attention or demanding attention still needs attention. In a family with special needs, it is easy to focus on the child who has the most needs. It is ok to find respite for your higher needs children while you spend time with those who do not need as much. Take your child for ice-cream, on a trip to run errands, to the park or even on a mini-vacation. It doesn’t have to be a grand adventure, just spend time. Remind the child that you see who they are and who they are becoming.
The child who is not seeking attention or demanding attention still needs attention.
- Do not entertain guilt. Is life more difficult for everyone while you are raising a non-typical child? Yes. Of course it’s more difficult. No matter what the circumstance, we never parent out of guilt. It is important to remind all of our children that we are exactly the family we are meant to be. We may have to parent our children differently based on the level of need, but we always love fairly and unconditionally.
In our own family, we have seen growth and maturity beyond what we thought possible by taking time out for each of our children despite the level of need.
Are you working to help your typically developing kids cope with your non-typical kids? Share your story with us in the comment section below.