We adopted Leo and Sam only six weeks ago, and there are already obvious signs of healing. I should backtrack and say that every adoption begins with loss. Adopted children lose their birth parents. It’s a sad truth that remains with every adoptee forever. A new family cannot simply negate the feelings of abandonment, but a loving family can help the child’s heart heal. Our family provides the children with a sense of safety too.
It’s amazing how we take safety for granted. Our biological children learned since birth that I will keep them safe. I will catch them, fight for them, and meet their every need, all of the time. Older adopted children do not believe this to be true. Somewhere in the back of their heads, they always feel the need to ensure their own survival. We see it in subtle ways every day, and all we can do is constantly show them that they will always be safe in our home. For instance, we’ve had to take a hard stance against bullying and teasing. The teens can “joke” with each other sometimes, but the “just kidding” usually slides into bullying if we don’t intervene.
Our adopted sons, particularly Leo, were under the constant stress of survival before they joined our family. As I mentioned in a previous post, Leo often acted like a wild animal the first few weeks. He was in flight or fight mode every minute. Thankfully, he is healing faster than we hoped. He is learning to trust us to keep him safe and meet his needs. David and I are starting to anticipate the activities that are Leo’s stress triggers, and we are able calm his fears before they overwhelm and claim his poor exhausted soul.
For example, when Leo spills a cup of water, he immediately begins to scratch his head and arms. He will scratch himself absolutely raw when he is scared. Or he will bite his own arm until he breaks the skin, if we do not intervene. I’m guessing that small spills were a serious offense in the orphanage, and Leo was probably punished when he spilled. We won’t hurt him, so he hurts himself. Now, I simply serve Leo all his drinks in a cup with a lid. No spills lessen the daily stress. Reduced stress means no furious scratching. As the stress of daily life is reduced, Leo is rapidly changing his own behaviors. He rarely hurts himself anymore, and he never hits or pinches me now. For this reason, we seldom implement “time out” or any other punishment when Leo is misbehaving. We’ve found that standard measures of discipline only add to Leo’s stress and exacerbate the behaviors.
What we’ve learned from adopting Leo is that parenting an older hurt child requires a different way of parenting. Our son was so traumatized by orphanage life that our first priority is to help him heal and bond. Only after he heals we can guide him to appropriate behaviors. This is not to say that we don’t get angry and frustrated sometimes, and act accordingly. We are NOT saints. We lose our cool and yell at our kids, just like every other parent. We just try harder to remain calm now. Older child adoption is challenging, yes, but every challenge we meet brings us growth. How much can we grow as a family? We shall see. We have to remember, the difference between try and triumph is a little umph.