Bent but not Broken

Bent but not Broken

"I think of how trees writhe, shake and bend during a storm. Even ice on the trees forces the branches to bend down and bow to the earth, but rarely do they break. As the thaw comes, gradually their resilience makes them spring back." (Ardath Rodale)

The study of resiliency has a lot of relevance to adoptive families. Resiliency is the set of characteristics that gives us strength "to confront the overwhelming obstacles of life." (Sagor,1996) Resiliency may be the latest version of the nature v. nurture conflict -- is it genetics or environment that determines how we deal with the difficulties in our lives? Adoptive parents are constantly confronted with the popular psychological notion that genetics and what happens to children from conception to age five forecasts their entire future. We are frightened that our adopted children won't be able to cope with losing their birth parents, that they have been moved too many times, or that their early broken attachments will never mend.

Adoptive families often struggle to feel normal, and we wonder whether we are like other families. The cultural beliefs that create this struggle are that the idealized nuclear family's influence on children is paramount, that early difficulties or trauma cannot be undone, that adversity always damages people rather than challenges them, and that children from troubled families are "doomed." These beliefs, however, are often hidden and unspoken. To compensate, strangers smile at our children and tell us how wonderful, special and admirable we are to have adopted (rescued) them. They remind us that they'd always thought of doing "something like that." They walk away from us, content with their mythological version of our adoption experience. "When the image of a child in need of a loving home is added to the idealized image of a biological family, an idealized cultural conception of an adoptive family emerges. This image feeds the cultural conception of adoption as 'happy families, comprised of a big-eyed grateful orphan, a pair of loving rescuing parents, and perhaps an enthusiastic sibling or two.'" (Eheart and Power, 1995)

In reality, adoption is created out of profound loss for everyone involved in the adoption circle. Birth parents lose the opportunity to parent children they have created, adoptive parents also lose the opportunity to parent children they have created, and adopted children lose the opportunity to grow up within their genetic clan, their birth family. Yet, by looking at the resilience, rather than the vulnerability, of adoptive families, we can focus on the strengths of birth parents, adoptive parents and adopted children as they move from loss to attachment, from sorrow to joy. Emmy Werner has done a long-term study of resilience in children. She describes resilience as "being able to fall down seven times, get up eight." Those of us in adoptive families are very familiar with falling down and picking ourselves up over and over again. Many people who have not experienced adoption personally view us as having "failed" in an important cultural way. We have failed to create a family that falls within the narrow definition of "normal." Still, William Allman, in his research on resilience in athletics, has written that one key characteristic of resilience is the ability to cope with failure.

Emmy Werner's 38 year resilience research project has  focused on 210 at-risk children on the island of Kauai. As young children in the 1950's, the risk factors for these children were poverty, perinatal stress, family discord, divorce, parental alcoholism and parental mental illness. These are the same kinds of risks that children who become available for adoptive placements have experienced. Werner found that one-third of these children developed into "caring, competent, confident adults." (Werner and Smith, 1992) More girls than boys in this group overcame great odds.  Werner found that the children's innate temperament also impacted their resilience. Her research shows that none of the resilient children had a prolonged separation from a primary caregiver during the first year of life, none had a sibling born before they turned two years old, and all had developed a close early bond with at least one caregiver. Now, these criteria may make adoptive parents panic  many of our children did not experience a calm, predictable first year of life or have an opportunity to form strong early attachments. Nevertheless, we know that lots of resilient children are able to develop new attachments with a foster parent or an adoptive parent.

Adoptive parents are often questioned about whether our children are in therapy for their attachment issues.  Werner's study indicates that the kids who overcame early adversity did not tend to seek out formal or institutional help such as professional therapy. Werner found that the resilient children turned to the adults in their lives they had grown to trust, such as teachers, coaches and clergy, because these were people they saw regularly. Remember, as adoptive parents, we, too, can have an going relationship of trust with our children that will foster resilience.

Possibly the most intriguing part of Werner's resiliency research are her findings about reading skills. She found that fourth grade reading skills were a key indicator of resilience   the higher the reading score, the more resilient the child. She encourages parents, teachers and schools to put their resources into improving reading skills. It appears to be a more effective way of fostering resilience in children than putting money into "self-esteem" programs that emphasize "feeling good," rather than academic success and life skills.

There is also interesting research on resilience being done by Steven and Sybil Wolin. They are the authors of The Resilient Self: How Survivors of Troubled Families Rise Above Adversity. (Wolin and Wolin, 1994) Their research shows that at-risk children are very often viewed as simply passive objects in their own lives with no power to impact their own success or failure. The Wolins refer to the cultural view that children are powerless, passive objects as the "damage model" of at- risk children. In their book, the Wolins encourage us to reject that model and to look at children as being active participants in their own lives. This is the "challenge model" that may enhance resilient responses in our adopted children. "With challenge-based thinking, pride drives the engine of change, whereas with the damage-based thinking  and its exclusive emphasis on the hurts of the past  shame all too often jams the gears." If the 500,000 children currently in our foster care system were viewed and taught to think of themselves as challenged rather than damaged, their chances for successful permanent placements would be greatly enhanced.

William Allman also encourages using the challenged response to develop and enhance resiliency. He found that when we act with a damaged or fearful response, our body produces a "cocktail of hormones heavily laced with cortisol." (Allman, 1994) Cortisol is the hormone the brain releases when we are under stress or in danger. Too much cortisol can interfere with short-term memory, learning and social relatedness. Allman believes that in the challenged response, the body is "flushed with adrenaline and sugar, which is most likely responsible for the sense of heightened awareness and 'flow' characteristics of a peak performance." (Allman, 1994)

Too often, adoption is viewed through the damage-model lens as the "Save-the-Child Drama." (Wolin and Wolin, 1994) This drama allows people to see adopted children as the fortunate recipients of some benevolent adult's interest and attention. As adoptive parents, we know we have been swept up in this drama when our neighbor exclaims, "Oh, aren't your children lucky!" Many times, I have repressed the impulse to say snidely, "No, nobody is lucky in adoption. In a perfect world, there would be no need for adoption" or "Oh yes, my children thank us on a daily basis for taking them away from a familiar culture, language, homeland and birth family to come to the Land of Opportunity." I much prefer the "Resilient Child Drama." In this drama, the appealing child meets the potentially interested adult. This drama describes an attachment  process rather than an event. It does not turn children into passive objects simply in need of rescue. It also reinforces the notion that an adult's potential interest is a necessary first step  the cultural expectation of "love at first sight" is an unrealistic expectation that too often leads to disappointment and self-doubt.

What can the study of resilience tell adoptive parents about attachment in adoption? Dr. Marian-Radke of the National Institutes of Health wrote a research report entitled, "Hard Growing: Children Who Survive." In that report, she describes how some resilient children shift between connecting with a caregiver and straying from that caregiver - "selectively shifting between asserting their own independence and striving for a relationship." (Wolin and Wolin, 1994) The Wolins refer to this behavior as "straying," and emphasize that straying may be a strong indicator of resilience. Think about children who have been abused or neglected by their birth parents - that is often the reason children are moved into the foster care and adoption system. Abused and neglected children must maintain some kind of connection to an abusive or neglectful parent because they depend on that person for their very survival. It's actually quite resourceful for a child to move in close to a caregiver for nurturing and connection during the times when it is safe - mom isn't drinking or dad isn't hitting. But at the first sign of stress or danger, these children are also masters at moving out of range until it is safe again. Adoptive parents are too often told by well-intended "others" that the sign of a "well-adjusted" adopted child will be instant, unambivalent attachment to us. Yet, if we understand a stressed child's survival skill  of straying and connecting, attaching and distancing, we can respect our children's need to use that behavior from time to time as they learn to love and trust us.

This gives adoptive parents the opportunity to completely redefine the current theories of attachment in adoption. Instead of using contrived, forced techniques that encourage  infantile connections to our children, we can understand their "I hate you/don't leave me" behaviors as a learned life skill that can help them become resilient. We can tell therapists, teachers, doctors, friends and family that our adopted child has learned to modify her attachments to parents and other adults as a protective mechanism. We can teach our child that we understand - "You are afraid that if you fall in love with us, we will leave you or hurt you too. You are taking care of yourself." It is this commitment to self that is so misunderstood in the adoption community. Children who connect and stray demonstrate a commitment to their own survival and a willingness to deal with problems around them. An informed attachment theory should emphasize this positive and active attitude in children who have been abused, neglected or deprived. When we recognize that connecting and straying  is a normal although different childhood behavior, we won't take our child's need for occasional distance so personally. Over time, adoptive parents can increase the times their child moves in for nurturing and connection and decrease the times when a child is straying or distancing. Remember, it takes a long time for children to rebuild their trust in the adults who care for them. It takes time for many adopted children to entrust us with their safety.

As our adopted children make the arduous journey of attachment with their new families, they must also master the resilience skill of detaching from the "damage model" of their birth families. "One discovers that destiny can be directed, that one does not have to remain in bondage to the first wax imprints on childhood sensibilities. Once the deforming mirror has been smashed, there is a possibility of wholeness. There is a possibility of joy." (Anais Nin) The developmental task for adopted children is to learn how to maintain compassion for their birth family and yet remain detached from the family troubles. It appears that resilient adopted children ultimately understand that their birth parents' problems had nothing to do with them. This comprehension allows them to view themselves as being different from their birth parents. Wolin writes that children are challenged by family troubles to experiment and respond actively and creatively. "Their pre-emptive responses to adversity, repeated over time, become incorporated into the self as lasting resiliencies."

Adoptive parents can play an important part in developing this resiliency in their children. The way kids learn to cope with adversity is by observing how their parents handle difficulty. (Webster, 1995) In the birth family, a child may learn maladaptive ways to handle problems   by self-medicating or being aggressive or depressed. When they join our adoptive families, we must model a more positive and proactive approach to facing tough times. Luckily, this kind of resilience seems to be a learned behavior. Stephen Suomi of the National Institutes of Health has studied resiliency in monkeys. He found that genetically stress-prone monkeys raised by calm foster parents became more resilient than those infant monkeys who merely inherited a low stress response from their parents. The adaptive infant monkeys learned from their adoptive parents to distinguish truly threatening situations from nonthreatening ones, and they also learned to develop and use networks of social support. (Allman, 1992)

This stress resilience and response is learned by watching. It is estimated that children learn 70% of what they learn from us in nonverbal ways. Only 30% of what we teach them is taught verbally. Remember - your children are watching you cope with life's daily realities. Pay attention to your body language, your public dealings with others and to your own physical response to stressful situations. Talk about your life experiences with your adopted children. Let them know that even as an adult you have difficult times in life. Share with your children how you felt during those times, what you thought at those times and what you did or said to cope. Our children must learn the important developmental skill of connecting their feelings with their thoughts and actions. Stress resilience must be experienced by our children as well as taught to our children. As parents, we can model behaviors for successful coping such as task commitment, the ability to dream and to set goals, and the ability to adapt to life's changes. Take every opportunity as resilient adoptive parents to share with your adopted children concrete and current evidence of successful coping   the feelings, thoughts and behaviors that help you keep things in perspective and that enable you to overcome adversity and achieve dreams and goals. Show them that they are valued members of their family and their community by giving them opportunities to make real and valuable contributions to family and community.

Resilient adoptive families value their experiences of loss and growth, joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure because resilience is not created out of only happy times. Mary Tyler Moore, whose son died by suicide, has said that pain nourishes courage. "You can't be brave if only wonderful things happen to you." Hemingway wrote that "the world breaks everyone. And afterward some are strong in the broken places." But as resilient families, we can't buy into the current political definition of resilience. Many politicians want to take away social supports and shelters from those (mostly women and children) who most need them. These politicians justify their decisions to wipe out social programs by insisting that people need to make it on "inborn strengths, fierce independence and rugged individualism. In the larger world of politics, admiration for the resilient now goes hand in hand with contempt for the vulnerable." (Schwartz, 1997)

Our adopted children are vulnerable, the birth families they come from are vulnerable, and we are vulnerable as adoptive families because we are not considered to be normal. We need to model a resiliency that is created out of compassion rather than contempt. Compassionate resilience is what strengthens adoptive families, especially when life is hard. Resilient adoptive parents show their adopted children how to move toward, rather than away from, their pain and sorrow. (Schwartz, 1997) We must model for them the compassionate ways we have learned to deal with our own adoption pain  what we learned about ourselves, each other and our commitment to being parents through the infertility, pregnancy and child loss, and dashed dreams that led us to adoption. It is not only adopted children who have experienced pain and trauma in adoption. Adoptive parents are wounded healers. Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, writes that "it is unconditional compassion for ourselves that leads to unconditional compassion for others. . . . Only to the degree we've related to pain at all will we be fearless enough, brave enough and enough of a warrior to be willing to feel the pain of others." As compassionately resilient adoptive parents, we can model doggedness, mastery, moral courage, love and hope. Our adopted children can grow into adults who are optimists, who believe that it is possible to transcend sorrow and fear, and that things do change.


"How you handle loss, injury, grief, challenge  even positive changes  determines whether or not you will continue to grow more resilient. Each time you bounce back from a setback, you are strengthening your resiliency . . .  and resiliency is learned and developed throughout a lifetime." (Warschaw, 1995)

1."Good timber does not grow with ease; the stronger the wind, the stronger the trees." (J. Willard Marriott) Family resiliency comes from family crisis - both birth family and adoptive family!

2.Take charge: Adult-centered families are stronger than child-centered families!

3.Failure is feedback: The strongest families emerge from painful experiences with depth, energy and problem-solving abilities!

4.Optimistic families are healthier families: We can learn to resist helplessness and to strengthen our ability to create change.

5.Emphasize "doing" rather than "feeling:" Feeling good or having "good self-esteem" is not the same as being good or doing good!

6.Parenting is an experiment: Let go of the cultural myths of unconditional love and parental omnipotence! Remember, Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best were television shows!

7.Break the rules: Improvise parenting and family life and take great leaps of faith!

8.What you reward is often what you get: Pay attention to the behaviors you love rather than those you don't. We become the family we think we are!

9.We need humor and laughter to be resilient: When in doubt, make a fool of yourself! Do something to share your humanity and make your children laugh!

10.Connect: Create rituals, celebrations, stories, routines and traditions that honor the adoptive family - we are different but normal! Connect and celebrate with family, friends, communities and countries!


Allman, William and Bowermaster, David, The Inner Game of Winning, US News & World Report, v116, February 14, 1994.

Eheart, Brenda and Power, Martha, Adoption: Understanding the Past, Present, and Future Through Stories, Sociological Quarterly, v36, 1995.

Rodale, Ardath, Resilience, Prevention, v49, April, 1997.

Sagor, Richard, Building Resiliency in Students, Educational Leadership, v54, Sept. 1996.

Schwartz, Richard, Don't Look Back, The Family Therapy Networker, March/April 1997.

U.S. News & World Report, Invincible Kids, November 11, 1996.

Warschaw, Tessa and Barlow, Dee, Resiliency: How to Bounce Back, MasterMedia, Ltd., 1995.

Webster, Harriet and Boone, Sharon, Kids Who Bounce Back, Woman's Day, v58, Sept. 1, 1995.

Werner, E.  and R. Smith, Vulnerable But Invincible: A Longitudinal Study of Resilient Children and Youth, Adams, Bannister & Cox, 1989

Werner, E. and R. Smith, Overcoming the Odds: High Risk Children from Birth to Adulthood, Cornell University Press, 1992.

Wolin, Steven and Wolin, Sybil, The Resilient Self, Villard Books, 1994.

Used with permission from Dr. Dee Paddock.  Please visit her website at

Dr. Paddock is a psychotherapist and speaker in Denver Colorado.

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