Proactive Parenting in Adoptive Families

Proactive Parenting in Adoptive Families

You thought adoption would live up to the myth about being a magical, wonderful, incredible experience. But if that's true, why is your child so angry, sad or fearful? Why is your homelife filled with temper tantrums, tears, fears and seemingly endless power struggles?

Although adoption is a wonderful way to build families, adopted children don't always like it. How many adoptees get up every day and say, "Thank you for separating me forever from my birth family?" They want to be like other kids, and most other kids aren't adopted. In fact, it is estimated that adoptees make up only 5% of the U.S. population.

Adopted kids know they're different. Remember when being different at school was the worst possible thing that could happen? In a study of second-grade children who were told that one of their classmates was adopted, the most common response was, "I'm sorry."

They're not only different, they've already faced one of the hardest lessons life has to teach. They have lost their birth parents and will have to confront the reality that painful, sad things can happen to them. For most of us who are not adopted, having a parent die or losing a parent through divorce may be the biggest loss we'll ever know. Our parent is gone and we're on our own, without protection, guidance and unconditional love. There is a huge hole in our lives. When this loss occurs in adulthood, we know it's not our fault - we're not all-powerful and we didn't do anything to cause it. Our adopted children, however, experience this loss from a child's perspective - they do think they're omnipotent and, therefore must have done something to cause what happened.

Can't Change Their Past
From time to time, adopted children really wish their lives had turned out differently. And that's a normal part of their developmental process. They know they can't change their pasts. They tell me, "I was helpless - I couldn't keep her with me" - "her" being the birth mother. They think, "I should have been able to change things and she would still be with me." They feel a part of them is missing and it's somehow their fault.

We don't talk enough about the things that hurt in adoption. So when our children say, "I miss my birth mother," we try to "fix" their pain with consoling words like "Mommy and daddy wanted you so much to be in our family." But to our children, it sounds as though we don't listen when they try to communicate their reality. And even when we do listen well, they can't be fully comforted because they don't yet understand their own feelings. So anger and frustration, or sadness and anxiety result. Though these are normal responses for children, they can become a problem when they affect their emotional growth and development ... and when they negatively affect their relationships and self-esteem. Other kids may not want to spend time with these children. Parents and siblings may have trouble falling in love and staying in love with some adopted children because of the behaviors those feelings cause.

How Anger, Depression and Anxiety Show Up
Here are some behavioral clues that indicate ways adopted children may explore and express their feelings.

Aggression - Adopted children often use aggressive behaviors to keep parents distant. They think, "I won't let what happened to my birth mom happen again. You're going to hurt me by leaving, so I'll hurt you first. This time, I'm staying in control and you can't come close." Their survival strategy is to keep people away.

Lying or Stealing and Hoarding - Lying is a way of saying, "You can't know me. I'm not going to tell you the truth about who I am because if I do, I've let you in. I will live in a world I can control because I'm the one in charge of what's true and false." Children will even lie about crazy things ... like denying they took a whole roll of toilet paper and attempted to flush it down the toilet when the evidence is right there.

Stealing comes from a child's belief that no one can meet his needs but him. It takes trust and vulnerability to ask for what he wants and needs from his adoptive parents. Instead, an adopted child may simply take it. Stealing can be a behavior that also satisfies a child's desperate need for control over others.

Hoarding is a related behavior. Having lost their most important connection once, adopted children may respond by hiding stashes of candy, food or other objects they think will keep them safe. Older adopted children may also remember losing all their "stuff" when they were placed in an orphanage or foster home. With those losses in mind, they can obsessively cling to their new possessions like little misers. Hoarding also gives them a feeling of power and control - the bag of candy or box of food they've hidden is something the world can't take away.

Poor Eye Contact - Think about that successful interview for a job you landed because you made good eye contact and communicated that you are trustworthy, competent, dependable, worth getting to know. Our kids may have a hard time with eye contact because they don't believe all those things about themselves. Rather than worry about eye contact, build it into your communications slowly. It takes time for children to become trusting. Looking away from you, but still standing near you, may be all the emotional closeness your child can tolerate today. The goods news is he or she is still in the same room with you.

Indiscriminate Affection - Your child might run up to the mailman and give him a hug as a way to experience touch and closeness, but she won't hug you because that's too scary. If mom or dad leaves or doesn't return the hug, she feels abandoned all over again, so it's easier to deal with a mailman who isn't supposed to love her and hug her back. Look at indiscriminate affection as part of the process of your child moving slowly toward you, circling from less important people to family members. Attachment between adoptive parents and adopted children grows over time: every minute, every day, every week, every month, every year. It has many fits, starts, back-sliding and frustration for everyone. With persistence and understanding, we can build emotional bridges to our adopted children by continuing to let them know, "You can come closer today; it's safe." Our children want to attach somewhere ... with a neighbor, a social worker, a brother, a teddy bear ... who all provide a place to start.

Depression - For our children, depression may be biochemical or situational due to loss and trauma. Just as anger is an appropriate response to loss, so is grief ... and loss is at the core of adoption. Children in early childhood hear about adoption as the "chosen baby" story: "We tried to have a baby but we couldn't, so we went to an agency and a really nice lady helped us adopt you." It sounds wonderful then. But by the time they get to grade school, they've become more analytical about their world. That's when other kids ask, "Where is your real mom? Why didn't your real mom keep you?" Our children may feel rejected and depressed, and have temper tantrums. For them, anger is often better than feeling overwhelmed and helpless.

Hyperactivity - A sign of anger or depression for anyone, hyperactivity is like getting out a list and saying, "I'm going to pull myself together and get 22 things accomplished today because I'm feeling badly." Busy, busy, busy. Kids do this too because they don't want to feel their feelings - it hurts too much, it causes distress. With frenzied activity, we can avoid the quiet moments when our minds and hearts communicate.

Physical complaints - Parents often describe their adopted children to me as having stomach aches, headaches - pains just floating around those little bodies. They can't ever quite tell you what hurts, but emotional pain can show up as physical pain. Phobias and anxiety also signal depression and can tell you that your child is grieving. Sleep problems - They should always be taken seriously. You know if you're dealing with a significant loss in your life, you sleep too much or too little because you either can't face the loss, or can't turn off the thoughts and feelings. Our kids do the same.

Clingyness - If children feel worried, anxious or unsafe, they cling to you. All our children need to cling from time to time, and that's appropriate. But a depressed or anxious child can have great difficulty making physical separation. For some children, there's a hole in their bucket. No matter what is provided, their behavior says, "I'm empty." These children can be difficult to comfort or satisfy, or they might ask endless questions. The child really needs to deal with anxiety, not the answers to 800 questions. Asking 800 questions is also a shallow, safe way to communicate. They believe, "If I ask lots of questions, I can avoid having a real conversation and really getting in touch with you or with myself."

Anxiety - Signs of anxiety show up because adopted children know too well about what I call "a cosmic hole in the universe," and what author Harold Kushner calls "when bad things happen to good people." Grownups come to this knowledge when something devastating happens in their adult lives. But our children are old souls who have already experienced one of life's greatest losses, who already know that really bad things can happen to good people. They have good reason to doubt all your reassurances of safety, so their anxiety shows up in a myriad of ways. You can't love them out of this, but you can say, "I think I understand what you're feeling ... at least a little bit. Let me tell you about the time I worried about such and such."

Your approach should be to validate your child's experience by talking about it - first, name the feeling that's going on - anger, depression, anxiety - then check it out with your child. Together, you can find ways to cope. Your child isn't crazy or unloving if she feels fearful - let her know that. Neither of you can make her loss smaller by suppressing it - you can, however, help make the rest of her life bigger.

Attention Deficit Disorder
Investigate other possible reasons for your child's anger, depression and anxiety such as Attention Deficit Disorder. Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) may mask other issues in adoption and can be a place to start for diagnosis and understanding. Kids with ADD have a short but incredibly intense attention span. They tune out or miss much of what's going on around them but can pay attention if what's happening is novel, stimulating or intimidating. There are many clues to determine if ADD is a factor for your child.

Disorganization - Children with ADD have neurological difficulty filtering, sorting and prioritizing all the stimuli and information that bombards them each day. You'll see this difficulty in disorganized behavior, a disorganized room, a disorganized backpack, and so on.

Impulse Control - Have you ever had the impulse to push someone in front of you who wasn't moving fast enough? I have, but I can control that impulse and not act on it. Children with ADD often can't. When they get the impulse to push, they push. When they have the impulse to touch, they touch. And when they have the impulse to break something, they do it.

Distractible - Children with ADD often experience time differently. They are hyperactive or daydream a lot because they are so distractible. So a young girl sitting in the back of the fourth grade classroom glances out the window and is distracted by a bird flying by. It reminds her of the time she flew in an airplane, and off she goes traveling in her mind instead of doing her math.

Frustration and Impatience - If you experienced the world like children with ADD do, you would be easily frustrated and impatient. Children with ADD are constantly told to sit quietly, pay attention, take care of their belongings, keep their hands to themselves, work independently. Yet these tasks are the most difficult for them to accomplish.

Underachievement - If your child is struggling in school and shows other behaviors mentioned here, you could be dealing with ADD.

Tourette Syndrome
  If you rule out ADD for your child, consider the possibility of Tourette Syndrome. It may actually be an umbrella syndrome - a cluster of symptoms and issues - with ADD being part of the cluster.

Tics - Children with Tourette Syndrome have tics - motor tics or verbal tics or both. Sniffing can be a motor tic, like smelling food each and every time before eating it. The tic can be making repetitive sounds or uttering words or sentences your child can't control. Constant blinking, squinting, scratching or hair pulling are other tics a child can have. One young man with Tourette Syndrome has to touch people continuously during conversation. That would certainly bother people who didn't know him or understand Tourette Syndrome.

Obsessive-Compulsive Behaviors - Among children with Tourette Syndrome, we see obsessive-compulsive behaviors such as constant counting, sorting or the need to organize football trading cards 100 times before breakfast, 100 times before lunch, and 100 times before dinner.

Aggression - Again, this behavior may be depression turned outward or may be caused by biochemical or neurological problems. Observe how likable your child is. How easily does she make and keep friends? Kids with ADD or Tourette Syndrome have a hard time with social relationships. Aggression may be the outcome of their frustration and loneliness.

Sensory Integration Problems - Children with Tourette Syndrome can be hypersensitive to particular sensory stimuli and may fixate on odors, sounds or touch. I know a little guy with Tourette Syndrome who can only wear sweat pants because he can't stand the way anything with a waistband feels. Tags have to be cut off, and certain kinds of touch are uncomfortable. Often, the seams in his socks will bother and distract him.

ADD and Tourette Syndrome are neurological problems, not emotional problems. Medication is often an important piece of the treatment plan for these children. If these difficult behaviors can't first be controlled, children may not be available to learn, relate and connect. Special education is sometimes necessary because children with Tourette Syndrome or ADD may also have learning problems due to the behaviors outlined in this article. For example, they may have to sharpen their pencil seven times before starting math homework because they have obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Or they may be unable to stay on task long enough to complete even short assignments.

With all these issues, it's important to validate your child's experience, whatever it is. Don't try to deal with this alone. Educate your child's teachers, day care providers, doctors and therapists about some of the special issues adopted children may face. Assure your child, and those who are involved with your child, that, together, you'll find ways to cope with these issues successfully.

Above all, give yourself a break - you're doing the best you can. You didn't create the problems you're helping your child overcome. Spend time with other, less demanding family members and understanding friends. Your need for someone who can simply listen is as real as your child's need for understanding. Also, take time to be by yourself. Step back, take a deep breath, and remind yourself how far you've come.

About the Author: Dee Paddock is a psychotherapist and spiritual director in private practice in Des Moines, Iowa as well as an adoptive mother. Dee specializes in issues related to adoption and foster care, infertility, parenting children with special needs, grief and loss, the impact of trauma on family systems, and spirituality. She has a masters degree in Counseling Psychology from The University of Colorado and a masters degree in Theological Studies from The Iliff School of Theology. Dee presents keynotes, teaches workshops, and designs and delivers trainings to conferences and organizations nationally and internationally. Visit her website at:

Adopting from a Disruption

Adoption Process, Adoption Disruption
Origami Crane

Birth Families, Adoptee Articles, Bonding & Attachment