Thursday, July 21, 2011

Getting Through the Tough Spots

I recently heard from an adoptive family who had some useful and concrete tips for families adopting older children. There is not a lot of information available about adopting teenagers, and since we're trying to promote that, I wanted to provide some education as well. Sometimes the adoption of teenagers is swell and smooth, and other times it takes some real dedication to get over the bumps in the road. If you're thinking about taking that journey, please read the wise words of an adoptive parent who adopted her daughter at the age of 14:

From a family who adopted a 14 year old from China:
Tips for preparing the children already in the family:
1. Siblings need to be prepared for what is coming. They may expect that the new family member is going to act just like any other child of that particular age, just with foreign mannerisms and a foreign language. Julia, though, had a very, very hard life, as you know, so her behavior was not at all, in any way, like a fourteen year old child who has had an easy life. Our adoption classes prepared us for a very scared, timid child who would have to be coaxed to join us, coaxed to eat and generally carefully protected. That image did not prepare Joe and me or our children for Julia. Julia (and two of her peers from Conghua) was very controlling. She had been in charge of herself for a long, long time, so she wanted to control our whole family. She walked in and took over! She laughed at us, mocked us, told us our looks made her want to vomit, told us she hated the U.S. and tried to get control of every situation. She was loud, bossy, demanding, and generally very rude. She also had huge emotional swings. She could go from laughing hysterically to sobbing inconsolably in a short period of time, so we were all off balance all of the time. I had tried to keep Julia's private history totally private, as was advised in our adoption classes, but now I think it is best to be honest with the children already in the family and give them at least a little relevant information about the situation their new sibling comes from. I would explain to them that the new child may have many wounds that need to be healed, that she may have never been taught how to behave kindly or politely, that she may have been treated very badly and may try to reenact that behavior on her siblings. Children should be told that if the adopted child tries to hurt them, with actions or words, it is good and right to let mom and dad know about it RIGHT AWAY. The family's children should also know that even though the adopted child's age may be 12 or 13 or 14, the child may sometimes act that age and sometimes act very, very young, as unthinking or needy as a two year old toddler. They should understand that this is not unusual in kids who have been deprived and that is not a sign that the child is a bad person in any way.
2. Siblings need to understand that the adopted child will be like a newborn baby in the amount of attention and time that she needs. Newborns take up huge amounts of time and attention, and as they grow and develop, they need less and less intensive attention. Siblings should know that for as long as nine months or so, the adopted child will genuinely NEED attention. Their need for attention is a NEED, not a desire or a whim. It's a need just like our need for water and food. I think that if kids know that in advance, they can be very understanding. If I had it to do over again, I would explain to my children that Julia would be like someone who had just survived a long, drawn-out war. She would need lots of time to talk about that war, lots of time with mom and dad in order to feel safe, lots of food to get over her fear that the food will run out and she'll starve again, and more help with her homework as she may have had a very sketchy or vague education. I would stress to the children that the time of intense attention, just as in the case of newborn babies, will come to an end, that IT WON'T ALWAYS BE THAT WAY, that life will get back to normal and that by allowing the adopted child that attention that she needs, they are doing a good deed, a mitzvah, giving a gift that will make the world better.
3. A time should be reserved each week (I started doing this, and it worked wonders) where one parent takes the adopted child out (in Julia's case it was Friday nights -- she plays badminton at her church on Fridays, and the biological kids are home with me while Joe attends badminton with Julia) and the other stays home. The parent gathers the children together and initiates a discussion about "how things are going with the new sister/brother." Not much initiation is needed for a catharsis to begin. Wow. I was the parent to take on this role because Joe was raised in a very Christian family where it was considered un-Christian to complain. In my family it was okay to complain. So, I could listen to all of the complaining without it bothering me too much. The children NEEDED to get off their chests how angry they were at the adopted child. "She broke my NintendoDS! She pulled the cat's tail! She misses the bus every day and the bus driver yells at ME! She doesn't brush her teeth! She says my curly hair is ugly! She said she wants me to die!" Oy! There were long, long lists at first, but those discussions were also a chance to generate empathy because AFTER I had carefully and actively listened to and responded to each complaint, the children could calm down. They had re-established a peaceful feeling in their hearts. Then I could ask them questions that guided them to thinking for THEMSELVES what might be causing Julia to be so unkind and how we could, all together, as a family, encourage her, in a positive way, to be kinder. It also was a chance for some healing for the original children. Many times, siblings had to tell little kindergarten Dorothy, "You are NOT ugly. Your curly hair is beautiful! Your light colored eyes are gorgeous! We think you are beautiful, inside and out." Dorothy really, really needed that with Julia telling her the exact opposite whenever I was out of earshot.

For the adopted child:
1. Limits need to be set right away, even with a language barrier. Pantomime, Google Translate, picture books, anything that works needs to be used. No hitting. No hair pulling. No saying mean words. That has to be established right away. When I met Julia's friends at her orphanage, one thing I noticed was that they hit and shoved each other constantly. They seemed to relate to each other through rough physical contact, almost like teenage guys on the rugby field. It was frightening. Sure enough, when Julia came home, she greatly admired her older sister Caroline, so what did she do? She pulled her hair and hit her! That had to stop immediately, and unfortunately, Joe and I were so overwhelmed by Julia's bulldozer personality that we did not respond fast enough. People got hurt.
2. Don't give too many goodies out, just for free, all at once. It's too overwhelming to go from owning nothing at all to having a computer, an i-pod, a TV, lots of clothes, etc... Even a year later, Julia has to have her clothes be all the same, like a uniform. She has four pairs of shorts, all the same and five T-shirts, the same but all different colors, and that is all she can handle. When I add other clothes to her closet, even though she admires the clothes, it overwhelms her and causes her to throw everything on the floor and cry. The "goodies" like the computer, can be a powerful motivator to a child who needs to learn the rules of family life ... and FAST. We made very positive charts for Julia with things on them like "brush your teeth, comb your hair, say something nice to Dorothy, pet the cat gently, say, 'Hi Mom!' and say 'Hi Dad!'" She had to get a certain number of boxes checked off in order to use the computer for fun. She learned so fast! Such nice looking hair and nice clean teeth! She was a fast, fast learner, and we praised her lavishly. The hardest thing for Julia was learning to call me and Joe Mom and Dad. She used to hit me across the back of my head (hard, and yes, it did hurt a lot) and say, "Hey!" to get my attention. Eventually we got whittled down to one chart that was solely focused on saying Mom and Dad, and Presto! I was no longer slap/Hey! but Mom, and Julia was greatly relieved. After the third time she called me Mom, she came to me and spontaneously put her arms around me and said, "I so happy you my mom now." We've been Mom and Dad every day since, and it's good for all of us.

For the parents:
1. It's easy to feel SO bad for what your child has lived through that you just don't want to make her feel bad by disciplining her. Joe had that problem. He gave in to tantrums, and then after a few months, it got awful, and he had to somehow undo it. Oh, very ugly. Wow. For example, in our family, kids who are big enough to do so take turns riding in the front seat of the car. Julia felt that she should sit in the front seat all the time because she likes to be in control. When Joe would say that it was Mary's turn or Jake's turn, Julia would get in the back and kick and scream, hit people, pull her own hair out, generally go wild with grief and rage, so Joe would give in and tell her she could sit in front and tell Jack or Maya to move to the back. Scenes like this caused big, big trouble. The masses got uneasy and started rising up with the cry of "UNFAIR!". One of our biological children began to think that her dad no longer cared about her, stopped eating and began to waste away before our eyes. The more Joe bent the family rules (with his soft-heart and his regret for Julia's awful childhood -- he really meant well), the more the children felt they should take justice into their own hands. You can't have peace without justice. We had to do a big about-face and separate Julia from those tantrums. Joe had to leave her home and I had to tell her, "You can't go with Dad because you will not sit in the back of the car. You have to stay with me so you will not yell, kick and hit." Julia is very smart. After just one time being left out, she learned and said, "I can come. I will sit in back. I sit in front go there. Maya sit in front come back." Problem solved. She was learning to take turns, and she was learning that even if she sat in the back, she would be okay, and Dad would still love her. The adopted child cannot have and rule everything. It will not help her siblings love her and will not help her respect other people.

2. Make time to do things with the "original" children. The adopted child is so needful (rightfully so too) that it is easy to fall into the trap of doing EVERYTHING with the adopted child at your side. That is terribly hard on the original children in the family. They too have needs. They need to be able to speak rapid-fire English and describe things to a parent without having to slow down and explain words to the new sibling. They need time to talk about personal things ("There's a girl I like at school. I think I'm getting too tall. Why am I shorter than everyone else? If my tooth falls out will a new one really, truly grow back in?" They NEED to have time to be alone with Mom or Dad to talk, laugh, voice concerns, even complain. Some things are private, and the children who have had an easy life and haven't had to survive trauma still need time with their parents. They should not have to give their parents up totally to a new sibling. They cannot love a brother or sister who has robbed them of their mom or dad.

For the whole family:

It takes a long time to really know someone, and the adopted teenager changes almost every month. I can't believe that my kind-hearted, caring Julia used to try to hit me! But she did! She even tried to bite me once! She is not like that anymore. She has changed. Still, I do not know everything about Julia. Sometimes she acts twelve. Sometimes she acts three. Sometimes she acts eight. She is still unpredictable. While she is unpredictable, it is best to be protective and plan for the worst. I cannot allow Julia to have the freedoms that my other 14 year child has. It would be too dangerous. Julia does not think out into the future. She is impulsive. Until she can act a particular age and act that age consistently, I have to protect her from harm. She needs more supervision and direction than the average American 14 year old. She is immature from years and years of neglect and abuse. She is in a foreign country where she does not know all of the rules. It is in her best interests for us to be conservative and protect her until we are SURE she is ready for age-appropriate freedoms. It may be a long time. Interestingly enough, Julia does not want those freedoms that Jake and Mary have. She prefers to stay by my side or Joe's side, which is also an indication that she is not ready for too much freedom. She seems to want to be that little girl, protected and treasured, that she never got to be, and she stays close. That's good. We want Julia to survive her first 2 years in American in good shape!

2. Celebrate the victories. Laugh as much as possible. Get silly. Do anything necessary to "connect" the children with their new sibling. One major bonding point with all of the children and Julia came unexpectedly when we had our annual St. PatJoe's Day all-family marshmallow fight. Julia had said that no way was she going to let people throw ANYTHING at her, but once she saw what fun we were having, she grabbed her bag (I had bought her a bag of marshmallows anyway, just in case) and joined in. She threw marshmallows and took the hits with the best of us, and boy, that kid has a strong arm! The kids loved it! After the fight, they all gave Julia high-fives and hugs and said, "You were great You throw like a Billings!" Who would have expected that the big marshmallow fight would help so much? But it did because it was just dumb, silly fun -- no rules, no proper behavior, just a crazy, silly time. Families should point out the new sibling's good points. Compliment her strengths. Compliment the original children for their flexibility, their willingness to share. Let them know that the world will be better because they tried hard to make a positive difference.


  1. Loved this post! Thank you for such good, helpful insights and honesty!


  2. Excellent post!!! Thoughtful, insightful, hopeful, and PRACTICAL! Thank you so much for taking the time to convey your wisdom.