Seven years ago this week we saw three of our children for the very first time. Two little girls, sisters, who were 6.5 and 7.5 years old as well as their little brother who was three. I had been expecting them for a full six months. I thought I was prepared. After all, we had been fostering for nearly fifteen years and they would make 45 foster children that had entered into our care. I had pretty much seen it all, after all. We had determined to love them through difficulties,that surely would be faced.
When they came we knew the plan was adoption and we were committed to be their family. Having already adopted one older child (one of our sons came to us at age 8)in addition to three others who had come as infants, we didn’t expect things to be easy. What we didn’t truly grasp however, was how different this experience would be. Not only were all three children considered older-child adoptions, the girls had lived separately from their brother. They had survived in their situation often clinging to each other while their little brother had thrived in a loving foster home. Social Services will make every effort when possible to keep birth-siblings together. Sometimes, too often, it is not possible. This time it was because we were willing to take the three of them.
I’d like to tell you that it was love at first sight and we all were so happy to have each other that a glorious joy filled our hearts and homes as a result. But, that would be far less than true. I will be brief in my explanation as this is a blog and not a book. Although our youngest had some serious grief issues to work through, today I’d like to focus on my daughters while being careful to respect their privacy. I think our journey with attachment issues may could help another struggling family and give them hope. There were days that I felt hopeless and those were days I relied heavily on my faith and the support of friends and family.
The first I heard a mention of attachment issues was in foster care training nearly 20 years ago. I listened but, I did not hear what was being said. After all, I had a way with kids, I had never met a kid who didn’t love me and and and … I had been called to do this as a Christian. Surely we would be the exception and not have these strange struggles they briefly spoke of. By the time the girls arrived I knew better. Reality and experience had taught me differently.
The first thing worth mentioning is that although the girls were very close in age and had lived in the very same environment, they, being two unique individuals, responded completely differently. So, that’s the first thing I want you to take from reading about our experience. Every experience, every child, every family will be different. Read and talk and research as much as you can, certainly. But, do not expect to find the magic fix. It doesn’t exist. Your journey will be your own.
While one daughter seemed to readily accept her new family and was eager for a new life, the other struggled with finding her place in this new world. It was during these first months that I began to look for answers and search for understanding in earnest. I’m not an expert on RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder) nor am I trained in therapies and treatments for attachment issues. I will leave that to the many available resources to handle. But, here’s what I can offer and the second thing I’d like you to take with you today. You are not alone. Don’t give in to the temptation to alienate yourself during this difficult time.
I was recently talking to another adoptive mother concerning attachment issues. She and I agreed that often, the adoptive parent tries to hide struggles as they feel particularly scrutinized as well as wanting to shield their children from being labeled. Then, of course there is the reflection on adoption as a whole that might result. We would never want to discourage someone who is considering adoption. But, the struggles are real. You are not alone. There are others who are on similar journeys. Find them, online groups, adoption support agencies, church small groups, whatever you can find.
The third thing I want to offer you is this. Don’t rely on feelings as a measure of success with your child who is experiencing attachment issues. If you do, you’ll both feel like failures at the end of the day. Love is a grand thing and I often say ‘in the end, love wins’. I stand firmly by that. But, the love required in such a relationship is not the love you feel but, the love your are committed to. It is not the love that makes you feel all warm and tingly but the love that presses on in spite of pain.
When my son who came to us as an angry eight year old child and had been with us a short time, I told my husband that I never expected him to love me or accept me as a mother. I could not see the light at the end of the tunnel. If I could have seen a light of any sort I would have been quick to conclude it was likely a train headed my way to finish me off. It is HARD to try to love someone who doesn’t love you back, even if it is a child. So, I went on to tell my husband that although I was convinced our son may never reciprocate our love, we would love him through committed determination and pray for God to love him through us when we weren’t capable of doing so.
I’m afraid there are a portion of you reading right now who are a bit aghast. How could someone struggle with loving their child? Let me caution you not to judge the struggles of someone who is walking a path you’ve never trodden. Entire households can be turned on end by one struggling child. The other children in the family can be impacted. Marriages can be strained. Hope can waver. Physical health can be strained. Exhaustion can set in. Faith can be in crisis. Unless you have been there and even if you have, hush. Just hush. Remember each journey is unique.
Here’s the good news. After time and healing and consistency and love and prayers (lots of prayers) things did change. Our oldest son is now a well-adjusted, healthily attached, firmly bonded member of our family. Yes, it has been over a decade of ups and downs to arrive at this point where the only real frustration is that of any parent of a young adult transitioning into independence. But, all along the way there were moments of refreshing and tiny miracles that combined into this big miracle. I want to mention that because my journey as a mom to him often gave me the wherewithal to not give up with my daughter. So, there’s the fourth thing I have to offer. Whatever stage of the journey you are on, it will not be this way forever. One small victory at a time will lead you further down the path and one day, your relationship will be better.
Here are a few practical tips to consider.
1) Watch for triggers. Sometimes it can be a smell, a sound, a movie. When we watched ‘Blind Side’ as a family it was very upsetting to my girls. The five boys found it inspiring. The girls had some bad days afterwards. It was all too familiar to them and triggered some issues. Another trigger with my oldest daughter was having a very special moment of bonding together with me. This triggered her as she felt that bonding with me was a betrayal to her birth family. That occurs much less now, seven years into our relationship. Hormones can trigger any human being into irrational behavior and certainly can do the same for a child with attachment issues. Watch for triggers.
2) Don’t take it personally. It is not about you or your parenting skills (although there is always room for improvement). Attachment issues are COMPLICATED. I recently read an article that discussed findings concerning the alternate ‘wiring’ that occurs in the brain itself when emotional needs aren’t met in those early years. Your job, as the parent, is to be the plumb line of your relationship. I love that term and often refer to it in my Bible Studies that I teach. A plumb line is a standard of stability to measure by. You try to stay the same when they aren’t. You are hoping to be counted on when they can’t even count on themselves. You are to strive to offer open arms when they are finally ready for that hug that they’ve refused countless times. You are going to resist letting resentment take a seed in your heart.
3) Cut yourself some slack. While you are to make every effort to be that plumb line, you are only human. I highly suggest you find your own plumb line to rely on. My chief plumb line is my faith relationship with Jesus. My second is my loving devoted husband. Others are found with close friends and family members. You are going to stumble and maybe even fall flat on your face as you try to do this very hard thing. When you do, get up. Get up and dust yourself off and try again, a little wiser and stronger than you were before. Every failed attempt is proof that you are still trying.
4) Keep a journal. Write down your frustrations and take note of every good moment. Not only will you release stress onto the paper that is very therapeutic, you will have a record to refer back to on days when you think you’ve made no progress or and need some serious reminders of how far you’ve come. If medical intervention or counseling is required, this journal will be very helpful to those attempting to help. You can even write out your prayers and then note the date that they are answered. They will be answered. Love will prevail. In the end, love wins.
Today I can say, without hesitation that my daughters are better. They are healthy and attached with rare moments to remind me of what has been accomplished. I can say, without hesitation that this world will be a better place because of them. I know this, because I am better for having loved them with a determined love.