Uh-oh, I did something good?? Re-wiring the heart of a hurt child



Attaching to stable, loving parents is the most frightening thing for a hurt child to do.  When you think about it, why would they want to build a bond to the very thing that represents the reason they are hurt in the first place?  On an intellectual level, I get that.  But emotionally its a daily struggle to not take their distancing behaviors personally.  David and I have gotten pretty good at watching for signs that they are taking a risk and trying to bond.  Our natural response is to give praise and encouragement in response to their efforts.  Imagine our wonder when instead of inspiring more growth and effort, it was fodder for failure.

For kids who are more comfortable with distance, those who feel the only way they will survive this life is to be the ones in control, the motivation behind most of their behavior is to keep you distant and out of control.  Its a very sad existence when you think about it.  The innate desire of any human is to be nurtured, cared for and in relationship with others.  We are born with the understanding that our parents are the ones responsible for providing that care and relationship until we are old enough to handle this complex world and when that bond is broken, for whatever reason, something deep inside is broken.  The whole system is rewired and now instead of resting in the arms of a secure parent, learning to love, grow and thrive while being protected and cared for, the child must thrash, fight and scrape for every shred of life in order to survive.  It becomes me against the world in an effort to keep from being swallowed up.  Its not about relationship anymore, its about staying alive.  Emotions take a back seat to needs, it all about ‘me’ and what I must have to make it.

Given this perspective we can begin to understand the motivation behind many of the behaviors that hurt children display.  Lying, cheating, stealing, defecating, sabotaging good times, etc. – all these make sense when you remember their purpose.  The child has to display these behaviors in order to do two things; maintain control by keeping you out of control and keep you at a safe distance.  Therefore, parenting a hurt child becomes more about training yourself to respond correctly than teaching the child to behave correctly.

So back to my original question…why is it that whenever we saw the child really making an effort to attach or submit to our rules, etc. and we offered praise and encouragement, they reverted instead of sought to do even better?  Simple.  When you think about how every moment of their existence an internal battle between their innate desire to be cared for, nurtured and in relationship and their overwhelming fear of parents, love and intimacy is raging within them.  It makes perfect sense.  Part of them wants desperately to give control of themselves over to us as their parents, that the natural way.  But the other, mixed up and hurt side, is battle to maintain control because thats safer.  They are trying to give their hearts over to us.  Making big and little strides toward relationship.  When we recognize those efforts and give praise it freaks them out.  They suddenly think that they have gone too far and retreat to their comfort zone of distancing behaviors.

So should we not encourage or recognize them for their efforts, even though we know the extreme risk they took to make those strides toward relationship and what it cost them?  I dont think thats the answer at all.  David and I have developed an attitude that has worked pretty well for us.  There are two ways that we have chosen to approach these situations.  First, we know that if we bring a child into our room ( the place where all serious conversations take place-lol) that we have established an environment where they have given over control just by entering our domain.  Its a very uncomfortable situation for them to be in right from the start.  If we then proceed to encourage them for the good they have done, we are silently saying, ” Submit to our control and come into our relationship space and let us hold out our hearts to you while we honor you, oh most unworthy one, for failing to protect yourself and maintain control of your world and keep yourself safe by not giving in to the rules that might end up hurting you…”  They hear those things when all we are trying to say is, “We see your efforts to grow and love-way to go!”  We want so desperately to encourage our children that its worth the risk to go through that whole scene anyway, in hopes that a bit of our loving message will make it home to their heart and spur them on to a happy life.  But we also know that it will likely mean a launch into bad behaviors for a while afterwards while they buck against the feelings it evoked.  Like I said, sometimes its worth it because we see they really had made progress and will return to a better place in the end.  We save those times for really significant things though and generally take a much less vulnerable method of praise, which I will explain.

Touch and eye contact are relationship builders, not generally popular with children who have been hurt.  All the more reason to look for ways that you, as the parent, can employ them-right?  So, when a child has done something that you recognize was a move toward giving up control or building relationship, its a perfect time to give a quick encouragement using tough and eye contact.  Sometimes I will just move toward them, touch them gently (which startles them because they dont like touch, and makes them look at you suddenly) and then follow with a short, quiet-“good job, that was nice” or whatever is appropriate.  Always careful to keep it short and then move away before they have time to squirm.  That way you took them off guard and moved on while you were still in control of the situation.  If they baulk and say crazy things as you move away, dont respond and give control back to them.  Another way is to make a shocking noise to catch their attention, then sing a quick jingle of praise, do a jig while praising them, or war whoop- something that takes them off guard.  You can slip your praise in before they know what hits them and then move out of the situation, bringing the control with you-hehe!

Its possible that they will still revert and give their unwitting brother or dog a quick pop in response to your praise, but believe me they heard it and it went to a deep place, stirring those God given desires for relationship and making them hunger for more.

Happy relationship building 🙂


Here are some books that I found to be helpful-

Building the Bonds of Attachment, by Daniel Hughs


Parenting the Hurt Child by Gregory Keck

Click on the title and it will bring you to Amazon 🙂


Don’t Get Hooked!…

Please don’t think that, by any stretch of the imagination, I fancy myself a parenting expert!  Far from it.  If time and parenting a handful of kiddos with a diversity of gifts and issues has taught me anything, its that what I thought I knew for sure, was just a possibility.  There are so few clear answers when it comes to human relationships.  Thats what makes them such fertile ground for our personal growth.  Each and every child is different, as are the parents, which is what makes it all so fun-lol

So with that foundation firmly under foot, and with much trepidation…I will venture a parenting tip =0   Phew- I just broke out into a sweat!

There have been a handful of occasions when I have had to either bite my tongue or remove myself from a situation, lest I interfere in an exchange between a parent and child.  I struggle desperately to fling a life ring to a drowning parent whose child has just craftily flung them overboard.  But its not my place.  Nor would be the most teachable moment.

Children are amazing and wonderful!  I get warm-fuzzy’s just thinking about them.  But they are clever little monkeys!!  And if we aren’t careful they will have us hanging upside down from branches in a matter of seconds.  Usually, with only a few words.

I could go into a lot of detail, but here is all I really want to say…DON”T ENGAGE THEM!!  Its a trap!

Keep your requests and answers cheerfully simple.  Don’t feel like you owe them an explanation.  If they argue with you or ask why, there’s no need to really reply, unless to say something like,” Well sweetie, I think I asked you to do something”

If they flat out refuse to do it, your response could be, ” I’m sorry you don’t like what I asked you to do, but I would really hate to see you lose your______ (privilege, or ?) over something like this.  Let me know when you’re finished doing what I asked and we’ll do______together”  Sometimes  I will explain that when they argue or delay, that my patience goes down and that I don’t really know what I will do when that happens.  “I can feel it draining out of me so I’m going to give myself a time-out until you decide what you are going to do”  It keeps them guessing-they hate it!

In a last ditch effort to frazzle you they may ask you to repeat what it was you asked them to do- don’t fall for it.  I like to say, “Well, its pretty distracting in this room, maybe a little quiet in your room would help you to remember.”

If the tone of their voice starts to rise…yours should fall!  If they yell, you whisper.  It shows them that they are not going to get the best of you.  Keep your sense of humor.  Tell them that when they yell it makes your tummy tickle or makes you want to furble your tongue.  But, whatever you do, stand by what you asked them to do and don’t back down.  You are not doing them any favors, what they want is to know that you are strong, someone they can lean on when they need it.

One last thing…

I often hear parents ask their children to do things or correct behavior in front of other children or adults.  That works really well if you are looking for drama.  If however, you are wanting to maintain calm, it always better to ask them into another room to consult.  Or, maybe whisper it in their ear.  Touch their shoulder while you do it, smile, be peaceful.

Happy relationships!!

The Complexity of Attachment

There is no doubt in my mind that adoption is miraculous!  The coming together of separate lives that eventually meld together to form a family is beautiful.  Much like a marriage, these people take the different characteristics, habits, beliefs and cultures, melding them together to recreate the definition of themselves.

When this process is successful, the story has a happy ending and the various characters in that story are enriched and strengthened by it.  On the other hand, when the bonding doesn’t happen, irreconcilable differences result in separation and pain.  So what causes that blending to happen, or not?

Recognizing the fact that families choosing to adopt are doing just that, choosing.  They want to adopt, they want to bring a child into their home.  The home is established prior to that child coming into it.  There is a culture in every home.  A “frame”, if you will, that provides the boundary around the picture of that family.  The people in the picture may not consciously recognize how elaborate that frame is.  The frame is made up of many elements.  Some of it was brought to the family by each member before marriage, such as; hopes, dreams, expectations, childhood abuse or trauma.  These elements work together to create the identity of each person within the family.  Then there are the dynamics that define the family as a whole; infertility, religious practices, parenting strategies/beliefs, losses, etc.  All of these play into the hopes and expectations that we have for the child coming into the home.  Subconsciously, we often think that this child will, given enough love, learn to adjust to this framework.

Then we have the child, who fundamentally has no choice or power.  An individual with many elements that have worked together, and are still working, to form who they are.  This child, especially if they are not an infant, has a history that plays into their identity (see my blog at http://www.aplaceforhome.com/blog for more on this).  Their culture, religion, personality, hopes, dreams, expectations (yes, they have expectations of you, too!), losses, trauma, etc. all blend to make a pretty amazing bundle!

So now we try and fit these two dynamic elements together.  Each person in the family coming to terms with this new person, who they are, who they are not.  Hopes and dreams being molded into reality.  Unfulfilled expectations gnawing at us and hurts resurfacing.  All are a normal part of the re-adjustment period. No amount of pushing, pulling or praying will get that bundle of child to fit into the framework of your family without changing the shape of that frame!  We must be willing to accept that our family will no longer be what it was.  The family that we knew before, is gone and a new one has taken its place.  This process can take 3 months to many years, depending on the child (especially age and level of previous trauma) and the family.

That isn’t a bad thing.  In fact, it can be a pretty amazing and wonderful thing, if we are willing to allow that change to happen.  We also need to be open to grieving the loss of the family that we knew before.  Our roots have been ripped up and moved.  That is never an easy thing.  Everyone will struggle a bit, sometimes a lot.  But then one day, you will wake up and see that your family now has a new identity and its pretty cool!

A good friend and seasoned social worker once said, “The families I find to be most successful in adoption are the ones who see their family as a pliable unit, and parenting as an art, rather than a science”

A Great Read!!!

Thought I would give you a quick review of a wonderful book I just finished reading.  I’ve actually read this book a couple of times before, yet still managed to glean some very good stuff from it.  Building the Bond of Attachment by Daniel A. Hughes, its a classic in the adoption library!  Many people refer to it as the “Katie” book as it is the fictional story of a little girl named Katie who suffers from extreme Reactive Attachment Disorder.

Katie enters foster care at the age of five, already having failed to form meaningful bonds with her parents, she is at a serious disadvantage in life.  Although the physical abuse that she suffered is the catalyst for her being removed from her parents, it is really the emotional neglect that she endured that causes the greatest barrier for future bonding.  Hughes describes it as the “dance” between a mother and child, that never happened with Katie and her mom.  It is the cycle of need and response, a give and take, the touch, tickle, eye contact and smiles that make up the emotional tie between a mother and child.  Instead of bonding, Katie felt alone, scared and confused.  All of which caused her to become angry and hardened, desperate to fulfill her own needs at any cost.

I have to insert a personal side-note at this point.  Although this book was written about a little girl who lost her mothers love as an infant,  it is applicable to children of all ages who lose this most significant relationship.  The thought processes and patterns of behavior that Katie displays are found in children who DID have an emotional attachment with their mothers but then for various reasons that bond was broken.  Unable to understand or process the grief, they are filled with anger, confusion and fear, just as Katie was.  So don’t stop reading just because you think your child was bonding to their birth mom at a young age.  Any break in that maternal bond, can cause some level of attachment struggles and therefore Hughes’ book can offer wonderful insight into their world and give great parenting strategies for coping with their behavior.  Our motivation for educating ourselves on these issues should never be to slap a label on our child as an excuse for their actions, but rather to equip ourselves to better meet their needs.

If you don’t know whether your child struggles with attachment issues, Hughes offers a comprehensive list of general symptom patterns in the books appendix.  Here are a few that I’m sure most people can relate to and will give you motivation to read the book; excessive need to control (top of the list!), hurting others and self (emotional and physical), intense negative affect (rage, terror, despair), lying, excusing, blaming, demanding, lack of empathy, lack of guilt or remorse, lack of joy or humor, lack of eye contact, etc…etc!  Hughes explains that a child who has does not have proper attachment skills unconsciously feels that they are unworthy of love and that conviction is experiences as shame.  Shame motivates all their actions, they behave in ways that confirm their view of themselves.

Building the Bonds of Attachment clearly defines the parents role as therapeutic caregiver.  Katie chews up and spits out several foster families before she is finally places with a foster mom who understands how important it is to maintain a therapeutic attitude.  She sees every moment and interaction with Katie as critical for her healing and strives to maintain what Hughes describes as “The Attitude”.  Five aspects of ‘being’ comprise the critical components of ” The Attitude”; being accepting, being curious, being empathetic, being loving and being playful.  Throughout the book, Katie’s foster mom and her therapist work intensely with Katie using “The Attitude” to lovingly, but firmly move her toward bonding.

Maintaining “The Attitude” on a daily basis is no easy task.  At the heart of it is the ability to remain calm and engaging even in the most difficult circumstances.  Understanding that the child is seeking at every turn to push you away and confirm her belief that she is unworthy of love and acceptance.  Watching this play out through the story with her foster family, therapist and state social worker, keeps the interesting as well as educational.

I have pages of notes taken while I read and would like to share just a few tidbits that I gleaned from my reading.  For instance, gaining control of their surroundings is a primary motivation for the child.  They are convinced that if they can control their environment and the people around them, they will finally feel safe, possibly even happy.  We need to help them by taking that control away from them and help them to see that they can be happy without it, that we are safe and can be trusted to manage their lives.  They don’t need to be the dictators of their world, they can finally rest and live the happy childhood that they missed.  We don’t take control because we want it, but simply because they have trouble managing it themselves.

Another great point was that often we are forced to change our parenting styles to better meet the needs of that child.  This can be very difficult for some parents who have had a lot of success with a particular parenting plan.  Understanding that trauma can cause stunted emotional growth, and  lowering our expectations of what that child can handle.  Yet Hughes challenges the reader to expect the child to excel at their ‘age’ level.  For example, if a child’s chronological age is 12, understand that emotionally she is possibly 6, and expecting her to do VERY well at 6.

There are so many wonderful, yet challenging lessons woven within the fabric of the story of little Katie.  Many times it is difficult to know how she will ever overcome her intense difficulties.  Her foster mom endures so many frustrations.  Katie battles the idea of trusting and becoming bonded by doing everything she can think of to turn her foster mom away from her.  Through the story you both dislike her and ache for her. Finding yourself wondering how it is that she could do such horrible things!  But Hughes does a great job throughout the book of teaching the reader what is going on inside the heart and head of a child who struggles to attach. And in the end, gives us reason to hope!

This book is an absolute MUST for any family thinking about adopting a child!


Broken Hearts Find Healing…or hurt?

Theres no doubt that growing up in a third world country is precarious at best.  Children are more often than not, forced to leave the innocence and joy of childhood in exchange for learning the tricks of survival.  Many of them learn by the age of 5 or 6 how to beg, steal or cheat a meal from the harsh world around them.  All the while keeping a keen eye open to the many dangers daily threatening their fragile lives.  Families are broken, hunger and disease constant, fear forever present.  These are the realities facing children all over the world today.  Considering this, it is only right that our hearts ache, longing to provide an opportunity for “a future and a hope”.  But in our attempt to reach out a hand to heal , do we not sometimes cause more pain?

How could I even venture to make such a claim?

Are we asking ourselves the really hard questions?  Are we jumping without thinking about the inevitable fall?

Yes, time is ticking for these children and I’m the last person to stand in the way of a loving family for these precious little ones.  My concern is simply this….. far TOO MANY children are coming to their new families in the United States, only to have it end in disruption (dare we even say, distruction?)  Happening once in a while, although too much, it somewhat understandable, but happening time and time again; something is BROKEN!!!!!

Please understand, it is not only the child that is hurt through this process, the family who opened their hearts and home to this child is now  hurt, confused and devastated as well.  I have personally witnessed it time and time again with families close to me.  So what is broken?  Therefore, what can be done to fix it?  It is my belief that these families have good and honorable intentions but lack understanding into the complicated issues these children hold in their hearts.  Broken relationships, troubled childhoods, fear, lost innocence, anger…all cry out for healing.  But that healing has to happen within a family fully prepared to handle those issues, a family that is now officially a “therapeutic” home.  A family equipped and ready.

There is a critical lack of resources for a family to access after placement.  When things are challenging and they cry out for help, there is no one there to hear them.  Agencies often seem silent.  Maybe they too, are at a loss for resources or maybe they understand that the help that is needed at that point is more than what they are equipped to give.  A family in crisis needs more than a few phone consultations to get them back on track.  They need a complete revamping of their methods and practices-a college course in raising a child that likely struggles with post-traumatic stress, anxiety, reactive attachment disorder and/or any other “title” that comes along with a child who never really got to be a child.  All of these labels run on a spectrum.  A person doesn’t either “have it” or not.  They generally carry some level of it around in their baggage.

Families NEED to be prepared ahead of time.  They need to be equipped and ready BEFORE the child comes.  They need to understand that they are not doing the child any favors by not taking the time to read the books.  Love is mighty, but it is not enough in itself to bring healing, you need to be educated!  Having a comprehensive understanding of the potential issues will also help families to make a better decision about which child would be right for their family and situation.

Here is a great way to get started!  I’ve been reading the book (for the second or third time 🙂 ) Building the Bonds of Attachment by Daniel Hughes. in this book, Hughes tells the story of a young girl with serious attachment issues. It is a fictional story but based on real facts and strategies used in dealing with children who are struggling.  It would be easy to discount the book based on the fact that Katie is abused as an infant but I have seen all of the issues he dramatizes in the book played out in each of my children who come from a variety of backgrounds.  It has been a wonderful reminder of how if we are prepared to face the issues that children struggle with, fighting their giants in a loving and supportive way, they will find the strength and courage to love again.  I highly recommend it to anyone thinking of adopting, has adopted or is in any way connected to a child who is adopted.

I officially charged and ready for the mission to spend the rest of my days doing all that I can to help families succeed at staying together through the bright days and dark nights of healing!

Adoptive Moms Retreat- no place for bad posture

I am so looking forward to attending the Adoptive Moms Retreat this coming weekend!  I went a couple of years ago and found that it was a wonderful time of relaxation and renewal.  Fellowshipping with other adoptive moms is a rare treat.  Normally, I am not really attracted to group events but find that this year, more than ever, I crave the interaction.

Its possible that the change is due to the events of the past year.  Going through difficult times with my children has not only made me realize that I need the support of like-minded friends, but opened my eyes to the fact that they need it too!  What I mean is, there is far too much reserved posturing among adoptive families.  We have this need to appear to have it all-together.  Whether this is due to the fact that society is leery of adoption and is watching our every move, or that we are in a silent competition with other adoptive families that we view as “successful” -I have no idea, but this thinking is  deadly!

We often talk about what the keys to a “successful” adoption.  Quite likely, there really isn’t any key.  Each situation has its unique blend of issues and personalities that meld to create a family.  But if I could get my hands on the brush that paints the picture of that family-i would paint outside the lines, causing everyone to be able to see the issues and struggles that make up the process of healing and later, bonding.  Its no secret that adoption is hard.  If it were not, more people would line up to give these little ones a home.  So from whom do we think the judgement for our struggles will come?

As for me, I will go to the retreat with bells on.  Chiming my way through the weekend.  Telling of our struggles.  Comforting others in theirs.  Laughing over the things that we can’t control, praying for the hurts and wiping the tears.  But through it all, hoping  that those ladies who feel ashamed that they can’t keep their family issues inside the lines, will know that there is no shame in the journey to hope.

Destroyed Adoption, how can good go so bad?

The morning news reported that an adoptive mother of an 8 year old Russian boy, sent him back to Russia with a one-way ticket and a note claiming that he is mentally unstable! http://www.komonews.com/news/national/90352199.html#idc-container This is shocking, not to mention heartbreaking, yet I am struggling to find where to place the blame.  Does fault lie with the mother? How about the agency? Russia?  Could we even venture….the little boy? Or dare I say it….us, the adoptive community?!!

There is no doubt that the mother in this case was desperate.  Her pain real and raw.  No one, whether demented or evil or even psychotic, would choose to see their hopes and dreams end in this horrific manner.  She obviously did not spend months, even years hoping and planning for her little boy to come home, only to send him back again.  I just cant see it. But what did go wrong? I dont  think we will ever know.  We can imagine that she saw no other way out.  Possibly she was under-educated about the potential challenges that she would face in adopting an older child-yes, 8 years old is “older”.  Its unimaginable what a child of eight has seen and endured.  They are often battling the scars and memories that could fill a lifetime.  It is conceivable that this information fell through the cracks and was never absorbed into her reality until it was too late.  Parents are required to take many hours of educational classes in preparation but as they say, ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you cant make it drink’.

Oh, how we would love to blame the agency!  Big business, trying to make a buck off the backs of the poor and innocent. In more than just a few cases, our blame would seem justified.  No one can deny that there have been too many agencies with immoral practices and policies, the result of which has been a marred reputation for the industry as a whole.  Not to mention immeasurable pain for many families.  And we haven’t even touched on the money lost.  But is that what we are dealing with here?  Are we talking about an agency that has delivered poor or unethical services to an unsuspecting family?  I really dont think so.  WACAP (World Association for Parents and Children) is one of the larger, more established agencies in the country.  Although we have never adopted through them personally, I know that they are an agency with an good reputation.  One look at their website and you will see that they offer lots of wonderful services and support to families that adopt through them.  I would be surprised if someone in a stressful situation would be unable to find the needed support within their organization.  If nothing else, it would seem that an agency that large would be sure to have other families that you could contact for support.  Other families that have struggled with their children from Russia, it is not uncommon.

So, can we place the blame on Russia?  They are appalled by the actions that this adoptive mother took, finding it unthinkable, even abusive.  But what led her to it?  A child that is acting out destructively, even to the point that she feels comfortable labeling him as mentally deranged.  Likely his behavioral isn’t isolated to the time he has spent in the U.S.  Behavior of that extreme has an origin somewhere else. Logic would lead us to conclude that he was probably abused in some way prior to placement.  But, its a system that has carried a heavy reputation of abuse and neglect.  We can hardly place blame where a knowledge of a pre-existing condition was common place.

Where then, does that leave us?  Here I find a home for my blame.  If a child is orphaned they, by default, become the heir of society.  We can try to argue the truth of that statement, but I hold my ground ethically, socially and spiritually.  But I will reserve a further analysis of that to another blog.  For now we will leave it as a challenge for someone to dispute the fact that society and the world (at the very least) benefit from the proper care of our future generations.  Sadly, there are merely a few brave souls who feel called to bring a hurting child into their heart and home.  Only a few who know without a doubt that a child grows stronger emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically within the perimeters of a loving, supportive family and are willing to make it personal.  Why do I refer to these families as “brave”?  Again, probably a explanation that warrants another blog.  Simply put, children who suffer trauma struggle to overcome it and when you make the choice to walk alongside them in that journey, you willingly share in it.  So, where does the blame land?  With those of us who know full well the challenges that the mother faced and didn’t stand with her to make her placement a successful one.  There are far too many of us battling our demons in secret. And again, far too many who have tasted victory and turned aside from those that could use someone to stand beside them in theirs.  Its not that adoption is a battle front but rather, its a fight for the life and survival of the child you love to overcome the ever-present wounds that threaten to consume them.  This mother needed to know that there are people to help her, that she is not a failure for struggling, that there are other options besides sending her little one on a plane back to loneliness!