Monday, 9 December 2013

In Which I Cannot Find A Snappy Title For A Post Where I Try To Gather My Thoughts About Parenting Children From Hard Places Who Often Display Harder-Than-Average Behaviours, Which May Or May Not Be Due To The Aforementioned Hard Things They Have Experienced (But On Balance, Probably Are, At Least Partially)

Lately, a few people in the adoption-o-sphere have written really interesting posts about the realities of parenting kids with trauma. I've wanted to add my two cents to this topic, but I haven't until now because it's taken me this long to scrape my thoughts together. (This is why I stink at twitter, incidentally. #TooSlow). 

Looking around me, I do think that children who have been adopted are more likely than average to be ...intense kids. Did I want to believe this before we adopted? Probably not. Does it matter what I believed? Not really. The thing is, before you're talking about a real kid, you're just talking averages and likelihoods and risks and none of that is particularly meaningful, in the long run. A child who has been in institutional care might be, say,  45% more likely than an 'average' child to struggle with clinical anxiety, but when we adopt we are adopting only one data point, and how the rest of the bell curve looks quickly becomes kind of irrelevant. (By the way, I'm a bit of a data nerd - thinking about this stuff is what I do for a living - so referring to my kids as 'data points' is a sign of love. Honestly). 

After all,  child's behaviour is due to a complex soup of how tired they are, how hungry they are, their age and stage, their proximity to something that they want and can't have, their general state of health, how annoyed they are because of something you just said they couldn't do, how annoyed they are because of something you told them that they do have to do, whether they have just been hit/ pinched / poked by a sibling and what phase of the moon it is.

The irony here, of course, is that kids from hard places often have a really hard time learning to regulate their eating and sleeping. So yeah, there's that too. I think this is why it's hard to get a real grip on how much adoption has affected my kids lives. I know my kids have been through some pretty hard stuff in their little lives, but that is nowhere near the only thing that defines them. If they are intense kids - and believe me, they are intense kids - who says that has anything to do with what they've been through? Maybe this is because she's a girl. Maybe that is because he's a boy. Maybe all the rest of it is because they are twins. 

Statistically speaking - forgive me - this is actually where things get kind of interesting. The data is complex both horizontally and vertically  - horizontally, lots of kids are adopted, and that affects all of them in different ways - vertically, each of those children is the sum of a whole lot of things that make them who they are, of which their adoption and pre-adoption experiences are only a part. Add to this the fact that nearly everybody doing research into adoption has got some kind of agenda to push, and it is pretty freaking close to impossible to draw any conclusions without hedging everything around with a thousand caveats. On average. On the whole. In some cases. Anecdotally. In most cases. Occasionally. Often.  However, I'm about to write down some of my thoughts about it all anyway. Clearly, your mileage may vary. I'm not going to type all of the disclaimers (just my observations, I get all of my information off the internet, Pink and Blue are my first kids, I'm typing this quickly, I'm not a sociologist or a social worker) every time, so I've put them in bold just so that you remember that I did type them once).  

Anyway, here are All My Thoughts, Except For The Ones I've Already Typed Above. I'm going to start with something I do know for sure: 

The effects of trauma and deprivation on the brain are real. Scientists have done brain scans and proved it. I have nothing more to say on this point. 

Oh, who am I  kidding? That last part isn't true. Okay, here goes: I think that there can be a level of hypocrisy about this from society when our kids display really challenging behaviours. On the one hand That's totally normal! He'll grow out of it! but on the other - 

Call it loss, call it trauma, call it whatever you want, but the stuff our kids have been through is the kind of stuff that other kids have nightmares about.  Why are people reluctant to believe that waking up one day to find that your mother is gone would have a deep and lasting effect on a child? That, together with one or more of deprivation, neglect, loss of other significant caregivers, fetal malnutrition, childhood malnutrition, maternal post-natal depression, extreme maternal stress, and all the other stuff that makes its way into out of our kids' lives and onto their paperwork - we know that all of this things have harmful effects on babies who remain in parental care -  we have laws and programs and interventions to stop them happening - why on earth would they have any less of an effect on children who are later adopted? 

I completely agree with Staci that the other parents I identify with most often have kids on the autistic spectrum. There are not very many other people who understand the whole noise sensitivity thing, for starters - that it's not just a preference, it's a life-or-death, climb the walls, anxious-about-it-for-days phobia. Last year, before I reallyreally realised this, we stupidly joined Jay's family on an everybody-together-won't-this-be-fun Christmas outing to the theatre. As soon as the amplified music started, so did the panic. I thought it would go away; I thought Unspecified Child would relax eventually, but boy howdy was I wrong about that.  This year there have been several other similar noise-freakout incidents - one at a wedding, super funly, which the other guests aren't going to forget anytime soon. The very thought of loud noise now sends said child into a total, all-my-logic-circuits-have-shut-down tailspin. This is not normal childhood stuff. I'm not quite sure exactly what it is, but it's certainly not normal.

This year, we said no to the theatre. I decided that I'm not paying fifty pounds for my child to go into wild-eyed mental lockdown; I can get that at home for free. 

Don't even let me start on what happened the one time we tried to go to the movies. 

One thing's for sure, and I know this is related: I always see an increase in difficult (read: impossible) behaviours and anxious behaviours at the same time. The days that start with panicky hold me hold me hold me in the morning are far more likely than most to end with hitting and punching in the evening.

A few days ago my boy totally lost in, a really scary sort of way, for reasons that aren't the point of this story. I had no idea what to do, and I silently said to myself This child is out of control. And I realised that this was true, but not in the way I originally meant it. This child is out of control in the same way that I am currently out of milk - it's gone. It's all used up. This child has run out of control. He has a finite supply, and for now it's all gone. If I don't like this, I need to be the one to change what's happening because right now he literally cannot help himself.

I know that every child is probably like this occasionally, but for other kids (okay, mine) it's a regular pattern. That's not the same thing, and it's really frustrating when some people tell me that it is, that this is normal. 

This is not normal. I promise. 

I've made this point before, in countless other posts, but I'm going to make it again - I always feel nervous about talking about the difficult sides of parenting my kids, especially as they specifically relate to adoption, because I don't want to do it in a way that would make it sound like they are anything other than unutterably precious; unutterably dear. I'm speaking very frankly because I assume that I'm speaking to people who love kids like mine, and who wonder if they are the only ones thinking is this just us? 

It's not just you, I promise. 

Sometimes when we are out, Blue starts to perform for strangers. He sings, he dances, he bats his beautiful eyelashes. Whoever his audience is can't get enough - when he does this, it's adorable. Then the audience members look at my worried face and think why can't that woman see what an adorable little boy she has? Thing is, I can totally see how adorable he is, but I also know that this is act one in the "Blue Has A Raging Meltdown In Public" show. It starts with cute performing, followed by an interval of dizzy craziness, then an interlude of anxious clinging and then the curtain finally falls on inconsolable screaming. This show is not getting very good reviews from the critics.  This behaviour pattern is described with frightening accuracy in Patty Cogan's Parenting Your Internationally Adopted Child, and I don't know whether I'm more comforted or terrified by the fact that there are thousands of other kids out there dancing their hearts out for strangers in their doctor's waiting room. 

He is an awesome singer and dancer. If we can break the dizzy-clinging-screaming cycle, I'm pretty sure he's going to make us rich. 

Seeing the anxiety, though, breaks my heart. I wish I could fix it. 

I wonder, sometimes, whether too many of us labour under a delusion that there is some kind of magical THING - post adoption services, better parent education, better institutional care, therapy - that would make all of this go away, if only we could find it. 

I wish that was true - and if it was, I wish someone would tell me what it was - but I don't think it is. I'm automatically wary of anybody who thinks that they have the only way to help us help our kids, who people who think that whatever they are doing (or selling) is The Answer. I think that there is a huge appeal in finding The Answer, but I don't really think that it's out there. Kids are different, parents are different and every day is different. This kind of thing is way too hard, way too complicated, to know for sure that everybody who isn't doing it your way is doing it wrong. Surely? 

There is a person whose job it is to go into bat for my kids, to get them what they need, pay for it and then do it again the next day - the problem is,that person is me and most days, I'm bone-tired. 

Sometimes, my kids are horrible to me (and to each other) for reasons that have nothing at all to do with adoption. Sometimes they're just plain crazy. Of course. But if I've decided that my kid fits in a box (the trauma box, the anxiety box, the sensory integration challenges box, or the however-we-want-to-label-it-box) sometimes it's easy to forget that there are lots of bits to my child that do not belong in that box.  What I mean is: our child may genuinely have serious issues with attachment and anxiety, but that doesn't mean that they can't also just be a disgusting little snot-nosed brat some of the time, just like every single other child on the planet. There is nothing that explains all of our children's behaviours - no diagnosis, no experience, no label, no category. Sometimes kids - all kids - really are just feral. 

I don't think this was about trauma. 
I'm not going to lie -there are some times when I find myself thinking what have I let myself in for? But I would probably have thought that even if my kids were perfect angels, because having children really cuts into my Project Runway watching time. 

I love my feral kids. I love them so much. But sometimes they make me so angry that I want to spit. I was talking to a friend at work about finding a parenting / work balance.  We were talking about the things that are easier about work; the things that are easier about home. And I said The best thing about being at work is that I am pretty certain that nobody is going to make me lose my temper at work; not even once. 

My children both struggle with anxiety and anger and control more than the average child, and one more than the other. I have to remind myself, daily, hourly, that they really do need extra help, extra patience, extra not-sweating-the-small-stuff. However, I don't really think that I get to decide that other people are going to make allowances for my kid. If my kid is horrible to someone else - or someone else's kid - I can guarantee that person isn't going to care how much time my child spent in institutional care. 

I'm always looking for reasons that this is all a phase. If it's not a phase, then either there's something wrong with my parenting or there's something wrong with my child. I don't like either of those options.

Honestly, I no longer think this is phase.

I'm pretty sure that, on average, becoming a parent the normal way would have been easier. 

Of course, easier doesn't mean better. 

However, it also doesn't mean worse. People who have 'easy', 'neurotypical', 'normal' kids don't deserve any less oxygen than me. 

I have a general rule that I think applies to intensive parenting just as much as it applies to the rest of life: when you think one or two people are against you, you may well be right. If you think the whole world is against you, the problem is probably you. 

By which I mean - parenting difficult kids is really, really difficult, no two ways about it, and sometimes you might need to butt heads with people who are really dumb about the stuff you need to do to help your kids, the choices you need to make. But if talking to everybody about parenting makes you want to reach for the firearms, it's time to check your own head. 

And I think that it's important (really, really important) to remember that other people have difficult kids too. I am not imagining that my kids take extra work, extra love; If others tell me the same thing, I have to give them the same grace and assume that they are not imagining it either, no matter what their family story is. 

Those would probably be great people to have as friends. 

However, I do think that, on average, parenting adopted kids is harder. Sorry, Claudia-in-the-past. I think that we as adoptive families are more likely than other families to have the Really Big struggles, to feel totally, totally out of our depth with each other, to realise that our lives might look pretty different from how we pictured them when our babies were small. This way of parenting is not for the faint of heart. 

This way of parenting is not for the faint of heart. But then, neither is any kind of parenting. 

Neither is living, for that matter. 


  1. I know all about #12. That was my life for soooooooo long.
    Trying to figure out what comes from adoption and what comes from their own personalities will make you nuts-- but it's important to try to figure it out. When you do this you are making a herculean effort to understand them. They see this. They know you "get it" and that counts for a whole lot.

    1. I'm sure you're right (as always!!!) Mrs CB. I'm not going to get all of it (or most of it) right, but I can at least do my best to figure it out... and hope for partial credit for effort, at least!

  2. For what it's worth (and I think, especially in writing, feeling some worth is vitally important) this:

    By which I mean - parenting difficult kids is really, really difficult, no two ways about it, and sometimes you might need to butt heads with people who are really dumb about the stuff you need to do to help your kids, the choices you need to make.

    really made a difference to me. And also (for what it's worth, which might be a lot) it isn't just about difficult kids, it's also about kids who have their own difficulties. Because my kid is not at all difficult but he has challenges that break my heart. And when I hear a few educators who don't really know him say that this is "normal" and a few (or many) others who say "He is working way too hard for the results that he gets," it makes me realize, anew, that I need to be the one doing what I can to make it easier for him.

    So thanks for that...

    1. Julia, you are absolutely spot on about this:
      it isn't just about difficult kids, it's also about kids who have their own difficulties.
      That's the whole point, really, isn't it? So well said. I would like to steal that point and make it #39!

  3. Yes. a thousand times yes. Having a mix of biological kids and adopted kids it has been a tad easier to identify which might be adoption/loss/trauma issues and just little smartass issues as the kids have gotten older. That said-I err on the side of adoption/loss/trauma because I've found I'm able to extend more grace there than the smartass side. ;)

    I'm also opposed to the person who says "yes do this exact thing and then everything will be right with the world." wrong.

    also, the closer i moved to the realization that it's not just a phase, the better I am able to parent and the clearer I see our future. that said, I've gone from "this is not a phase" to "what the hell is it then?" so there's that.

    love you. those babies of yours are freaking adorable.

    1. You make such an excellent point about where we are able to extend more grace... I know that with my kids, on the days when I think 'this is 'stuff'' - I am much, much, much more patient than when I just think they are running amok.

  4. Yes, yes, yes. Number 17, oh my. My son does this ridiculous laugh for strangers. He isn't laughing because anything is funny. He's laughing for attention. As a way to grab attention and try to charm people. Now that I know him, I realize this laugh is nearly demented. It makes me feel ill because it isn't a happy laugh.
    Yes to everything you said.

    1. YES. That laugh. Not a happy sound at all. (And so different from the real laugh, which is the best noise in the world).

  5. yes yes yes. i love the bullet points and doing away with those pesky transitional phrases. thanks for your voice. it's mother effing hard.

    1. Transitonal phrases, you mean? YES. Way too hard :)

  6. thanks, c. no magical potion. just truth and and a continual pushing forward to understanding that this might be it. how then do we best move forward? that's the new question. and i love how, at the end, you put us all on the same playing field. because really life is hard for everyone in some way or another. that's it. xoxo

    1. You are so right about the new question. Not 'what if', but 'what now?'

  7. The control issues we see are out-of-control, so to speak. I identify with this post SO MUCH.

  8. I love this post. Especially #22!

    1. Yeah! I keep thinking that at some point, the grown-up is going to turn up and fix things adn then I remember 'hey, it's me!'

  9. Wow! Thank you!

  10. Such insights in this post - hope you don't think I'm a total idiot for telling you things like "buy your 4-year-old, wild and wonderful" and other such "phase" things!

    by the way, the pictures on that wedding post are THE CUTEST THINGS EVER. Are they framed yet? (to which you cackle and slap me!)

      Yes, they are all framed. All of them. In colour-coordinated frames. And I have repainted the living room to match.
      Or not.

      And no, no, I really appreciate knowing that other people's kids are going through the same crazy phases! What does my head in is trying to figure out which are the 'wild and wonderful' bits and which are something deeper. Parenting your kids and my kids has far, far more that's the same than that's different (I think so, anyway!)

  11. #9! Oh, dear. I understand. Well, of course I understand so much of it, but that one made me laugh. Remember that time I put my hands in the incredibly loud hand dryer and frightened one of your kids terribly, even though Z has the same noise issue, and I really should know better? That was my finest moment in being helpful to another parent, I think.

    Regarding #26, we have now reached the stage where I can explain to Z why some things are harder for her, and also explain that while I will always adore her, some people are just not going to put up with the crap she needs to let out, so we've got to work on it and identify ways for her to get it out without making it hard for others. It's kind of the most empowering yet depressing conversation ever. "Oh, sorry, sweetie, not everyone will be understanding and gracious, so guess who gets to work harder to make it better? YOU! AWESOME." But at least she knows she can work on it and that I believe in her ability to do it? I guess?

    I love this post. Honestly. Best.

    1. Oh yes - the HAND DRYER! It's okay, I'm pretty sure we've all forgiven you :)

      You know what? When I'm out without my kids, after I've washed my hands I stand under the hand dryer for ages JUST BECAUSE I CAN. It's the small things, right?

  12. Once you your post strikes an accurate chord. We struggle all the time with "Is he just be a kid?" or "Is this his particular trauma rearing its head".

    And you have so nicely put down in writing what I have been thinking of writing about but you said it probably 100 times better than I ever could...hope it is o.k. if link to your blog on this one.,

    P.S. We deal with people all the time saying "he is just in a phase and it will pass" or "no way he would even remember his past" or "other kids have just as many issues as he does so he just needs to learn like the other kids"!

    1. I'ts tricky, isn't it Rana? Because I'm sure that some of the stuff I stress about IS just something they'll grow out of... but not all of it. It's so hard knowing what's what, but it's sure not nothing! It's very frustrating when people assume that it is.

  13. Amen x38. Yes, exactly. Well said.

    1. Thanks. I KNOW you know what I'm talking about!

  14. Yes yes yes to #17 we have the same traveling spectical in our house. We can team them up some day and be famous.

  15. I have two biological children on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum and I can relate to everything you said. An interesting connection I'm glad to have made. I know the two situations aren't the same, but so, so many of the manifestations are. Especially finding (or trying to find) the line between neurologically-driven and bratty-driven behaviour. That said my boys are now amazing young adults who don't particularly stand out to the masses. It can be done, and you can do it!

    1. it is strange, isn't it? There really do seem to be so many similarities. It makes me want to go back to University and study neuroscience and find out more about this stuff.

    2. Although, full disclosure, I probably want to watch TV in the evenings more than I want to go and get another degree. Maybe someone else can do it, and then just tell me about it? Any takers?

  16. Love, love, love, love, love this. I could throw a few more "loves" in there, but I think you get the picture. I tried to prepare as much as possible for our adoption of two school-aged kids, but boy howdy, I did not know what we were getting into. And it is so taboo to admit that, because it sounds like I might regret it, and I freaking adore my kids. But Did Not Get It before bringing them home.

    Sad thing: I teach middle school (which is part of where I got the mistaken idea that I am a patient, nurturing person), so I do NOT have the guarantee of nobody making me mad at work. I do, however, manage to keep my temper better at work than at home. That says something rather depressing, doesn't it.

    I have learned a lot from the community of adoption bloggers, but more importantly, I have been reassured over and over again that we are not alone.

    1. I literally cannot imagine leaving the house and going to work with MORE children who AREN'T EVEN MINE. I'm pretty sure you deserve a medal for doing that.

      Out of interest, do you think it's possible to Get It? I honestly have no idea. I think maybe if we could GEt It, we wouldn't do it - and that would be a crying shame.

  17. I so get this post right now. And I don't even deal with the IA issues...just mundane ones...divorce, epilepsy, ADHD, and some visual issue as yet to be determined.

    Trying to explain to people that I have no patience for adults that act as if they were the cast of *Mean Girls* -- oh yeah. I totally get this ...

  18. LOVE this post for so many reasons, all of which were eloquently expressed above already. I tried to write something further that was at once deep, meaningful, and witty, but I was unable to and so will settle for "this was wicked awesome!!!!!"

    Thanks, Maggie S
    P.S., While I was reading your book my 7-year-old (who was adopted from China) asked me about it every day. She was very, very interested. ;-)

  19. I STILL hate those freaking hand dryers. I'm 48.

    (Especially the Dyson one at the V&A downstairs bathroom which was the first time I'd ever seen one of those and the last place I saw my gorgeous red pumps. REMEMBER? Oy, that was a day.... Can you ever forgive me for dragging you hither & yon?)

    But that's a whole 'nother thing. Mostly I hate them because they're loud. SO LOUD. I really dislike loud, even after many years on this loud planet.

  20. Sandra (from Portugal)17 December 2013 at 15:43

    This isn't easy to read when you're a candidate for adoption like I am
    Neither is your book - the first book I bought about adoption (and I'm not even doing international adoption)

    But you know what, I don't want read anything less honest than you, or Mary from Finding Magnolia or Casa Bicicleta

    Thank you so much for all the sharing with so much truth in your words

    Merry Christmas!

  21. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  22. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  23. This is an amazing post. One of your best ever. Thank you. I'm going to comment as an adult adoptee rather than as an adoptive mama. Number 28 is a biggie. When I was in my 30's I put that one together with number 5 and realized I had some work to do. On myself. Oi. I'm with you in believing that anyone touting one magical answer is a quack. And yet if you are looking at the hard behaviours from the loss/trauma lens then at least the path forward is somewhat clear. That's me being hopeful! Relaxation & regulation might seem like impossible goals but here is where you get to lean on some brilliant & compassionate friends/professionals for a bit of assistance. Also - noise-cancelling headphones work like a charm at the movies (and even did the job at an NFL game). Good luck. Sigh. You are not alone.


Over to you!