Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Questions from Anonymous

Remember back July when Torina and I did those posts on translating the code from photo-listings? Mine is here. It was a response to Torina's. I seem to remember that someone else wrote one, but I can't remember them all. Mothering4Money added to it. Anyone else have one? I wrote a more serious post about photo-listings here and another here. Again, as I recall a bunch of us wrote posts on the issue. Feel free to leave a link to yours in the comments

Anyway, someone just read them and left two comments asking a question that many of you can help with. Here is a question from the second:


I had a question for the board..if you don't mind. Is it just possible that many of these kids really, really want a loving home and will respond to the kind of "normal" structure and loving that many of us are just so willing to offer? These comments made me read over many of the listings and wonder if any of the children are ready for adoption and what does that mean? I expected transition would be needed, but it sounds like most situations need a big trial/adjustment period or something with three therapists on hand. I'm a bit baffled. Is that an over reaction? What is the more "realistic" situation to expect? Or isn't there one.

Well, I'm going to give a shot at this.

All the kids in foster care have been traumatized. Some of those kids have had good therapy in which they have worked hard, and are relatively easy to parent. The thing is, it isn't the transition that is the difficult part.

This is what I think is more or less typical: In the very beginning the kids are anxious about being kicked out and generally are on their "company behavior." After a while they can't keep that up, and they decide to bring out their faults to see if you will still keep them. So they test. You might be prepared for that, so you ride it out and they start to accept that you are going to keep them and they calm down again. Then they start to experience real emotions and that panics them at multiple levels. If you love them, if they let themselves love you, it could really hurt. They pull away. They try to drive you away. Now that is not Reactive Attachment Disorder. That is just a normal kid being afraid of being hurt again. So you stay calm and ride that out. They calm down again. Slowly they begin to feel safe, until one day they feel so safe that all that rage they have buried can finally come out.

There are kids who are ready for adoption and who won't need a team of therapists to help them get through the day. But all the kids in foster care have been traumatized and being safe doesn't "un-traumatize" them. In fact it can often be the reverse: being safe means being able to feel and express the emotions from the trauma.

So it isn't just about the transition. It is about their whole lives.

This is so hard to explain to people who haven't done it yet. We were almost all of us naive. Even when we knew it was going to be hard we had no idea how very hard it was going to be. We knew there would be problems, but we didn't realize how long they would go on. We had no idea how exhausted we would get, and we had no idea how passionately we would love these kids.

The kids in care come in a wide range. Some of them have behavior problems that are more than I am willing to deal with. Some are kids whose needs are an excellent match for my strengths. Gary responds very well to what counts as normal for us, but he does very poorly with authoritarian methods.

If you are thinking about adopting I suggest you hook up with a matching specialist like Claudia. Don't let yourself fall in love with a photo-listing. The information is incomplete at best. More complete information will be given to you confidentially. Be prepared for some counter-intuitive information. Sometimes the easiest kids to parent are hard to place because they are parts of sibling groups, or are older, black, or have criminal records. Babies can seem like the safest bet, but sometimes babies have issues (autism, FASD) that are not diagnosed yet.

There are a lot of kids with a lot of different needs. Read the blogs of those of us who are doing this.

Okay, anyone else got advice for "Anonymous"?


  1. I've got two cents...

    "Is it just possible that many of these kids really, really want a loving home and will respond to the kind of "normal" structure and loving that many of us are just so willing to offer?"

    Is it possible that many of these kids want a loving home with structure? Oh, my goodness... yes. Many of them do want that. My son wanted that. However...

    Moving into your loving, stable, structured home will be one more piece of loss in a long list of losses for your child. Even change that is ultimately for the better is scary -- terrifying and traumatizing even.

    Your child will likely long for people from their past -- be it their first/biological family or foster families or previous adopted families or some random aunt or uncle that they at one time had hoped they could live with. Your child, this little person moving into your home that is going to be there forever, doesn't know you. And they have years (10 years in my son's case) of hopes and dreams and fears and concerns that happened before you ever came along.

    Your child will more than likely be really angry at you from time to time. Their life has been unfair. And, at times, you are the spokesperson for all of that unfairness. You will see anger from them that seems unreasonable at times. You will more than likely see a time when your child truly, absolutely hates you. Even though you are the last chapter in their family story, you are now the representative for all that has gone wrong in their life.

    Love is a wonderful thing. These kids need consistent, unfaltering, unconditional love. But it doesn't solve everything. Love does not wipe away years of abuse, neglect, and trauma. Attachment is formed quickly -- my son has been home for 17 months and we still have a long, long way to go with attachment.

    That being said, there are no typical kids. Every child's history and experience are different and their needs and response to an adoptive home will be different as well. But, to be the best parent you can be, you HAVE TO be knowledgeable about the effects of abuse, trauma, and common disorders that kids in foster care have. (e.g. Reactive Attachment Disorder)

    Like Yondalla said, the kids come in a wide range. You have to know what you can handle. I couldn't handle some of the things Yondalla deals with with her older boys. But I know that I deal with some things with my son that Yondalla would rather not take on. Know what you can handle before hand -- it's a disservice to the child if you move forward with them even though they have needs you can't meet.

  2. Oops. I meant Attachment ISN'T formed quickly.

    Dang I wish we could edit comments. Especially when we write I book like I just did. (Sorry for the hijack, Yondalla.)

  3. Yondalla, your answer hit home in so very many ways. We experienced the full range of what you described with the first child we took in, and it caught us completely by surprise. We have much the same thing going on with the child we have in our home now (the issues took nearly 9 months to manifest themselves). Did you have a social worker that helped you prepare for the rollercoaster, or did you have to pick it up as you went along?

    Maggie, I really relate what you said, as well. It is so very important for foster parents to recognize that there are no instant fixes. Wifeness and I know this intellectually, but it is hard to appreciate just what that means, especially when you're in the middle of it.

    Thank you both for your wisdom.

  4. Maggie, I love comments, all comments, long and short.

    Wayfayer, I have had really good social workers along the way, but no one prepared me. I'm not sure they could have.

  5. Ummm...

    Speaking of hijacking...prepare thyself LOL

    I think the majority of kids in foster care WANT loving homes. I think its important to see 2 things though: 1- they'd prefer it be the home they grew up in, just without the violence/drugs/sex/neglect/abuse, and 2- just because they crave/want it, doesn't mean they can or will ever be able to live in OUR VERSION of "loving".

    I'm not big on labels. We've seen kids labeled as "normal, just a little on the quiet side" and them turn out to have a major psychiatric disorder (or three). There's ben the ones that are "wonderfully sweet and outgoing" who translate into "will sleep with anyone if they say i love u".

    Then there's the ones that come labeled as "autistic, mildly mentally retarded, low functioning, mute" that turns out to be extremely gifted, quick to attach, with NO attachment problems, simply too many ear infections and low hearing levels.

    Of babies that come as "perfectly normal" who turn out to develop epilepsy. You just never know.

    The problem with labels? They simply only work for things manufactured in mass quantities, like jelly or medications or things you can buy at walmart. Even then, most labels with food nutrition somewhere mention that it may not be completely accurate due to "portion sizing".

    So how can we expect labels to work for kids? We can't.

    The reason this matters to me? I don't see "transition" as the problem- it is expected that anyone moving to a new house, new school, new set of coworkers/roommates will have a period of transition.

    The difference is, everyone watches foster and adopt kids with a magnifying glass. We know American society medicates far too many problems that could be resolved with something far less strong. (Not discounting true mental illness, just acknowledging we are a paxil and adderrall generation right now)

    I think its important to recognize something- the child is going to try to impress you and/or not tick you off for the first little bit. I think everyone, Yondalla included has mentioned this before, sees this as a honeymoon period.

    The difference between Yondalla and I- she sees the next period as a time of "testing". I do not. I see it as the time when the child simply returns to being whoever they were before they met you. They've seen your traditions and rules and habits, and that's fine, but that's not who THEY are. The reality is, a child's primary personality and learned habits happens before age 5, with the majority happening before age 3. They are who they are. If you are a laid back, easy going, tolerant person, then older kids will do well with you (as they have with Yondalla).

    Don't get me wrong. Some kids do intentionally push buttons. I just don't think its as much for testing the family as it is to get a reaction. Sometimes, its just a learned reaction- in their birth fams, they may have received gifts after sex abuse or phys abuse, so they may mentally associate gifts with pain, and act out accordingly even though no pain is currently present. Its very common for abusers to follow incidents of abuse with overly affectionate, almost spoiling levels of "love" (sarcasm on that word), and that will have subconsciously trained the child to react a certain way.

    For instance, I have a niece. She grew up in a somewhat broken home (they were married but one parent cheated for years off and on and the kids knew although the other parent did not). There was arguing, and ignoring present a lot. My niece grew up knowing that she had to "push buttons" to tick people off in order to get a response. She thrived in chaos because it was familiar.

    In her case, as she aged, she constantly sought out relationships that she could create chaos in. I never spent a holiday with her without her somehow spreading gossip or starting a battle. Its just WHO she is. Its a part of her personality. And the only way it will ever be resolved is for her to decide she wants to change. Therapy is useless- she doesn't see she has the problem. She likes the chaos and mayhem.

    I think its important to read the files on the foster kids before you make a serious committment. If you have the opportunity, try to meet some of the birth family. Most states encourage "shared parenting", where the foster family and birth family interact at visits, even enforcing shared rules during visits, etc. Its a great way to see the manipulation tricks, the way their tempers manifest, how they handle stress, and in general, how they interact with the world.

    Listen close to the foster child- how does she describe the world around her? Is she always a victim? Is she always around people that seem to be fighting? (She probably won't be "part of it", but its always her friends, probably because she stirs the pot).

    Its important not to confuse an inability to attach (which does occur in some cases, more typically in cases of mental retardation from what I've read) with a difference in understanding of attachment.

    To most average people, who grew up with the same loving set of parents (or stepparents or whatever), attachment means a close, loving relationship, eye contact, affection, and obedience because of love.

    But in some cultures, eye contact is offensive. If your foster child grew up with that, they may deliberately avoid your eyes. Same goes with affection. Heck, to some foster kids, if they care about you, then they'll steal for you. Maybe simply not burning the house down when they're upset shows their love for you.

    To be a successful foster parent, I think you need to be able to separate your hurt feelings or emotional needs from your assessment of the child. You have to be able to see the world from their point of view and its often a very difficult task.

    Another problem with labeling a child with RAD is that its so tempting to google the horror stories or symptoms and then feel hopeless or trapped.

    To me, its just easier to step back and remind myself "this child is perfect just like they are. They are normal in their world. Somehow I have to make our worlds normal together, and since she/he can't help me with this, I may have to change my expectations in order to keep peace".

    And in some cases, some children will never be happy unless they are back in the chaos they were removed from. I just believe those children are few and far between.

    And I love what Maggie said in the paragraph that begins "Love is a wonderful thing...". Attachment does take time. We grow more attached to our spouses as our marraige lengthens. That's normal. I also love that she pointed out that its harmful to the child to move forward if you know early on that you can't handle some of their special needs. I agree 100%!

  6. Well, I NEVER use the word "honeymoon" to apply to the first period when the kids are anxious and trying to be on their best behavior, but mostly I agree with everything else you said.

    About the testing...I will have to think about that for a while. There is something going on for a while, a sort of trepidation about whether you will keep them if you really know what they are like, and I have almost felt the kids relax a little when they see what I am like when I am mad, but "testing" is too simplistic for the dynamic that is going on.

    I imagine if we talked about it for a while we would basically agree on most of this, even if we used different words for it.


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