I once worked with a young man, age 18 (I’ll call him Caleb) in a long-term residential program for older adolescents. He told me that by the time he was adopted at age 15 he had been in a least 30 different foster homes. If you do the math, that means he moved on average at least every six months. In the long-term residential program, we asked the residents to voluntarily commit to a one-year stay. At approximately the six-month point of his time with us, Caleb decided to intentionally sabotage his stay by violating one of the program’s “zero tolerance” rules. This resulted in a heartbreaking decision to dismiss him from the program. Although he was struggling in the program, his decision surprised us. However, it was no surprise to him. After learning of his dismissal, Caleb nonchalantly told me, “Well, I never stayed anywhere longer than six months anyway.”
“What did Caleb’s decision have to do with loss?” you might ask. A lot. One of the symptoms of adoptee loss—especially for kids adopted at older ages—is the struggle, and often the inability to put down roots. For some of these adoptees, the nagging thought is always in the back of their minds that “this may not last—especially if it is something good.” Adoptees who have spent many years in multiple foster homes—even foster homes that are warm and loving—often have their “mental suitcase packed”, and like Caleb, may even try to sabotage their stay. This behavior is rooted in their original loss—the “Primal Wound” as author and adoptive parent Nancy Newton Verrier calls it. This is the wound suffered as a result of separation from one’s birthparents, especially the birthmother. This wound sends a message to the child that he or she is not good enough to warrant anyone’s unconditional love or acceptance. Therefore, in the child’s mind it is easier and less painful for him to be the first to break off the relationship (like Caleb did) than to risk the possibility of his parents doing so.
How can we help an adopted child who understand that he is now in his forever home? How can we give him permission to unpack his mental suitcase? This can be a labor-intensive task. However, it is not a complicated one. As parents we must be a “broken record” of messages to our child that he is loved unconditionally and that we are always available to him. We must thicken our skin to absorb the tests he will put us through to determine (in his mind) our loyalty. We can never give him enough “I love you” messages. We must work hard to establish a daily, predictable routine for him and stick to it (i.e. mealtimes, homework time, bath time, play time, family time, etc.). With time, loving and predictable structure can become a powerful antidote to break the chaotic pattern of our child’s past. Above all, we must not be Lone Rangers! Seek out other adoptive parents you can interact with. Join an adoptive parent support group. Involve your extended family or church in a supportive role. Connect with someone you are close to (that your child knows) who can provide periodic respite for you and your child. Carve out time—even if it’s only a few minutes a day—for physical exercise.
Adoptive Dads and Moms, if you are currently encountering some parenting challenges in any of the areas I write about in my blogs, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to talk further about our Parent-to-Parent Coaching service. You can also visit our website at www.adoptivefamilyresources.org to learn more about Parent-to-Parent Coaching. Also, I encourage you to check out the excellent book “The Connected Parent” by Dr. Karyn Purvis and Lisa Qualls. Both of these outstanding women have a ton of experience.