Yesterday we spent several hours at an adoption training workshop. We are required to complete a certain amount of hours of training prior to bringing Asher home. I don’t really know if this is a Holt requirement or a state or federal requirement, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s a just a good idea. It’s been divided up into 3 full days of seminars with other couples, and this was our last “module.” It was focused on recognizing and parenting a child who has experienced loss and/or trauma. The themes were definitely drilled into our head in a concrete way. If I could summarize the training in one sentence, it would be this: in many ways, adopted children need to be parented differently than bio children.
Throughout the workshop, we talked about a variety of situations that may affect our adopted children. In the room we had families adopting from Korea, Thailand, Ethiopia, and China. One family also has a preschooler adopted from Vietnam. Some of the kiddos are in orphanages, others in foster families. I think all of them will come home between the ages of 13 and 22 months. I appreciated the social worker facilitating our class, because she wasn’t touchy-feely about grief and loss. At no time did she convey pity towards our children. But she was completely frank that being separated from everything these children recognize as normal and safe (even into a new, loving home) will be a life-changing trauma–one that will affect their psyche in deep and potentially unknown ways. In addition, we are not fully able to understand or know the details about their care in the first year, and how that may also play into their behavior and emotions.
Now, just like a first-time-pregnant woman cannot possibly be a parenting expert, I do not share this info because I have all the answers. On the contrary, I’m rather intimidated by the unknowns and anxious about making parenting decisions for Asher, especially as he transitions home. You experienced adoptive parents may have thoughts and experiences that differ from our expectations and the information I’m conveying, but we are trying to prepare with due diligence for all possibilities–and help prepare our families as well. We are always open to hearing ideas and stories that vary from the textbook norm. One thing that I have heard frequently is that it is difficult for people who have only dealt with biological, securely attached children to understand the strange choices made by adoptive parents! One adoptive mother called it “upside down” parenting. We have been encouraged to share the concepts and theories that we are learning and will most likely implement, so that our close friends and family will better grasp the choices we will make in the best interest of Asher. This may be old news for you or totally foreign. I’m not going to be academic and quote sources, just paraphrase what we’ve learned from books, stories and seminars. Even though Asher won’t be home for many months, I’m writing this now while it’s fresh in my mind.
Here are just a few examples we are anticipating. We’ve heard many times that grief in a toddler will often manifest itself at night–Asher will very likely have trouble sleeping in a new place, with new people, waking up and wondering where he is. Even when he knows us and is getting comfortable with us, he may still grieve for his foster mother. Things are always worse at night, right? I think that even as an adult! Many families in Thailand sleep as a family on a single low mattress on the ground. We will probably experiment with co-sleeping with Asher–whether that means in bed with us, a crib adjacent to our bed…we don’t know yet. We plan to continue waking up and comforting Asher in the night when he cries…even after he’s been home several months, when we are sleep-deprived and just wishing he would learn to self-soothe. Research shows that letting an adopted child “cry it out” can do serious harm to the attachment cycle of parent and child. He needs to TRUST that we will be there to meet his needs and calm his fears. We did some sleep-training with both of our older kids at different times and had to let them cry it out–especially when they got to be toddlers. And we’ve never been co-sleepers! So that will be an adjustment for all of us. I also have no idea how we’re going to deal with the fact that he’s clearly bottle-fed–a LOT. Some families ween the toddler immediately to sippy cups, and other families continue a few bottles for comfort and the fact that feeding them a bottle is an opportunity for physical snuggling and eye-contact. We’ll have to feel that one out when we get there!
Another very important aspect of bringing home an adopted toddler is the need to attach and bond with his father and mother. We have a very close extended family who are involved in our daily lives–this is a good thing! We want Asher to recognize and bond with them too. But first and foremost, he must understand that I am his mom–now and forever. Trent is his Daddy. This is his last transition. No one else will be coming to take him away again. We will be the ones to hold him, feed him, give him gifts, change him, comfort him–meet all his needs. If you can think about a one-year-old that you know…can you imagine taking him or her away from their family–and not bringing them back? Can you imagine how scared and upset they would be? We’ve read lots of different strategies that help with bonding and attachment….eye-contact games like peekaboo, lots of physical contact and baby carrying, and making sure that mom and dad are the only ones to meet Asher’s needs (including comforting and holding) for the first several weeks. Oh, how I would LOVE to have a huge–HUGE–party when we get home with Asher! There are so many people who will want to meet him and if they could would just snuggle him like crazy! But, alas, we will not be doing anything like that. Maybe an airport greeting or something like that, but then we’ll probably hunker down at our house for a while and find our new normal. We had two experienced adoptive parents talk with us yesterday, and they said that this experience is similar to coming home with a newborn–we will be brain dead, physically and emotionally exhausted. They both said the best gift people can give us is to bring dinner (and meet Asher in a small, low-pressure setting), or pay for house-cleaning! These moms also said that we will be able to tell when Asher is more ready to interact and be held by family members, and then slowly be introduced to our loving friends and church family. I’m sure every child is different and adjusts at different speeds.
Another interesting exercise we did yesterday was read through “vinyettes” taken from real-life post-placement situations. They were gathered by Holt’s social workers in our state. They ran the gamut from sleep and eating issues with toddlers to bed-wetting and aggressive behaviors of older kids. (There was a lot of questions and discussions about potty-training a toddler from another culture! But that is a different post.) A discussion that resulted from this activity was to think about how to discipline an adopted toddler or preschooler. When one of my bio toddlers would take a toy or hit during playtime, I often put them in time out. But isolating a child who may still struggle with security and attachment could cause more emotional damage–and further negative behavior. Adoptive parents have to get creative on how they discipline–firmly, but in love and ever-mindful of the adopted child’s complicated background. There’s a word tossed around a lot, it’s called a “time-in.” If Asher is making bad choices, instead of sending him to his room, I might remove him from the situation and sit WITH him in his room. Or maybe just bring him with me to a chair in the next room and sit with him in my lap for a few minutes.
These are just a few examples of possible situations that might arise. The good news is that our research and also many, many stories from experienced adoptive parents (especially our friends in the Thailand program!) have told us that toddlers are resilient! They are often quick to adjust and bond with their new, loving families. The intense grieving does not usually last longer than weeks or a couple months. Soon enough, we anticipate having a happy, well-adjusted little boy going to playdates, sleepovers at grandma’s house, enjoying preschool and Sunday school. Thank you all for your amazing support and understanding. I hope someday Asher can fathom the incredible number of people who were loving and waiting for him here at home!