Sex with your spouse or significant other is important.Homework is not. That is a pretty full summary of the contribution I made recently on Dawn Davenport’s radio show, “Parents Adopting Older Kids, Surviving the First Year.” You can find it on http://www.creatingafamily.org or use the following link:
After the interview I thought about all of the things I wanted to say to parents trying to survive the first year home with their “older” adopted child. There were so many! I finally narrowed it down to the top ten things I really want parents to know.
10. Let go of your expectations.
We all get into this process with visions of happy family activities in our heads. For me it was baking. I pictured making cookies from scratch with my happy children. I pictured baking and kissing boo-boos and tucking them in sweetly at night. I wasn’t prepared for a 7-year-old trying to bash in my skull with a high healed shoe while screaming, “You love your ‘mom chores’ more than me!” I thought we would all be deliriously happy. We weren’t. At least, not all of the time. The first year is a huge adjustment. It’s OK that it’s difficult for them. It’s OK that it’s difficult for you. Don’t expect your child to be happy or to love you right away. Don’t expect to be a super-powered-therapeutic-healing-wonder-mom at first. Let go of society’s expectations of having talented children who preform well academically and are socially well-adjusted. This has no reflection on your parenting. The connection with your child does. Let go of expectations and concentrate on connecting. This is the job that needs doing in this first year.
9. School isn’t that important.
Here it is. The part where I tell you not to do homework. I am an elementary school teacher. I know that we pile on expectations about state test scores and homework and projects. Guess what? It’s not that important. Not the first year home, anyway. The first year with an older child is all about bonding. It’s about healing. It isn’t about getting an “A” in pre-algebra. The first year is about building family relationships which will later shape all relationships in your child’s life. Pre-algebra probably won’t have the same effect. Keep in mind that coming into your family is a huge life change. By nature, life changes are stressful, even when they are positive. A child with a stressed out brain is more likely to operate in a “fight-or-flight” mode. A child needs to feel safe and secure in order to focus on learning new information beyond basic survival needs. Time spent together after school engaged in family activities, child-centered play, therapy, and fun is worth more than an entire year of academic success.
8. Food issues are common
Hoarding, binging, and food refusal are all common stress responses. These may be triggered by past trauma around food such as not having enough, or by a scared child trying to find some sense of control over a seemingly chaotic life. It’s OK that food might be stressful for our kids. For kids that hoard, try to give them healthy non-perishable options they can keep in their rooms or in their pockets. Always have some food available (fruit bowl or cut veggies) that they can eat any time. If they want to binge on food, try to give them a healthy option (carrots) or allow them to have a small portion and then choose something else to eat in 20 minutes. Talk to them about the feeling in their bellies when they have eaten food. Draw a picture of their stomach and have them color in what they have eaten and how full it makes them feel. A visual representation can help calm fear that they haven’t eaten much and have been starved all day. Provide different options during meals and plan meals together for the child that refuses to eat. Our daughter would sit through dinner and only eat when she was alone after everyone had left the table. That was fine. We still had mealtime together with conversation even if she didn’t eat until later.
7. Sleep issues are common
People with newborn babies are always exhausted. Parents of children with sleep issues are also exhausted! Our daughter only slept for 45 minutes at a time and woke up screaming for the first 6 months home. This continued until we put her on a mattress in the hallway outside of our room. Yes, she had a white-noise machine, a nightlight, soothing lavender lotion, a bedtime story and a set bedroom routine. Being in close proximity to us helped her feel safe. We also let her sleep in the shirt either my husband or I had worn that day. It smelled like us and gave her the comfort of feeling like we were close by. Eventually, with time and therapy, our daughter was able to feel safe enough to sleep at night.
6. Therapy is a must
I’m surprised that many people see therapy as having a negative connotation. When you adopt an older child they will have huge emotions. They go through a huge adjustment. You go through a huge adjustment. They may grieve the loss of a bio family or foster family. They may have past trauma to work through. It is not uncommon for a child with past trauma to exhibit shutting down behavior particularly around emotional subjects. It’s also relatively common for a child to have uncontrollable meltdowns over triggers that neither of you may realize. Our children benefitted from in-home intensive therapy as well as trauma focused cognitive behavioral therapy. You would have to research what would be best for your family, but even weekly family therapy will help all parties through this major adjustment. Remember, therapy is designed to help everyone handle their feelings, it isn’t for people who are “wrong” in some way.
5. Build your village
You will need support during this first year. Identify and utilize your resources. You will need sympathetic friends. You will need the support and understanding of family members. You will need respite, even if it’s just a few hours. You also need to be able to talk to parents who have had similar experiences. Finding a local support group or a facebook support group can be a great opportunity to get ideas and help from others. This is a tough road. Don’t go it alone!
4. It’s a little bit like raising aliens
You cannot expect that your children will know or understand everyday things that your take for granted. When our children came home they had never heard of any fairy tales or nursery rhymes. They hadn’t had much experience with napkins or tissues so they wiped everything on their shirts, including bloody noses. The incident that I found most bizarre was the fact that they didn’t flush their toilet paper. They would wipe and then leave the toilet paper in the bathroom trash can, which quickly filled up with poop. It’s best to just explain everything and talk about everything. Your kids may come with some cool ideas from their home planet (not the TP-in-the-trash thing!) but it helps if you all try to understand each other.
3. Self-care–Have sex!!
This is a big one for me. It’s the one I mentioned on the radio! Self-care of any kind is very important. It takes a lot out of you to survive this first year. In order to give back to your family, you need to give back to yourself, first. Sex is a huge stress reliever and my relationship with my husband is very important to me. Nurturing and maintaining this relationship is very rewarding for me. When the children first came home they were emotionally very disorganized in their response to affection. One minute my love was met in kind, in the next minute my love was met with violence. Attachment can be a scary and difficult process for kids. As much love as you pour into them, don’t expect anything back at first. Instead, take time to seek unconditional love and nurture from your partner. And yes, have sex!
2. Let it Be
Your children will come to you with all kinds of emotions. They love you but they have loyalty to their birth family. They are happy to be with you but angry that they had to be in foster care. In the famous words of the Beatles, “let it be.” Whatever feelings they have are OK. Encourage them to share these feelings with you, no matter how big or uncomfortable. When my kids rage I sometimes tell them, “It’s alright. Just let it all out. It’s OK that you feel this way.” If they aren’t ready to talk? It’s OK. Let it be. If you need a break from your children? Honor that feeling and take a break. Let it be. There are all kinds of feelings involved in this process, for all parties. All of these feelings are OK. Let it be.
1. It gets better. It’s worth it!
The number one thing I want people to know is something I neglected to mention on the radio show. The first year is a huge transition. It can be really hard. When the honeymoon ends it can be disheartening and even scary. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, you need to survive the first part in order to get to the good stuff. I forgot to mention that the good stuff comes!!! This process is totally worth it. Through all of the difficult times, and the hard parts, we stuck with it. We stuck together, no matter what. We all learned a lot about the power of love. When I look back I wish I had a crystal ball to show me that the trauma they came with would heal. They would eventually eat, sleep through the night and express love. As I sit at my kitchen table and type this, I can see the cookies I made with my kids. No drama, no tears, just fun in the kitchen. Yes, I kiss their boo-boos and tuck them in at night. Yes, they love me. The most fulfilling part is the title I earned in that first year. I am now, and will always be, “mom.”
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.
**If you’ve ever considered foster care or adoption, I encourage you to get started on your own adventure!