Thursday, March 20, 2014

Older Child Adoption: Challenges and Ideas for Parents

I've been writing this post for 16 months, but hadn't published it yet. When Give1Save1 (who sponsored our family in November, for a fundraiser for Natalie) asked me to write a guest post for March, I knew exactly which topic I wanted. So here are my motherhood gleanings in an incredibly long blog post. :)

I have no idea how to raise my kids.

I read all the books, listened to the seminars, formed friendships with other adoptive parents, and did all the other things a good adoptive mommy is supposed to do.

And every day I am faced with challenges and behavioral issues that I have no idea how to overcome.

I have older kids. A son, 15 , and a daughter, 9 (and an 11 year old on the way! :)). They've been home 16 months, and they are AMAZING. If you'd told me four years ago when we started the adoption process that we would have big kids, I would have laughed. I mean, our age range started out 0-5. My husband and I are super young ourselves. And now I can't imagine adopting UNDER the age of 8. Funny how things change.

Older kids are such an amazing joy to have. They are incredible people with amazing potential. My kids have filled my life with so much sunshine and love. It's like having two best friends. I can't say enough about how much I love being a family with them. There are so many precious older children waiting to be adopted, but sadly, there are a lot of fears and stigmas that come attached to the thought of adopting older kids. And to be truthful, there ARE lot of unique challenges. I want to address some of the ones that we have personally faced, and that I believe to be common among older adopted children. I want to share some of our experience and provide a realistic view of what adopting an older child can look like. These kids are phenomenal, and this is the most amazing and rewarding experience, but that does not mean that it's an easy one. Some challenges we have faced are:

-Skin color and minority/majority status: My kids are from Ethiopia, and they are not used to being the minority, or looking different. It's uncomfortable for them. And it makes our status as a family more questionable to those around us; no one ever thinks that my kids are actually my biological kids. People always assume we are babysitting or in some Big Brother/Big Sister program. (Part of this is also because my husband and I are so young.) We are never left alone....the topic of adoption ALWAYS comes up, and it frustrates my kids. They want to be seen as a "normal" family. They don't want to be approached, questioned and petted every five minutes, or given dirty looks when we go out. Neither do I. It almost feels like having paparazzi....we CANNOT escape. My kids are also frustrated that we are a different color than they are. We live in a very diverse town and know many interracial and adoptive families, but they realize that in America, a large percent of the population is Caucasian. And for the first time in their lives, they feel inferior because of their skin color. They want our family to match. They want to pretend that they are my biological kids. They want to be white. And nothing I can say about how beautiful and special, how perfect and amazing they are, can change this.

-Intense grieving: Adopted kids, no matter how they come to us, have been traumatized. Uprooted from everything and everyone they knew. Brought to a different place, with a different culture, language, and expectations, and placed permanently with a family that they just met. And that's not including whatever their personal history has been up to that point, and the possible pain from that.

-Cultural Differences: Clothing, hairstyles, earrings/piercings, how much and what area of skin is exposed, makeup, views on beauty, inappropriate comments or behavior when something is disliked, time values, appropriate greetings, daily schedules, food, holidays, sterotypes and stigmas (my kids believed some WEIRD things about specific other cultures/races) are some of the cultural differences we have faced.

-Previous life history: Adoption comes from brokenness. One family is built from the destruction of another. Abandonment. Death. Abuse. Starvation. Illness. War. These are some of the circumstances that bring these precious children into our families. And there is always pain.

-Fears: Older children often struggle with fears such as abandonment, not being loved because they aren't babies, fear of the dark, of being alone, fear of being "sent back", fear of never succeeding, etc. Their previous life history and the fears that may accompany that can also haunt them.

-Independence: Many older children are almost completely independent in their birth country, carrying huge responsibilities, and acting as an adult. When they are adopted, and take on the title as someone's child, this new role can be an issue. I think of it similarly to an elderly person having their license taken away. Losing that kind of independence can be devastating and beyond frustrating. Having to accept a stranger as the role of your parent (when that is a role YOU may have had) is equally as hard.

-Personal Beliefs: Again, their personalities and how they view the world are already established. They don't just come to America and accept everything we may think or believe here.

-Self Worth: Many things can impact this.....shame, abandonment, past history, skin color, education level or lack thereof, language, etc.

So after 16 months, do I finally feel like I have an idea of how to parent my kids??? Nope. I still just basically go off my "adoption gut" instinct. Typical American parenting techniques DO. NOT. APPLY. "Let them cry it out." "Send them to their room." "Use tough love." Ignore them." "Take away their possessions as punishment." No, no, NO.

Figuring out how to train your precious adopted kiddos is TOUGH. I want to show grace and love, and yet there also have to be boundaries. I have to figure out if a behavior problem is an adoption issue, or a heart issue. I have to teach them how to handle struggles and situations appropriately. And every day, I am winging it. So here are the things that are working for our family:

-No isolation. Period. No being left alone in a room..... no PERCEIVED isolation or abandonment. EVER. We don't send our kids to their room to think over their behavior if they need a time-out. Instead, we use "time-ins" when needed, which for us means we go to the livingroom and sit together on the couch. We stay with them for the entire duration of the "time-in".

-No walking off when you're upset, because this can trigger the list of FEARS. For us, this means we have to deal with things in the moment. Staying calm, not getting upset, and addressing an issue immediately, is key for us when dealing with any misbehavior. We stay together and solve it as a family. Even if it means hours of sitting in a room together. And by hours, I mean, I have sat for 36 hours STRAIGHT in a room with a child who needed to realize that this family will NEVER leave them.

-If they have a fear, don't try and break it by forcing them to face it. This only seems to intensify the fear and make it more of an issue. The more I ignore something (as far as not constantly bringing attention to it), the less of an issue it becomes (for the most part). Example: Child X is afraid of the dark. So I go first EVERWHERE. Every time. It doesn't matter if I am in the middle of something and it's inconvenient (and it often is). I go, turn the light on, then walk them to the area, show them it's safe, and stay with them till they are done with whatever it is that they needed to do. I don't leave them alone, EVER. Is this time-consuming? YES. Inconvenient? YES (especially because this happens like 15x a day at our house). Who cares. I want my child to feel SAFE. And for older adopted kids, that may be a feeling/concept that they have never experienced.

-Constant reassuring. I tell my kids a thousand times a day how much I love them, how I will never leave them or let them go, how they light up my life. If I go out and my husband is home, I text them and tell them how much I love them and how I can't wait to see them. We FaceTime a million times when I travel. They need to KNOW that they are cherished, and that I am coming back. Permanency is a new concept for them.

-Words of Affirmation. My kids need to hear daily, a thousand times, that they are loved, beautiful, smart, kind, precious. That I am proud of them. That they are treasures. My gift from God. My blessings.

-Make a big deal when a family member walks in the door after being out. No matter who it is, when one of us walks through the door, everyone stops what they are doing and runs to greet the returning family member with big hugs. We tell them how much we missed them and how much we love them.

-Hugs/Safe Touch. I hug my kids about 50,000x a day. I hold their hands. I high-five them. They sit next to me/on my lap. My daughter hangs on me like a monkey. Actually, we nicknamed her "The 60lb Appendage". :)

-Write love notes. I write them notes and leave them everywhere for my kids to find. Somehow having it down on paper as proof seems to help with reassurance. I write them little notes and leave them on their pillows when they are sleeping. I put notes in their sock drawers. In their school books. In the iPad. My son actually showed me that he has kept almost every note I've written him. We had to get a big bag for them. :)

-Wear the same clothes/accessories. Lots of adoption books recommend rubbing a baby with your lotion or shampoo, etc. We apply the same concept to our big kids. My son loves to look like my husband. They use the same deodorant scent. And he and I try to match with baseball hats or sweatshirts, or paracord bracelets. My daughter and I will wear the same color clothes, nailpolish, and matching earrings. I spray her with my body-splash. This is a huge deal to our kids.

-Give them something that's of value to you. I gave my kids each one of my rings and they wear them on a necklace. It really helped them feel secure. It helped them know that I trusted them. It helped them feel like I wouldn't ever just walk away from them when they had something "expensive" of mine. The ring that my daughter wears has their names engraved on it, which also goes a long way in making her feel secure. Extra tip....yes, give them something valuable, but also prepare for the item to be something you may never see again, due to multiple possibilities (accidental loss, or possible decimation in a meltdown where they may not be thinking clearly......). 

-Be honest and open. My kids' personal experiences have caused them to have a desperate need for openness. I mean, we talk about EVERYTHING as a family. This was tough for me and my husband at first, because we didn't expect to have to share everything as if we were in a four-person marriage, but it's what helped us gain our kids' trust. Their background dictates how they perceive their surroundings and situations, and in order to assure them that we were not doing damage to them behind their backs, we became a family who talks everything out. All the time. Even the smallest, most innocent things. There are no secrets. Sound ridiculous? Maybe it is. It doesn't matter. My kids needed absolute transparency. And now that we have the hang of it, it's kind of nice. And also, now that we have earned their trust, we don't have to be as extreme as we were in the beginning.

-Offer re-dos, and show them/act out the various options for handling situations and then have them act it out too. We do re-do's about 1,000x a day. The goal of a re-do (for us) is to teach our kids how to appropriately and respectfully handle a request or situation. The two examples below are pretty much how re-dos in our house go now, but originally, they didn't start out this smoothly! :)

                            Me: "Child X, can you please come help me set the table?"
                            Child X, "No! I don't want to. I'm tired."
                            Me: "I understand that you're tired. But that is not how you answer Mommy. If Mommy asks you to  
                                    do something, you need to do it or ask respectfully to be excused. Then Mommy will say yes or no.
                                    Whatever my answer is, you need to accept it without complaining. You may always ask to be excused,
                                    but you must be respectful. I'm going to ask you again:
                            Me: "Child X, can you please help me set the table?'
                            Child X, "Mommy, may I please stay here? I am tired."                
                            Me: "I'm sorry you're tired sweetie. Yes, you may stay. Thank you for such nice asking."


                            Child X: "Mom, I'm hungry."
                            Me: "You may eat a banana."
                            Child X: "Yuck. I want an orange!"
                            Me: "That's not a respectful response.Can you please try again?"
                            Child X: "Mom, I don't want a banana. Can I please have an orange?"
                            Me: "That was great asking! Yes, of course you can have an orange."

-Lots of  "yes's". Similar to the "re-do's" example above, we try to say "yes" to our kids as much as possible. Even if what they are asking isn't my preferred option for them, I want to teach them how to ask in a kind and respectful manner. For example, my kids love the iPad. And although I hate to admit it, they play on it more than I want. But if they are asking for it in a polite, respectful manner, and it is within reason, I will give them permission to use it (with a time limit). Teaching them how to ask was a huge thing for us, and has made everyone's life more enjoyable.

-Allow food to be available 24/7. A lot of adopted kids have food issues. Many have never had enough to eat, and will gorge or hide food out of self-preservation. Our kids have a need to know food is always available to them and they are allowed to eat fruit, toast, or pretzels any time of day.

-If you give options, keep it simple. Especially when you first come home. Kids who have not had a lot of possesions or options are easily over-stimulated. We kept it super simple. As in, two choices. Red or blue? Even that can be overwhelming for them. We noticed that when our kids had unlimited choices, they became greedier, crankier, and were unable to decide on one thing, much less, one of the actual options. Example: Don't ask, "What fruit do you want?" (My kids would take a hundred years to pick something and then wouldn't eat it and would want something else entirely.) Instead, ask, "Do you want an apple, or a banana?"

-Write out a daily schedule. For some reason, this helps my kids feel more secure (when they know in advance everything that will be happening), and it gives us a chance to talk about the day, and what will be expected. It also gives us a chance to review proper behavior for certain settings (bank/meeting new people/etc.)

-If your kids don't want to talk about something that is bothering them, trying writing about it back and forth. I am referring to eliminating speech, literally. Even if they don't have a lot of language, sometimes it is easier to express themselves through writing, plus it removes the need for eye contact, which can be scary for them. So try writing and pictograms. This worked great for one of our kids until they had enough trust and language to express themselves.

-Allow your kids to talk. My kids tend to start talking (specifically about their past life) at the most inconvenient times (school, bedtimes, etc.) and will talk for HOURS. Not kidding. But it is so necessary. For their healing. For you to fill in some gaps about their past. For them to share their burdens. To build trust. It will help you understand why they react to situations and triggers the way that they do. It's exhausting and can eat up half your day, but it is something my kids desperately crave. Definitely set a time limit if necessary (we do that for minor topics), but let them talk. I often feel like, "We don't have time!!!" but then I remember that if I cut them off, they might never open up to me again. Now, or ever. NOW is the time to establish that trust and vulnerability.

-Set some crucial rules and stick with them. We have six rules in our house. We wrote them out and posted them in our kitchen. 1. No ignoring. 2. No complaining. 3. No bossing each other around. 4. If you have a problem, tell Mom or Dad (no sulking/fighting/bad attitudes). 5. LOVE. FORGIVE. 6. No lying. 

-Be consistent. Be consistent with your rules. EVERY time. Exhausting? Inconvenient? Yup. Worth it? YUP.

-Understand that your kids are often little kids in big kid bodies. There's a general rule in the adoptive community that says something like, "For every six months in an institution, estimate your child's emotional development back one year." So, someone who is age 5, and spent two years in an institution would most likely have the emotional development of a one year old.

-Don't overreact to bad behavior and use positive reinforcement for good behavior. Lots of times, adopted kids may do something to try and get a rise out of us. Example: Don't like that we said no dessert until dinner is eaten? Let's vomit up our dinner. A possible response could be, "I'm sorry you threw up. Let's go ahead and clean it up. If you are so sick that you are throwing up, then dessert would just make you sicker, so no dessert tonight.". Example two: Don't like that we said physical reactions mean we can't go out with friends today? Let's break something. (Sigh. Stay calm and carry on. Oh, and removing electronic privileges is a good motivator!) When they do something good, or kind, or thoughtful, or respectfully, praise the heck out of them!

-Logic doesn't apply. Our kids have different backgrounds, culture, and experiences than us. When afraid, or in a meltdown, they are in survival mode. Logic is not part of this equation.  

-Don't sweat the small stuff. It is a little overwhelming to think of all the possible behavioral issues that may need to be addressed, so don't sweat the small stuff. Worry about the big stuff, and the matters of the heart. Worry about if your child is blatantly disobeying you, versus when they grab your cup from in front of you without asking and take a swig. Worry about how they are addressing people and not about the fact that when they shower, the bathroom floods. Definitely explain table and shower etiquette to them, and help them clean the bathroom, but don't worry about it. That will come. Address the big things first. I also feel like this helps the relationship grow; otherwise I would be nagging them all the time! Maybe one child's chore is the dishes, and they didn't get done, BUT the child has been exceptional to their sibling all day. Praise them for that. And forget the dishes (or wash them yourself). They're just dishes.

-Offer them the opportunity to earn money. It teaches them to be responsible. It teaches them the value of things. It teaches them hard work and motivates them. And it gives them life skills. My kids have ALL my cash. They shovel, do laundry, can clean the fridge or microwave, mow the grass, and clean the basement. They LOVE earning money. They have a few regular daily chores, but these are optional extras, with the chance to earn some $$$. And they feel good about themselves. Plus, it keeps them off the iPad. ;)

-Hurtful words hurt. But your child is probably hurting worse. Sometimes you will get hit with words. Words that cut, lacerate, and destroy. Words that truly crush your heart. It sucks. But hopefully, it's a season. And often, they aren't truly what the child is feeling. They are a reaction (probably to fear of some sort, or extreme pain from their loss). When these daggers are thrown at you, try your best to respond with something that gently counters them. Example: "I DON'T LOVE YOU!!!!" "Baby, I am SO sorry that you are hurting. I wish I could take your pain. I love you, baby." "YOU'RE NOT MY MOM!!!!" (After thousands of hours fighting for them, nurturing them, giving them everything, this one HURTSSSSS.) "Baby, you will always have two moms. Your first Mommy loved you so much! And I do too. I am so sorry that life can be cruel. I can't imagine what you are going through. I'm so sorry, hunny! But I love you very, VERY much. Forever. Hunny, it's okay to be mad. It's okay to cry. Baby, when you hurt, I hurt. Because I LOVE you. My heart is your heart." 

-These kids may have had to be adults in their previous life. So acting like a child may not be natural. My kids had life experiences that caused them to be independent. And that carries over to our current family life. Also, because of cultural differences, my kids had a hard time with some of the boundaries here. No, you can't stay at a location alone. No, you may not go grocery shopping alone. No, you may not bike through heavy traffic miles away by yourself. No, you can't go swimming by yourself. Yes, you need to go to bed when I tell you. Yes, you need to eat what I tell you. Etc, etc. 

-Set the example you want to be. In everything. And apologize first. Try to respond to your kids in the way you want them to respond, even if it doesn't make sense. And apologize first. Even when you're not technically wrong. Example (this scenario just happened to us a couple days ago): Child X does something with a silly face and crazy eyes that remind me of a character from the movie, "A Shark's Tale", (this child's favorite). I teasingly say, "Okay, my little Fish, enough of your silliness, come get your coat on so we can go out." Child X beings to cry and then becomes hysterical. In-between sobs, they manage to say (after coaxing) that I didn't respect them and called them a bad name and they are angry and hurt. I am completely confused (and slightly annoyed). But I pulled Child X into my arms and said, "Heyyyyyyyyyy. I am so sorry that you feel hurt. Baby, "Fish" isn't a bad name. I didn't call you that to be mean. I said it because you reminded me of 'A Shark's Tale' with your silly face. I didn't know that you would be hurt by it. I really am sorry, hunny." Child X, after resisting for a minute, buried their face in my shoulder and began to sob and tell me something that had happened multiple times in their previous life regarding being called names, and it broke my heart and also gave me more insight to their behavior. And it reminded me that apologizing first breaks down barriers, promotes humility, and teaches your child the correct way to handle a situation.

-Tell them they are loved, even when you want to scream. When my kids have a meltdown, the worse they get, the more I try to love on them. I may have to be firm and not back down, but instead of disicpline or punishment, I often just sit with my kids and tell them how much I love them. This isn't easy. In the heat of the moment, when something outrageous has happened, the last thing I want to do when they are pitching a fit is tell them how much they mean to me. But this method has actually brought my kids to tears and stopped a meltdown. When they are out of control, I tell them what incredible people they are. What I love about them (smiles, laughs, personality traits, hair, eyes, etc.). How much I loved them before I knew them. Before I met them. Before I saw pictures. I tell them how wonderful and special they are, how much God loves them, and what wonderful people they are going to be. I tell them how proud I am of them. At first it was hard. REALLY hard. When I wanted to react in frustration or anger, telling them a million reasons why I loved them seemed weird. But the result was stunning. I literally watched the walls that surrounded my kids' hearts crumble to dust after hearing they were loved, even during their worst moments. 

-When you are going through a hard time, make some "love lists" for them. Page 1. "Words and Phrases for ____________." My page included words like "always", "forever", "mine", "always a family," etc. Page 2. "Words I Associate with _________." (Insert positive words that make you think of this child.) Page 3. "Reasons Why I Love ______ (insert child's name)." (A list of reasons why you love them.) For us, making these lists during a hard time showed our kids that we don't only love them when they are "good", but that we love them when times get tough.

Does all this sound scary and/or overwhelming? Sure it does! You are taking a half grown person into your family and trying to balance everything they know and are, with everything you know and are. And you know what? It is the coolest thing ever. That doesn't mean it's easy, or perfect. But it's incredible. These kids just need one thing. Unconditional love. You aren't responsible for how they have been raised, what happened to them in the past, and how that impacts them now. Your job is to love them; to let them know that no matter what happens, no matter what they do, they are your precious child, and you will always LOVE them. My kids have developed and matured SO much since coming home. I could cry every time I think about how far they have come, and what incredible people they are growing to be. I am so, so proud of them. They are truly proof that circumstances don't have to define you. That the hardest days don't last forever. That love conquers all.

They are proof of redemption.