How would you finish this sentence? I know it can be a tricky question even for parents raising their biological children let alone for us, adopters, because, well, how do we define ‘normal’? If my son is not attacking other children in school then he is described as a normal child? Who decides what is considered normal these days? If my son is having a meltdown in the playground and another mother says ‘oh, it’s normal, my son does that too‘ is enough to overlook the underlying issue?
According to the Oxford dictionary Normal is
a.) Conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected
b.) The usual, typical, or expected state or condition
c.) (of a person) free from physical or mental disorders
d.) A person who is conventional or healthy.
Dear me, so much to unpack here, I am afraid this could be another long post! Where do we start? I think we can all agree that if a child experienced abuse and/or neglect and therefore had an early life trauma then that child is probably not normal (if you follow the above definitions). To keep this post at bay, I will try to demonstrate through 4 recent examples what is considered normal in our family and how far from normal our children really are.
Example for (not) reacting like a typical child
I saw a lovely idea on Pinterest; a creative mum put some Lego pieces into the soap dispenser to make it ‘magical’ and to encourage the children to wash their hands. I thought it’s great, my boys love Lego and often forget to wash their hands so let’s do it, what could possibly go wrong here? Well, pretty much everything! When the boys came home from school and saw it they were not pleased. One started crying saying ‘you are so nasty, that Lego was mine, how dare you touched it, my previous FC gave it to me, you took it away from me, I hate you!‘ The other boy was more confused than angry, he was wondering why I ruined the soap dispenser and was worried he will be told off, because ‘I always get blamed for everything’. Needless to say hubby wasn’t thrilled either, he was worried the kids will just think it’s another toy to play with and will waste the soap completely (he wasn’t wrong, 500 ml was gone in 2 days)… A normal child might have enjoyed it, a normal child might have believed that it was magical soap, a normal child might have been tricked into using said soap more often, but for my traumatised children even something innocent as a soap dispenser created massive meltdowns and evoked strong and painful feelings that lingered for days.
Exhibit B – behaving age appropriately or in the expected way
I must confess until I had first hand experiences I did struggle to believe the stories. I had adopter friends way before we started the process ourselves and I got to meet some adopted children over the years. In one particular case the child presented as a lovely and kind person who didn’t mind grown up company. I even looked after said child as a babysitter for a short time once and I thought we had a fab time. Next day the parents told me after I left they had a 2 hours long massive meltdown of shouting, hitting, spitting, name calling and more hatred towards them than ever before, because the child was upset; was terrified of me, was scared of the new situation, was angry for the parents to leave, was worried the parents won’t come back… I was puzzled and didn’t quite believe the severity of the incident. Now, with my two lovelies in my life I repent daily for my ignorant attitude and since we are on the subject, can I just ask everybody who is in contact with adopted children to:
Please believe the adopters when they say their children are NOT ‘normal’!
Once the door is closed and they feel safe they unleash on their parents!
Adopters don’t just try to raise sympathy when they describe the challenges,
they don’t exaggerate to make their work sound more heroic and
they are definitely not ‘just too negative or enjoy complaining’.
I few months back I wrote about Therapeutic Friendships if you would like to read more on this point and find out what are the not helpful comments that well meaning friends use to drive adopters mad.
Exhibit C – being free from a physical or mental disorder
When you call your child’s name or extend your arms (for a cuddle), does your child pull his neck in and starts shaking like a leaf? Mine does. He was conditioned to be afraid whenever his name is mentioned, simply because the only time he heard his name from his parents was when he was blamed for something so the punishment was imminent and inevitable. Even after years of therapy and almost a year with us his mind is still in Flight Mode whenever somebody lifts a hand or an arm towards him may it be a stroke on the face, buttoning up his uniform or take out a plate form a cupboard behind him.
What others see is a child who is very friendly. Professionals would describe him as overly friendly – especially with strangers. What onlookers or casual acquaintances don’t realise is that this is a preemptive move on his side: he runs up to people to give them a hug, desperate for getting into people’s good books immediately as a way of protecting himself. In his mind if he is lovely and cute and kind, chances are good people will not hit him like his parents used to. It took me months to re-train his brain that instead of hugging strangers just extend his arm and shake hands. There is no telling if I will ever be able to re-train his first instincts…
Exhibit D – a conventional person
Get a glimpse into our new normal through a dead flower in Snoops’ (7) room. After about 6-7 months with us we thought they were ready to manage a quick trip to a shop – before that we did all our shopping either online or during school hours. So we went to B&Q to look at some flowers. Snoops was amazed that you can buy pots of flowers to take home to grow (should have been my first clue) and after I explained that flowers not exclusively grow outside he was begging me to buy him one. I thought a pound might be well spent here, especially if I can teach him to take responsibility for something (would be the first in his life – should have been the second clue) and make sure the pot is protected (as in not broken – third clue) or that the bulb will get watered so we eventually see the Hyacinth. Long story short, he promised the moon, but before we got home the pot was thrown to the floor twice because he didn’t like being told to wash his hands; the bulb never got watered by him because trashing the room is more important; the pot got knocked down on several occasions, well, just because. However, despite all this ordeal, the flower started to grow. And grow. And grow. at the end it was over 40 cm tall! It was beautiful and smelled amazing! Snoops was so proud of it! He told everyone in school that he is a master gardener because nobody can grow such huge flowers as he can.
Weeks passed by and the flower started to fade. Naturally, it was MY fault for destroying his flower and he hated me for it. I tried several times to explain these flowers don’t stay pretty forever, but he wouldn’t have any of it. A few more weeks passed, but I was still not allowed to touch it, because ‘it’s mine, you are not taking it away form me!‘ So, the dead flower is still in his room. Removing it would just remind him of the many times he had to say goodbye to familiar things/ faces/ places and before I know it, his trauma is back in full swing. On the grand scheme of things he believes that he is not going away from us ever again and this is his finally forever family home, but his horrendous past keeps haunting him and finds ways to torment him in seemingly insignificant ways.
As I said, this is our new normal…