As National Adoption Week is coming up soon there is a lot more buzz about adoption (and fostering) in general, which is good, don’t get me wrong. Each year more and more children are taken into care so naturally more foster carers and adopters are needed, which isn’t that great, but here we are. What doesn’t get enough buzz is the crucial part of the whole process – training, preparation and managing expectations for prospective adopters.
We have long past the time when unwed young ladies gave up perfectly healthy babies to avoid shame. I can’t keep saying it loud and often enough: the vast majority of children up for adoption these days are ‘damaged’ in many ways! It sounds horrible, I know, but it’s time we speak clearly! During our preparation training Social Workers used a lot of technical terms like ‘ambivalent attachment disorder’, ‘global developmental delay’ or ‘child would benefit from DDP’ and I didn’t have a clue what these things meant. I didn’t want to look stupid so I was just nodding quietly and secretly hoping they will not only explain these things in plain and simple English, but also give practical examples of how these things will play out in real life and how these technical terms will challenge me on a daily basis.
Knowing about it vs living it daily
I am fortunate enough that I haven’t lost anybody yet in my close family, so I can’t possibly imagine the level of pain and grief it can cause. I have attended funerals of distant relatives and I saw their raw pain, but I didn’t feel it myself.
In a similar way, the Social Workers who were delivering the training discussed a lot of case studies with us. They shared some horror stories from their professional experience and they tried their best to prepare us for the upcoming challenges, but! And there is always a but! The fact is, the professionals have no idea how it is to live with these traumatised children 24/7! Our SW is a particularly great, open minded and well seasoned Social Worker who has ‘seen it all’, but still, she has seen it all only, but not lived it all! And that is a huge difference!
Missing developmental steps
So potential adopters are past the invasive assessment process, survived the Adoption Panel’s intrusive questioning and got the all so precious letter ‘You are approved to adopt‘. Searching begins and after some time the SW brings the picture of your future child. Your heartbeat misses a beat or two, then you start reading about their history. The reasons why they ended up needing new parents, the damage that has been done to them and the potential problems they will continue to have regardless of how much you love them!
For me personally, one of the biggest challenge in parenting somebody else’s child is not knowing their past accurately! Not knowing which developmental steps he has taken or has been taught (well) is presenting with an incredibly difficult situation on a day to day basis!
Does he understand the concept of sharing a toy?
Why is it not OK to just snatch things out of other’s hands without asking first?
What is the connection between you hitting me and you not getting any sweets?
What is a consequence?
What is a good behaviour?
Why is it good?
These are a few examples that every child needs to learn at one point. Your child might be a quick study or it might take a while. Either way, you know where you are at when it comes to these life lessons and you don’t try to teach them the correct breathing technique for running a marathon when they haven’t even mastered walking yet!
We, adopters (and other carers) do not have this information so we can only guess. Very often it’s a hit and miss. We can either assume he has conquered a particular step (in my hand drawn picture below it would be any white brick) and hope for the best. If he ‘handles the situation well‘ we can relax. If not, the SW report would say something like ‘child is not performing at age appropriate levels’ and then it’s up to you to figure out the whys and the hows.
Missing building blocks vs incorrect building blocks
What traumatised / abused / neglected children do to survive is to create their own building blocks. If it’s only missing, sometimes it’s a bit easier to ‘just find the exact block and fill it in’. We have these sometimes – for example teaching him how to use a fork properly or to say ‘please and thank you’.
But when survival means fitting a round block into a square whole, it’s not hard to see how that might be a problem later on. Even if the child is taken into care straight from the hospital, damage is often already done (while the mother was pregnant). That is what I tried to illustrate with the green shaky ground. The yellow brick might be a ‘good one’, but it is being built on uneven grounds. It might not seem like a big problem at the time so professionals who do the assessment on the child’s needs might focus only on the obvious big red ball, but further down the line the yellow block will affect your or the child’s ability to fit in a window properly.
Just to give you one example: our 8 year old is still bed wetting every night. The brief history is that he had poor and inconsistent care as a baby, his nappy wasn’t changed, he had some traumatic experiences in the bathroom. As a result he has learnt not to drink. In his logic no drinking meas no need for the toilet so no toilet monsters. But that also means his bladder is still the size of a baby’s and even if we constantly remind him to drink, he would either lie that he drank or put up a fight first, then drink anyways because he doesn’t want to have negative consequences, but then he wets and then feels shame and feels stupid so he gets even more creative at avoiding drinking. He has learnt to disregard his body’s signals when it comes to go to the loo so occasionally he has an accident even during the day…
Over time and with consistent therapeutic parenting and often with the need for expert input from professionals (play therapist, SENCO, clinical psychologist…etc) it is possible to lessen the dent in the wall, but according to studies some things will never be fixed. Disorganisation, for example, will never go away and you will never know what tiny thing will trigger it! They will be able to learn to trust their new parents, learn to rely on their new parents to help them, love them, keep them safe; they will be able to be great friends, be wonderful spouses, be excellent parents, be valuable and well respected members of society, but…