connecting with compassion (adoption/foster)

This article originally appeared in Adoption Today’s June 2013 issue.

Connecting with Compassion
by Tracy Dee Whitt

A few years ago, while my son was still in foster care, a social worker visited our home. During her short stay, my daughter, Payton, sat on my lap, we were singing “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” and going through the actions.

As the Worker watched us, she said, “It’s weird to think, but you’re teaching her to be a mom.” She continued, “It’s sad, but so true. So many children don’t get this.” She was referring to children in neglectful and abusive situations where the parents ignore the needs of their children.

This truth is something I have learned and seen repeatedly since we entered the world of foster care. As parents, we are modeling for our children (even our babies) how to be empathetic, compassionate, and loving. Problem being, when children are neglected or abused, they don’t receive this positive attention, nor do they reciprocate.

The book Ghosts from the Nursery shares an example of how parent/child interactions affect how humans learn to care for their own children, in a true story about a girl named Monica. As a newborn, Monica was fed through a tube in her stomach. For two years she was fed laying flat on her back without any bodily contact. Later, another tube was inserted in her neck, hence, it limited how Monica could be held and her mother became depressed and withdrawn. At the age of three, Monica was able to eat normally, and she grew up with no conscious memories of her early tube feedings. Yet, Monica mimicked how she had been fed when playing with her dolls. Monica eventually had children, and even though her mother, husband, and sister all instructed her to hold her babies close to her in a face-to-face position, she consistently rejected close body or face-to-face contact with her babies while feeding them.

The Worker in our home that day, said, “You’re teaching her to be a mom,” but the bigger truth is that we are teaching our children how to live life. Not much comes naturally to a child who has attachment issues. Every day, every hour, every moment, we need to reprogram what was instilled in their hearts and minds.

The little girl who was sitting in my lap singing had been placed in foster care because of neglect and trauma. The Worker making that comment had no idea of the effort it took to get my adopted daughter, Payton, to sit in my lap and sing with me.

Payton had come to us so completely broken, with a vacant look in her eyes. When her other foster mother dropped her off with us, she didn’t cry. She awoke the next morning in a strange house, unfamiliar room, different bed, and two odd adults, but she laughed and the joy didn’t reach her eyes. It was on or off, a distant gaze or laughter as a coping mechanism.

Payton would fall and hit her head really hard, but no sound would escape her lips. She should have cried. Why didn’t she? Because, as an infant, no one had answered her cries with affection. She’s an intelligent child and she had quickly learned to shut it off. No one comes when I cry, so why put forth the effort?
I began running to her whenever she bumped herself or fell, it didn’t matter if I thought it hurt or not. I picked her up, hugged her, and asked if she was okay. Many months later, I was ecstatic when she started following me around the house. Our work was far from done, but she was aware that someone cared about her. The whole trust factor would take years to develop fully, but I remember this moment fondly. I had won a small battle, and I knew we could move forward with hope.

One of the important keys to helping a child with attachment issues is to remember where they came from. Sometimes it’s painful to recall those memories, but if we forget what their problems stem from, we lose compassion and the drive to help our child.

In the Ghost from the Nursery story I shared, Monica wasn’t held close when she was an infant, her mother then fell into a deep depression, therefore affecting Monica for the rest of her life. Her mother didn’t know how to compensate for the absent affection. What our children experience will impact them and their attitude toward life.

Think about your child. You may not know all the details of their life prior to meeting them, but you can imagine what it was like. Did your daughter spend several months in an orphanage? What was the institution like? There isn’t an orphanage with enough staff to care for the needs of an infant or child who has been abandoned. Was your son left to fend for himself on the streets in another country? Was your daughter orphaned by AIDS, and made to seek food and shelter on her own? In Monica’s case, a situation as simple as a depressed parent, who no longer has the ability to properly care for their child, can cause a child to have attachment issues.

Be mindful of the trauma your child may have experienced, and how much it will take to heal their hearts. All the work you put in will pay off, there is hope at the end of the long road. Our daughter is a testament that your child can form the bond you desire.