what’s on their mind? (adoption/foster)

Something about negative behavior struck me when I read the fourth part in the Reuter’s series The Child Exchange. (You can read my opinion on The Child Exchange – aka adoption disruption here.) The Reuters investigation shares the devastating story of Anna Barnes, a girl who was born in Russia, orphaned (although she didn’t know her mother had died, the news had been shared with her via a second party) at the age of six, and adopted by an American family at age eight. In fifth grade, she was sent to military school, and in sixth grade, she was called into the office and told, “We thought it would be fun for you. Instead of going to a military school this year, we’re going to send you to a horse ranch in Texas, and you’re going to stay there for three months, then you’re going to come back.”

A couple named Gary and Lisa Barnes showed up at the horse ranch and decided to adopt Anna. She says of her first adoptive family, “I just couldn’t see them doing this to their real son. I felt very betrayed.” Anna says, “I didn’t get to go home and say bye to my brothers and sisters. I didn’t get to say good-bye to my mom and dad.” Anna shared her thoughts on how she felt about being with the Barnes, she told them repeatedly “I don’t want to be here, I want to go home,” and that her home was in Indiana with John and Jill (her first adoptive parents).

Gary and Lisa said Anna had behavior issues they couldn’t handle, so they found her a new home. Anna’s story doesn’t end here, she continued to be abandoned.

There’s something we can learn from her heartbreak, and it’s evident when you hear her share what she’s been through. She felt something should have taken place, a major life event – going back to her first adoptive family, and that didn’t happen. She had already lost her birth family, lived in a Russian orphanage (I don’t care what anyone says about them, they aren’t acceptable and many are deplorable), and she was given up by the family (John and Jill) who promised to care for her as their own. She desired one thing, to go back to that family, and she made it particularly clear.

I saw this same situation transpire with a girl who was adopted from Africa. Some of you have heard about the unethical adoption practices that can take place in third world countries. It happened to a girl named Zenia*. Her mother, who was living in a poor village, was told by a woman that if she could not provide for her daughter that Zenia could be sent to an American family, and she’d be able to see her daughter again in one year. Zenia was told the same.

Zenia was adopted by a wonderful American family who had adopted other older children internationally. Those children were doing very well, but they always seemed perplexed by Zenias continued behavior issues and indignation. After being with the family for one year, Zenia finally shared with them what she had been told. She felt that they weren’t her parents because her mom was waiting for her in Africa.

The question here isn’t whether these children’s wishes could be granted or not, because they can’t (or at least it wasn’t likely for Anna, and it wasn’t possible for Zenia) the question is, what can a parent do about it?

Ask your children questions about their adoption. You will need to use your intuition to determine whether your child is capable of handling information about their pre-adoption experience. I don’t withhold information, but I also don’t give all the details. If a child was older at the time of adoption, it’s probably okay to talk about what happened before they came to you, because they likely remember it.

Many times behavior issues in adopted children stem from a lack of true attachment, in the situations above, I would treat it the same as an attachment issue. No matter what their pain stems from, a child always needs to make attachments.

If, in the case of Zenia, she wants to return to her birth mother, you could discuss why her mother made the choice she did, being sure to alleviate any guilt the child would have of it being her fault. You can tell her that those who told her she could go back and visit in a year lied to her and that you knew nothing about it. Share what adoption means with her, that in front of a court and judge you promised to be her mother/father forever. If you want to consider making a trip to Africa so she can visit, discuss it with your spouse and be confident it’s really possible before saying anything to your child.

Your child may not be struggling with the same situations listed here. Many of our children have similar stories, but some are vastly different. Your child may be holding onto something else, it may be a need for control (this is an element most hurting adopted kids deal with), or they are worried about moving again. These are concerns that are difficult to label, and that is why beginning to open communication is key.

Sometimes negative behaviors can be a sign of a child’s anger over what they want or don’t want to take place (as in both cases I mentioned). That’s why it’s good to talk about feelings, because that can get your child to open up and share more of what’s on their mind. Opening up dialogue with your child will help too.

Our hurting children are strong, they are strong because life has taught them to stick it out or die. They will use that strong will to get what they want, and if what they want is their birth family or first adoptive family (even if they have perfected a horrible situation in their mind), then it will take explanation and attachment for them to see it differently. They still might yell and scream that you aren’t their “real” family, or they hate you and don’t want you to be their dad, but stick with it. Showing your child continually that you will not abandon them will sink in. Eventually they will see that you aren’t going anywhere.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

Have you ever found that getting to what’s really bothering your child helped alleviate anger or anxiety? I love comments, so share you thoughts!

Some additional links that may help:
the lies hurting children believe
the magic word
it’s your fault, mom
the intelligence behind a hurting child

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