it’s not “just a kid thing”: behaviors in adopted and foster children

it's not just a kid thing - behaviors in traumatized children

“Desi cries every time we’re in the car, no matter what I do she won’t stop,” Jason complained to his friend.
“Oh, don’t worry, she’ll grow out of it, Zavier did that when he was young too,” replied Zack.

As parents of hurting children we hear this often, far too often. Our friends and family share their similar experiences on everything; picky eaters, criers, infants having difficulty weaning from the bottle, problems with potty training. We hear of teens who act out, use drugs and smoke to escape. Friends tell us of their teens who don’t listen, pre-teens who are promiscuous.

But there’s a difference, our children didn’t get a healthy start in life with love, care, and affection.

They were neglected, wondering when they’d be fed, never held, never soothed when they cried. They were abused, beat on, hit when they cried, yelled at when they asked questions, and heinous acts were laid upon them that we don’t even want to contemplate.

So, when an adoptive or foster parent says their child cries when they’re put in the car, we have to think outside of normal, outside that box that feels so comfy and safe. How many of our children were driven away from all they knew, in a vehicle? Most.

When children are abused and neglected, even thought it’s terrible and frightening, it’s all they know, it’s familiar. So, when that social worker drives them away from their home, it’s daunting and scary. They don’t know what to expect, they definitely don’t expect something better.

Even if children who lived in an orphanage before joining their adoptive family weren’t abused, leaving those walls is harrowing, sometimes that orphanage is all they know, and maybe it brought something better than starving on the street in a frozen desolate country. When any of these kids are taken to a new place, it’s scary.

Maybe Desi, who cries every time she’s put in the car had a terrifying experience in a vehicle, and when that door closes, those horrific memories come back assaulting her, and she cries.

it's not just a kid thing

Maybe Desi is afraid her new family will take her and drop her off with someone new, because whenever she was put in the car, she was abandoned on someones door step and her mom didn’t pick her up again for weeks.
People who don’t live our lives and contemplate our children’s circumstances don’t get it. A few days after our son, Jeremiah, came to us, I was visiting with a friend of mine. When I mentioned that he cried all the time, she said, “My mom said my brother was like that, he was colicky.”

Yeah, we could chalk it up to colic, and a very small part of it was (because we worked on changing his formula and finally found one – plus gas drops – that decreased his crying by a minimal percentage), but a majority of his distress was caused by something else. Trauma.

Jeremiah’s biological father had let Jeremiah cry, he didn’t sooth him, and didn’t feed him nearly enough. Eyewitnesses saw him pushing Jeremiah around town in a stroller, while Jeremiah screamed, his bio father never doing anything to help the newborn. The same eyewitness saw the bio dad pushing Jeremiah in a stroller around town when it was fifteen-degrees outside (he wasn’t going to work, his travels sometimes had no purpose).

Jeremiah hadn’t yet learned that crying wouldn’t bring any comfort, it takes time for infants to learn that crying won’t bring food, a soothing back rub, rocking, holding, someone to change a dirty diaper, a mother to sing lullabies to help him go to sleep, a nightlight for the overwhelming darkness, something to look at from the bottom of the empty crib.

Until a child learns that crying gets him nothing, all he knows is crying, because that’s what babies normally do to get what they need. All Jeremiah knew was crying and being uncomfortable.

So no, avoiding the real issue and hearing that my friend’s brother had colic too made me mad. Sometimes our friends and family forget what our children went through, or they try to pretend, and want to believe that everything’s okay. They don’t believe that extensive trauma causes a plethora of issues, they don’t think people treat infants and children so horribly, to them it’s impossible to believe. Sadly, parents and caregivers do these horrific things and we need to recognize it if we’re going to help our children.

Another thing our two children did was stay awake on long road trips, even one that lasted twelve-hours. We’ve heard from other non-adoptive parents that their children don’t sleep much in the car either.

Neither Payton nor Jeremiah slept in the car for several years after they came to live with us, whether the trip last three-hours, seven-hours, or twelve-hours. In Payton’s case, we know she was left with strangers constantly, we’ve heard horror stories about some of the people she was left with. She lived in several foster homes before she came to us, and it’s no wonder her eyes were peeled on the road ahead when we took long road trips. She held them wide open as if invisible toothpicks were holding her eyelids open, no soothing, comforting words could convince her all was going to be okay, she could rest. No words, No actions. Just time.

Friends of ours adopted their two girls from Korea, and they’ve told us their daughters did the same thing, it’s as if it was exactly the same story, only different kids from another country.

There’s a really good chance Payton did this because she was afraid we were going to take her somewhere, drop her off where she would be abused, and never see her again. It broke my heart. But because my heart broke, I was able to help her in the ways she needed. Getting mad doesn’t fix it, blaming the child doesn’t fix it.

Having compassion and a willingness to meet your child where they are and dedicating yourself to them is what fixes it.

No, Payton didn’t do this because she was “that way.” It wasn’t a “normal kid thing.” It was trauma based, and we needed to recognize this.

So, when a hurting child hits, we don’t blow it off and say, “It’s just boys,” we have to address it where our child is, talking about what’s going on inside them, discussing feelings. Maybe that child’s father hit him, and taught him hitting was the answer, thus you have a child who hits, and it’s not “just a boy thing.” Saying “Stop it Daniel!” won’t help (although you still intervene), you have to dig deeper, get down to those feelings.

When friends and family tell you, “My kids did that too, she’ll grow out of it,” or “Don’t worry about it, it’s a kids thing,” or “It’s normal,” know that your story is different. Your kids didn’t have their beginning.

Your kids need you to recognize this and help them through it in an understanding and compassionate way.

What do you do when others give you this parent mantra? Do you respond, and how?

Here’s another post that will help you meet your child where they are:
What Emotion is My Adopted/Foster Child Dealing With?

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22 thoughts on “it’s not “just a kid thing”: behaviors in adopted and foster children

  1. My daughters went to Jamaica on a holiday. It was a 48 hour trip from door to door due to plane connections and having to travel five hours initially to get to the airport. My daughter’s eyes barely closed on that journey. Truly. Once we were in Jamaica I saw that no matter how late we went to bed, when I woke in the early morning to go to the bathroom, I would find my one daughter wide awake. A year and a half later, when we went back, it was different. This time she slept like a normal child. And also car trips they never slept ever. Now, seven years home, they sleep normally.

  2. I have pinned and shared this specific article quite a few times now. It sings to my heart. So many things explained from my childhood and so helpful for me and my husband when we decide to start adopting. I have had a hard time explaining things to people, but now I send them this.

  3. What do you do to help with your kids’ anxieties in these situations? My daughter has Down syndrome and is minimally verbal so I struggle for ways to help her express and release her stress/anger/fear…… She also has a fine motor delay so colouring/art stuff is work for her rather than fun/a release. So while I try to reassure her with words based on what I assume she is feeling, I often feel like/wonder if I’m missing the mark. We’ve had a significant amount of transition recently (I went back to work, she has a new after-school caregiver, one of her teachers went on sick leave…….) and she’s done some reverting, which I know is anxiety based. Would appreciate any suggestions you have.

    1. We talk to our kids A LOT about what’s going on, or how they may be feeling, ask lots of questions of our daughter who can speak. For our nonverbal autistic son, we try to read him as best as we can, we’re always studying him. Children can understand so much more than they can speak, so try to continue to reassure her as you would any child that can comprehend language, but maybe making it less complex than you would a child her age.
      She’s experienced a lot of change recently, so have some comforting items on hand all the time. Maybe something of yours to take to daycare or school, something that may smell like you to alleviate fears.
      I will also ask a friend of mine who has a nonverbal child with down syndrome (he’s younger) to see if she’s come across anything helpful regarding this.
      I totally understand how hard it can be when they can’t tell you how they feel, so hard for mom and dad!

    2. I asked my friend whose son has DS, and this is what she said: It sounds likes she is craving some attention. Sign language has been HUGE already with E. He knows 40+ signs and he uses them daily and is able to express what he wants and even what he’s feeling….happy, sad, funny, cold, etc. We bought the baby signing time DVDs. There is also regular signing time for older children. With anxiety, it sounds like she has so much going on. I’ve noticed already when we’re in a situation where there is chaos (loud, lots of people, things moving around too much) he gets super agitated and anxious. Maybe she just needs to take a few things down a notch? Another thought might be to explore essential oils. I don’t do a whole lot of oils, but a friend gave me a calming oil mix for my daughter a while back. She was having some crazy anxiety. We would rub it on her neck and wrists and it would help her.

      I would second the use of oils as a backup to everything else that you try. I’ve used lavender oil on my son and it’s helped with agitation and anxiety. I hope this helps.

    3. Have you tried a stress ball or a squishy toy? Those can help release tension from the body. Medidative breathing could help to but would take time to learn.

    1. Rachel, I’m sorry for what you’ve been through. Thank you so much for writing this, it’s my only hope to help the hurting children thrive & have family who fully supports them. Blessings to you!

      1. I found a smily who fully supported me when I was 45. They have “adopted” me as their own and it has made a world of difference in my life. Might have come a little later in life than I would have liked but oh how I love them & they me. My heart is for these hurting children & the families that love them!!

  4. Sometimes it is really hard for even us, as adoptive parents, to accept that much of our children’s behavior is trauma-based, especially when it does seem typical. I think we just want so badly to believe that our children are okay.

    1. Sometimes it is. I come from the perspective that it’s easier to help our children if we can recognize what they’re struggling with. I understand that if it’s been years and you think your child’s healing well and a behavior arises that sends you reeling back to their trauma, it’s extremely difficult. That’s when it’s been the hardest for me. Sometimes there are behaviors that are simply “just a kid thing,” but I think we have to make sure to look at each situation with a unique perspective.

      I understand that’s how many parents feel, thanks for bringing that up. That’s part of the reason why I wrote this post, I’ve known many foster and adoptive parents who want to believe that, and it’s very understandable. That’s why I’m here, because there is almost always trauma in adoption, and it’s hard to recognize what behaviors are stemming from it, and what to do.
      Thanks for your insight!

  5. This is so, so good! I’ve realized, more than once, that I have to take people’s words with a grain of salt and carry the burden of them FOR my child– because the only way to make some people understand is to share the story of my child’s trauma, and in most cases, I refuse to do that. Her story is her own, so the only people I will share it with are ones that need to know for her safety or for theirs. But this decision, of course, leaves people with a rose-colored view of what is actually taking place. And I’m left to carry that– but it’s okay. Because that’s what true parents do. 🙂

  6. Yes it is necessary to keep educating family and friends on our kids and the issues they face. One of my children came from an orphanage. It was set up by an American. I was sure everything would be okay. Until after he came into our home. We did not travel to his birth country. So I never saw first hand what his life was really like. I knew I was missing something. I watched the video again. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Only 1 baby was crying in a room FULL of babies. The one that was crying was a new baby brought to the orphanage. ALL the babies stopped crying. The attachment cycle had been broken. Thankfully our son did attach to us. This was a miracle! We still have major food issues that I am constantly explaining to everyone. After reading “Unbroken” and the accounts of normal functioning individuals being withheld food and how the men were affected for the rest of their lives–it reminded me that this will always be an issue for this child. His constant reassurance that we have food IS necessary.

  7. What an excellent post and so very true. In the face of other parents wanting to ‘normalise’ the adoption experience it must be hard to find useful answers. I was one of those babies left to cry as it was believed to be a suitable punishment for mothers in1944 and the effects of the dissociation are never really ended. All you can do is do what you are doing – be watchful, mindful, compassionate, patient and loving.

  8. Thank you for posting this. I have struggled with these conversations for a long time. I’d love to know how other parents respond to these comments because I’m usually at a loss.

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