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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it’s not all bad: looking for the good in your child (adoption & foster)

it's not all bad - looking for the goon in your child
People who haven’t adopted a child with attachment issues, PTSD, Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD), or mood disorder may have difficulty relating to this post. They may read the title and ask, “What do you mean, of course there’s a lot of good in my child.” But, I think even some parents whose children are doing well can benefit from reading this, especially if you have a negative outlook at times.

Our jobs are so hard, parenting is difficult. No one really tells us this, except maybe your mom, when she says (not yells, because of course no parent ever yells. Ha!), “You’re going to have a child just like you one day, then you’ll see.” The only others times we hear how hard parenting is, is when we’re told teens are a nightmare, and there are sleepless nights with newborn infants, and the terrible twos, but what about all those ages in between?

And what if your child has difficulty stemming from their neglect, abuse, and trauma?

We’re given the responsibility to raise adults, because really that’s what we’re doing. We are training these little ones, bits at a time, how to function in society. We are teaching them right from wrong, why lying isn’t okay, how to respect their teachers, how to be kind to their friends, how to respond when others talk to them…the list goes on.

It can get overwhelming, and we can also get so absorbed in teaching that we only see what our child needs to correct (especially true if your child has more behavior issues than most children). Sometimes parents try so hard to make sure their child is obedient, they miss what their child is doing RIGHT.

I won’t excuse myself from this group of parents. I do the same thing, although I’ve loosened up greatly due to what I’ve learned because of my children and what my husband has tried (I would say he explains it as pushing string) to teach me. But, I have high expectations. No, they weren’t as high when my daughter was misbehaving constantly when she had PTSD, ODD, and RAD, but the bar has been raised as she has proved (and it’s been tested thousands of times) she can meet these expectations.
Find the good your child does

I often slip back into my old patterns of not recognizing the good my children are doing, and only talking about and disciplining the negative. Yeah, I know, I know, I’ve written about focusing on the positive and how important it is, but this is proof once again that I fail too. It’s hard for me to consistently tell my kids they’re doing a good job, yes I do it throughout the day, but far from enough.

A great example of this was when we were sledding this past weekend. Payton could barely walk up the hill on her own, yet, she helped a girl who was older than her climb the snowy bank. She picked and returned someones sled when it got away from them. She grabbed a hat that flew off a sled, and ran down the hill to give it to them. I was amazed and very proud of Miss Payton, but in the middle of all these kind gestures there was some arguing about going to the “bigger hill” because it was much more fun (and dangerous!). I was irritated she wouldn’t leave it alone. I said “No,” and I mean, “No!” Yeah, it might get louder each time.

I was frustrated, but I also needed to consider all the kindness Payton had shown to other sledders.

I find it really difficult to find a balance sometimes.

I would love good behavior, but I also need to recognize her strong will (which I’ve talked about here – and how even after healing, a child who’s gone through such trauma has a strong personality and other specific traits). Like many parents, I get SO tired of repeating myself, and I don’t feel I need to. But, am I able to recognize the good things my kids do? And do I do it often enough?

No, I need to do it more. I even need to work on it with our son, Jeremiah (nonverbal Autism). He gets corrected often, but when he’s doing well, I need to make a conscious effort to tell him what I think, even if that means going to where he is in the house.

The point is, it’s about balance. We need to tell our children when they’re doing well, and much more so when behavior is negative. And, we need to correct negative behavior. (I’ve also written a post about tackling one behavior at a time, because when your child struggles with all the diagnoses above, there can be A LOT of negative behaviors.

You may say, there’s nothing my child does that’s positive or praise worthy. Watch them closely. Is your child smart? Is your child creative (even if it’s not used in a positive way right now)? At a time separated from the “creativity used for ulterior motives” you can tell him he’s quite innovative. Did your daughter pick up her toys today? Did your son take a shower without complaint or at least get the shampoo on and washed off? Did your daughter eat healthy foods for snack? Did she bring her lunch box home? Find those positives.

I know I’ve written about this before, but it’s so important, and so easily forgotten, especially when life is difficult and hectic. We run through our days checking off things on our list, homework, making meals, reading together, and making sure our children behave so they can succeed in that world beyond our door, we sometimes fail to recognize what our children are doing well. We get down, and feel riddled with guilt because our child isn’t doing as well as they should be (after healing has taken place and you know your child can reach higher standards).

Focusing on those positive will help your mindset stay where it needs to.

Acknowledge the great things your child is doing, and let them know you see it. It will help you realize the positive. Because we all need more positive!


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