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Life After Adoption: Lessons in Gratitude

Tue, Nov. 24, 2015 Posted: 04:04 PM


The following was written by Jennifer Winkelmann, Founder and Clinical Director of Inward Bound, LLC, and originally appeared in Lifelines, Bethany Christian Services' quarterly magazine.

Children adopted at older ages frequently have more difficulty with building and maintaining relationships, even with people who should feel “safe” to them, like their adoptive parents. For parents who have adopted older children,* many would agree that there can be unique and unexpected challenges. During consultation with such families, I have often heard parents say:

“This isn’t what we signed up for, so what are we going to do? We can’t live like this!”

“After everything we went through to make this adoption happen, how can it turn out like this? Our family is falling apart!”

“Our child came from abuse/poverty/neglect…. Our home is a better and safer place for her to grow up. Why can’t she just appreciate it?”

“I have given so much love to our son. Things are better for him now: He has a new room and clothing, food to eat, a good school. How could he not be grateful?”

While I can understand these questions from the parents’ perspective, what it leaves to be desired is an understanding of the child’s lens for relationships, love, and family. The way we all view life is through the “lenses” provided to us in our first relationships; the experiences that shade or tint the lenses of our children often lead them to “see” differently than we do.

The sense of trust of these children has often been fractured so early and profoundly that they can be haunted with fear of loss and abandonment in every subsequent relationship. Love and family are to be feared because prior experience has taught these children that they will be hurt, abandoned, or rejected in these contexts. Breaches of trust during crucial windows of development may cause high levels of ongoing stress in these children.

This heightened stress can result in challenging behaviors that parents and caregivers may find disturbing: withdrawal, poor self-esteem, cutting, head-banging, rocking, aggression toward others, disrespect, defiance…the list goes on and on. When thesebehaviors are present, frustrated parents ask: “Why, after everything, can't my child just be grateful?"

So what can a parent expect?
In my experience, this is a good rule of thumb: For every year a child spends under stress, enduring abuse, neglect, or change, he/she will need a corresponding year of nurturing and consistency to heal. Many children respond more quickly, but this formula helps us to prepare for the work involved and to adjust our expectations.

What You Need to Know:
Especially for older children, adoption can be experienced as another event in their lives beyond their control. In some ways, it can be similar to the abuse, neglect, and trauma they have experienced because, yet again, children are expected to adjust, assimilate, and accept without anyone trying to understand them first. Remember, the day a new member joins your family is also a day of tremendous loss and change for that child.

We know that children thrive in environments where they are nutritionally nourished, psychologically
stimulated, and relationally valued. But just because this is best for children doesn’t make the transition into this kind of life easy for them. In fact, the expectation that children should transition seamlessly and appreciate what they are being given in an adoptive family makes the sting of those parental expectations even bigger.

Why should a child be grateful for something that every human being should be given?

How can we be angry when kids display behaviors consistent with their upbringing until the time that they come into our homes?

They are only responding to the world in the ways that their brains have been shaped to respond.

A process of re-wiring so that the child is able to respond differently must be intentional, compassionate, and patient.The years, months, days, hours, minutes, or seconds of abuse and neglect are a lifetime for a child. And this trauma may not be easily undone after a few months—or even years—in a nurturing environment. Just because our children may not have received attuned, loving, safe parents from the beginning does not translate to gratitude when they finally do receive it.

Why They Don’t Feel Grateful:
The answer is because they shouldn’t have to appreciate the respect, love, compassion, and security that should be afforded to every child.

If anyone should experience gratitude, we should. If these children open up to us even a little after the terrors they have survived, it’s they who are taking another chance on adults. We may invest more than we ever expected in trying to build that relationship, but our children bear the brunt of the risk of accepting a relationship with us due to the traumas they have endured.

When children are able, after such difficulties and profound pain, to take another chance on humanity, it is we who should feel grateful because we are receiving the gift of trust from them—a gift that the other “big people” in their lives haven’t earned.

For more information on how you can become an adoptive or foster family, visit www.bethany.org.

Bethany Christian Services