What information is too much?
January 22, 2009 7:33 AM   Subscribe

My wife and I are adopting a six year old boy with a tragic past.

When he was two, his mother shot and killed his father in front of him. We are as yet unaware of how much he recalls or knows about the specifics. My experience with adults who try to recall what they were like at age six is that half don't remember - much less what happened at age two.
We have an added layer to the question of how to discuss his adoption with him - how should we handle questions about his family? What else do we need to know?
He has been in foster care. He is seeing a psychologist. I am told he is a bit morbid, on the level of the young Alvy Singer in Annie Hall - but in my book, that's healthy.
Should we avoid all things with reference to death or killing? (Difficult to do, even in children's stories) My choice would be to embrace the gentle side of morbidity, a la the Addams family or the films of Tim Burton such as Corpse Bride. Or will this feed further into his morbidity?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (10 answers total)
I think you should be discussing this with his psychologist.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:46 AM on January 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

What roomthreeseventeen said.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 8:02 AM on January 22, 2009

While coming here is probably a better move than depending on films for advice, you have GOT to have better resources through the adoption agency to answer these questions.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 8:13 AM on January 22, 2009

This is big time stuff. Big time. Kudos to you for this adoption, you are being entrusted with a very fragile soul and you can help to mold this little guy into his potential.

But you won't do it alone. Find some professionals. STAT. Gather all of their advice into a pile, pick out the pieces that speak to you, lose the stuff that doesn't, parent him like they might hand out gold medals for it, and love the snot out of him.

Best wishes.
posted by agentwills at 8:21 AM on January 22, 2009 [5 favorites]

I'm sure the OP is also seeking professional advice, but kudos to him for reaching out to the hive mind out of curiosity and breadth of opinion.

Remember that outward appearances are often deceiving. Sure, he may be eating at Pizza Hut or watching Shrek riding the teacups at Disneyland with a sullen look on his face, but he may be internally enjoying the heck out of it. He may not hug you back or kiss you back, but as long as he's not pulling away from these intimate moments, don't misconstrue his lack of appreciation for dislike.

I learned this lesson after being overseas and pissy about the seeming lack of appreciation 'cause of a lack of smiling, hugs, etc. But that's just not how it's done in many parts of the world (and especially people who have lived hard lives like the 6 year old presumably already have). I have a Russian friend who would cut his right arm off for me if I really needed it, but I have never seen him smile at kindness or even raise his voice above an Eeyore-like lilt, even when his favorite soccer team is winning. To American eyes, he is extremely gruff and scary and sad...yet he is actually very happy, loving, and warm.

So anyhoo, he's 6, and there's so much time for him to grow warm and fuzzy and happy, and I have no idea how to handle him and his traumatic background, but just remember that he's watching you and feeling you and listening, and it matters, even if his visage doesnt' let on. And one day, you just might be rewarded with a gorgeous smile or a hug back after months (or years!) of no semblance of a reaction from him. And it will be all worth it. You are an amazing person to be adopting this little guy. My prayers are with you!
posted by citystalk at 8:34 AM on January 22, 2009 [4 favorites]

Hey Anonymous. Come on over to the Foster Care and Adoption forum. We've got lots of parents with first hand experience who can help you. We can point you to resources and give advise from our experiences.
posted by onhazier at 8:48 AM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Years ago, I worked for a crime victims counseling and advocacy center. We had many child clients. Our center had group counseling sessions for child victims which seemed to help in part because the children felt less isolated by what had happened to them. Look in the phone book for a similar center or contact the local police or DA to ask for a referral. By the way, we also worked with adults who were child victims but had not received counseling until adulthood - that was almost always much more problematic.

From what I observed, you could not generalize children's response to the crime. Some kids seemed to integrate the crime into their overall world and were able to move forward. Other kids continued to relive the trauma and act out. Most of the children seemed to go back and forth. The only thing I could generalize is that these children wanted structure much more so than other kids.

Good luck. And thank you for not giving up on this child.
posted by 26.2 at 9:13 AM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think you will need ongoing therapy for your whole family and especially for the child. What will probably help him most come to terms with this and move on with his life will be living in a healthy, happy family who treats his needs with patience and perseverance. He will have a lot of conflicting memories, I'd guess, and some of them may not actually jive with reality since kids sort of fill in where things don't make sense or are confusing. But, I really think you need to work with a therapist to figure out how you talk to and explain this event to your child in an age appropriate way. All kids are curious about where they come from. And adopted kids want to know, too. Granted, he's six so he probably has deeper feelings and understandings about his life. But, it's really, important, in my opinion to answer these questions truthfully but in an age-appropriate manner. He may feel resentful of his life and you two. And he is unlikely to appear "grateful." Just remember: he's your kid though he has a past. A therapist who you all feel good about and who has experience in this will be invaluable. Good luck.
posted by amanda at 9:34 AM on January 22, 2009

Lotsa hugs, love and tenderness. They are still pretty resilient at that age.
posted by jkaczor at 11:42 AM on January 22, 2009

Definitely make sure this child and your family have professional help and guidance. Anecdote: one of my cousins was pretty abused as a child until age 3 (her mother was a drug-addicted prostitute; when the cousin was picked up and adopted by another family member, she was x-rayed and they found paper clips, safety pins and other debris in her stomach. She was eating whatever was on the floor in desperation and had not yet learned to talk).

She was 3 when these things happened; she seemed fine for years, then became wildly emotional and violent around age 12. Several suicide attempts followed and after many years of therapy, she has dealt with latent PTSD symptoms and depression. She was unaware of her past neglect until AFTER the behavior started; nobody told her she was even adopted. Once she was informed, she told the rest of the family that she'd had bad dreams and strange violent urges for years, as well as panic attacks. Nobody knew. I'm only telling you this because you asked about children remembering things... she didn't remember the neglect and abuse, per se, but it affected her nonetheless.

I've done articles about foster adoptions before, and many times, there were things I wasn't allowed to print about the children having behavioral, developmental and learning disabilities that were a by-product of early life trauma.

The only thing you can do is watch for signs and have professional resources on standby. I only posted my cousin's story because the family didn't think her being neglected at that early of an age would have lasting effects on her, and we were wrong. They didn't surface for years, but when they did, it was traumatic for everyone.

My prayers are with you in giving this child a loving, happy home; this is an amazing and beautiful gift.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 6:33 PM on January 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

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