Calming strategies/advice for impending older-child adoption?
December 29, 2011 5:13 PM   Subscribe

Best way to calm new adoptive parent fears and prepare for attachment issues?

(I'm submitting this anon for the privacy of my future son.) My husband and I are in the later stages of an international adoption. We traveled to meet the child and attend court--he is a delightful, funny 2-3 year old boy who has been institutionalized for over a year with at least 4 changes in caregivers in his short life (2 familial, 2 institution). His primary caregivers have passed away. We will return in a couple of months to seek out members of the extended family and try to get as much information as we can about his history for him before bringing him back to the States. At this point, we know very little about his history...because of malnutrition and related health reasons, he was a "waiting child". However, with his current caregivers, he is quickly improving in physical health. He is energetic, gives eye contact, interacts appropriately with non-verbal cues (he speaks a different dialect than his current caregivers, though seems to be picking up their dialect quickly and responds to their requests), manipulates small and large objects well, etc. But I'm very aware that we should expect issues with attachment, identity, oral-motor skills, grief, etc. We've been educated about older child adoption by our agency through MANY classes, books, conversations with other adoptive parents, etc. We've chosen where we live, where our other child attends school, my time off from my career, etc. all in preparation for how to best support him.

But nothing really prepares you for the in-the-face-reality of accepting this awesome responsibility. Since our return from our first trip, I'm eager to go back to him and also terrified. Part of that terror is being driven by all of these people seemingly coming out of the woodwork to tell us about attachment horror stories, ethical adoption horror stories, every kind of worst case scenario available. Why on earth they waited until now to bring these things up, I have no idea. And it isn't like we haven't already thought about worst case scenarios...we have. On top of that, all of a sudden the adoption support message boards I frequent are relating more stories of post-adoption problems than they have in the last year. It's been difficult when we are already feeling emotional about having to meet and then leave him once to keep these stories in perspective.

I'm calling into question my capabilities as a parent, engaging in tons of self-criticism about how I currently parent, re-hashing every interaction we had with him, Googling resources for attachment therapy at 3:00 a.m. when I can't sleep, wondering what the hell we are getting this kid into when he is plucked--yet again--from one situation and set down in another. My partner has been very supportive, but it hasn't calmed me. I feel like I need a plan, some control, or something. And I'm too frozen with fear to develop one.

I want this to be a positive experience for him, for our other child, for my partner, for myself. In order to get the best chance at that, I need to chill. But I'm at a loss for how to back myself off of this ledge. Any advice about impending second kid parenting fears? Older children adoption fears? Attachment fears? Just plain life change fears?

My throwaway email is wanttodomybest (at) gmail (dot) com if you are more comfortable responding privately.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
As with your older child, you really don't know what you're going to get or be dealing with until you're actually dealing with it. Thus all of this anxiety right now is wasted energy. You're as prepared as you're going to be, so focus on that.

(I know that this isn't specifically addressing your question, but you need to be healthy for your entire family right now.)
posted by k8t at 5:34 PM on December 29, 2011

Maybe it's time to stop listening to advice from well-meaning people and reading advice boards. You've already educated yourself, had classes, gotten advice, so stop looking for more info. Just stop. You already know the things that could go wrong but to worry about them at this stage is to borrow trouble.

Be happy that your little one is coming to live with you soon and focus on the positive. When someone starts to tell a horror story, stop them, nicely but firmly. "We're really looking forward to our little boy and have educated ourselves to prepare for him. I'd rather not hear dire warnings or horror stories. What I need are words of encouragement." Walk away from anyone rude, ignorant or thoughtless enough to continue talking negatively.
posted by shoesietart at 5:35 PM on December 29, 2011 [9 favorites]

Also, find a redirect for those 3 AM willies. What cheers you up? Look at pictures of your other child, wedding photos, goofy movies - Steve Martin, "I was born a poor black child" in The Jerk, or Twins with Arnold and Danny or whatever makes you laugh, CK Louis videos on child rearing or Bill Cosby or find something totally unrelated to children.

You don't have to have all the answers right now. It sounds like you're going to be providing a warm and loving home to a little boy who could really use one. Remember that.
posted by shoesietart at 5:44 PM on December 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

You don't need to have a major mental illness to have a session or three with a therapist. They're really pretty good about listening, helping you calm down, giving you tools to stay out of the self-criticism and 3am anxiety loops, etc. Bonus: your whole entire plan can be "go see a therapist."
posted by SMPA at 5:59 PM on December 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have four adopted kids who were adopted from ages 18 months to 12-14 years of age, all with traumatic histories and trafficking. We've dealt with RAD, learning disabilities, languages, social disorders, depression, etc etc.

They are wonderful and amazing and I love them so much. You will too. You will - you already are! - his parent, no matter what happens. What really helped me in the darkest times - sitting in a hotel room with a small boy attached to my wrist by his teeth, growling and just biting down and hoping for me to get angry and hit him for example - was realising that I could be the memory of a safe harbor for this child, that no matter how bad things went now, I was building in memories of love and care and safety for this child. You will feel like you're pouring water into a bucket with a hole in it, but I promise, some of it sticks.

Read memoirs of resilient people who've been through bad times and survived. I had a research book that was basically a collection of interviews with survivors of terrible things as children (war, starvation, kidnapping etc), to figure out why some flourished later and some fell apart. In my own tiny sample of four kids, it chimes in with the book - some kids are born more sensitive to abuse, some are more resilient, but in all of them, they needed some source of encouragement to survive the abuse, from a beloved pet to a neighbour's kindness.

Look for encouragement. Read inspiring stories. You're probably surrounded by them, but right now you're unconsciously editing out anything that isn't scary. Adult adoptee memoirs can be very inspiring, even if it is "I promise not to do that crazy parenting thing" because so many adult adoptees have grown up into wonderful people, despite/because of their childhoods.

Have you decorated his room? I was too nervous to do more than buy a couple of toys and clothes ahead, but I wish I had nested far more. I bought lots of children's books though.

Or make something special for him - knit or handsew a blanket or a bear and meditate/pray/think hopefully as you make it. Occupying your hands in creating things for him can be very soothing.

Some kids bond instantly, some take time. Expect your child to take six months at that age and you'll be delighted when he's faster. Set your expectations low, and always, always try to imagine what this is like for him - entirely new faces, scents and sounds, and with multiple switches, he'll be going into a routine of rejection again. It'll take him time.

But there will come that moment where he bursts into tears and you soothe him and it *works*, and you realise you can comfort him, and he turns to you for help - it's wonderful.

Oh, and get a good toddler sling. I wish I had invested in one instead of just my arms or a shawl hastily knotted together. You can't force physical affection - you don't know yet if he's been abused and has aversion or fears about touch, but simply carrying him will make a huge difference, but oh your back and your arms! My 18-month wanted to be carried (and my 10 and 6 year olds at times) for a long time, like a koala and while he didn't sleep through the night for years from night terrors, he was a happy toddler. We co-slept for a while too, and always let the kids co-sleep if they had a rough night, which helped.

And be prepared for unknown triggers. My toddler went hysterical when immersed in a large body of water - big bath tub, no problem, puddles yay, swimming pool = hell. We found out a few months afterwards that he'd nearly drowned previously in the river.

It would probably be useful to read up on parenting practices in his country - are babies talked to, carried, are they fed solids early, etc. That can be helpful in bridging the transition. My older kids had very set preferences when they came, and we went their way first, then slowly added our traditions.

Memail me if you want specifics, but honestly this sounds so familiar - I was panicked and nervous and convinced we would be terrible. It's like the day before you get married or the first day on a new job, only it's stretched out to weeks of agonized waiting and wondering.

Go shopping! Make stuff! Spend time with your older kid as special time - make a book to welcome the new guy. Get a great camera to document and film things around the house "before". (Actually, the photographs of the dogs and the house were very helpful to my older kids so they weren't going to the unknown - they recognized their new home. You could give a toddler big flashcard-sized photos of people and things at the new house when you're in-country that might help with the transition).

Oh and adoption trafficking - document like hell. Write down names, contact details, amounts spent - every detail you overhear. I had a couple of scribbled names and phone numbers I'd written down on a scrap that turned out essential for our birthfamily search. Don't trust your agency or the orphanage, no matter how nice they seem. They probably are nice, but you are ultimately going to live with the consequences, so you need to double-check paperwork and practices to confirm the truth of his situation.
posted by viggorlijah at 7:08 PM on December 29, 2011 [25 favorites]

I have never adopted a child, but I have had many foster siblings, some who were international. All had been institionalized and moved from several homes. I agree with the above're thinking too hard. Children want to be loved, cared for, and shown affection. As long as his basic needs are met, you are on the right track. At first, things will be difficult. Be aware of language barriers, specific habits he has become accustomed to, and occasional tantrums. This is a fairly new environment for him, so having your son crying at night or being reluctant to speak is not uncommon.

Let him explore and discover this new world on his own. Like every other child, he will eventually adjust. Three to four years old is still fairly young. As for you, please try to take care of you know, toddlers are a handful. I admire your commitment to retain his culture, as well! As for attachment issues, they vary tremendously...only time will tell how informative these message boards are. I suggest you make a cup of yea and relax. Memail me anytime.
posted by nikayla_luv at 7:34 PM on December 29, 2011

Reading your question I suddenly was taken back more than 40 years to a night in early January. I was 10 years old, and it was late at night at Newark Airport while my parents and I waited for a plane to land. It was coming from Korea (via stops in LA and a couple of other American cities along the way), and was bringing my soon to be sister, who was just 4 years old. I got light headed from the emotion when she came down the plane ramp with her escort (the only time in my life I thought I might faint). All the clothes my sister was wearing were either way too big or way to small, she had a shoelace tied in her hair, and was holding a half inflated balloon in one hand. To this day I can see perfectly every detail in my head of what she was wearing and what happened over the next few days. She did not speak a word of English, and we knew barely a few words of Korean. International adoption was pretty new in our town, and my sister's adoption was one of the first for the agency my parents used. We were all of us treading new and shaky ground and, unlike you, had no classes or any real preparation about what we were facing. I really don't know how my parents dealt with the stress of it, though it probably helped that my mother had studied psychology and had worked with special needs children right after college. I also found out later my parents borrowed the money secretly to do the adoption, and the agency would not have allowed them to adopt if they had known that, so that was some additional stress for them. It was a great leap into the unknown.

It was hard for the first few months, though my sister really picked up English quickly. My parents got a Korean student from the local university to come and talk to my sister to explain some things they were having trouble communicating, like don't stick your fingers in the light sockets!, but there were some adjustments we all had to make. We really did not know much about her background, except that her father was a married American soldier and her mother was a Korean factory worker who had given her up for adoption when she was one, since life for kids like her in Korea was very difficult in that time. So, she was with her mother till she was one, then with a foster mother, and then in an orphanage. Things at the orphanage were ok but she was a somewhat underfed. The first month she was with us she ate and ate and ate, and she grew 3 inches the first year (she only ever made it to 5 feet tall as an adult). She was afraid of men, including my father, as the only men she had known were the somewhat scary doctors who came periodically to the orphanage, and the GIs who came at Christmas. She attached herself to my mother immediately, but it took months for her to warm up to my father (strange scary man), and the day she went off to the park alone with my father was a day of much celebration (note that they are super close now).

So, I am relating this background both because her circumstances and what we knew about her were really somewhat similar to your boy, and because it was hard and there were rough patches, but it all worked out ok in the end, and yes, you are thinking too hard. viggorlijah has really good advice all around, including about preparing his room and getting some things for him ahead of time or making something special for him. My sister still has the teddy bear that was one of the things we gave her when she arrived. Talking to a therapist may not be a bad idea. Also, it may sound silly, but I would suggest you find a copy of Parenthood and give it a watch, as it deals with some humor with the stresses that all parents face.

A couple of years ago my mother died. It was my sister who lovingly did the lion's share of the caregiving toward the end, because she still lived 5 minutes away from my parents, and when I held her after Mom died as we both cried our eyes out I remembered again the first day we met her, and thought about the long road we all traveled together as a family.
posted by gudrun at 8:07 PM on December 29, 2011 [21 favorites]

So much good and beautifully-written advice has been given.

Just to give you a little perspective, the telling of these types of horror stories is not unique to adoptive parents. Biological parents-to-be are subjected to all kinds of birth and parenting worst case scenarios too.

If you (or your partner) gave birth to your older child, you may remember all the well-meaning friends, family and total strangers (WTF?!) who felt compelled to tell you tales of endless labor, near-death traumas and the painful aftermath. Of course, no one rushes up to a pregnant stranger to talk about all the uneventful births or quick recoveries. When asked why they're detailing these edge-case scenarios, I'm sure these folks would say that they're just being helpful or "telling you what no one else will".

When you find yourself fixating on a particularly troubling story or "what if?", it could be helpful to remind yourself that it was likely told to you because it's incredibly rare, apocryphal or juicy gossip. Instead, focus on filling your mind with happy family stories from your own life; you know those are real. Can you look through favorite photos of your older child? How about spending time documenting funny family memories? Can you and your partner agree to remind each other of those moments when you were kick-ass parents (a special celebration, quick thinking that averted a tantrum, laughing while dealing with barf, etc)?

It sounds like you've done so much preparation for this new little person, don't get bogged down in anxiety. Consider seeing a therapist. Not only will it help you now, but wouldn't it be wonderful to already have a good relationship with one if you need help in the future?

Good luck!
posted by annaramma at 8:21 PM on December 29, 2011

My closest friends adopted a 4.5 year old girl from China just over a year ago. She was in foster care as well as an orphanage and who knows where else. She has a major surgery during that time to close a cleft palate.

I can unequivocally state that if she is a darling, engaging and VERY sociable little girl. If she has any attachment issues, they are pretty darned hidden from everyone. I met her two weeks after she arrived here and we got along as thick as thieves, language barrier at the time notwithstanding. I have been around her many times since and she is an absolute treasure to everyone, including our two year old son.

She is 5 now, in school and flourishing. Yes, there were some unexpected things like her baby teeth needing capping due to poor dental care and malnourishment. But she is sensitive (in the good way), curious and adoring of hugs and cuddles.

So there you you have a feel good (and very true) story.
posted by murrey at 8:58 PM on December 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

annaramma is bang on with her assessment of the horror stories you are hearing now being just like the tales of labour terror where one woman was ripped from stem to stern and another was in labour for four days.

I've never adopted so I don't have any advice (apart from : stop reading the horror stories!) but I will relate three counterpoints to help tip the balance in your reading.

My friends F and G adopted a 2 year old boy from their own city four years ago and it has been fantastic. There have been bumpy spots, of course, as with any kid from toddlerhood through to first grade. They know more about his first two years than you may know about your son's, and they are still in contact with his birth parents and grandmother, but there are still a lot of question marks. He had a bit of a rough road in Kindergarten, and isn't great at transitions or handling things that happen unexpectedly, which they think might have something to do with the chaos of his early years, but it's nothing that is terribly out of the ordinary. Both his moms (lesbian couple) work with kids, one in elementary school, the other in pre-school, so they can appreciate that his behaviour is well within the parameters of "normal." He is a lovely kid and they are so so so happy together as a family.

My friend M adopted a 2.5 year old girl from [country in Africa] a little over a year ago. The circumstances of the little girl's life before coming here aren't totally clear, about a year with her mom, and year in an orphanage. She is just about the most delightful little kid I have ever met. She was tiny when she came to Canada, but now she's got the height and intelligence of a five year old. M has had the culture shock and financial bumps that come with being a single mom, but love and affection and attachment have literally not been an issue at all.

The third story is my "horror" story. About a dozen years ago my former boss L and her partner T fostered and intended to adopt a 7 year old girl, H. H was with them for the three years that L was my boss, then a couple more. About a year after that I ran into L and asked about H and she said that they had had to give her up; she had gone to a group home. My ex-boss was clearly heartbroken and said that sometimes kids just cannot ever form a bond. For years I had held that as my cautionary tale about adoption: some kids never form a bond. Only I found out a few months ago, that H now has a baby of her own, and L and T are fully that baby's grandmothers (also a lesbian couple!) and they are close and active in each other's lives. L and T also have two sons in their teens who were adopted after H left, so even my awful story is pretty good.

You know, they say worry is the work of pregnancy, but really, it's the work of expectant mothers of every kind. You're going to be fantastic.
posted by looli at 9:03 PM on December 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I so hear you on this. Both of my kids were older child, international adoptions. The first adoption was pretty easy, and the second one was a bit tougher, but I never could have predicted which would be which based on how I felt before and during the adoption process--and you'd never guess based on how my kids are now. My first night in-country, before we met our first son, I remember sobbing in my room, saying to my husband, "What have we done? Are we making the biggest mistake of our lives?" The answer turned out to be a definite no! With both adoptions. The second adoption was much tougher, but we sought the help of an excellent adoption-focused therapist, and what we learned from her has made a huge difference in our parenting and for my son. My point is that even if things are tough, there is competent help available. I wish we would have found our therapist a lot sooner.

Despite what some other folks are saying, I actually don't think horror stories are all that bad, when you're at the same stage. Yes, you can definitely freak yourself out. But, since most of the folks around you probably aren't adoptive parents, it can be very helpful to read this stuff (once the adoption is done), so you know that you aren't alone. Sadly, our closest friends and family members might not be able to deal with our horror stories because they really can't relate, so we adoptive families do tend to seek each other out. You can do this through listservs and online boards--and sometimes it's easier to bond with folks in these situations, since you already know you have stuff in common--and also by finding local adoptive family groups. If you live in a big enough area, you might find a country-specific group.

Right now, though, you might be better off chatting online with other waiting families. The very worst part of the adoption process for me was after trip one and before trip two. It's absolutely agonizing, I agree, and I spent much of the plane ride home weeping. There's so much time to wonder and question. This is totally normal.

So seek out those who can reassure you that how and what you are feeling is normal. It is scary, and it's a hugely traumatic time for your child. But it will get better, I promise.

Another good distraction might be memoirs by internationally adopted adult adoptees. They can be wrenching, but are so instructive. They really helped me be a much better mom to my children. The Language of Blood by Jane Jeong Trenka is excellent.

Have you already found the blog Harlow's Monkey? It's not being updated currently, but it's an incredible resource for books and other information. It'd be a great blog to browse when you're up in the middle of the night going crazy.

I also suspect I adopted from the same country as you are. Regardless, feel free to send me a note if you'd like to connect further.

Just remember: this crazy stuff you are feeling is totally normal. Also, pick the most ridiculous, silliest movie you can imagine, and watch it. Then pick another one, and watch that.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:37 PM on December 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am not an adoptive parent but I am a parent and I hope it will be helpful to you if I offer a reminder, as others have here, that kids surprise you no matter where they come from. Parents in general don't really get to choose in advance how challenging parenting will be, or decide whether and to what extent their kids will have special needs. If someone had asked me, before I was a parent, "Would you like to parent a child who will need surgery as an infant to remove a congenital tumor and will subsequently develop post-traumatic oral defensiveness and post-surgery failure to thrive? Also, he'll later be diagnosed with sensory processing disorder, a motor skills delay, and a serious food allergy. Oh, and,we should mention that due to the sensory issues this kid won't sleep for more than two hours at a time for the first two years of his life, and therefore neither will you. And also you'll have to pay tons for occupational therapy to correct the motor skills problem. And oh yeah, he'll slip through every crack in your inadequate local school system and won't be able to qualify for any special services despite his special needs so you'll be on the hook for private school, too. So. Hey. You up for that?" I would have said HELL NO.

And yet here I am. With the privilege of parenting that difficult kid. And oh, he is such a marvelous, fabulous, wonderful kid, and I love him so much more than sunshine or ice cream or even a good night's sleep, and I'm so much happier than I would have thought I would be had some armchair clairvoyant warned me in advance about how difficult he'd be. So I'm so very glad no one did.

I think you are doing a fantastic thing, adopting a child who needs a family, and I sincerely wish you a smooth transition and a long, healthy relationship with your new son. Don't be afraid to let yourself imagine a good and happy future for him in your home, despite the doomsayers. You're not jinxing yourself, or deluding yourself. You've already clearly prepared yourself properly for the worst, so I think you should try now to focus on preparing for the best. Decorate his room. Buy him adorable clothes. Write him letters, to be opened when he's older, expressing your joy at welcoming him home and your hopes and dreams for his future. You know, new parent stuff. You deserve to be happy about starting this new adventure.
posted by BlueJae at 11:06 PM on December 29, 2011 [6 favorites]
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