Many families follow a call toward adoption with the very best intentions, seeking to serve God and be parents to the parentless. They welcome children into their homes with high hopes of igniting God’s love into lives that might otherwise be hopeless. But not all adoption stories turn out so picturesque. For some families, adoption brings broken relationships and years ridden with remorse and resentment. These families long for healing and for God to lift their deepseated feelings of guilt, shame, and rejection.
“It is largely a lawless marketplace,” Megan Twohey reports in a 2013 Reuters series on adoption in America. “Often, the children are treated as chattel, and the needs of parents are put ahead of the welfare of the orphans.”
Surely God wants these children to be safe and protected and parents treated with honor and respect. But what healthy support systems are in place for families trying to adopt, raising an adopted child, or struggling with unexpected negative behaviors?
Samantha*, an adoptive mom who also has biological children, recounts how God led her to adopt another child after the world’s largest tsunami in recorded history occurred in 2004. Samantha says her heart turned to China, due to its one-child policy and the common practice of keeping baby boys and abandoning baby girls. After submitting her initial paperwork to adopt, Samantha says she and her husband began a long road of background checks, fingerprints, and adoption classes-but she never could’ve anticipated the hardships to come.
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The couple conducted an intensive search using lists of kids pictured online with descriptions. Samantha felt her prayers were answered when they discovered a Chinese girl named Lyla,* who had a documented minor speech impediment. Curiously, Lyla’s name is an alternative spelling of a name Samantha had considered giving her biological daughter. Samantha read the similarity in names as a sign, and she and her husband moved forward with the adoption. They traveled to China the following year to meet their soon-to-be-adopted daughter.
“Americans have adopted about 243,000 children from other countries since the late 1990s,” notes Twohey’s 2013 Reuters report. “But unlike parents who take in American born children through the U.S. foster-care system, many adults adopting from overseas receive little or no training.” Samantha says she received some training but believes the agency could’ve been more helpful. Twohey also reports that children entering into American homes from overseas often have “undisclosed physical, emotional, or behavioral problems”-a factor likely in Lyla’s case.
Lyla wouldn’t sleep in Samantha’s arms, and she was unable to relax and fall asleep on her own. As she got older, she wanted to be alone in her room and never wanted to spend time with the family. Samantha assumed things would improve in time because the training they’d gone through led her to believe so. Unfortunately, things only got worse.
“When we got home from China, things started falling apart,” says Samantha. “It was really hard for her to be with us, to be in the same room with us, to look us in the eye.”
Samantha remembers Lyla holding a doll with a little ribbon and rubbing the ribbon between her fingers and looking absolutely miserable.
“She never played with the doll,” says Samantha. “She just sat there rubbing the ribbon.” In pre-adoption training, Samantha had learned about attachment. She’d felt prepared to address the lack of attachment that would come with adopting Lyla, but when the reality of the situation took hold, there was little follow-up help from the adoption agency.
“You hear all these wonderful stories about how these kids get brought home and everything is wonderful, but it was a very lonely feeling,” says Samantha.
Kim*, an adoptive parent of two Russian children, expresses similar frustrations with adoption agencies. She says while agency representatives made weekly visits to ensure attachment was happening, they lacked realworld experience with actual parenting. Kim says the issues she experienced aren’t a matter of parenting, because she also raised biological children of her own before adopting. The issues, she says, are deeper and darker with her adopted children.
“It’s hard and painful for them to be loved and in a family environment,” says Kim.
Adoptive parents will often eventually reach out to the church for support in times of crisis.
Samantha sought out guidance from an online support group for Christian moms that she’d joined prior to adopting Lyla, yet she was met with negativity and a lack of support from some of the other moms. Some accused Samantha of poor parenting. Desperate, she continued to search for others to listen and understand her situation. She finally found a local adoption support group at Colorado Community Church in Aurora, Colorado.
“I was able to be real about our situation; a lot of the parents at the adoption support group had been through some really difficult adoption situations-more difficult than anything I had dealt with,” says Samantha.
Samantha recalls feeling paralyzed and hopeless and like a complete failure as a parent. Unable to control Lyla’s behavior, Samantha says she thought Lyla hated her, and she admits not liking Lyla at times. These thoughts and emotions saddled Samantha with guilt.
“Adoptive parents experiencing hardship with their adopted children really need someone to listen to them and believe them,” Samantha says.
Samantha encourages family counselors and pastors to really listen to what adoptive parents tell them about what they perceive to be abnormal behaviors and take it to heart. She says there are times when adoptive parents just need to blow off steam and vent- without judgment.
Samantha underwent years of therapy to work on interacting more effectively with Lyla, including a form of play therapy where a counselor coached Samantha through different play scenarios. While therapy was helpful, Samantha says the demands of therapy were sometimes overwhelming, because life with a child who’s difficult-biological or otherwise-can be intense.
“We thought we were adopting to expand our family, but we have really brought our mission field into our home,” Kim says. “Just as missionaries take a break from their mission field, adoptive parents also need a break.” Samantha, Kim, and other adoptive moms recommend that parents struggling with an adopted child seek out friends and family to watch the child to provide moments of reprieve for the parents to regroup and collect themselves.
Frank*, a father to four biological children, decided with his wife to adopt four children: one from China and three from Ethiopia. The child from China, adopted as an infant as Lyla was, entered into the family with ease. The Ethiopian children include two biological brothers and a girl with not much known history.
The three Ethiopian children came to Frank’s family with few boundaries and speaking only their native tongue. Frank says the two brothers were orphaned when their parents died from HIV when the youngest boy was an infant and the oldest boy was about 2. Frank learned that the boys had been sent to live with their maternal grandparents. He believes the older boy has reactive attachment disorder (RAD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
For Frank, the most painful thing about raising adopted and traumatized children has been the broken relationship with his oldest biological daughter. Frank and his wife became so consumed with counseling, therapy, treatment, psychiatric evaluations, and respite care that they lost precious time with their biological daughter. Five years passed while they made progress with the struggling adopted children. Frank’s then-13-year-old daughter is now a grown woman, ready to leave home.
“I cry every time I think about the time lost with her, and now she’s gone,” Frank says. “I’ll never get those fi ve years back. True or not, I don’t know, but I feel like I have sacrificed my older biological children for our Ethiopian adoption.”
Frank says he reached out to people in his church for support, but only to other adoptive families. He advises pastors to refer adoptive parents to other adoptive parents, whether they’re in the church or not. He also encourages pastors and those ministering to families to point adoptive parents to therapists who specialize in helping adoptive families and to other related resources because many pastors aren’t equipped to effectively address the situation.
“People who don’t have experience with older adoptive kids with RAD and PTSD can’t understand it,” says Frank. “The normal reaction from people with no experience in this area is to suspect that it’s the parents’ fault.”
In It Forever
Sara* adopted a 10-month-old baby girl from Southeast Asia when she was single and in her mid-30s. The road has been a long one for her and her now-teenage daughter. They’ve fi nally come to peace, but only following years of turmoil. Sara says it was diffi cult when her daughter acted one way to the outside world, at school or at church, and then came home with negative behaviors.
“I was the only one who saw the behaviors and the acting out,” says Sara. “It was very lonely.”
Sara says she saw the hurt in her adopted baby, who was abandoned by her biological parents. She wonders if the sense of rejection for abandoned children ever really goes away.
“There’s always a wound there,” Sara says. Sara believes adoptive parents really have to be “in it for the forever” and that many may not see results for a very long time. Sara says adoptive parents must accept their adopted children, no matter where they’re at, and not expect them to live out a storybook ending.
“We think we’re going to pick up these kids and we’re just going to love them, and we aren’t prepared for children who can’t love us back,” Sara says. “I don’t know if our hearts let us say, Wow, this kid may not ever like me and this kid could be completely disruptive in my family.”
Over the years, Sara and her family have turned to Heritage Camps for Adoptive Families (heritagecamps.org), an organization offering summer camps for adoptive families all over the world. Sara advocates connecting with like-minded adoptive parents and says sharing openly and honestly with others has been a huge support.
Pam Sweetser, executive director of Heritage Camps, says healing happens through connecting with others who are experiencing similar situations and hardships. The camp gives struggling families a “camp family network” and an opportunity to develop a unique support community. Adoptive families can maintain connections with other adoptive families throughout the year and also lean on each other when their children experience racial discrimination or teasing from other children.
“A kid is a kid, but adoption adds an extra layer to who he or she is. That extra layer can be what’s challenging,” says Sweetser. “When you can talk to someone else who’s been there and doesn’t judge you, it can be very helpful.”