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Parenting your adoptive child…a whole new ballgame

Almost seven years ago, I found out I was going to be a mommy. Being a teacher on top of our exciting news–I wanted to learn everything I could to be prepared. I read the books. I sought advice from experienced mommies. I took all the birthing classes…ALL of them. Over six years later, I have birthed three–and learned how to filter advice but to weigh it all, the tricks of getting my little ones on appropriate nap schedules as well as how to sneak green beans in just about anything and how different personalities respond more effectively to different motivations and disciplines. Just when I thought I could put the books down and things were rolling–the Lord opened our hearts to growing our family through adoption…which my friends–is an entirely different parenting ball-game. I weigh the pediatrician advice differently filtering it through an attachment plan–really everything is weighed differently in this new parenting ballgame.

As overwhelming as it seemed at first, each day it is makes more sense–and the changes WE have to make are worth it. (I totally understand why the adoption therapists call it adoption parent retraining!). During our wait for our son, I read countless books–but one stood out to me more than the rest, and now that we are home–this same book I have to say is still on the top of my list. As we waited for our son and I read about what happens to a baby’s brain when it goes through trauma, I will confess I was anxious and some times fearful. Now that we are home and steadily applying the concepts and play therapies in this book, I am seeing first hand how the stress-shaped brain truly can be reshaped and how there is HOPE as you perservere and remain consistent in love, attachment and the healing process.

Parenting a little one who has been through a stressful transition will require some counterintuative parenting strategies so I truly can’t recommend enough reading a book like Parenting Your Internationally Adopted Child as well as following her suggestion in joining a “First Year Home Group”. The exciting thing is–brain and early-childhood researches have made discoveries about how we can teach children with a stress-shaped brain process life differently and actually change their brain is shaped so it can begin to grow normally. While the stress-shaped brain releases low/abnormal levels of cortisol–there are actually activities mommies can do with their babies to increase the cortisol levels (Cogen affectionately refers to it as “Mommy Juice” in her book) and to help keep these little ones from resorting back to their “fight or flight” responses…which we as uneducated adoptive parents may just think are normal behaviors—or even some times “easy” behaviors. For example, our little one will go to bed at night easily and beautifully in a dark room. No whining. Just lay him down and piece of cake. While this was okay and actually a GOAL with my biological children–this is actually a red flag to lack of connection between an adopted child and his/her parent. Recognizing this and knowing “fight or flight” red flags allow me to realize I need to actually teach my child to NEED me at night. Whining for the adoptive child is actually a GREAT thing and a sign of attachment—he/she is learning that if he whines, you will respond (in comes “Mommy Juice”…increase in cortisol…healing of the stress-shaped brain!) and his need will be met (healing occurs!). He is learning cause and effect in his new world—and that you will be there. Often, even whining has to be taught to a child that has already given up…see, I told you it’s counterintuitive to everything you’ve learned as a parent!

I have learned so much through Cogen’s book (There are countless others I have learned from and enjoy–but this one is so applicable and uses REAL experiences from REAL people and from the opinions even of adopted children themselves.) While bringing home a baby is an exciting, joyful time–bringing home a little one who has been through stressful sitations will be so much easier now and forever down the road when you are equipped and ready for helping your child’s brain be reshaped, learn to accept nuture and love from a parent and as you know and understand ways to spot problems and help them heal. And even that there will be times when you need to get help. (Also to remember getting help is normal and even healthy–from play therapy to meeting regularly with other adoptive families to simply do life with.)

Here are just a few things I have learned that have encouraged, stood out or made me want to read more…Your adopted child will have a birth age and a FAMILY age (measured by the amount of time he/she has been with your family). You may some times see your child reverting back to his family age. This is not only normal–but also healthy and HEALING!!! Yes–2 steps forward will some times be followed by 10 steps back…but it is OKAY…you can NOT compare your child to your other children or children his age!

Making a list of reality statements will help your child and close friends and family understand what your child has been through and to better support your child and you as you help him. (Start with the VERY beginning and walk to now. From 1. My child lived 9 months in utero with his birth mom hearing ______ language and her voice every day. Include as many changes as you know in the middle and ending with now…10. My child is having an involuntary immersion with a new language, with a new culture and with a new family.) All of these changes are VERY over-stimulating—which the cocoon “limiting outside stimulants” will help your child heal as he slowly deals with all of the reality statements you are helping your child to process.

Research has shown that when parents talk to a child about his experiences (EVEN when change happened as an infant), the child’s symptoms of distress descrease dramastically. Actually helping your child to remember family is healing as you walk through memories WITH them or help them dream what it was probably like TOGETHER. (Cogen has an amazing 3-Story strategy that you can do often with your child and give them permission to verbalize their story to others. There is NOTHING shameful about their story–it is simply and beautifully their story. She also encourages parents who have fear, anxiety and worry about this on a personal level–to deal with their fear and anxiety so they can help their child heal–and to not be afraid or embarrassed to get help for themselves and walk through their fears and own pain so they can free their child to dream and even enjoy their story. Most adoptive children later say they dream and think about their birth parents almost EVERY day—choosing to not celebrate, explore and help your child process this part of their lives is to create an unnecessary parent/child relational divide. (LOVE Cogen’s idea for remembering birth parents the day before Mother’s Day and Father’s Day so if frees up your child to have processed these days BEFORE the day…so you can enjoy these holidays as a family together as the internal processing can happen before–and together.)

There are so many things we do as adoptive parents because they “sound” good or make US feel good as parents. One for example—is not using the term “forever family” to refer to our family to our adopted child. I appreciate Cogen’s take on this term (and many other things we do unknowingly similar to things like this). Cogen explains why this is a sugar sweet term, but how it could effect our child. While our intentions are sweet and good–there are just things I never would have thought of without putting myself in my child’s shoes and experience. This brings so much light to the process and helps me identify with my little one by realizing my child has ANOTHER forever family in deep in his heart–one that over time he will want to talk about for health and healing. Cogen explains why it is better to use terms like “second family” or “American family”. It will be healthy for my child to know and be able to embrace that he has two families–one in Ethiopia that loved him and will love him forever–his “Ethiopia family” and then his “second family” or his “American family”. This will filter into things like 1st grade projects where you bring in baby pictures or family tree projects—it will be more comfortable for my child to confidently share about his two families and how things came to be for him.

I LOVE all the charts (when you are busy and need to just be reminded)…like the survival skill vs. adjustment behavior and timing of adjustment chart for example. It’s crazy how on target this has been for us!!! For example–when we got home our squirt would eat ANY flavor baby food. That is a survival skill. The adjustment behavior would be becoming a picky eater (another counterintuitive thing for me!!!) and Cogen’s research shows this happens typically with adopted children 3-4 months. I’m SO thrilled our little man is now rejecting green beans!!!! He is adjusting;)! Never thought I’d be so happy to have a baby hate greens:). The other good things…whining and clingy behavior. Never thought you’d look forward to those, huh?!

Of course this book is an amazing guide–and I love how over and over it reminds you as a parent HOW IMPORTANT our unconditional love is to our children being able to one day love and accept themselves. There is no book or source thought that can help us love consistently unconditionally on our own will—and one thing I am learning is how important it is for me to come to Christ daily and love through His love. It can be hard to be rejected over and over and over by your child—and our adopted children especially need us to be ready to accept their rejection and not give up on them. What a beautiful picture it is of God’s perserverance and unfailing love–and without Him and His power for me–it would be impossible.

When my little man wakes now at 3am and 5am, instead of getting frustrated–I am thankful. He is learning if he cries, I will come. He is crying out and wondering will someone come this time. And some times at 3am he pushes me away. But I don’t give up. I rock. I sing. I hold him close. I whisper God’s truth into his life…whether He understands English or not…it also brings healing to my heart where I am able to continue to love no matter what. Then he goes limp in my arms and begins to sigh—and then sleep. Some times he rubs my face–and other times he hums or begins to play…which tells me connections are being made—healing is happening—and this new way of parenting…is one of the most hard but beautiful things I have ever experienced. Really…it will be worth it.

If you have questions…I’m here–but I’m new to this–and probably can’t answer them;). But I’ll try my best or find someone who can. If you buy this book and begin to read it and feel overwhelmed—put it down for a couple of weeks and soak in what you can (that’s what I did). It WAS overwhelming at first—wow…what a way to even begin to understand and process WITH your child!!! I would encourage you to pick it back up when you are ready and to find the HOPE that is all over it in helping your little one process and heal. It won’t happen overnight–but as they learn how committed you are to helping them heal and not leaving them to figure it out for themselves alone—healing will happen!!!! And what JOY there will be as you go through this together!!! There will be tears. BUT there will also be freedom and joy!

Hope you all have a great weekend. Please keep Sunday in your thoughts and prayers for our family as we have a parent/baby dedication in our home for BOTH Frank and Isaac TOGETHER!!! I am overjoyed to have their dedications together…and for Richard and I to stand before our friends and family and the Lord together committing to raise them through the Lord’s strength and asking those we love to join us in doing the same. Thank you for being on this journey of life with us!



Kim - November 13, 2010 - 9:18 am

Sounds like a fabulous resource … I am going to forward your post to my SIL!
Love & Blessings from Hong Kong,

Tiffany - November 13, 2010 - 10:01 am

LOVE this Andrea! We read a lot before-hand, but somehow I never found my way to this book. I’m going to order it today! We have seen so much of this in Caleb and did many of the things that the book seems to recommended…love the idea of the charts though and some of the other things we missed. SO true on the birth age/family age…I’ve said that numerous times without having the exact terminology to put with it.Thanks for always providing such great info!

Beth O. - November 13, 2010 - 10:11 am

Thank you for sharing about this book — I just ordered it from Amazon after reading your post.

My husband and I are working on our homestudy and planning on adopting siblings from Ethiopia. We don’t have children of our own, but I have two nephews ages 10 and 7. (Their family is also adopting from Ethiopia — they are waiting for a little girl.)

As we are going through this process I have been thinking a lot about how children will adjust. Last night I had a huge thought — I often tell my nephews that we cannot afford something when they ask for a little “treat” while we are shopping. While they may be disappointed to hear that they understand. Saying that to a child who may have been given up because a parent doesn’t have the resources to care for them could be traumatic.

Lots to learn through this process. Thank you for writing your blog and sharing your journey and being a resource for those of use following behind you!

Annie D - November 13, 2010 - 10:38 am

Thank you for your wisdom. I often find such comfort in the blogs of strangers. You are so right that parenting a traumatized child is much different than parenting a biological child. Still, it is a very rewarding challenge! My daughter was almost 10 when she was adopted and she is now almost fifteen. I often think she has behaviors that are more inline with a five year old which would be her “family age”. I had never had anyone explain it the way you did. Thank you. Your post put some things into perspective and I am going to share it with my family. There are times they look at my daughter and just see immaturity.

Bonnie Nieuwstraten - November 13, 2010 - 12:21 pm

Andrea, I have not read this book, but I think I will. I have read lots of books and taken bits and pieces from most. Because our daughter was 4 when we brought her home, her grieving looks very different than that of an baby or toddler. I have posted LOTS on this lately as I continue to work through… this a 4 year old behavior or an adoption issue??? If you want to check it out, our blog is Your journey will look totally different, but sometimes I enjoy looking at what other parents have gone through. Parenting Grace has absolutely been the hardest and most rewarding thing I have ever done. Two books that I have loved are: ‘Parenting the Hurt Child’ by Peck and Kupecky and ‘The Connected Child’ by Purvis.

Thanks for sharing this. I think that parents who are in the process to adopt need to be spending tons of time educating themselves. That’s one thing that I really appreciated about AGCI is that they really helped us to prepare for the unique challenges of bringing home a 4 year old. Blessings on your weekend!

Jennifer - November 13, 2010 - 12:58 pm

I just opened this book about l5 minutes before reading your blog post. Another family highly recommended it.

I am waiting on a court date as a single parent of siblings, so I expect to need it a ton. I admit it is gathering dust, but I will GET it read! 😉

Renea - November 13, 2010 - 7:51 pm

Awesome post and awesome resource! We’ll be adding this to our lending library very soon for potential adoptive families to read and check out! Thanks for the heads up. We’ve got tons of books on adoption both domestic and international but not this one. I’d picked it up a dozen times at Barnes and Noble and put it back on the shelf, but I think it’s a must have after reading your post. 🙂 Thanks girl!

Kristin - November 13, 2010 - 9:11 pm

This post was so very helpful for me to read! I’m definitely getting this book. Our little guy does say a peep when we put him in his crib at night… Heartbreaking…

Angela - November 13, 2010 - 10:13 pm

I’m so glad that you posted about this book! We had read about it and heard that it was great but had forgotten the name of it. Now that we’re on the waitlist, I really wanted to remember what book it was and pick it up and start reading. Now I know! 🙂

Brianne - November 13, 2010 - 11:59 pm

What a special and sweet day for your family tomorrow. May it be blessed and filled with joy!

Brenda - November 28, 2010 - 7:22 pm

Thank you so much for sharing this book with us. My husband and I are just entering the adoption process. We live in the country that we will adopt our children from but it will still be a cross cultural adoption. (My husband and I are missionaries in Peru, working with at risk and abandoned children and impoverished families). I would be grateful if you wanted to share any other books that you have foud to be helpful to you as well.

Your family is beautiful and I praise God for what He has done.