It’s not exactly a news flash to state that parenting is hard work. But we wanted to share some of our experience that seems particularly related to parenting internationally adopted children. Let me state up front that we are not overly discouraged and that overall we’re thrilled with the kids. But, in an effort to provide perspective, we think it’s important to share some of our challenges. One of the moms we met on our trip to Ethiopia wrote an article on her blog that covers many of our thoughts fairly well. We encourage you to click here and read it. What follows is an attempt not to repeat what she wrote, but to give you a more personal look into our experience.
Our kids have experienced significant trauma in their young lives. In fact, it’s fair to say that their lives have been defined by traumatic events and a lack of basic “necessities.” Traumatic events will leave scars. One book we’ve read refers to the “stress-shaped brain” and that seems to be as accurate a description as we can come up with. Due to Daniel & David’s life experiences, their brains skipped some significant developmental stages. Because of this, they have some behaviors that are typical of MUCH younger children. Also, as we desire to have them trust us (and obey us) as Mom and Dad, they are naturally struggling with the question of just what does it mean to have a Mom and a Dad? And, more importantly, how long will this situation last (and once this ends, what’s next)? Can you imagine having to deal with that before age 9 (or 7)?
When people spend time with our family, they gain the impression that the boys are happy and well adjusted. This stems from the fact that they are incredibly well adjusted given the circumstances. That impression is also fueled by the fact that they have developed incredible survival and coping skills. As parents, our challenge is to try to find root causes of various behaviors and address them appropriately. If the root cause is rebellion (as appearances frequently indicate), one deals with it using appropriate discipline. But in our case, more often than not the root cause is not rebellion – it’s either a misunderstanding of instructions or inability to process or follow the instructions. And the stress-shaped brain is often completely incapable of following relatively simple instructions.
Our overriding strategy for dealing with these issues is to maintain consistency on a daily basis. This encompasses virtually everything, including daily routines, behavior expectations, discipline, etc. With our grown kids, by this age we could mix in a tremendous amount of variety. That is not the case with the boys. Others don’t really see how essential this is and, we suspect, are a bit frustrated with our rigidity in certain circumstances. But we have seen that “mixing things up” has far-reaching consequences in our home life. Inserting a new activity in the day, for instance, will impact the transitions and other activities. It seems that these small variations trigger some fears that a major change might be next. These fears are below the surface so they cannot really be identified, but they seem to be there. How can they get over the fear of change when it’s all they’ve really ever known? All we can do is try to be consistent and reassure them that we are a family and will remain a family. And that we love them regardless of behavior (they don’t come close to fully grasping this one).
Some recurring issues:
Don’t Touch (Anything!!!): Our boys know this phrase well. They hear it often, especially as we enter new environments. Yet, for reasons we are beginning to understand, they are completely unable to comply with what seems to be a simple request. Everything is new and our boys want to experience it. However, for most children their age, you could explain that where we’re going has a lot of nice things and you can look but not touch. That would be simple enough. However, it doesn’t work that way in our case and, from what we read, ours is a very typical experience. Studies have shown that internationally adopted children develop this concept of self-control much more slowly than non-adopted kids. And by much more slowly we mean it takes about four times as long. So… at about age 20 we can expect them to have the self-control of a five year old. Just stop a moment and let that sink in. We think that 4x timeline is consistent with what we’re seeing in Daniel. That means you should picture a two-year-old who can reach everything in the house (knives, microwave, you name it!) and can figure out how all the electonics work. We are actually able to joke about this with him and it helps keep us sane. Watching the movie “ELF” was an absolute hoot! When the dad tells Buddy (the elf for those who have not seen the movie), “Don’t touch anything!” we thought the boys were going to pee their pants laughing. In fact, much of that movie hit home and I’d encourage you to watch it with our kids in mind (the constant talking is also quite accurate).
Stop Talking and Listen: This is an especially significant problem for Daniel, as he seems to be constantly talking. When we are trying to correct him on small or large matters he will repeat what we are saying it as we say it. As a “normal” American parent, that can be one of the most frustrating things ever! We begin to speak to him and he parrots everything we say (about one syllable behind us – it’s really quite a talent). It feels 100% disrespectful and we still cannot quite figure out if this is rebellion or an inability to listen. We are constantly second guessing ourselves trying to determine if we handled the situation correctly.
Situation Awareness: Obliviousness strikes them in varying degrees, but shows up many times per day. This is another example of the “toddler” stage. If one of the boys wants to talk with you he’s going to talk. Full volume. Whether you are listening to him or on the phone with somebody else. You can try to “shush” him, but that really won’t do any good. He wants to tell you something or ask you something and, by golly, he’s going to do it. They haven’t learned to look out for other people when walking, for example, in the mall, at school, or in church. So far, they’ve been pretty good in parking lots (because we continually remind them), but we can’t trust them like we could a non-adopted kid of the same age.
Sense of Time: We tend to run on a tight schedule, which seems to be a very foreign concept to Daniel and David. Saying, “You need to hurry” brings blank stares or, more likely, a nod of agreement followed by absolutely no movement. Leaving the house for virtually anything (church, school, Bible study) is typically fairly stressful. We can think we’re ready, only to see that one of the boys is distracted to the point of barely remembering we were headed somewhere. Simple tasks such as brushing teeth can take upwards of 20 minutes if not tightly supervised (another example of their toddler-hood stage).
How Daniel and David spend their time:
Skating, bike riding, running, etc.: They love all physical activity. They are very well coordinated and master new activities with incredible ease and speed. People continually suggest we sign them up for organized sports and we will. But, due to the issues mentioned above and their developing grasp of English, they are not ready to take on that level of commitment or coaching yet. Maybe next school year…
Reading: They are gaining ground on grade-level proficiency, but have a ways to go because they got a very late start. However, they love to read and, with the right choice of books, can read quietly and follow a story. We prefer to have them read to us because we can better help them develop their comprehension skills. But, we have to admit, we never imagined they’d be this far along in January 2010!!!
Music: They love to listen to music and to sing. They have a good sense of rhythm and can remember songs quite well. Of course, it’s always interesting to hear how the lyrics are going to come out when they burst into song…
Flash Cards: They review reading and math flash cards just about every day.
Television: Like most American children, they’d be happy sitting in front of the TV just about all day. They love Spiderman and other shows. We’ve been watching Wild Kingdom together and it is so frequently filmed in Africa that it especially holds their interest. We talk about the appropriate level of TV and keep pretty tight reigns on it. We also talk about appropirate behavior and have banned some shows that encouraged behavior we didn’t like (remember the situation awareness issue – they can’t transfer to appropriate situations).
Games and Puzzles: They have many puzzles and activity books. They love Legos and are quite skilled at following the instructions. They each have a Leapster and enjoy the educational games on them.
Physically: Daniel and David have grown like the proverbial weeds since they’ve been home. They look healthy and well fed and they have both grown a full clothing size. This has made us continually grateful for all the gifts of clothing, gift cards, and cash that we have received. Also, we have noticed that the sores they came with have healed – most notably on their feet. We are dreading the grocery bills as they get bigger!
Intellectually: These kids are nothing short of amazing!!! As noted above, they absorb just about everything. Their retention is phenomenal regarding language, math, stories, etc. A by-product of this is that it intensifies our frustration with the behavior issues (why can’t they stop touching everything???).
Emotionally: For the most part, the boys are adapting well with plenty of room for further growth. Daniel is not a cuddler with us and we’re not sure if this is a sign that he hasn’t really attached to us or if it’s just the way he’s wired. They are both frequently concerned with whether or not Mom and Dad are “mad with me” and we haven’t fully figured out how to address this. We think it’s a sign that they don’t understand the unconditional nature of our love for them. Early on, they kept asking, “Me good job?” and we tried to explain that we love them whether or not they do a good job. Also, they both communicate that they are afraid sometimes, usually associated with being alone (e.g., in our bathroom that is away from other people in the house). They do NOT like to take the garbage out to the garage unless someone waits in the doorway for them. Their nightmares seem to have subsided; maybe they’re just exhausted from their schedule with school. They’re both fragile and require tons of positive reinforcement.
Spiritually: They both love the Lord and it’s a joy to hear them pray. They memorize scripture and have recently started Sunday School. They love Bible Study Fellowship and they seem to be learning, although the language barrier is stifling their progress a bit. Daniel is especially concerned about the spiritual welfare of others as he’ll ask of TV characters, “Does he love Jesus?”. It opens the door for great discussions.
We have reached the point that we cannot imagine what life would have been like had Daniel and David not joined our family. Seriously, we just can’t imagine it! They are amazing kids with fantastic personalities. David is a jokester, much like Janel. He loves to tease and we frequently can’t tell when he’s giving a straight answer. Daniel is very thoughtful and has a sense of humor as well, although it comes out differently than David’s. His laugh is contagious. They both wake up happy, although this kind of grates on Sary-Jo since she’s the only one in the family who doesn’t really enjoy the early morning hours. They try new foods with a good attitude (last night we all learned they like Chinese food – the spicier the better). In fact, they try new experiences with a good attitude as well. We can NOT possibly convey how thankful we are to our family, friends, and community for the support we have received, including physical and emotional help. We could not have predicted the outporing of love that has been showered on us. Please continue to keep our family in your prayers.