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You owe it to yourself, and your child, to ask for help – an adoptive Dad writes
Published: February 25, 2016
Like most adopters, I thought we’d be the ones who would overcome any problems with the sword of love and the shield of consistency. Whatever our child’s past, we’d make it all better just by being such great parents. Of course it didn’t turn out that way. Love was often met with anger, boundaries and discipline provoked panic and, at times, massive meltdowns. After six months of having our parenting thrown back in our face, we were exhausted and out of ideas. We needed help.
Our assessing agency offered a wide range of post-adoption support, and we reluctantly accepted it. After all those months of regular social worker visits, reviews and so on, we wanted to get on with being a family, undisturbed by outside agencies – but now we were back to assessments and endless talking about personal stuff. It was the last thing we wanted, but in retrospect it was a major turning point. We were put on a course of twenty Attachment Focused Therapy sessions, hoping that this would provide the magic formulas to manage our son’s emotional and behavioural problems. In fact, the focus was on us, not on him. He was acting exactly as expected; it was our handling of his emotions that needed adjusting.
Basically this meant unlearning almost everything we’d learned in preparation training, from parenting books and from our own friends and family. Everyone stresses the necessity of firm boundaries (‘Children need them! They love them!’ is the mantra) and consequences that must be followed through. We tried this, but in nearly every case it was a disaster. Our new therapist suggested removing all boundaries except those absolutely necessary for personal safety, and creating an environment of freedom and acceptance where no behaviour was ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’, and certainly not punished. This immediately freed us from the terrible, escalating game of tit for tat that was driving us all crazy: if you don’t eat your breakfast you can’t watch TV, if you throw that toy at me again I will take it away, if you don’t brush your teeth you can’t eat sweets. Our son’s need for control was so great that he’d suffer almost any consequence rather than do as he was told. What he desperately needed was to feel that he was in control, and that he could act out without being punished. His rage and grief had to be expressed and accepted, not boundaried.
After a while this started to bear fruit; our son began to trust us, and to feel safe and relaxed rather than constantly vigilant and frightened. Mealtimes, bathtimes and bedtimes began to settle into something a bit more like normal. But progress was slow: he was still expressing a lot of anger, especially when something nice happened to him. Presents, trips and treats were often repaid with insults, tears and rage – and this was triggering anger in us. I always used to think of myself as a pretty laid-back person without much of a temper: boy, was I wrong. I started matching my son’s anger with anger of my own, and when that red mist descends, it’s hard to turn back.
Again, there was no easy solution, no mantra I could chant to prevent myself from losing my temper. My husband and I both had to think about things that our son’s behaviour was triggering in us – painful issues in our own lives that we thought were resolved and under control. It’s hard to admit that you’re still dealing with grief or bullying or whatever, and harder still to dredge these things up while you’re in the white heat of adoptive parenting. But again, it worked. Now I can control myself – eighty per cent of the time, at least. My husband and I know each other a lot better, and are more patient. We’re not saints or robots; we still get upset. But things are under control, and our son is flourishing – even able to accept the discipline of school.
I’d say to anyone considering adoption, or in early placement, to consider post-adoption support as a vital part of your new lives. Don’t look at it as an admission of failure. Adoption is hard even at the best of times; you can’t do it on your own. Don’t bottle it up. You owe it to yourself, and your child, to access the help that’s on offer.