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The Reality of Parenting Post-Adoptive Children

by Kimberly Meehan

Parenthood- the dream of many people. Today's society portrays parents as the newest superheros- SuperMom & SuperDad. Our heroes have high powered careers, a spotless home, popular, smart, and beautiful children. These paragons juggle daily problems with humor, creativity and understanding.

The truth, however, is that life does not operate on the principle of perfection, and the icon of the SuperParent is more mythical than practical. Daily life comes with a full complement of conflicting needs, irreconcilable priorities, clamoring demands and the consequent prevailing atmosphere of stress . It starts with getting everyone up and out the door in the morning, segues to juggling career, housework, and schedules, and doesn't cease until the dishes are done, homework is completed, and everyone is in bed (lights out!). One might think that the optimal goal would be to eliminate stress; but, since only death brings an end to stress, this is a questionable goal at best. . Stress, like many things, has its good side and its bad side. On the one hand, stress is a necessary concomitant to drive us to achieve, persist, to make the most of the hand dealt us; on the other hand,stress can debilitate, leading to tension, fear, anxiety, anger, rage, illness, and loss of control. When negative stress overwhelms and gains control, the nicest person can do the most horrible things.

Adoptive families are at high risk for stress imbalance. Most people take for granted their ability to create a family, - unfortunately for many infertility can complicate this picture . Families facing infertility often have undergone painful or emotionally challenging medical procedures in hopes of conceiving only to fail, have listened to health professionals speak as though they alone can create the baby, endured the well meaning comments of friends and family- "you are stressed - it will happen" or "watch as soon as you adopt you will get pregnant". Those parents may, ultimately, face the stark reality that biological offspring are not a possibility. As a result, much tension, disappointment, anxiety and anger are already present in the house before adoption.

Adoption is, of course, the "cure" to infertility. The adoption journey will bring some of the most positive stress a person can experience as they examine their childhoods, explore their relationships with significant others, family and friends, define their parenting philosophy, style and principles as part of the application to adopt. The elation when learning of a referral, of meeting your child to be, of putting a face and a name to the dreams that have evolved is unforgettable. Traveling thousands of miles, immersing yourself in a foreign country and culture where the accustomed conveniences may not exist, placing yourself in the control of someone you have never met, enduring the structure- sit when I say sit, eat when I say eat, say only this, dress in this way, challenge us to be at our best. Once home, the newly adoptive family needs to make many adjustments in order to cope with the multitude of problems that derive from the prior institutionalization of their child. The new family member is experiencing his or her own stress. This is a child who may never have been outside, never felt the touch of a spring breeze or sunlight on the face or grass tickle his bare feet. Here is a child who hears a different language. A child who may not have understood his own native language. This child must learn to adjust to the new sights, smells, tastes, and sounds of a different culture. He or she may be a child who has never had to make a choice, who has led a regimented existence- down to set bathroom times, who has lost all that is familiar and comforting. You may have a child is physically and developmentally stunted and starving from life in an orphanage. Most adults couldn't handle this level of stress without a major breakdown. A child is far more likely to break down- it may not be in the first days or weeks, but sometime (for most such children, in the first six months) this child is going to pull out every behavior they know in an attempt to regain some control and flesh out some boundaries.

In addition to the stress facing the child, the family has to adjust to being a larger family. Prioritizing needs is critical- no longer do mom and dad have the freedom to get up and go- they must place the needs of their children first. Like moms and dads everywhere they have to readjust their expectations. Dream child may not equal reality child. Dream child has got to go. That can be very difficult for families when a child's temperament does not fit prior, perhaps unrealistic, expectations. It can be even more difficult if the parents have trouble bonding to their child. Attachment takes a lifetime to build- but a bond is the critical initial connection that provides the foundation for attachment. There are many reasons why bonding can be difficult- an orphanage child comes with a lot of baggage that may or may not be known to the family. Behaviors like head banging, hoarding food, stealing, lying, rocking, inability to sleep can be unsettling or frightening to a family. Orphanage children may resist being touched, hugged or kissed. They may not like being held, rocked or tickled. They may resist feeding. Such behaviors can frustrate the usual activities that promote a parent's bonding with a child. Faced with all of this, a family can find itself in a world of negative stress.

Families must give themselves permission to be human. Forget about being SuperMom and SuperDad- leave it for Hollywood. Attempting to sustain a "super" image is a set up for failure. No one likes to fail- so don't put yourself in that position. You are human. You will make mistakes. You will be selfish at times. It is okay to admit that parenting is tough work, that at times you may wish you had never gone this route, you may even wonder if you really love your child- all of this is normal. A family that can acknowledge their non-Super image is a family working to control stress positively. What is not normal is a family who responds to stress with neglect and abuse.

Most parents are sincere in their desire to never hurt their child-either physically or verbally. But when a family is coping with many changes, compounded by months, possibly years of previously incurred high negative stress, the potential for rage is great. It takes but a moment to shake a child, to strike a blow to the head or abdomen, to push a child down the stairs, etc., in an attempt to either get the child to "listen" or to decrease the out-of-control rage roaring through the parent. No one sets out to vent their rage on their child. It is rarely intentional- it is a moment of pure loss of control. However, there are steps that a parent can take to minimize the chances of such a tragedy in their home.

First- every parent should make their child's bedroom safe. Cover the wall outlets, make sure the furniture is sturdy, the windows locked, remove any toys or decorative items that could be dangerous for a child alone. When you are feeling angry- when that urge to hit or to scream comes -as it does to every parent- put the child in his room and shut the door. Walk away. Turn up the music, tv volume, sing, rant, rave. Get the anger out. As calm approaches- take a rest. Anger can leave you physically and emotionally drained so before you open the door and begin anew- start rested. Children often reflect the tension of their parents. So the more angry you become the more unreasonable (crying, screaming, etc) your child becomes- it is a circular reaction. By using the room as a safe separation it allows the child the same space to unwind and eventually sleep. For those with teens- it may be the parent who chooses to put him/herself in a room.

Before you become a family- make a plan to handle stress. The challenges of the adopted child are extensive and intense. Attend parenting classes, read, ask questions- work from the assumption that every bad thing you have ever heard about the orphanage child will be true with your child. Talk with your family and friends- educate them. Find family and friends that you can ask to watch your children should stress build to the point that you need downtime. Schedule breaks. Just like moms should nap when newborns nap, so should adoptive parents. When your child rests you should rest. If your child is beyond nap stage- schedule a rest break. Forget about the housework. If family/friends want to give you a gift- ask for a housecleaning service for the first month!

Your adoption agency, social worker, and pediatrician are there to help you adjust. Use them! Don't isolate yourself. Look for play groups of adopted children, look for parent support groups. Remember that in order to provide good loving care for your child- you must take care of yourself. Set aside time for you, even if that means hiring a babysitter so you can take a bubble bath! Where you can, use your sense of humor. Humor is a wonderful stress reducer and it is much nicer to laugh than to cry- even if no one else gets the joke.

Orphanage children, like any child, will bring great joy, love and laughter. They will create their share of tantrums, tears and anger. The best kept secret of parenthood is knowing when to walk away. Nothing gets resolved in the heat of anger. Every parent will experience the heat of anger- that's okay. Experience it, but don't act on it. Remember rule #1: close the door and take a break.

Kimberly Meehan, RNC, MS PNP