Several friends recently called to my attention Melissa Faye Greene's article, Love Medicine, (February Good Housekeeping Magazine, p. 134) about international adoption and parenting traumatized children. Aware of our journey with our youngest daughter (adopted 2003 from China) they were spot on in thinking that I would find the piece of interest. But my interest lay not just in the stories (some of which we have lived at our house) or the therapies (which we have researched and used). It also lay in my admiration for the parents featured who bravely chose to speak out about something so painful and personal. And, more importantly, that they chose to do so, in the face of a mainstream adoption culture which discounts, and at times even seeks to discredit, such stories.
Before we adopted our daughter we had little understanding of the serious problems she might face as a result of her abandonment and subsequent institutionalization in a Chinese orphanage. Our pre-adoption training involved general information about bonding with a small child (playing games like patty cake, peek-a-boo, and returning the toddler to a bottle) and how to deal with intrusive questions about why our child did not look like us. No information was offered on issues such as “reactive attachment disorder” (in large part because this condition was reported to be limited to older adoptive children) or “developmental trauma” (a condition involving cognitive, emotional and/or physical delays due to neurological changes that occur in the brain of healthy infants when faced with severe stress, such as neglect and abuse). In fact, the party-line at the time was: children adopted from China were emotionally healthy and if young at adoption (our daughter was 12 months), should have little, if any, trouble bonding. What we ultimately found to be the case was far from this.
Not that this information would have in any way changed our decision to adopt. For us, God had made this plan for us and this was our daughter, whether she was of my womb, or not, healthy or not, and I could not imagine life without her. Indeed, I would say this is equally true for the many parents in my attachment support group, whatever their personal reasons for adoption.
That said, information such as that openly shared in Good Housekeeping’s article, had we known it, would have gone a long way to better prepare my husband and I for parenting a child like her. We would have known what to look for – things like “hypervigilence”, “sensory processing disorder”, and inappropriate behavior with strangers. We would have known that spending hours, upon endless hours in a potty chair or wooden cradle, or being summarily handed over to someone who looked, smelled and sounded like an alien, could leave her with deep emotional scars as well as developmental delays that were not obvious to the naked eye. We would have known we were not alone. We would have known where to turn for help and healing (albeit these resources are still too few and far between). If such issues were more readily spoken about in the adoption community (especially by agencies placing children) we, and in turn our daughter, would not have suffered in silence for three years before finding help.
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So I commend the parents featured in Greene’s article on international adoption. I am sure there are many parents who will find solace and help in what they have so selflessly shared. And I commend Good Housekeeping for choosing to report on an oft-overlooked, and perhaps purposely silenced, topic. Finally, I encourage all parents who are dealing with children with special needs, whatever their origin, to reach out to others, whether it be to ask for information or to share information.
Some of my favorite resources on this topic: www.a4everfamily.org ; and www.childtrauma.org and the following books: Building the Bonds of Attachment by Daniel Hughes; Beyond Consequences, Logic and Control, by Post and Forbes; The Connected Child, by Karyn Purvis, PhD; and Adoption Parenting: Creating a Toolbox, Building Connections, ed. Jean MacLeod and Sheena Macrae.