Ask AF: Handling a Difficult Adjustment After Older Child Adoption

A single mother who's adopting from foster care seeks help with the difficulties she's faced in the post-placement adjustment with an older child. Parents who have been there, done that share advice and encouragement.

Q: I am a single mother, and have been fostering a seven-year-old boy for five months. At first everything was wonderful, but now he’ll have tantrums for hours on end, won’t take responsibility for any of his actions, and has started hitting himself. He tells me about abusive punishments his former foster parents used to inflict on him. However, his teacher tells me he’s “a joy” at school, and his caseworker assured me “he has never had any issues,” so this just makes me feel like more of a failure. Please help.

Members of respond:

“My advice is to find a therapist for him. You need someone who knows about trauma and the brain. You cannot just deal with his behavior, but need to get to ‘why’ and find a solution.”

“For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t put too much stock in the thought that he has never acted this way before. It could be true, and he feels more comfortable with you. But I think it more likely that his behavior just wasn’t reported to you—perhaps because  the social workers wanted to deny the problem or wanted you to say ‘yes’ to a difficult placement, or perhaps the other foster families never reported it.”

“Some children are always well behaved in the beginning. Then they push and cause issues to see if you really love them and will stick with him. Keep telling your son how sorry you are about what he dealt with in the past to reassure him that you care. Also, keep in mind that children I have fostered have always acted younger then their ages. After years of not getting enough attention, they craved being held, helped to tie shoes or to brush their teeth, and other things other children their age do.”

“He may be sad about past abuse and losing his birth mom, and confused about what he does not know. Does he know what will happen in the future? Is he still visiting? Is he in permanent custody? Has anyone explained all of this to him? Kids with attachment issues are often meanest to their ‘new’ moms.
I would second therapy, and make sure the therapist knows about adoption, trauma, and attachment.”

“My son’s school psychologist suggested Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT). This was a lifesaver for us. Until PCIT, I felt like I was failing, and no one understood what we were going through. The vast majority of kids in foster care have some type of learning or behavioral deficit, and PCIT helped my son learn how to handle his behaviors without escalating them. And PCIT is not just for the child, but for both of you. As his only caregiver, you need all the support you can get!”

“It is also very common for children with attachment difficulties to only have angry tantrums at home, or only with the one they trust. In school my daughter is extremely bright, friendly, happy, fun, considerate, outgoing…but, at home, she knows she can share with me all the fears, anxiety, sadness, jealousy, and rage she is really feeling but not showing elsewhere. You are right—it does make one feel like a failure or a bad mother, but, in fact, it is exactly the opposite. Because your child cares about and trusts you, he is starting to, as my social worker said, ‘let it all hang out’ at home. In the beginning our social worker counseled me to look for minute signs of attachment. Do everything you can to have quiet, loving, unstressed time at home alone with your child. Don’t overload your schedule. Keep him home from school on bad days, if necessary. Try to identify your son’s feelings and speak them (without blaming him), as well as address the real feelings behind his behavior, so he slowly learns to do this himself. Look for times to connect with activities you both enjoy. Also times to brag about him to other adults when he is around or listening. If there is a definite plan to adopt, talk about and celebrate the steps toward that permanency. Join support groups yourself with other families like yours, find friends you can talk with or email who at least will listen, search out adoption counselors or social workers with experience to talk to yourself. Try and find a way to get some respite and time off. Do everything you can to take care of yourself. Believe me, I know it is not easy, but also know that it does get better. All you can do is do your best.”


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