When an older child joins a family through adoption, parents need to consider what the child is experiencing. It may be one of the happiest days of your life, but for the child you’re adopting, it’s a day of loss. Even though he may be leaving a less-than-stellar orphanage, home, or foster placement, he is still losing every person, food, smell, and surrounding he has ever known. Some children even describe feeling as though they had been kidnapped.
The post-adoption transition can be broken into three general stages. First, there’s the honeymoon, when children arrive and are on their best behavior. They act like wonderful kids, and put their best foot forward. When they realize they’re not moving again immediately, they begin the testing phase. Eventually, there will be a resolution and a genuine joining of the family when the child finally attaches securely.
That testing stage is when your new child begins to display all the behaviors you heard about in prior placements. He might lie, steal, misbehave at school, or directly defy you. For children who moved through multiple foster homes, the behaviors might worsen around the time they were usually transferred to a new placement, and this phase can last for months or even years (see “The Attachment Equation,” below). This behavior is a reflection of what happened to the child before he came to you—he’s grieving and healing from trauma and broken attachments—not your parenting skills. Kids test their new parents because they are afraid that, if they attach, you will decide to send them away, and they will be broken all over again. The key is to remember that even though children are behaving in ways that make you angry, anger doesn’t get your family closer to the goal of attachment. Some people who adopt older kids expect too much too soon. If you’re adopting a 12-year-old, he may never be the 12-year-old he would have been if you’d had him since he was a baby. He’s the 12-year-old he is now, who’s smart and funny and lies and sometimes steals, and you have made the commitment to love this child and help him move on from these behaviors. Demonstrating unconditional love and having fun together is what will move children toward bonding, even, and especially in the face of, “bad” behavior.
Let’s look at three scenarios shared by parents in the testing phase—what’s behind these common behaviors and what parents can do to help get their families through them.
Testing Behavior #1: Lying
“My child lies, even when answering a really mundane question, and sometimes tells very tall tales. How do I get her to tell the truth?”
Why kids do it: Lying is developmentally appropriate for two- to three-year-olds, but sometimes much older kids in foster care are developmentally and emotionally stuck around ages two to three. You have to remember to think about their developmental age, not just their physical age. Many of these children also feel they have been lied to all of their lives. Their birth parents were supposed to take care of them and didn’t. That’s a big lie. They go into foster care and the social worker says, “As soon as your birth mom gets better, you’re going home,” but they never go home, and that’s a big lie. Then, the child’s foster parents say, “We’re here for you,” and three weeks later, he moves, and that’s a big lie. So, when a child feels like he has been lied to by everybody his whole life, he’s going to lie too. A newly adopted child might engage in what’s called “primary process lying,” or lying in the face of truth, because he’s trying to give the “correct” answer to a question (“Yes, I brushed my teeth”). Others lie to try to engage you in a kind of verbal badminton, as this may be the only way they know how to engage.
What parents can do: When you know your child lies, the best advice I can give is to quit asking questions you know the answer to. If the principal has already called and told you that your child has in-school suspension because he hit Pete, don’t ask, “What happened at school today?” as soon as he gets off the bus. You already know what happened. Instead, say, “The principal called, and I understand you had an in-school suspension.” The same goes for younger children. If you want them to put on their shoes, don’t ask, “Do you want to put on your shoes now?” If they say no, what are you angry about? You asked. Instead of asking questions, make statements.
Or, try telling your children to lie. Say, “I’m going to ask you a question, get ready to lie.” They’ll often cry or refuse to lie, saying “I’m not allowed.” Alternatively, you can have a little fun lying to them. Say, “We’re going to McDonald’s for lunch.” When you pull into Burger King, and they point that out, just say, “I didn’t say McDonald’s. What are you talking about?” Another tactic is simply agreeing with them when you know their lie doesn’t matter—is it really important to know if they ate their whole snack?—or it’s a clearly outrageous lie. One kid I worked with came to see me after moving to a new placement. I asked, “Do you like your new bedroom?” He replied, “Well, the house doesn’t have any bedrooms.” I just said, “That’s interesting. Maybe I’ll come visit. I’ve never been to a house without bedrooms before.” Then he mumbled, “Yes, I have my own bedroom. They have four.” When I said he’d just said there weren’t any, he said, “Well, I just wanted to see if you would yell at me.”
Testing Behavior #2:Losing or Breaking Items
“My child doesn’t seem to value possessions. He is always losing or breaking things, or taking them from others, and then just expects that we’ll replace it. When he acts this way with gifts he’s been given, he doesn’t seem to understand how that behavior would affect the gift-giver’s feelings.”
Why kids do it: Children in foster care have already lost everything—their entire family, everything they’ve ever known—and that’s why they don’t value possessions. It’s like when someone you love passes away. For a while, you don’t care about things. You’re consumed by the bigger loss. And when children move through multiple foster homes, they don’t learn to value belongings because they don’t see the real cost; they move to a new home, and there are new things. They leave a home in the middle of the night and don’t have time to take their clothes, then their caseworker puts in a clothing order and they get new clothing.
What parents can do: When you know your child is destructive, stop buying expensive items. Shop at the thrift store. Losing a $2 sweater feels a lot better than losing a $40 sweater. You can’t follow kids around and make sure they keep track of their belongings, but there are some things you can fix. If kids break a toy, don’t automatically buy a new one. If they want another one, make them earn money by doing chores, and replace it themselves. They might learn to value things a little more when it’s their own money they’ve spent. If your relatives are giving your child gifts, ask them to give experiences instead, like a pass to the zoo, a gift card for dinner and a movie, or a family portrait session. Not only is there one less item to lose or break, the experiences can help foster attachment.
If your son takes his brother’s sweater without permission and then loses it, teach him that he has to pay back its value somehow. He can give him one of his sweaters, or do his chores for three days.
Testing Behavior #3: Anger
“How can I manage to hang in there and not respond in anger when my child is being verbally abusive and trying so hard to push me away? Should we give consequences for this kind of behavior?”
Why kids do it: When kids are mean, and push parents away, it’s because they are afraid to attach again. They push your buttons, and try to make you angry to test if your love is real. Sometimes children act out because they are emotionally stuck, and are still throwing tantrums characteristic of a much younger age.
What parents can do: First, if you’re the mom, give yourself a pat on the back. Children usually lash out at their mothers first, so you are probably doing better than you think. When you feel like you want to dole out consequences, remember what your child has already lost, and remember that there’s no way you can be punitive enough on that scale. If your child has been in 11 different homes, losing TV time when he doesn’t do homework is no big deal. Punishments just create anger, which keeps kids hurt and distant and prevents attachment. Instead, in moments like these, remind yourself that attachment is your goal and that being angry doesn’t help move that forward.
If kids are pushing you away by calling you names, the way to handle it depends on age. If they’re being nasty and swearing, you can say, “I’m not going to listen to that,” then go outside. It’s not like saying, “You don’t talk to me like that,” because your kids just did, you can’t make him stop yelling, but you can take charge of the situation by choosing not to hear it. If children say, “You’re not my real mom,” and then later want a ride to the mall, you can say, “Well, I’m not your real mom. I don’t know if I can.” If they apologize, you can let them make it up to you by helping you unload the dishwasher. Doing an activity together can help defuse your anger, and promote attachment.
It’s important to wait until everyone is calm to try to talk about your child’s anger. If your daughter is screaming and carrying on and you try to reason with her, that will just escalate everything. Later on, you can say, “That was quite a performance. I didn’t like what you called me. To make it up to me, I want you to ____.” Then say, “Nice try pushing me away, but I’m still your mom,” and give her a hug. When your kids have meltdowns, try to treat them like you would a friend. Instead of being angry–even though it’s hard–think, “What’s the matter? How can I help?” It sounds counterintuitive, but if your child yells at you and stomps up to his room, bring a little snack up to him and say, “Boy, you must have been having a real hard time. What’s the matter, Honey? Let’s sit and talk.” Strictly punishing kids isn’t going to achieve the outcome you want.
After the Trials, Trust
The testing phase is hard, but it’s a very human process. When the testing begins, experienced placement workers will think, “Oh, good, now we know what’s really going on,” because they know that honeymoons are fake. Some of these kids, I don’t know how they do it again and again. How does somebody who’s been in 17 placements trust another person? If somebody had been through 17 failed marriages, you wouldn’t expect them to move eagerly into the next one. You might even say, “Give up. You can’t do this.”
Parents need to find alternative ways to deal with the frustration of a lying, stealing, destructive, angry child. Think of your child’s misbehavior as a way of asking, “What’s going to happen? Are you going to hit me? Are you going to get rid of me?” and respond to those questions, rather react in anger. Remember the emotional age of your kid, and think about what kind of behaviors are normal in that phase. Baby your child a little. Rock him, and hug him like you would a younger child. Give her permission to talk by asking questions and mentioning her past. If she comes to you with a lifebook, keep it up to date. If she doesn’t have one, work on compiling one. Maintain connections with birth siblings and previous foster families, no matter what her behavior. If your child doesn’t want to talk to you, give him another person he feels more comfortable with. He might not understand that it’s acceptable to be sad, and to cry, and so expresses every emotion as anger.
Eventually, when your child sees that you’re not going anywhere, that you love him, warts and all, he’ll begin to think, this might be my family. When that genuine attachment comes, you’ll be all the happier for the trials you went through before it.