Working as a Clinical Psychologist I have to caution myself that, while I often come into contact with adoptive families who are having difficulties, there are many who I never meet. They manage the ups and downs of family life without any help other than committed friends and family. In my experience children can be phenomenal in their resilience and ability to adapt to new circumstances.
I am, however, still surprised by the expectations and pressure that parents feel when managing some of the difficulties that adopted children can face. As many children are in need of loving and stable homes the agencies involved in placing children can sometimes (I prefer to believe inadvertently and in good faith) be overly positive in the way they present a child and adoption itself as they may not wish to “put off” potential adopters. This can lead to parents feeling that they have failed in some way when things get more difficult than they anticipated. Their guilt and feelings of inadequacy are counterproductive to good problem solving and effective parenting. I find that these expectations and negative feelings about parenting are more often the focus of my intervention than the behaviour of the child or young person.
The initial settling in period for adoptive children, particularly babies, can be tough; however, this is often the period that parents are best prepared for. The effect of being adopted, or more accurately the effect of the attachment issues that some children are left with from their very early experiences of being cared for (or not) can become apparent at many different ages and developmental stages. In Cambodia there is often the added complexity of parents and children having different cultural backgrounds and being visibly different.
Time limits given to parents about when their child should be “settled in” or part of the family can be unhelpful. Children may be well “settled” and attached to their adoptive parents but still be struggling in some areas of their development. One of the most common problems for children who have not had good early experiences is that they have not learned how to manage strong emotions and calm down when life is frustrating or difficult. It is well documented and understood that we learn a large part of how to regulate our emotions in our first year of life from our mother or primary caregiver. Although the child can only communicate through crying and minimal reflexes a sensitive caregiver responds fairly consistently and provides food or comfort so that the child’s immediate need is met and their feelings of fear and/or rage subside. They are soothed and through this sensitive responding learn to soothe themselves. For children who do not receive sensitive responses in their first experience of care, and whose needs remain unmet, the rage/fear grows and becomes intolerable. They either give up or learn to persist in crying and demonstrating their distress, sometimes after the need has been observably met. For these children strong feelings can feel overwhelming and unmanageable well into adulthood. When these children are in a safe and loving environment they may not come into contact with stresses that might trigger such strong emotions but then later in life, when they experience stress, their parents can be shocked at their seeming regression and inability to cope.
Children’s brains are malleable and flexible, they change and grow with their experiences. I am not dooming all children with poor early experience to suffering; however we know from the considerable research that adopted children may need extra support in order to identify and manage their emotions when life becomes more difficult, or they are at risk of poorer emotional wellbeing. This can be triggered by a universal childhood experience of a transition to a new class or a more unusual experience like bereavement.
Children who experience overwhelming sadness or rage, and are sensitive to rejection from their early abandonment, can provoke very strong reactions in those around them. Feelings of helplessness and anger/fear are normal and usual but can leave parents and siblings feelings distant and, again, guilty.
In my experience, basic information about attachment and neurodevelopment, particularly the effect of neglect and abuse on a babies’ brain and relationships can be extremely useful in helping parents understand their adopted child and alleviating feelings of guilt and anger (see “Why Love Matters” by Sue Gerhardt). Testimonies from other parents with similar experiences and even networking with other adoptive parents can also help these parents feel supported when they are struggling alone with their suddenly or persistently difficult child.
Dr Bridie Gallagher, Clinical Psychologist