I naively thought that because I had experienced early childhood trauma, I was equipped to handle kiddos who had experienced the same. But that’s like driving on an interstate and taking credit for building it. As my stepfather, Bud used to say, “That’s hogwash.”
My husband and I adopted a sibling group of four from Poland. All of them came with open emotional wounds. I can’t share their story, because their story belongs to them. Suffice it to say, their triggers and my triggers met head-on and resulted in chaos.
What we think Works
I did the logical thing. I bought books. I researched. I read books to my husband at night when he was trying to fall asleep. “Listen to this,” I would say. “This is why he is doing this.”
I thought it was all about the behavior. Maybe you think that, too. Maybe you, like me, think that if you learn the science, you can figure out the why behind the behavior. I thought I could fix the behaviors, and then the chaos would be gone.
It didn’t work. I was so busy trying to fix my kids that I didn’t realize the biggest part of the chaos was me. It’s not that my kids were acting or reacting properly. They struggled with regulation because of their past experience. But — and it still hurts to say this — the true common denominator in the cycle of chaos was me. It was my reactions, my triggers being activated. The cycle of behaviors and my reactions made me ashamed.
Something had to give, and it had to be me. I couldn’t parent from a base of shame. As Dr. Karyn Purvis said, “You can’t take your child somewhere you haven’t gone yourself.” I had to go first. I had to find hope and healing before I could lead my kiddos there.
I’m not saying to throw out the books. They have their place. Many good people have done research that we need to digest and apply. I didn’t throw away the books; I changed my approach.
What actually works
Instead of starting with the science and trying to change our kids’ behaviors. We must start with our beliefs. They will take some reframing. We start with the origins of adoption. If we have erroneous beliefs in this area, we will be building on a faulty foundation. As long as we believe adoption was a secular response to a problem, we will be tempted to give up more easily. Adoption is a godly calling.
We must confront the lies and replace them with the truth. If you have a child in your home through birth, foster care, or adoption, God has anointed YOU to parent them. You are qualified and equipped. When God chose you, He promised to equip you.
Once we have the origins of adoption solidified in our heart and mind — once we know we were called — we can work through the myths and misconceptions of adoption that our culture is saturated in. We can use the truth to reframe our thinking.
But it’s not time to get the science yet! Hold on.
Before we start learning and applying the science, we must do the hard work of making sense of and peace with our past.
We must make sense of our past to be fully present with our children.
We parents often believe that our past — that is, the way we were raised — is just a book on a shelf of memories. It’s not. Triggers are where past and present intersect. We can’t assume our past isn’t affecting our present parenting.
I thought my past would automatically help me empathize and understand my kids from hard places. It was a book I could keep on the shelf. “Been there. Done that.” As if that would cover it all.
There was one huge problem with that sort of thinking. My triggers and their triggers were often the same. I struggled with being the adult in the situation when chaos broke loose. I wanted the right to react. Plus, I often didn’t know what my triggers were, and they didn’t know what theirs were. It was a recipe for disaster. Knowing all the scientific facts in the world couldn’t bring peace in that situation.
Just to be clear, we can’t make peace with our past in a day, a month, or even a year. What we can do is examine it and recognize where we had trauma. We can start paying attention to our reactions and then start reacting differently.
When we have had trauma, we often take things personally. When our kids behave badly, we automatically think they are doing it on purpose. When we get trapped in this sort of thinking, it’s an us-against-them mentality.
After you begin to make sense of your past, you can then learn and apply the science. When we can look at the science from a fresh perspective, we can see our kiddos’ behaviors for what they are — needs, however inappropriately expressed.
Then we can move on to what does work and get some new tools in our tool belt. Once we start using these new tools, we can find some peace in our homes. That doesn’t mean that the chaos will totally disappear. It means that you will have peace in the midst of it. You will understand the why behind the behavior. You will be able to meet the child where they are. Instead of your past and his past being in competition, you will have empathy plus the proper tools to achieve and maintain inner peace.
Kathleen Guire is an adoptive parent, author, teacher, and speaker. She loves encouraging adoptive/foster families through her website (TheWholeHouse.org) and a local support group. Kathleen is an ETC Parent Trainer for foster/adoptive parents and professionals who work with children.
How to Have Peace When Your Kids are in Chaos for Adoptive/Foster Parents is available, along with an accompanying e-course. Click here.