We Are Family



Change. - Alexander Lam 83677 Unsplash

We sense a change.  

A small change, but a real change and - fingers crossed - a fundamental change. Although of course we could be wrong - we certainly have been before. 

We think we are seeing signs that our younger son's anger and the screaming and shouting that are a consequence of that anger are being controlled. They are still there, still part of our lives, but it's somehow feeling different.  There now seems to be a desire from him that was clearly not there before, a desire to bring our 'battles' to an end. It's clearly a struggle, but a struggle that maybe he is winning. Slowly, gradually he seems to be taking control. 

The anger came as a shock when he first moved in and we were initially quite overwhelmed, but we have got used to it, used to watching it build and watching it take control of him. We could see how he was incapable of dealing with it - of letting it go, but now we feel sure we are seeing a difference. Without doubt we still have a long way to go as the change is small, but it does feel significant, it finally feels that we are heading in the right direction. 

Maybe it's just a little maturity, he is no longer the 4 year old that came to us, but 7 - and a very important 1/2 - and that has to make a difference, no? Things have been improving over the 2 years 8 months he has been with us - gradually - but until now that has been down to the fact that we have slowly learnt how to handle him and his clearly specific needs. We learnt how to stop fighting the anger, how to calm down a situation that initially we were just making worse. I guess we learnt 'pastoral care', learnt to do first hand what we were taught at Prep' course that we would need to do. We learnt how to stop making our reprimanding feel like a threat to him and to the stability we were building, how to reassure him of our love while still making our point that he had done wrong or that his behaviour was unacceptable. It wasn't / isn't easy and of course we are sometimes just too angry, tired or frustrated to keep calm and to be the parent he needs, but we immediately pay the price for that and we make a mental note of our failing and the need to be better, stronger and calmer next time. 

I guess the small change that we feel we are witnessing feels so significant because we were worried it might never come, we were concerned that the so-very-angry little boy would become a very angry big boy, teenager and 'out of control' man and that the anger would always be a part of our lives. Maybe that was somewhat irrational, but in the moment it felt anything but. Now I guess we can hope that it will not be so and we can look to the future as being a little easier, a little brighter. Let's hope that is the case. We have never allowed the anger to dominate our lives, our family, but the thought of living without is a very promising one. For us, but most of all for him, our little boy.

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  • Robert Allan Hafetz MS/MFT

    Parenting the adopted child
    Robert Allan Hafetz MS/MFT
    Adoption Education& Family Counseling LLC

    There can be no more difficult a task in classic parenting than raising an adopted child. Unlike a child one has given birth to an adopted child comes with additional trepidations that few parents are prepared for or even aware of.
    An adopted child comes to the family with memories of grief, a fear of attachment, and a feeling of indistinct loss. The first years often appear to be normal lulling the parents into a false sense of security. Then when the child reaches the age of approximately six years a more a complex self-exploration process begins. This is when the child notices that he doesn’t resemble his family while his peers look like theirs. This is also when the “who is my real mommy question” arises. Profound emotions that recall the separation of the first mother rise to the surface causing discomfort for the adopted child. Emotions such as grief, shame, anger, and a feeling of isolation can be experienced together, without any distinction among them. Children have limited ability to cope with uncomfortable emotions and will employ one of two options. They can act out and misbehave or they can repress their feelings and become compliant. This is the period when many problematic behaviors begin and the parents are often confused and bewildered by their child’s behaviors.
    Further complicating the adoptive family system is a memory process that is common among adoptees but little known by therapists, social workers, parents, and the adoptees themselves. There is a disconnection in adoptees between their emotions and their ability to identify them. This is the core issue in adoption and it is the foundation of most of the problems that occur in adoptive parenting.
    Infants only a few days old can record long term memories. “Infants do not think but they do process emotions and long term memories are stored as affective schemas” (Geansbauer, 2002). An infant separated from its first mother will record a memory of that event. Memories of this nature are called preverbal memory representations and they have a unique quality that must be understood by adoptive parents. “Infant memories are recalled in adulthood the same way they were recorded at the time they occurred. It is difficult possibly impossible for children to map newly acquired verbal skills on to existing preverbal memory representations” (Richardson, R., & Hayne, H. 2007). An older adoptee who recalls an emotional memory will experience it the same way it was felt as an infant. Adoptees can have troubling memories that they cannot identify in words. This means that they cannot understand what they are feeling and without a vocabulary they cannot even ask for help. This leads to a cognitive /emotional disconnection. “Children fail to translate their preverbal memories into language”(Simcock, Hayne, 2002).
    An adopted child will learn from his family that he is wanted, loved, belongs with them, and that they will never leave him. His emotional memories will trigger fears that are exactly the opposite. An adopted child can know he belongs but feel isolated. He can know that he will never be abandoned but feel that he will. He can know that he is whole but feel that a part of him is missing. He can know that he is loved but feel that he is not. This incongruence between thoughts and feelings becomes the foundation of poor attachment, problem behaviors, power struggles, poor academic performance, and behaviors parents can’t understand. The struggle to bring thoughts and feelings into coherence can be a lifelong task for adopted children. It doesn’t have to be this way.
    Enlightened parents can create a nurturing healing environment within the family if they are aware of this process and are proficient in how to deal with it. The knowledge needed to raise an adopted child is not readily available and few effective parenting programs can be found.
    Gaensbauer, T. (2002). Representations of trauma in infancy: Clinical and theoretical
    implications. 23(3), 259-277. doi:10.1002/imhj.10020.
    Lierberman, & Pawl, (1988). Clinical applications of attachment theory. In J. Belsky & T.
    Nezworski, (Eds.), Clinical implications of attachment ( 327-351). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
    Richardson, R. & Hayne H. (2007). You Can't Take It With You: The translation of memory
    across development. Current directions in, psychological science, 16, 223 - 227.
    Schore, A.N. (2001). The effects of a secure attachment relationship on right brain development,
    affect regulation, and infant mental health. Infant mental mental health journal, 22, 7-66.
    Simcock, G., Hayne, H. (2002). Children fail to translate their preverbal memories into language.
    American Psychological Society 13(3), 225-231.

    • Nandi

      Thank you for this 'comment', which is one of the most comprehensible explanations I've read relating to disordered attachment, I really appreciate your having posted this here.

    • Louise

      Thank you. Could you tell us a little more about the 'effective parenting programmes' you mention?

    • Anna

      Thank you Robert for this very interesting and thought provoking comment. I have indeed noticed some new behaviours in my six year old, and also wonder about preverbal trauma - how difficult it can be to 'get' to is as it is viceral rather than verbal/cognitive. We see plenty of manifitations of the trauma, or rather behaviour and grief/anger/shame as you say that I think can be attributed to early loss. In the case of adoption in the UK the loss is also compounded by loss of foster parents/families as well. Loss is integral to adoption it seems.

  • Anon

    Thank you! Very interesting reading.

  • Robert Allan Hafetz MS/MFT

    The overwhelming number of adoptees, 85%, adjusts in ways that society regards as successful. (Kadushin, A.1980). The remaining 15% require intervention by therapists and counselors. Those that adjust successfully may still have serious concerns resulting from the adoption process that are in need of a resolution. The absence of a disorder or dysfunction is not an indicator of one who is achieving optimum development. Since creating the best developmental setting for children is the goal of parenting I am going to explore the causes and goals of adoptee behaviors. I believe that understanding why adoptees behave is the key to creating the best opportunity for them to develop. It also leads the way to effective therapy.
    All human behavior is goal directed and purposeful nothing is random. When children misbehave that’s not the problem, it’s the child’s solution to a problem. In order for parents to deal effectively with behavioral concerns they must be able to understand the child’s goals. Adoptees are not like other children and the same behavior can have a very different purpose for an adoptee. We must learn to look at what drives behaviors more than the acts themselves.
    “Usually no differences are seen in (adoptee’s) patterns of adjustment during infancy and preschool years” (Brodzinski, D. 1992). I have seen, in my practice that behavioral concerns begin at around the age of 5 or 6. This is Erikson’s stage of identity VS role confusion. At this age they begin to think about their place in the world and become aware that they have no genetic markers that connect them to their adoptive family. They are also now experiencing implicit memories of loss resulting from the maternal separation that is a part of their life experience. This is a normal adaptive response not a disorder. These memories are remembered as emotions and are not connected to verbal skills. The adoptee is feeling powerful emotions that cannot be verbally identified. This is unsettling, confusing, and frightening. The inability to understand these painful emotional memories becomes the motivator for the child’s goal setting. The child will act out or suppress the emotional memories. Some children will become numb or compliant x and I believe these are the more seriously injured. Problem behaviors occur because the goals set by the child are erroneous and don’t satisfy their needs. For example, a child who feels isolated and disconnected may choose to seek excessive attention. This can result in the child feeling even more isolated as the parent becomes frustrated and corrects the child reinforcing the sense of disconnection. This is not RAD or any other attachment disorder. The child is reacting, normally, to life experiences that attachments end badly. Think of these behaviors as attachment regulating behaviors rather then misbehaviors or testing. Attachment regulation is the adoptees way of changing emotional boundaries to feel safe. They can change quickly and without any external trigger.
    Human beings have 4 crucial needs; The need to feel (connected), that one (counts), is (capable), and has (courage) to handle life’s adversities. These needs have been named The Crucial Cs. by Dr. Betty Lou Bettner. When adoptee’s behavior becomes a problem or arouses concern it is to acquire one or more of these crucial Cs. The behavior becomes a problem because the adoptee is not cognitively aware of the need. Consequently, the goal chosen is an erroneous goal. Relating behavior to the crucial Cs gives us a way to understand what is motivating the adoptee’s behavior. Adoptees are, normally, predisposed to be compromised in acquiring these needs. Premature maternal separation creates a feeling of disconnection, shame, disempowerment, and a lack of efficacy. Experiences in the adoptive family can heal or intensify these emotions. Experiences refer to the process I talked about previously in changing implicit memory.
    When the child is triggered and acting out an opportunity for healing presents itself. When the child is at his worst the parents must be non-reactive. The most common goal for adoptees is the need to feel connected. The previous example of attention seeking to overcome a feeling of disconnection may play out like this. Parents come in to counseling complaining that my child argues with me, calls me names, is angry, and we struggle all the time. Power struggles often mean the child’s initial attempt to connect haven’t been understood by the parent. The attention seeking annoyed the parent who reacted by giving a time out or some other limit setting act. It’s crucial to know what happened before the power struggle started. Parents can’t win a power struggle and if they engage the child it can escalate to vengeance. If the need to connect is addressed in the attention seeking stage the chances are good the child may not escalate. I say may because adoptees can be very determined and headstrong.
    When the attention seeking becomes annoying that’s the time to address the adoptees behavioral goals. In order to change the limbic memories the child must be in touch with them at the same time the contradictory experience occurs. I suggest a question to bring the memory out into consciousness. “Are you feeling alone?” Children often answer with I don’t know. It doesn’t matter because they actually don’t know what they are feeling. Then validate their emotions by saying “it’s alright to feel that way.” The parent has now aligned with the child and together they will solve the child’s goal to feel connected. The parent must now, nonverbally, create a secure attachment experience. Words are useless because the limbic brain system doesn’t understand words. You must communicate directly with the child’s emotional memories in order to modify and heal them before reconsolidation. Touch, eye, contact a soft voice, and body language are your vocabulary now. Touch gently first then ask permission if you can hug the child. Go slow this is a very sensitive area. In this moment of the child’s triggered fears the brain can rewire its limbic memories.
    Misbehavior is the child’s solution to not feeling one or more of the crucial Cs. Instead or punishment or limit setting I advise collaborative problem solving which will become a bonding experience. Use eye contact, touch, and body language to communicate. Do not engage in power struggles you can’t win them. Validate the child’s emotions not the behavior. Praise effort more then success and say I believe in you before you say I love you.
    The Process
    A memory of the loss of the primal mother is recorded in the infant’s limbic system. “Neurobiologists have established that the brains limbic system stores and controls the activation of all schemas involving intense emotions of distress, such as fear and anger, along with the knowledge of how to be safe and self-protective. (Pansskepp, J., 1998). The amygdala compares current perceptions to these attachment related implicit memories triggering a self-protective response. This is why adoptees may react with anxiety to attachment. At the same time they crave attachment and the need to feel connected. “Due to the entirely nonverbal nature of the limbic brain, experiential rather then cognitive methods are required for successfully engaging and changing its schemas.” (Ecker, B., 2011). “A dynamic neural process now known as reconsolidation can actually unlock the synapses maintaining implicit emotional learnings” (Nader, K., et al. 2000).
    “Further research has established that in order for synapses to unlock, the brain requires not just the experience of reactivation of the memory—it’s also necessary for a second, critical experience to promptly take place while the memory reactivation experience is still occurring. That second experience consists of perceptions that sharply contradict and disconfirm the implicit expectations of the reactivated memory.
    (1) Fully reactivate the target implicit memory so that the emotional experience is occurring.
    (2) While the target memory is fully reactivated and the emotional experience is occurring, promptly create an additional, concurrent experience that sharply mismatches (contradicts and disconfirms) the expectations and predictions arising from the implicit memory.”
    (Ecker, B.2010, Psychotherapy Networker)

    Nader K., Schafe, G.E.,& LeDoux,J.E., (2000). Fear memories require protein synthesis in the amygdala for reconsolidation after retrieval. Nature, 406, 722-726.
    Panskepp, J., (1998). Affective neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions. Oxford University Press.
    Ecker, B.,( 2011). Coherence Therapy Practical Manuel and Training Guide. Coherence Psychology Institute, Oakland CA.

    • Anon

      'The overwhelming number of adoptees, 85%, adjusts in ways that society regards as successful. (Kadushin, A.1980). ' I'm v curious about how you might think this might stand up to the now vastly changed landscape of adoption. Social stigma is no longer the main reason for 'relinquishing' a child. Adoptees today have nearly all be forceibly removed from their birth families after suffering documented extreme abuse and/or neglect. Do you think this may alter the figures quoted in research published in 1980?

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