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The Ballad of the Adopted Child
by Jeanne Drouillard
DOES your teen
- always seem angry?
- have anger that turns into rage?
- show signs of depression, i.e., withdrawal, slipping grades?
- show disrespect to you or disrespect people in authority?
- self-protect by keeping people at a distance?
- lie, manipulate, and steal?
- ever talk about his/her biological parents?
- want to find his/her biological parents?
- feel comfortable about your teen’s behavior?
- recognize signs of RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder)?
- believe you must be adopted to show signs of RAD?
- understand what is meant by the Primal Wound?
- think it makes a difference at what age a child is adopted?
- understand bonding and how it can be disrupted?
- understand the fear and pain of an adoptee?
- understand adoptee’s difficulty in trusting and showing love?
It can be difficult to know if your adopted teen’s anger is normal and within the range of typical teenage behavior. Most teenagers get angry, especially during the years when their bodies are changing and the hormones can bring quick and severe mood swings. All teenagers are searching the world trying to find out who they are and what they want to become. They all want to know how the world will affect them and how they will affect the world.
If not addressed as a child, an adopted teenager has a duality of conflicts to overcome. Whether adopted as a baby or as an older child, this teenager has had a separation from the birth mother and this is a strong link that is not forgotten. Nancy Verrier calls this the Primal Wound. In the womb, psychologists now agree that the child is very aware of the mother, how she smells, how she laughs and feels, even how she sounds. The baby has been inside the womb for nine months. This baby even realizes if it was a wanted pregnancy or an unwanted pregnancy – this baby knows. It also has an awareness of the physical, mental and emotional connection with the mother. Bonding begins before physical birth and possibly shortly after conception. Many professionals used to laugh at this idea and thought it impossible for a little baby to know and remember being separated from its birth mother. Alas, the tide has changed and the professionals now believe that this child couldn’t help but know the separation from the birth mom that carried it – and this is the primal wound that stays with that child forever.
There is a story that Nancy Verrier tells in her book, “The Primal Wound” about a little girl who was adopted as a baby. She had never been told she was adopted. One night this four-year old child had a nightmare and called for her mommy. Her adopted mother went in to comfort her and held her and told her everything would be okay because “Mommy was here.” The little girl said, “No, I want my other mommy.” This story is not unique and other similar stories have surfaced. How did this child know?
Many adopted children develop RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder). This occurs when a child, teen or adult cannot attach and trust, as they should and experience trouble developing close intimate relationships. When the child is taken away from its birth mother, even if it is put in the home of a family giving the child love, this child is confused and knows this is not the same mother it had and its trusting abilities are lessened. If the child is put into a hospital, or foster care and then moved again and again, its trusting mechanisms do not know what it means to have a consistent caregiver to take care of its constant needs, i.e. hunger, pain, etc. This makes a child angry and scared and then the cycle has already begun.
After the child is adopted, hopefully in a loving home, a decision is made by the child as to what role to play within the family. Some have so many layers of anger and rage that negative behavior is exhibited constantly. Others may decide to be a complacent and pleasing personality because they want to make sure that these new parents are not disappointed or else abandonment will follow. Another choice is not to get close to anyone because this relationship probably won’t last and getting close will be painful when it ends. Several adult adoptee’s I’ve spoken to have confirmed this behavior. The more neglect, abuse and abandonment a child suffers, the more deep-seated will be this distrust for adults or anyone in authority.
It is common for adoption issues to remain hidden until adolescence. Sometimes a child seems well adjusted and happy during the early years and then everything comes out during the teen years. It is also very common for the child to stay in denial and hide deep feelings from everyone, even themselves, and in their teen years – which is an identity search time – these feelings rise to the surface. Usually, the child knows inside that something is not right but the complexity of their feelings give them fear and they hesitate talking about these fears since they believe they can trust no one.
You DO NOT have to be adopted to have RAD. Any child who suffered a separation from their original caregiver for a period of time could have symptoms. Separation from the mother due to illness or divorce can trigger separation anxiety, and divorce can also trigger guilt if the child feels part of the cause of the divorce.
Causes of RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder) and Symptoms of Attachment Disorder
Let’s look a little deeper into RAD and see what some of the causes and symptoms are. I like Dr. Marcy Axness’ approach when she says she is campaigning to change the name from Attachment Disorder to something like “Attachment Deprivation” because it is a failure in the RELATIONSHIP, not the child.
Causes of RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder)
- unwanted pregnancy
- inconsistent or inadequate day care
- dramatic prenatal experience (exposure to drugs/alcohol)
- sudden separation from the primary caretaker (illness, death, hospitalization)
- abuse (physical, emotional, mental, sexual)
- frequent moves (foster care, failed adoptions)
Symptoms of Attachment Disorder:
- superficially engaging and charming
- indiscriminately affectionate with strangers
- does not trust caregivers or adults in authority
- does not develop morals; no empathy, remorse or compassion
- resists all efforts to nurture or guide them
- acts out negatives, provoking anger in others
- lies, steals, cheats and manipulates
- destructive, cruel, argumentative and hostile
- extreme control problems
- cruel to animals, siblings
- poor peer relationships and lacks a conscience
- tries to separate adults – gets them into fights – divides them
- engages in hoarding or gorging on food
- has a preoccupation with fire, blood and gore
Children with some of these symptoms could be at risk. If they have half or more of these symptoms, they usually are RAD to some degree and would need therapy from a qualified attachment therapist. Don’t waste your time and money with other therapy because it doesn’t work. Don’t take your attachment child to an ordinary therapist. Usually this therapist will take time to try to win the trust of your child and then will talk to them about their problems. Attachment children DO NOT trust. That is the main problem. Also, they do not learn from discussions and talking. Attachment children learn from feeling, doing and experiencing. They need attachment therapy.
Sometime during our lives, we all cross paths with attachment disordered individuals. In business, they are the ones having trouble getting along with others, or they have a desk in the back of the room and don’t mingle with others. Others can sometimes charm us or con us. They might even shock us with unbelievable cruelty. Very often these individuals grow up untreated and have no concern for other people. RAD children have learned early on that the world is unsafe and have developed unhealthy protective shells so the outside world cannot pierce it and then they feel safe. They become their own protectors and as such can turn everyone against them. Without help, they grow into dysfunctional adults.
RAD people are very controlling. They need to control in order to feel safe. Usually when they were very little children and could not control their environment, bad things happened to them. My daughter Elena is serious attachment disorder. One of her teachers used to tell me that he would watch Elena’s eye movements and body language when she walked into his classroom. She would pause for a moment or two and look around the room very carefully and very deliberately. From that moment on Elena always knew exactly what was going on in any corner of the room at any moment. That is the only way she felt safe.
Usually attachment individuals have moved around from one institution to another or one foster home to another or even from relative to relative. They cannot trust that the same person will be there on any given day to gratify their needs. They learn not to trust or love and are unable to attach to anyone, causing them to be very resistant later to attachment if they are adopted. Trusting is very difficult for RAD children. Trusting means to love – and loving hurts. They have been hurt too deeply.
Parents adopting children who have experienced abuse, neglect or have been institutionalized have a long road ahead of them. When these children grow up and start exhibiting anger and then total rage, it can be quite fearful to the unsuspecting parents. These children have many layers of anger and rage, but it is based on fear that they will be abandoned again because they can’t trust and believe deep down that they are not good enough for someone to love them. Their birth mom gave them away. It is amazing to hear some of these children tell you that they hoped their moms could see them now as adults because then she would know that they didn’t turn out to be such a bad kid. I’ve heard grown ups talk this way. This little child inside never leaves. Some of these same teens and adults still want to find their birth parents to answer questions of why they were given away. They just want to know.
My daughter Elena had been put in a program that promised me they knew all about attachment disorder but they grossly misrepresented themselves. I wasted seven months of her precious life before I had her moved into an appropriate program. This new program really acknowledges attachment disorder and in our four months I have seen a real improvement. Elena’s improvement only occurred after the harm of the first program had been resolved.
I used to talk to my daughter and tell her how much I loved her and that I was going to be her “Forever Mom” and we were going to have a wonderful life and so on. Elena usually listened politely and I was so naive I just didn’t know how much I was missing the mark. Talk doesn’t work with Elena because she doesn’t trust and doesn’t believe she deserves love. What I learned to do was sneak up on her and tell her something like, “Elena, I love you so much and I’m so glad you’re here with me” and then I was gone. Another time I might say, “Isn’t it great, I’ve got you and you’ve got me?” And then I was gone. Just little tiny doses of love were all she could handle.
Working with an attachment child is very tough and there is not much gratification for a long time. Just when you think there is progress, the rage comes back. Yet, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any progress. Progress inches in and keeps coming as long as we give these children lots of laughter, love and empathy. Don’t let them drag you into an argument. They want your anger because they handle it better than love. I believe they have so much anger, turmoil and pain inside that they relate better to it. For example, Elena came home after getting a C- on a test. She didn’t study and I knew it. She was almost proud when she showed me her report card and she really wanted me to get mad, why? She deals better with my anger and then it takes the responsibility for a bad grad off of her. But I didn’t respond with anger. Instead when she showed me her well-earned C- I simply said, “I’m so sad for you. It must be very embarrassing getting a grade like that.” Then I turned around and went back to my own life, leaving her to handle her life. Don’t give them anger. That is what they want BUT give them what they really need which is laughter, love and empathy.
Remember there is always hope. Author Nancy Thomas when asked if older children could still be helped she enthusiastically answered, “Oh Yes, as long as they are still breathing – that is the only requirement.” All these children need is the correct therapy — attachment therapy — and parents who are willing to learn along with them.
Resources for parents of adopted children: Adoptive Families Circle