I had a lot of “nevers” when we started our adoption journey. A lot. And one of them was that I was never adopting a toddler. One of the reasons I shied away from adoption from the foster care system was that I wanted an infant, only an infant. There is nothing wrong with that, but I’ve since learned that “nevers” become your kryptonite, and God will use your “nevers” to grow you—in exponential ways.
It was February 2016 when we were finally licensed for foster care. Our first potential match was four toddlers. For someone who was never adopting a toddler, four toddlers seemed like insanity. Coupled with that the fact they were two sets of twins and we were parenting our toddler son, it seemed like pure insanity. We ultimately decided to say no to that placement, but not because they were toddlers, and not because of the number of toddlers. It would have been a crazy ride, but I knew I wasn’t prepared to be the best parent for those sweet babes. Trauma bonds are real; twin bonds are real. And having both would be a huge complication with a son already in our home.
A couple of months later, we got another referral. They sent photos with the referrals. We read about this sweet 2-year-old boy, and I was tempted to say no. Fear does that. But once I saw his face, I knew that adopting a toddler was in my future. He is a joy—a ray of sunshine. The best “never” I ever had. We have had challenges; we have had to learn a lot about the effects of neglect and abuse on a child’s brain. It is real. And a major challenge in adopting a toddler is figuring out what is toddler behavior, what is fear, and what is trauma, all the while trying to get to know this child. The first time he threw a temper tantrum, I went around the corner of the wall and did a happy dance!
He faced many, many challenges when he came home due to the neglect he experienced and the abuse. He was behind in nearly every way. The biggest delay was the physical delays. He would constantly beg to be picked up. He refused to walk anywhere and would sob when we would make him. He couldn’t pedal a trike, and even short walks required us to take the wagon. When he played, he sat almost all the time. I would ask him to get things, throw a ball, but he would refuse to get it. Thankfully, summer came soon after he came home. We spend a lot of time outside in general, at our family cabin, moving and shaking. He would play in the yard, running and falling, but watching him grow stronger, happier, more confident was such a joy.
As we began to bond, we learned his cues. Bonding with my second child was much different and took much longer than my first child. We learned that behaviors we were reading as defiance, were really his trauma. We learned a lot about brain development and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES). It’s real. Living in my home was some days very uncomfortable. He acted afraid of me or indifferent to me. He cried. A LOT. Everything was hard for him which made it hard for our entire family. He had learned to protect himself at a very young age. He would tell my husband that I hurt him or say “ow” when I was doing every day tasks like washing his face, hands, diaper changes, etc. But only when he had “witnesses.” When we were alone, it was uncomfortable, but fine. This behavior terrified me. And scared me. As we bonded, it got worse. Bonding with a mom is hard for children from foster care. Either they’ve had a mom/child bond, or they’ve been hurt deeply by mom. She’s left. They were abandoned.
Eventually these behaviors started to subside. Hugs and kisses became more natural. And loving him snuck up on me. I remember having a conversation with my husband just before we finalized our second son’s adoption. I was lamenting about adopting a toddler and how much harder bonding was for me. And him. I was in the middle of a rant when it hit me. I loved him. Truly, madly, deeply loved him. I instantly started to cry. It was something that I wasn’t sure it would happen for us. I didn’t expect to love him so deeply. So wholly. It was at that moment that I knew we had made the right decision in adopting a toddler, and then I knew that we would be okay. This decision had not ruined what we had because some days, as I was hiding in my closet sobbing at nap time, that’s truly how it felt.
Three hundred and sixty-seven days later, we welcomed home our second toddler. Like her brother before her, she was also two. They are only eight months apart in age and the best of buddies. I say often that, with our son, the bonding took a long time; the adoption was quick. With our daughter, the bond was nearly instant, and the adoption took forever. The difference in adopting a toddler that had a secure mother-child bond was exponentially different. We sailed along in our concurrent placement with our child until one fateful day when they decided to send my helpless toddler home on a trial home placement.
This set our world on end. She was gone for 31 days. Pure torture as we made it through angst-filled days and sleepless nights wondering if she was safe. On day 31, we received the call asking if we would take her back. We didn’t know if it would be for hours or forever. But we, of course, said yes. An hour later she was home. Part of adopting a toddler is being up for the twists and turns. She was changed. While her mother didn’t intend to necessarily, she set us back in terms of bonding. She would tell our daughter that she didn’t belong here, this wasn’t her home, she belonged with her biological mom. In hindsight I can understand, but from there, things just got worse.
Despite her inability to keep her daughter safe, she insisted that we were abusing her. She sent out the sheriff’s office; she sent out CPS. And while we checked out every time, it affected all our children in many ways. For the little ones that had been previously removed from their home, they experienced incontinence and nightmares. For our oldest son, it caused a peak in his anxiety which we hope will be alleviated with ongoing therapy. These choices will continue to affect our family for years to come. But with continued bonding, therapy, and consistency we can already see the growth and healing that comes with time.
Trauma is common when adopting a toddler. But learning how to help your children heal is not only challenging, but extremely rewarding. There are no guarantees in life. None. But helping a child who needs love, consistency, and services means all the world. Adopting a toddler can seem daunting, and it has certainly held fear and heartache for us, but it is rewarding, challenging, and beautiful. Watching these strong little beings overcome their heartbreaking beginnings is the absolute best testimony to watch what love and healing can do.
This journey of adopting toddlers has been riddled with mistakes for us. We are not perfect parents, but we are willing to grow and learn every day. We have learned new ways to parent, changed our thinking on discipline, and are becoming the parents that our children need us to be. With those changes we see nearly immediate differences in our relationships with either child. Growth is necessary for any parenting relationship, but I would say especially so in those that choose to adopt toddlers. These magnificent little beings are capable of so much love, laughter, and healing.
I look back at photos and videos and some days I can hardly believe they are the same kiddos that came home such a short time ago. In other ways, the years have been long and hard. The learning curve was steep and riddled with mistakes. No one said it will be easy. There are challenges in parenting. I would say especially so in adopting a toddler. Not only are you bringing home a tiny stranger, developmentally, they are in a hard, hard spot. It changes them and sets them behind emotionally. But with patience, guidance, hard work, and a lot of fun, they can and will catch up. They can and will be successful. That success might look different than your originally thought; it might feel different, but I can guarantee that they can, and will, exceed your wildest dreams.
My toddlers have brought unspeakable heartache and immeasurable love and joy. Adopting a toddler isn’t easy, but boy is it worth it.
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