Back in the days of black and white silent films (remember those? Yeah, me either), you may recall the olde timey damsel in distress who has been tied to the railroad tracks by the sinister villain with the handlebar mustache. As the train bears down on her, she struggles to release herself but to no avail. At the last moment, the villain’s scheme is foiled as our hero rushes to the aid of our damsel and sets her free seconds before the steam-powered engine runs her over. “My Hero! You saved me!” she silently mouths as they embrace. The End!
[You may now head to the lobby for some movie theatre popcorn and a hot dog. That will be $0.64. Oh, the good ole days]
In our story above, the brave hero comes out of nowhere and saves the damsel in distress just in the nick of time. I think sometimes, if we are not careful, we can think of adoption in these same terms. We, as the adoptive (or hopeful adoptive) parents, can sometimes picture ourselves wearing red and blue tights, a facemask, cape, and a large letter “A” on our chest plate. (Which, of course, stands for AdoptoDad). We are the superhero in our own fantasy, flying around saving children with the superpower of adoption.
“Thanks AdoptoMom! You saved me!” says lil Chrissy. “Just doing my job, ma’am,” replies AdoptoMom.
It’s easy to think of the children we have adopted (or are planning to adopt) as damsels in distress who are in desperate need of saving before the train hits them. They lie there, unable to move, unable to free themselves—just waiting to be run over. But here is the problem with that picture…
The train has already hit them. They have been run over. It’s too late. The hero did not save the damsel.
I realize this is a bleak way to look at their lives, but it is their reality. Children and teenagers who have been adopted, in most cases (some would even argue all cases), are the product of trauma. They have typically experienced some combination of abuse, neglect, abandonment, great loss, or prolonged grief. The train that has already run them over is their Trauma. We couldn’t save them. We weren’t there. And now, they have to live with their past.
But, and thank God for this, the train didn’t take their life. They are alive, and they can heal, and they can grow, and adoptive parents can be part of that journey with them—not as heroes who saved them, but as nurturing parents who will love them.
So, let’s put our superhero costume back in our hope chest with the autographed New Kids On The Block poster and the only love letter you received in high school from Jenny Boyer who broke your heart just three days after writing it. (Why Jenny? Why?). Let’s drop the AdoptoMom and AdoptoDad moniker and embrace our role as mom and as dad.
So, with that in mind, what does our responsibility to the children that we adopt become? Glad you asked! There are countless ways that question could be answered, but for purposes of this article, I want to answer it this way…
Four Essential Things That Parents Can Provide to Their Adopted Children
01. FAMILY AND BELONGING
The individual background of each adopted child is quite different, so we always want to be careful not to paint these kiddos with too broad of a brush. That said, many (most?) children and teenagers who were adopted have experienced family, at some point in their life, in an unhealthy way. Perhaps their birth parents abandoned them, or maybe they experienced abuse at the hands of a family member. Perhaps there was alcoholism or drug addiction that negatively impacted the dynamics of their household. There are any number of reasons why a child may have experienced a family and home environment that was less than appropriate, less than safe, less than nurturing. And because of this, children who were adopted may now have a tainted view of family. They may not understand just how incredible belonging to a family can truly be. That’s where the adoptive parents come in.
As adoptive parents, you have invited a child or teenager to become part of your forever family. You have the opportunity to show your child a safe, healthy, and loving family. You have the chance to set an example of what a positive family and home environment can be. You get to be with them as, over time, they begin to sense that feeling of belonging—that feeling and belief that eventually says “I am part of this family.”
Parents can’t underestimate the importance of a healthy family in the growth, development, and healing of their adopted children. And for sure, the children may fight the concept of family. They may make statements like “You are not my real parents!” They may push away from family time and great family moments. They may avoid calling their adoptive parents “mom” or “dad.” But regardless of how they respond, you are still showing them family. They still belong to your family even if they have not yet progressed to the point where they are 100% willing to accept that yet. Ultimately, they belong to a family, and that is so critical.
02. PROFESSIONAL HELP AND THERAPY
Kids who were adopted have been hit by the trauma train, and it has profoundly affected their entire lives. And while they can process that trauma and learn to cope with it in healthy ways, it is very likely, depending on what the specific trauma was, that it will stick with them for the rest of their lives. And so it becomes critical that these kids or teenagers are under the care of mental health professionals who have experience in trauma and, ideally, who also have experience with children who were adopted. As important as family is in the healing of a traumatized child, it is also crucial that professional help is also provided.
There are countless mental health services available to kids who have been adopted. Many of them may be free, low cost, or covered by insurance. The individual needs of each child will be different in terms of what services she or he requires, but that child will no doubt benefit from professional counseling or therapy of some kind. And therapy is not “one size fits all.” It’s not always about a one-on-one conversation between a child and a therapist in an office setting. Depending on the personality of the child and her specific needs, she may benefit from more interactive counseling like equine (horse) therapy, play therapy, pet therapy, group therapy, family therapy, music therapy, and on and on.
Part of the role of the adoptive parents is to work with their children and the mental health professionals to come up with a treatment plan that is customized to the specific needs of the child. While children may never truly 100% heal from their trauma, the intentional presence of a counselor or therapist in their lives, for a prolonged period of time, will help them process their trauma and lead them to a path of healing.
03. SUPPORT AND GUIDANCE
Part of the role of any parent is to support and guide their children. This, perhaps, becomes even more important when those children have been adopted. Depending on their past, they may have been guided toward some very unhealthy or very inappropriate paths. They may have never experienced what it is like for someone to truly support them and guide them toward healthy living.
And so, parents get to take that role in their children’s lives. As they watch their children grow and develop and make decisions, they get to provide encouragement, advice, instruction, and even boundaries to make sure that their child is on a good, healthy, and safe path. And that’s not always easy.
The child may fight the support; he or she may ignore the guidance. Your kids may feel that they have everything under control, that they don’t need anyone helping them. This is quite common—especially in adopted teenagers. They truly believe that they know what’s best. And so it can become a huge challenge for adoptive parents to lovingly guide a child who is unwilling to be guided. But that doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t; that doesn’t mean they should give up. It just means they may need to work a little harder, a little smarter, and guide with grace and patience. Lots and lots of patience!
04. RESTORATION AND RENEWAL
Can parents help restore their children? Can they help renew them? The answer is “Yes.” Children who are traumatized have been negatively impacted, and that can (and usually does) affect them in their brain, their body, their beliefs, their biology, and their behavior (known as the “5 Bs of Trauma”). And while trained mental health professionals can help restore some of these negatively impacted areas, there is also a role for parents to play.
For example, as a result of a child’s trauma, perhaps he or she no longer trusts people. Trust had been broken too many times, and now trust is no longer something children are willing to give to anyone. And who can blame them? But, parents can be intentional about helping their children who were adopted restore their ability to trust again. How can they do this? By being worthy of trust—not perfect—because there is no such thing as a perfect parent, but being worthy of trust. Overtime (and we could be talking about potentially years), if you have repeatedly shown up for your children and supported your children and nurtured your children regardless of what they did, they will begin to give you their trust. And if the parent makes a mistake, own up to it, confess it to the child, ask for the child’s forgiveness. This will go a long way in helping the child restore her or his trust.
Trust is just one of the countless examples of areas in which a child could be restored or renewed. As parents watch their children grow, they will begin to recognize the areas in which they can help their children become restored. A traumatized child’s ability to trust can be restored; her ability to love can be restored; his issues with self-worth can be renewed. Children’s anxiety, their depression, their fears can all be restored back to a healthy point. This will take time, but it can happen, and adoptive parents have a huge role in that journey.
The various roles and responsibilities of an adoptive parent are virtually limitless, but these are just four areas that parents can be intentional about providing to their child. It is hard work, and it will take much time and much effort, but it will be worth it in the end because the child, who was hit by the trauma train, can heal and can grow and can become healthy again. And parents get to be (need to be) part of that process.
So while the adoptive parents may never get to save their child from the oncoming train and they may never get to put on their superhero costume (save that for Halloween), they can help the child heal. They can be the ones who pick the child up off the tracks, bring him to a place of safety, and be intentional about nurturing him back to health. While the scars of her injuries may remain forever, the wounds of a child’s trauma can, with much time and much intentionality, heal.
That is the role of an adoptive parent, and it is an amazing one. May God truly bless those who have adopted or are currently thinking about adoption. It is not an easy journey, and there are no guarantees, but it can be a tremendous blessing to be able to be part of a child’s journey of healing, restoration, and renewal. And you don’t even need a cape to do it.