The day has arrived. The day you have been waiting months and months for, that you have dreamed about, and worked so hard for. You are going to meet your new child! It’s a day filled with a full range of emotions: excitement, fear, anxiety, happiness and grief. And that’s just what the new parents are feeling. What I think we all know, but perhaps forget too easily in the moment, is that our child is experiencing tremendous loss and often overwhelming fear. Despite the great gift that adoption is, it comes at a great cost to the child. We may focus on the bad things the child is leaving behind, but our new child is acutely aware that she is leaving behind all that is known and familiar to her. Whether infant, toddler, preschooler, or school age, the magnitude of that loss and the fear that accompanies stepping into the unknown cannot be overestimated. Just as we all handle our emotions differently, our children (who are not quite yet our children) also have a range of coping methods, some of which may not seem like coping at all. The most common types of coping are FIGHT, FLIGHT and FREEZE. While unpleasant and possibly scary to see in your new child, these are completely normal responses to a very abnormal situation.
Slap, hit, bite, kick. No matter how kind and gentle you are, this child seems to have only one way to respond: with aggression. Even giving him things he wants like food or a toy inspires a violent outburst–throwing toys, kicking, spitting out food. Nothing pleases him, and if something does for a moment, he quickly realizes that he is angry, REALLY angry and stops the positive activity by throwing, hitting, or punching something.
Perhaps even more difficult to handle than the Fighter is the Screamer. Just as the fighter responds with aggression, the Screamer screams. And screams. She screams if you talk to her, and she screams if you leave her alone. She screams if you give her something she doesn’t want, but she may also scream when she gets what she asked for. There really is no rationality to it, which is what can make it so frustrating, to say nothing of how the screaming grates on your every last nerve. She is afraid and she is letting you know it in the only way she can. She is “fighting” to hold on to her world by screaming about the new reality she has been plunged into. The Screamer may also go limp when you try to pick her up, won’t walk, eat or talk, and may seem to not understand the guide.
The Runner…runs! Everywhere, all the time. You have to hold this one tight or she or he is gone. Nowhere in particular, just anywhere but where you are. My daughter ran out of the airport! Out of elevators! She didn’t even necessarily want to get away from me, but her fear created a stockpile of nervous energy that compelled her to flee.
The Busy Body
The Busy Body doesn’t actually run away, but has the same built up energy that needs to be released. And release he does. Touch, touch, move, run, spin, and touch some more. The Busy Body rarely focuses on one thing for very long, but keeps moving, moving, moving. Round and round the hotel room, or up and down at a restaurant, the Busy Body doesn’t respond to being told to sit still just because he can’t. He has to keep moving, or all his emotions will become overwhelming, so jump, bounce, and touch touch touch.
The Strong, Silent Type
This child is quiet. Too quiet. She isn’t shut down; she makes eye contact, seems interested in toys and food, and can follow directions. But she doesn’t initiate any contact and exhibits symptoms of selective mutism. (The cases of true selective mutism are rare, but this method of dealing with extreme fear looks very similar.) This style is more likely than the others to actually look afraid. She also may appear defiant or contrary because she won’t respond verbally to anything or anyone. She can’t. Her fear overwhelms her ability to speak. There is a reason for the phrase “scared speechless.”
Lights are on, Nobody’s Home
This is one of the scariest styles, but also fairly common, especially among younger children and babies, though it can be a child of any age. This child simply shuts down. In young children, you may even wonder if the child is deaf because there is little if any response to stimuli. He may show some mild, passing interest in a toy but rarely engages in anything except sitting and staring. Self-soothing behaviors may also be evident: rocking, head banging, masturbation. This is also the style most in danger of being labeled autistic. Autism is rare, diagnosing autism in just a few days, under stressful conditions is impossible. The type of extreme sensory and emotional overload that children experience in the adoption process is not unlike the type of sensory overload that children with autism experience. It is not really surprising that this overload can induce autistic-like behaviors.
Not all behaviors appear concerning to new adoptive parents. There is one coping style that on the surface makes it seem that the child is actually doing quite well. Let me introduce…
The Charmer knows how to make everyone smile and ooh. She gives big hugs right from the start. She wants to sit right next to Mommy or on Daddy’s lap. She loves all her new goodies and dives right in to whatever she is given. Then carefully puts it away in her new backpack. Mom and Dad are charmed. Mostly. Little Miss Charmer is sweet and cute, but she also seems to not be able to turn off the charm. She may demonstrate parenting behaviors on the parents. She may be hypervigilant about pleasing these new people, and she likely shows a higher than age-appropriate level of self-care. The intensity of her pleasing can also feel manipulative, and it is. She is afraid, and she is doing what she has learned works to keep her safe… make people happy. The Charmer may also turn on the tears to get her way, but usually as a last resort.
In actuality, none of these coping mechanisms is truly surprising. When any of us are extremely nervous or frightened, and especially when we are truly scared out of our minds, we know that rational thinking and behavior are not within our reach. The parts of our brains that take care of that have been switched off and we’re running on autopilot. When the cause of our fear or anxiety is removed, it can still take a bit of time to recover. Our children never have the cause of their fear or anxiety removed. This is their new reality, and it can take a while for them to learn that they are safe.
Another important thing to keep in mind is that a child can cycle through multiple responses as they work through what is happening to them. A child who appear shut down, may, on day four or five, become a screamer. A child who seemed fine on the day of adoption, may a few days later start showing anxious behaviors such as head banging. Until you have been home for at least several months, and maybe even up to a year, you really won’t have a good sense of who your child really is underneath.
This is not meant to scare you, but to prepare you. It is easy to panic that something is wrong… really, really wrong… with your child when you see these coping behaviors. Probably 90% of the time, these behaviors mean your child is scared and not a sign of some deeper issue. The best you can do, as a new parent, is to meet your child where they are, be patient with them, and treat them with kindness and love.
Special thanks to Donna Laurie who co-authored this article.
Donna Laurie is the mother of five children, three of whom were adopted from China and one who has been fostered for eight years. She has been a part of the China adoption community for more than twenty years as an adoptive parent, child advocate and for the last eight years working directly with orphans in China.
After 25 years as a market research professional, in 2008 Donna moved to China with her three youngest children in tow to manage a large foster home program in Henan province. For the last three years, Donna has been at New Day Foster Home near Beijing, assisting with their volunteer program, teaching English and most recently fostering a 2 year old. In the next few months she, along with her youngest daughter, will be relocating to a more rural area of China where Donna will be pursuing her dream of assisting teens and young adults who have lived their whole lives in an orphanage to obtain the necessary education, critical life skills and vocational training so they can live happy, productive lives outside the walls of an institution. You can follow Donna’s journey at http://www.lauriesinchina.weebly.com/