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The Adoption Journey: Parenting Resistant Kids

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Many mommas go into adoption with the idea that after a year or two of newness, kids will settle in and life will get back to normal. A new normal, surely, but something that feels comfortable and livable. Even parenting kids somewhere in the middle of the “difficulty” spectrum can drain a parent’s emotional energy and resources in ways that are impossible to understand unless you’ve lived it.

During our girls’ early weeks at home, it was relatively easy to be patient. Everything was new, and they had so many reason to be grieving. No wonder things were hard. Six months passed, and I wondered why things were still so very hard. Twelve months in, improvement was miniscule. Two years in, and we were battle weary, but the battle was still going strong. Three and four years in, we were beginning to see some growth, praise God. But there were still many days that felt exactly like that hard first year.

When our children’s grieving didn’t follow our expected time line, and problem behaviors did not go away, patience became harder and harder to find.

And here’s the thing: it’s easy to imagine being patient with a child whom you only know as a picture on your fridge with a sad life story. But when you get up every morning with the best intentions, determined to work for growth in the relationship, and are rejected day after day after day, pain can begin to overshadow the compassion you felt so easily in the beginning. Of course all kids sass and push parents away sometimes.

What’s different about parenting a hurt child is the sheer number of distancing behaviors. Whether or not they realize it, attachment-challenged kids are terrified of connection. This fear leads them to avoid or sabotage moments of connection over and over again, sometimes dozens of times in an hour. By the end of the day, even the most well-intentioned, educated momma feels battle fatigue—because in the midst of all that opposition, we’re there reaching out and nurturing and loving anyway. Loving a resistant kid is a hugely draining proposition. In fact, post-traumatic stress disorder is a very real diagnosis for many folks parenting kids with attachment issues.

Moms of well-attached kids have difficulty during the tumultuous teen years too. But they have something to sustain them that moms of older-adopted kids don’t have: memories of good moments together. Moments of rocking babies to sleep when they were tiny, laughing with them, reaching down to pick them up when they stretched their arms out to you. Those lovely back-and-forth moments of giving and receiving nurture remain in a mom’s memory bank and make hard moments during the teen years easier to bear.

I came to understand the love of Jesus on a much deeper level during those oh-so-hard early years. I came to be in awe at the kind of love that tirelessly yet gently pursues a heart when being rejected, that shows grace in the face of hateful words, that chooses to hope even when relationship sometimes can feel like a hopeless dream.

As parents we truly can only love in this way when we’re being empowered by Jesus moment by moment.

It also helps to remind ourselves of the deep hurt our children have experienced. Some older-adopted children have never gotten good nurturing. They don’t know how to be in a relationship. Others have wonderful memories of being loved and cared for by their first moms. That love is a huge blessing, but it also divides kids’ loyalties, and it can make it hard to accept love from a new mom. The very act of nurture stirs up sadness in the child and reminds him of his loss. Rarely do parents completely understand how much pain the child is feeling; I know we didn’t.

Past hurt doesn’t evaporate when a child comes into a loving family; it marches into the home right along with the child, distorting a child’s beliefs about his own goodness and worth, and making it hard for him to accept our love and trust our good intent. Parenting a child who is afraid to attach is tremendously challenging work. If you have the chance to support a momma in the midst of this heroic struggle, do it prayerfully, wholeheartedly, and without judgment.

Often challenging children look normal out in the world. People on the outside wonder if the mother is overreacting, hypercritical, or not trying hard enough. Instead of judging, lift her up in prayer. Support her sympathetically in every way that you can. The battle is epic. The stakes are beyond any price: we are battling for the hearts of our children.

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Excerpted with permission from Forever Mom: What To Expect When You’re Adopting by Mary Ostyn, copyright Thomas Nelson, 2014.

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Your Turn

Has the fear of parenting resistant kids stood in the way of your own adoption journey? How have you leaned on your faith during the process?