At 30, my husband and I became adoptive parents to a 5-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy. We began the adoption process through the Michigan foster care system in 2008.
We had decided to form our family through adoption and chose the foster system over international or infant adoption, because of the great need for adoptive parents. In Michigan, there are approximately 14,000 children in the state’s foster care system. Not all of these children are available for adoption. But, many prospective parents choose not to adopt older children, meaning that these kids are often left in the foster care system for years, many times until they reach adulthood.
We had planned to adopt one or two children (if they were siblings) between the ages of 2 and 9. Although we were able to have biological children as far as we knew, we wanted to give our time and love to children who were already here.
Thanks to the foster care training we received, we were keenly aware our children would most likely have experienced early childhood trauma and could exhibit many challenging behaviors.
My children ended up in the foster care system after being removed from their parents’, and then their grandparents’ care, as a result of neglect. My daughter was just 3 and my son was only a few months old at the time. They spent one and a half years with a great foster family in the Metro Detroit area. Next, they lived with us for about seven months before we legally adopted them in June 2010. Today, they are 8- and 5-years-old. Although my children were young when they became wards of the state, it’s clear that early childhood trauma has had long lasting effects for them.
Research shows how much children’s brains develop in the first few years of their lives, and what a huge effect trauma can have on their development.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry defines trauma as “an event more overwhelming than a person ordinarily would be expected to encounter.” There’s no question that this applies to my kids. The results are still present in the lives, and likely will be for many years to come.
My children exhibit many of the behaviors associated with early childhood trauma. As a family, we’ve struggled to deal with: extreme emotional reactions; irritability, anger, and violence; difficulty concentrating; clingy, whiny, and immature behavior; and a high level of alertness.
Clearly, we want to help our children deal with these issues now, so that they can live a healthy life as adults. It helps that “special needs” children adopted through the Michigan foster care system are entitled to a monthly subsidy. This resource helps us get our children the assistance they need.
Being an adoptive parent is hard, and so is our commitment to parenting differently in order to help our kids overcome childhood trauma. We have used a number of resources to keep us on track, including a family therapist, books, adoption blogs, and online parenting groups.
As a family, we’ve become big proponents of the Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control approach as outlined by Heather Forbes and Bryan Post. Forbes and Post wrote their books to help parents who are raising attachment-challenged children (most often, those who are adopted). Their premise is that that children who have attachment disorders do not respond well to consequences, logic, or control because they can be “fear-based” or “child blaming”.
We think the Beyond Consequences approach helps to create peaceful environments at home. Take timeouts for example. We have (reluctantly, at first) given up timeouts and other consequences to teach behavior. This sometimes seems unusual to our friends and family, but we have found that it works much better for us.
We were first introduced to Beyond Consequences through a family therapist and we appreciated that this approach gave us the power to help our children every day, as opposed to a weekly one-hour visit with a children’s therapist. Although our children’s behavior is far from perfect, this approach has made a big difference in our relationship with our children and in their behavior.
Many adult adoptees prefer the saying “I am adopted” to “I was adopted,” because it recognizes that adoption is not simply a one-time event, but an experience that affects them their whole lives. The same is true of trauma. Adoption and trauma will always be part of our family, and we will continue to navigate these issues for many years to come. We realize that we can’t “cure” our kids, but that we need to help them pursue healing while embracing every aspect of their experience.
Trauma is a big part of our family, but it’s not everything. In the end, our kids are just normal children. They’ve handled and reacted to their trauma in the most normal way possible. We have times of joy, too, and we’re just like any other family, trying to do what’s best for our kids.
You can read more of Shannon Mackie's work on her blog, One Inch of Grace.
*This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. Share your story here.