The worst feeling in the world is to have an adoptive child that will not or cannot love. Meltdowns, aggressiveness, and outright defiance in an adopted child can be quite disconcerting, especially if you have never dealt with those behaviors before. Phrases like, “I hate you” or “you’re not my mom!” can cause the most experienced mom to break down in a mess of tears. It may not take long before you start wondering what you got yourself into when you decided to foster or adopt, but, fear not! There is hope! Consider the following:
It’s not about you, it’s about them!
It’s an adult’s job to meet the needs of a child, not the other way around. Moreover, a child cannot meet the needs of an adult. The result will only be a disappointment. Different people have different motivations for wanting to adopt. Wanting to build a family, serve the community, and faith-based reasons are valid motivations. For some, infertility is a painful reality. That said, understand that it is not a child’s job to love an adult. Rather, it is the adult’s job to love unconditionally day in and day out, without regard to whether the kiddo is grateful for it. Think about it, does an infant say, “Thanks for everything, mom! I’ll pay you back when I can!” How long does it take for a child to learn to say, “I love you?” Maybe years, and in between that time, they cry, they poop, they pee, they’re hungry, they’re scared. We meet their needs, regardless. That’s what adults do. The same can be said of an adopted child; the only difference is that they are a bit older, do not carry our genetics, and sometimes have major behavioral needs. A mother always cares for her child first and does so unconditionally.
The deeper the trauma, the longer it takes a child to heal.
Probably the better question is, “Why does my child reject me after all I’ve done for her?” That is a valid question. With all of the sacrifice, the toil, the hours, the strange and judgmental looks in public, and the odd questions from the extended family, it never happened with the biological children. Sometimes it doesn’t seem worth it. Here’s the perspective you need to have: most adopted kiddos have endured unimaginable trauma. From physical abuse to sexual abuse to severe neglect to exposure to drugs, your child has endured trauma. My question is: how can a child love you when he has never seen love? It is up to the foster/adoptive parent to provide a consistent, loving environment to the child to help him to recover.
If you adopted overseas, your child not only endured orphanage life and separation from family but a cultural shock as well: a new family, a different language, new food, customs, and a major change in environment. The child is not thinking of an improvement in his circumstances, he is thinking and feeling a change in life! Imagine if while you were visiting your prospective adopted child overseas, you could not come back home and had to live permanently in that nation: how would you feel? How would things change? Now take those feelings and transfer them into a 2-year-old child. That’s what your child is feeling!
Patience can sometimes be in short supply, but the fact is, adults have a better grasp of time than children do. Adoptive parents have better coping mechanisms than adopted children do. Your child will recover from her trauma if you balance love with discipline, consistency with flexibility, with boundaries with forgiveness, but it will take time. How long is hard to say, but the longer the child has experienced abuse or neglect, the longer it will take them to bounce back. Empathize and put yourself in their shoes. They have experienced things that many adults never have. Be patient. Keep doing what you’re doing.
Sometimes, love is not enough.
Rather than lavishing your child with gifts, lavish them with a connection. For infants, hold them and spend as much time with close physical contact as possible: hold them while feeding them; place in rear-facing strollers so they can see you; if you are carrying them while walking, have them face you as much as possible. For older kids, spend one-on-one time with them: take a walk, play ball, play board games, read books and have them read to you, talk about movies and TV shows, and even take them to museums and classical concerts. For teens, help them with life skills: filling out applications for work or college, opening a savings account, teach them to drive (God help us!), learn their interests and listen without response. The more you connect with an adopted child, the more they recover from their previous circumstance. To them, feeling connected is the same as feeling loved. Meet them where they are. Focus on them. Connection leads to real change.
For those adoptive parents struggling out there, I feel your pain! I’ve been there and know the frustration of rejection of an adoptive child. Know this: rejection comes with the package of being an adoptive parent. Develop thick skin; know your limitations and seek support. Focus on meeting your child’s needs, be patient, and connect. A change will occur over time!
Derek Williams is an adoption social worker and has been in the field of child welfare and behavioral health since 2006, where he has assisted families in their adoption journey. He and his wife started their adoption journey in 1993 and have 8 children: 6 of which are adopted. His adoption children are all different ethnicities including East Indian, Jamaican, and Native American. He loves traveling with his family, especially to the East Coast and to the West Coast and is an avid NY Mets fan! Foster care and adoption is a passion and calling for Derek, and he is pleased to share his experiences with others who are like-minded.