Little Orphan Annie, Oliver Twist, Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter, Spiderman, Batman, and Superman. I don’t know about you, but this millennial was raised on a steady diet of “if you’re alone, your life sucks right now—but will soon get exponentially better.” While it isn’t explicitly stated, it is assumed that an orphaned or surrendered child will be grateful for their new life as a child of adoption. They will love their new family, be it a complete stranger who happens to be a wealthy farmer who wanted a child but couldn’t have one or a family member that stepped up for them when the need of adoption arose.
I had heard story after story about how grateful children of adoption were to be adopted and how happy the new families were. I heard impassioned tales from orphanage directors and caseworkers saying how important having a stable, loving adult in their life could be to a child with no family. I fell in love with the idea of adopting as many children as could fit in our house and loving them all so much.
With all that in mind, would it come as a surprise to hear how very ungrateful many children are of their adoptive parents? It frankly shocked me. I felt indignant. I thought, “How dare these children who were taken in by strangers out of the goodness of their hearts reject their new parents. How dare they be ungrateful for their new home.”
It wasn’t until someone spun it around on me that I understood adoption from foster care in a new light. “How would you like to be living your life, as difficult as it might be, and suddenly be ripped from your home, your bed, your pets, your friends, your comfort food, and everything that was familiar. How would you feel to have all of those things replaced with new, better things that you didn’t ask for and didn’t want? How would you feel to hear adults tell you how terrible your last home was when you loved that home because it was yours? Suddenly a child rejecting that seemed—well,…normal. Don’t get me wrong,I am a firm believer in being thankful for what you have. But children who were adopted from foster care often don’t have any idea their life before you was that different.
So, how do we cope? When we’ve sunk days into trying to make everything perfect for our new child to have them (sometimes literally) throw everything in our face as being terrible? Well, not going to lie. I cried. A lot. Not in front of the kids—locked in the bathroom with a chocolate bar trying to get my crap together so I could go be a decent parent.
The thing that helps me the most is understanding the child’s perspective. From their perspective, your tidy, clean-smelling, bright happy home could seem terrifying. That’s not their normal. And maybe their older sibling was too old to be taken in to foster care, but that older sibling was the one person that tried to keep them safe for so long. To an adopted child, adoption can seem like a long, painful goodbye to things they knew, understood, and loved.
The other thing is, if they didn’t know their biological parents they could be fantasizing about how amazing they are. When you give them a strict bedtime and healthy food, to them, you look like a bad guy. It is heartbreaking.
The other thing that helps me deal with rejection from my adopted child is knowing I’m doing what I can to fix the relationship. If they don’t want to put any effort in, at least I know I was doing the right thing.
One other thing we do is called “little yeses”. It conditions my kids to more or less see me as a decent person. We’re driving past a SONIC? “Mom can we have slushes?” “Sure kiddo let’s go.” It costs me a couple of dollars and the “no” they were expecting to whine about. Eventually, they’ll start to associate me with fun. It’s not a perfect solution and sometimes we just have to say no. The hope is it will be easier to take a “no” once in a while. I’ve also tried to make both “yes” and “no” neutral-sounding. So much of what I say and do is taken in by their active little minds. So, I say “yes” and “no” and “maybe” in relatively similar tone.
The last thing that has helped me the most—honestly—is being reminded it isn’t about me—not in an ugly way, just a matter-of-fact kind of way. If their behavior isn’t really about me, if their rejection isn’t really about me, I can handle that. I don’t love being shouted at that I’m a bad mom. I don’t enjoy listening to the fantastical tales my youngest children tell about their “first family” when I know full well their home life was a disaster and they weren’t ever fed properly. I know what their files say about their biological families and it isn’t difficult to guess how much of their story they are making fantasies up about to block out the wrongness.
Sometimes, the best thing to do when you feel rejected is to take a step back and try to figure out what the problem is. Sometimes kids rebel, and you didn’t do anything. Sometimes they are lashing out because they feel hurt by something going on in their lives. It isn’t their job to keep our feelings from being hurt. It’s not their job to feel grateful for a situation that honestly no one should be expected to feel grateful about. When they are older, they might understand, they might even appreciate the sacrifices you made to bring them into your family. And maybe not. Maybe the only satisfaction you can have is knowing you tried your best. People reject each other all the time. Friendships dissolve, partnerships crumble, and families divide. It is an unfortunate truth. I have to remind myself that it’s not my fault the child was placed for adoption. When they are spewing vitriol at me I close my eyes and try to remember it’s not my fault. At least, not all the time.
Christina Gochnauer is a foster and adoptive mom of 5. She has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Letourneau University. She currently resides in Texas with her husband of 16 years, her children ages 3, 3.5, 4.5, 11, and 12, and her three dogs. She is passionate about using her voice to speak out for children from “hard places” in her church and community.