upside down: part one

Upside Down is available in its entirety – complete, revised, and expanded –  through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and WestBow Press.

upside down: understanding and supporting attachment in adoptive families

She has a son, around six years old. His pictures are on the wall, near the sink and the dental equipment. She tells me a little about him – school, video games, toys.

“I hear you have a lot of kids,” she says. Friendly, casual.

“Yep, six.”

And then the conversation takes a sudden turn downhill.

“How many of them are your real kids?”

Exhale slowly, smile. “They’re all my real kids.”

I can see she senses she’s made a blunder. She tries to correct, or clarify, or something. “I mean, how many of them do you really have? Only some of them are actually yours, right?”

The misstep, over-corrected by a do-si-do, lands both feet firmly in her mouth.

“I really have six kids,” I answer. “Two of them are adopted, but they’re all mine. And they’re all real.” No wonder the dentist mentioned I clench my teeth. 

Even before our adoption was complete, we realized there are a lot of false notions about adoption and adoptive families. I’m sure we were guilty of many of them before we entered the process ourselves, too.

The rest of the appointment goes well, and the staff handles the boundaries with our daughter almost perfectly. As we leave, the assistant declares Reagan did wonderfully. I don’t have time to teach her Attachment and Adoption 101, but since we’ll be back here again fairly often, I want her to understand a little bit about our family and why we have to do things the way we do.

I tell her that it’s not so much how Reagan behaved during the appointment, but how she behaves over the next day or so that really determines how it went. Like many kids healing from attachment issues, she usually doesn’t act out in front of strangers but saves behavioral fallout for her family instead. The colors of any bruising caused by too much attention, stimuli, or interaction won’t show up until we’re home.

“Oh, I know. Yep, I have a kid, too.”

Sure. Mm-hmm…you have no idea. I gave up trying to explain. I smiled and nodded instead, and by some miracle I didn’t even feel an urge toward violence, despite the sharp, pointy dental tools conveniently nearby.

It’s hard on both sides. It can be very awkward sometimes. People want to be warm and fuzzy to the children. I get that, but it’s not therapeutic for the child and it’s often devastating to the family. Sometimes people pretend to understand, and sometimes they assume they do. And other times, when we try to help them understand, people take obvious offense when we set boundaries that seem unusual.

For a while, people still see them as poor orphans and want to love on them.  They need to see that these are your children and not poor orphans anymore…Lay down the law. Stop asking nicely. If this was your biological kid, they would already respect that. At least that has been my experience.

– Tammy, adoptive mother

I understand. It is difficult for friends and family who haven’t dealt with attachment issues to understand why we are so “weird” about things like that. I think sometimes people refuse to understand because they want your children to be “their” niece/nephew, or “their” grandchild, etc. And while that’s important, they don’t get that these kids haven’t been anybody’s anything for so long that they need to get this first, most important, relationship (with Mom & Dad) right first!

– Lori, adoptive mother

One of the hardest things for our own family is trying to protect Andrey and Reagan in public from seemingly normal interactions with others. So much of their negative behavior at home is triggered by the well-meaning but devastatingly misplaced kindness and sympathy of others.

For a child struggling with attachment, attention from other adults is often like giving sugar to a diabetic child whose body cannot process it correctly. It is confusing, misleading, and damaging to them. Affectionate interaction from other adults is poisonous, but when it comes from their parents it is their medicine. If other adults give them attention, though, it prevents them from taking their medicine from their parents.

upside down: part one - adoption and attachment, the reality behind the rose-tinted movies

Many people have asked us, “Why have we never heard of this?” We’ve asked that, too.

After some time to think about it, I came up with a few answers:

Anne of Green Gables. Oliver Twist. Rose-tinted made-for-TV movies and other media about adoption.

I know, I love Anne, too. And I love (loooove) Charles Dickens. The books are always better than the movies, but unfortunately, people imagine adoption to be like the movie version, Disney-fied.

upside down: part one - adoption and attachment, the reality behind the rose-tinted movies

A few months ago I watched a beautifully idyllic short video on adoption – a childless couple struggling with fertility for years, finally adopting a beautiful baby straight from the hospital. It seemed so perfect, although I know it was a hard road for that family to get there. The video didn’t show that. And the family still has challenges ahead, as well, but the video didn’t allude to any of that, either.

The baby in the video drinks formula, because his mama who loves him and holds him in this short film did not birth him. As I watch, I remember Andrey and Reagan must have drank some version of formula, too. They were never nursed by a mama, either – me, or anyone else. They missed that physical and spiritual nourishment.

The couple and their baby leave the hospital at night through the ER, and I think…what about his biological mom? I wonder if the nurse who handed the baby to the new parents is the same nurse who just helped deliver the baby from his biological mother. If she is, she has seen the full whiplash of heartache on one side and joy on the other.

That night after watching the video, I thought about my son, Andrey, who was starved and hungry for years, and yet that very night he refused dinner because of all the attachment issues he is struggling through as a result of his traumatic past. I want him filled and growing in every way, but nourishment for him and Reagan looks so different. It’s not romantic at all – it’s gritty, messy, painful, and…disappointing. We wanted beauty, bonding, nurturing peace with them. They fight this daily – they fight us, they fight themselves, they fight their past. We fight for their future.

It’s unheard of because most people have never been through the agonizing process of completing a homestudy to qualify for the care of children who have endured abandonment, grief, and trauma. Attachment issues are often considered the most difficult disability to live with, and part of that is simply because what others see on the outside is not the reality in the home, and parents feel like people won’t believe them if they talk about it. Or that they will judge them if they do talk about it. Or that they will make adoption look bad, their own parenting look bad, or their child look bad.

There’s a lot of fear to deal with. The children fight their own fears, and the parents fight an entirely different set of fears. Our relationships change. Our lifestyle and social lives change. Our involvement in the community changes.

Everything turns upside down, and it’s incredibly difficult to know how honest and transparent we should be about it. We want to be truthful. We also want to protect our children, their story, and our family as a whole. We want to protect and encourage the adoption process.

We have no idea how to merge all of those realities.

And we all do it differently. Some people share a lot, some don’t share anything. In our own family, in this blog, in about three posts a month, I share less than five percent of what goes on in our home. Surprise. There’s just too much, it’s too raw, it’s too repetitive, and it’s too personal to give any more information.

Also, attachment as a special need is a fairly new discovery in the realm of adoption/foster care. Many families who dealt with these issues ten years ago had no term for it.

Even in more recent years, it’s possible to know nothing about attachment issues if a person doesn’t intimately know any adoptive or foster families. Or maybe they do know these families, and their experiences have been perfect, ideal, and rose-colored. I’m sure it happens. Maybe they are perfect parents with perfect children.

Or maybe, the parents have dealt with this quietly, and cried behind closed doors, knowing that most people don’t understand and many won’t even bother to try. Maybe they think they are alone. Maybe they are alone, and desperately need support and prayer.

Maybe they are pioneers, bravely, quietly, persistently, and painfully plowing the trail that others –including us – have tried to follow. It’s easier for us because of them. Some of the snow has blown over the trail and we still have to dig, but we can see where their tracks went, where they had to double-back, and where they found a truer course.

They have made the way much easier for us, enabling us to be a little more vocal about our own experience while they learned in painful silence. So we share our experiences with others, hoping they will find safety, understanding, and hope. Because this is no Disney movie, friends. This is our story.

It’s not finished yet. And remember…the book is always better.


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upside down: part one — 17 Comments

  1. Thank you for verbalizing this so well. We are foster parents and have struggled to communicate to case workers what we observe — they just see the “typical” outside, not the challenging behaviors.

  2. Pingback: helpful links from last week |

  3. Pingback: Adoption – upside down: part one « Together for Adoption

    • Hi, Penny…I don’t have anything published in a book right now. I’ll be making every effort to make this series available in a free eBook/download as a resource for families sometime after it’s completed, though. Thanks for asking!

  4. I get so angry when people say my son is not my “real” son. I see red. I don’t tell people he’s adopted if an acquaintance or stranger comes right out and ask I give them a blank stare and they usually quit talking. If my son wants to tell people that is his choice. I had a lady who found out that he was adopted say to me “why didn’t you tell me he was adopted? I thought he was your real child!” Seriously I could have smacked her. I also love when people ask me where I “got him.” I tell them on the corner of 9th and 9th. That’s literally where “I got him.” I don’t go elaborate and they just stand there confused.

  5. I’m new to your blog. Someone shared this link with me. Our adoptive girls aren’t even home yet, but I believe everything you have stated and am following in your tracks as we come up behind you. Thank you for sharing the real. People like me {will} need it. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

  6. Thanks so much for sharing this. We have 3 sons adopted as a sibling group 5 years ago. They are now aged 8,9 & 10. So many of your experiences are resonating with me here. The most rewarding task ever is being a parent – we have 4 biological all grown up and married and then our 3 treasures from the Philippines. However as rewarding as it is, its a long and winding road with many pot holes along the way. Its easy to get stuck in them. Thanks for your openness and putting words into what I want to convey to my family and friends. God bless your family.

  7. Is it possible to have attachment issues even with a child you have had since birth? We had hoped that early bonding would prevent most of this, but we are seeing some of the signs.

    • Hi Sue! Good question…from everything I’ve read, it is very possible. Research (by people who know more about this than I do) indicates that attachment issues can come from trauma in the womb, even…here is a link to some information that might be helpful to you:

    • Children have an innate sense about who they are or are not connected with. It is a feeling not explained by words. Try as you might one can never erase the child’s past and recorded loss. While a child eventually is. Aware that you, the adoptive parent wants her, the child is constsny aware, emotionally, that someone else did not. It is almost like a brand or tattoo that is forever there reminding the child: you are not okay.
      Sandy WK

  8. Love you and your family! We know so little of what you battle and can only imagine. Praying for more aha moments for all your children!

  9. Yes! And it is hard for a grammy to back off – but some of us CAN be trained – and, once trained, we LOVE being part of ***solution***!!! Thank you!!!

  10. Excellant article, would you mind if I copied this to my blog so our friends can be prepared, we are close to bringing 2 kids home from China.

    • Hi Clive! You are more than welcome to quote a small portion and link this article to your blog or forward it to your friends and family, but please do not copy it. Thanks!