Do you have an adopted or foster child? If not, have you considered fostering a child or adopting a child? What is stopping you? What inspired you to do it? Whatever the case, adopting and fostering a child is one of the most difficult, intimidating, and humbling experiences for many families. It’s also quite admirable. Adopting or fostering a child (or teenager) will take a great deal of support from your “village” and knowledge about attachment, trauma, and patience. Sadly, for many eager adoptive and foster parents, the idea of adopting or fostering a child often outweighs the potential downsides and challenges that come with raising an adopted or fostered child. Many families find themselves helplessly searching for support when their adopted or foster child begins to show signs of mental illness, attachment trauma, or behavioral problems. One of my previous families described it like this:
“I went to Uganda and adopted MiMa and she was the sweetest child I had ever seen. Once back in the U.S., she began to scratch me, bite me, hit and kick me, I didn’t know what to do. Not only did we not bond, but she was developing behaviors I had never seen before. It was awful!”
Does this sound familiar? This article will explore the challenges often faced by adoptive/foster families and discuss 12 things that adoptive and foster children with mental or behavioral health challenges wish their parents knew.
Adopted and foster children (and even adolescents) experience some of the worse case scenarios any human could experience. Many of my clients often end up being adopted or placed in a therapeutic foster home with caregivers who have experience with psychiatric conditions. But some of these same families end up reporting that they are unable to further care for the child with severe mental or behavioral health challenges and “re-home” or place the child back into the foster care system. Reasons for this include but are not limited to attachment issues, poor bonding between the child and the family, or severe mental or behavioral problems. For parents who adopt, “adoption failure” is sometimes another option that families pursue.
It is important that I mention that the acknowledgment of these challenges faced by the adoption and foster care population is not done to reduce the legitimacy and greatness of adoption and foster care. It is to highlight some challenges that families experience and fear discussing.
Many foster families or adoptive families struggle with the unknown; that is, the lack of information they have on the child’s upbringing, trauma experiences, and attachment to their birth parents. These children tend to exhibit, often at early ages, behaviors similar to Reactive Attachment Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, conduct disorder, psychotic disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and a host of learning challenges. Some adopted or fostered children grow into adolescents with personality disorders such as borderline personality, narcissistic personality, or avoidant personality. Others struggle with depression and anxiety throughout their lifespan. The trauma of a negative early childhood experience can often “create” a mixture of problems in the life of a developing child. It’s a very challenging reality that some people, including some adoption agencies, would rather ignore.
Most of my clients who have been adopted or placed in foster families have been abandoned by these families due to their behaviors, mental health challenges, and emotional barriers. So many families become burned out, overwhelmed, or simply disappointed (if they are honest) and cannot go any further with the child or adolescent who is emotionally chaotic and behaviorally threatening. As a result, many of these youngsters end up in the foster care system again. The search for a foster or adoptive family can take a very long time for children with mental or behavioral health challenges. A “failed adoption” or a situation where a child has been “returned to the system” can scar them forever. After meeting with thousands of kids who have been placed in similar situations, I recognized that the most beneficial treatment is often trauma informed care that permits these kids to create a trauma narrative (exploring their trauma at great length) and allowing them to explore and process how being adopted hurts them. These kids have expressed, with great forethought and insight, some of the thoughts and feelings below that we should all be aware of:
- Don’t give me up when you cannot handle my mental health/behavioral problem(s): Sadly, some families are simply unprepared to deal with the many challenges that come with an adopted or fostered child. Because of the “checkered” history and poor attachments in early childhood, a child who has been adopted will most likely have trust issues, relationship challenges, or emotional disturbances that will ultimately interfere with the entire family unit. Some parents give the child back to a foster agency because the stress is taking a toll on the entire family or because the child is unsafe in some way. Sadly, there are those small percentages of people who simply cannot and will not deal with a child who is not close to “picture perfect.”
- I need you to help me, not another family: Many adopted or fostered children fear being sent away, again. Unfortunately, many MUST be sent away in order to protect the family or increase their own ability to cope with their trauma. The sadness that I have seen adopted and foster kids express when their families leave them behind, is almost too much to bear. Kids feel they are being abandoned all over again.
- I was traumatized by many things including the type of therapy I received before you: Some kids have been placed in therapy while waiting for someone to take them in. Other kids have received detrimental “therapy” while with biological parents or while in the foster care system. Although the majority of mental health professionals today are certified and trained, there is a small portion of individuals who have put up a shingle and is operating a “private practice.” Have you ever heard of Attachment Therapy? Stay tuned for my article next week as I explore this type of therapy with you.
- I am afraid of everything and everyone: Children with mental health or behavioral challenges are often afraid. There are, however, those kids who simply have no empathy, guilt, or sympathy. They are becoming sociopaths in every sense of the word. But it is important to keep in mind that difficult and hard to love adopted or foster children are seeking someone to love them despite their behaviors.
- Sometimes I feel I have nothing to live for: Did you know that adoptive teenagers are 4x more likely to attempt suicide, according to a study done by researchers Keys, Malone, Sharma, Iacono, and McGue in 2013. Reasons for this include but are not limited to: attachment difficulties, adjustment challenges, substance abuse, inherited mental health problems, family conflict, not feeling secure in their adoptive or foster family, not knowing where they come from, etc. We must be empathic to this reality.
- It’s lonely to have mental health and behavioral problems and not know where they came from: Children who feel they lack an identity and have no information about the mental and emotional health of their biological families, often feel like they are “in the dark.” In a way, health information on the biological family is a valuable piece of information for not only mental health professionals but for the adoptive or foster child as well.
- You think you are hurting, I am too: Children who are struggling with behavioral and mental health challenges are hurting a great deal. It’s helpful to maintain a view that children in the adoptive or foster care system are wounded. These kids are typically traumatized, thrown away, overlooked, and abandoned. Some have witnessed domestic violence, rape, murder, and other awful situations. A child or teenager who is acting out is probably hurting in some way.
- Giving me away sends the message that I am not good enough: Some of my clients are thrown away after they are placed in a long-term mental health facility such as a residential treatment facility or 30-day program. It’s an easy “out” for many adoptive or foster parents who are burned out, overwhelmed, and in over their head. However, what message does this send to the adopted or foster child?
- I think you are playing favorites: Some children who have been adopted or placed in a foster home where there are biological children often feel there are “favorites.” Sadly, having “favorites” is a reality for some families. Children struggling with mental health challenges often feel this way as well. One reason is because they are most likely the child who is more critiqued or who receives more punishment than other kids in the home who do not act out like they do.
- You could give me the best explanation for why I can’t live with you anymore and it wouldn’t make me feel better: Some foster or adoptive parents have attempted to explain their rationale for “adoption failure” or placing a child with mental health challenges back into the system. Despite a common sense rationale, these kids still will never understand. Some of my previous clients seemed to have suffered more trauma after being placed back into the system.
- I might be better off with someone else after all: Some adoptive and foster kids find themselves developing a protective shield when given back to the system. It’s the only hope they have. However, this “protective shield” is weak and includes acting out behaviors such as stealing, running away, sexual indiscretion, substance abuse, verbal and physical aggression, and delinquent behaviors. In most cases, the child does not get better, but they get worse. In a few situations where miracles are obvious, these kids go on to become great role models for others in their shoes. In other situations, perhaps giving a child back is the best thing that could ever happen to them. If one family cannot handle the challenges of the child perhaps someone else can.
- I just want to be a happy person: Despite the “acting out” behaviors that some kids/teens exhibit, the main goal of these children/adolescents is to be happy and in their words “be normal.”
It is important to note that any child, who is not with their biological parents, can be considered an “adopted” or “foster” child (i.e., a grandchild, niece, nephew, cousin, etc). There are many situations in which a biological parent is unable to care for the child and the child must live with grandma, aunt, or some other extended family or friend. These kids and teens experience the same thoughts and feelings as above. That’s why it is important that we talk to our kids and make sure that they understand they are loved, cared for, and thought of through all of the challenges.
Do you know someone in a similar situation? What should we do to make sure that kids and teens are not thrown away just because they have challenges?
Do you think biological children are “thrown away?”
As always, I wish you well
This article was originally published on July 29th 2015 but has been updated to reflect comprehensiveness and accuracy.