In 2005, Jordan and Kelly Brinton adopted three children from foster care: Jinny, James, and Ron. The couple also have two other children, Steve, 8, and Heidi, 9, adopted at birth. Despite careful preparation, and being experienced foster parents, the couple were soon devastated by the behaviours of their severely traumatized children. Each child exhibited different symptoms of trauma, abuse, and neglect; but it was their oldest son who proved the biggest challenge. Here, Kelly shares her story.
How did each of your new children demonstrate the effects of trauma?
From age two to five years, our eight-year-old daughter, Jinny, was severely beaten and abused. Tongue in cheek, she behaves like the elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top floor; but, we realize that it’s her escape from reality, and we believe that she has suppressed most of her memories. She is very sweet and very immature, but the "dumb blonde" behavior can be extremely irritating at times. We have found that she is much more comfortable with kids three to four years younger than herself than with her peers. As she hadn’t had much exposure to men, and certainly not much that had been positive, at first, she was very stiff around my husband, brother, and father. She isn’t as attached to her elder brothers as they are to her. We know that she will need extensive therapy as she nears her teens.
When our middle son James (10) came home, he exhibited "perfect child" behaviour. He’s a workaholic, and he’s the most mature of the three children. However, he can become sullen and depressed, and his smile doesn’t always reach his eyes. Our therapist, Pat Buckley, tells us "watch out" for the quiet ones—their problems are usually more serious. I am sure he’ll also need counseling at some time in the near future.
It was our eldest son Ron, 11, that precipitated a crisis in our family. It felt like this child set out to drive me crazy. It was as if he were saying, "I’m gonna be so bad you’ll have to send me back. You say you love me, but I’ll prove you wrong." He discovered my buttons and learned how to push every single one of them. Probably because our children’s abuser was female, Ron was extremely disrespectful to me. He was also wily enough to make sure he didn’t do this in front of my husband, who began to believe that I was crazy—my tears and yelling definitely looked out of control to him. When Ron came home, he was scared of absolutely everything—it must be hard for him to act so tough and be so terrified all at the same time. Being alone anywhere in the house, even when we are home, is one of his fears. Sleeping in his own room, despite wanting a room of his own, was another. He now sleeps there several times a week, and then slips back into the extra bed in his younger brothers’ room.
Oddly enough, when I needed to get away by myself for a few hours a week to regain some sense of sanity, my absence really stressed Ron; and, he was exceptionally sweet to me on my return and "tried to be good," as he put it.
This situation caused some real difficulties between my husband and myself, which we’re still working out. Even fostering, and all the courses we took, didn’t prepare us fully for real life with our Ron. All the "normal" consequences and reasoning that work with the other children didn’t make a dint in his armour. And since I would never allow myself to do what his abuser did, he knew nothing I did would ever be "bad" enough to make any difference to him. Because this was not a foster child and it was forever, I felt especially powerless and hurt at my husband’s lack of support. I also hated myself for losing my temper so often. It also felt like most of my time was sucked up by Ron, which left little positive time for the other four.
Even though I’m a leader at work, independent, and a problem solver, in this situation I had never felt so incapacitated. How had this little person disrupted our family so easily with so little effort? I realized that I needed to work through my own responses and keep myself aware of where all this was coming from.
How did the new arrivals affect the children already in the family?
Well, Steve, my usually gentle, happy, shy son began talking back, often using swear words learned from Ron. He has started lying, even to his friends, and often imitates his elder brother’s behavior, swaggering around and using his slang expressions and verbal exclamations. He throws things, has crying jags, breaks things and has admitted to throwing away some of my belongings or breaking them. He has said he hates me for changing things, even though he and his sister were part of the decision-making process to enlarge our family. He is still my cuddler but "punishes" me when he is upset by refusing hugs or kisses. He hits or pushes his siblings and me when mad. He was always so gentle, loving and helpful with our foster kids, but they were always younger than him. It hasn’t helped that Ron competed for my attention, acting like the youngest, and tormenting Steve, then being friendly to him. Steve hasn’t known what to do with all of this.
Heidi has expressed her displeasure at how things have changed and wishes we could go back to how we were. She also has crying jags and has taken to screaming at her siblings and us when she is mad. She acts nonchalant about things that were important to her. She started to ask for a lot of positive reassurance from last year’s teacher, when she had always been a confident leader prior to this. She has times when she plays well with her new sister, but she also fights a lot with her. Jinny tried to hone in on Heidi’s friends but then wouldn’t include Heidi when she was playing with her friends. It took awhile for us to discover that Jinny is passive aggressive.
How do you cope?
One thing I have learned is that you eat a lot of humble pie as a parent. Despite our professional backgrounds, previous experience in parenting and fostering, you just can’t know what to expect until you go through it; every kid is so different, and every reaction/action will be different again depending on the mix of siblings at the time. It is hard because the older three are older but act immaturely and our youngest two are usually more mature in comparison as they have been safe and secure since birth.
Luckily, with the support of our wonderful therapist, Pat Buckley, who has helped us understand the children’s behaviour, and our own, things are improving. My husband now backs me up more, and Ron is also learning to control his rages better. It was and is, a challenge to think up positive things to say to him. I really have to use a magnifying glass to find that silver lining some days, but I’m trying. I am learning to deep breathe and count and show that he doesn’t control me or my emotions and that I’m not "affected" by what he says or does. It is extremely exhausting. At least I’m seeing small, but positive changes. I now live for those "good" hours or days. I’ve even had one whole "good" week! My husband and I went away on a week’s vacation and left the children with Grandma and Grandpa. And, amazingly enough, a mutual bond formed between Ron and myself while we were apart. He is really mine, and I am his.
Some days I wonder, "What did we do?" and other days it feels just right. With God’s grace and a lot of patience, I know we’ll get through this one day at a time.
- No matter what they say beforehand, the children already in the family will have no concept of what life will be really like after the adoption. Expect a strong reaction.
- If you have a partner, ask if your relationship is strong enough to stand up to significant stress and disruption.
- Meet with a therapist trained in childhood trauma and adoption— before your children come home.
- Make sure you have a good support network in place. You will need it.
Finding a professional
- British Columbia Psychological Association
- BC Association of Clinical Counsellors
by Siobhan Rowe