I’m a mom of four children, all adopted at different ages and stages. My first child was born in the US in 1997 and adopted as a newborn. In 2006 I adopted three more children from Liberia in West Africa. They were 2, 4, and 13 years old (though the 13 year old wouldn’t actually join our family until he was nearly 19).
In 2006, Liberia was a country in turmoil, it was just a few years after the civil war had ended, the infant and child mortality rates were incredibly high, and the adoptions were being processed relatively quickly.
I feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to volunteer in Liberia for five months when I adopted my children. I saw firsthand how war had devastated the Liberian people and their previously beautiful country. This insight helped me understand where my children were coming from, and how much they had to learn.
After returning to Canada my life changed. I’d imagined it would be like my life before Liberia: carpooling, sleep-over parties, baking, cooking, and sibling fights, just multiplied by three. Instead, our family’s whole way of being in the world changed. My 3- and 5-year-olds did not adjust to life in Canada the way I thought they would. At first my instinct was to give them time to adjust and orient themselves to their new lives. However, just when I thought life was starting to settle into a nice routine, it became apparent that all was not well.
Alone and in chaos
My children weren’t like most other children. They lacked social skills, didn’t make friends easily, and were often isolated during recess and lunch. One child was often in trouble and performed poorly at school. The other was considered a “good girl” because she wasn’t disruptive, but she didn’t speak and couldn’t complete even the most basic tasks independently. I can’t count the number of teacher’s meetings, doctor’s appointments, and assessments we went through. We received diagnosis after diagnosis, but no support; lots of suggestions, but no action.
I really felt like I was in this alone. Only my adoption friends seemed to understand what it felt like to live in a constant state of chaos and to love a child who doesn’t love you back.
The consequences of early trauma
I quickly realized that adoptive families experience some unique issues. I rarely hear people outside the adoption world use the terms Auditory, Central, and Visual Processing Disorders, Executive Functioning Disorder, Attachment Disorder (RAD), Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FASD) or Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD). The rates of learning disabilities and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) are going up across the board, but the rates within the adoption community seem to be even higher. We also know that adopted people are much more likely to experience mental health issues.
I learned that early childhood trauma often leads to learning disabilities, visual, central and auditory processing disorders, and to the child experiencing a perpetual state of fight or flight. ADD, ODD, and RAD diagnoses are based on sets of behaviours that come from long-term intense grief, loss, and fear. The behaviours themselves are not the problem. They are the language a child uses to communicate that they are in crisis. Reacting to the behaviours only makes things worse. For the behaviour to subside, we must address its root causes.
It’s all up to you
Our current system simply doesn’t offer resources for families like ours. It’s incredibly hard to seek help from professionals only to discover they’re even more lost than you. Their lack of understanding of the effects of adverse childhood experiences is often less than helpful, and their recommendations can actually cause setbacks. We’re gradually seeing more awareness of the impact of early childhood trauma, but it’s still rare to come across a teacher, physician, therapist, or social worker who has the skills our families really need. It’s like we’re the proverbial square peg trying to fit into the round hole.
Over the last nine years my children’s development and healing has largely been up to me alone. I’ve spent countless hours on the internet and most of the resources I’ve found have been in the US. Thanks to my nursing background, I feel comfortable at most professional conferences and have been able to access information and strategies meant for physicians, social workers, and therapists. Some of the programs I’ve incorporated into my children’s healing have included auditory processing therapy for my non-verbal 7 year old, Girl Guides of Canada for socialization skills, and Big Sisters and PLEA for 1:1 support for the pre-teen and teen years. I’ve also developed a couple of programs that include personalized executive functioning training, and a non-academic teaching and grading approach for the elementary school. Both have been extremely effective.
This hasn’t been easy. I changed my children’s schools in order to find one that would work with my children’s unique needs instead of punishing unwanted behaviour. I tapped into the knowledge and skills of many friends, read everything I can that I think will help my children, and found a family physician who has been unbelievably supportive through it all. I find comfort in being surrounded by a wonderful community of adoptive parents who experience similar issues with their children. We all breathe a little bit easier when we share our stories and resources.
Adoptive parents of traumatized children dedicate their lives to helping their children overcome and heal from their adverse childhood experiences. These parents have valuable insights to share with the childhood professionals they turn to for help. As one of those parents myself, please hear us and help us heal our children.
Visit Cat’s website at gottaloveem.com/Book/ to learn more and to pre-order her book. You can also find her on Facebook as Gotta Love ‘Em, and on LinkedIn as Cat Martin.