Adoption finalization is a reason to celebrate. Parents have filled out mountains of paperwork, waited months or years and shed many tears to get to that moment. They wear matching tee-shirts, eat way too much cake and splash photos all over social media. Adoption day is so momentous that it feels like a “happily ever after” in itself. After friends and family return home and the frosting is wiped clean, some adoptive families are left with a much different “ever after” than anticipated. They can struggle immensely feel completely alone.
While a friend, family member or professional can support an adoptive family in multiple ways, one simple task is most important—to understand that adoption stories aren’t fairy tales. And the path to happily ever after can be extremely difficult to find for kids with developmental trauma. Once a person understands this reality, they can offer more effective support to an adoptive family over time.
Unfortunately, the judge’s pen isn’t a magic wand for kids who come from hard places. “While many people think that love or ‘good parenting’ will make up for the early trauma a child experienced, it’s just not that simple,” said Executive Director Forrest Lien. “Families of kids with developmental trauma need extensive support and specialized services.”
Without early and effective intervention, many adopted children from hard places continue to struggle academically and socially[i]—even in stable, loving families. They’re at increased risk for substance abuse and criminal conduct and at higher risk for mental health issues.[ii]
When adopted kids struggle, it’s easy for those around them—family, friends, community—to point the finger at adoptive parents. They’re quick to blame the adoptive parents for not getting help for their child. Or they criticize the child for willfully squandering the opportunities given to them.
“While many people think that love or ‘good parenting’ will make up for the early trauma a child experienced, it’s just not that simple,” said Executive Director Forrest Lien. “Families of kids with developmental trauma need extensive support and specialized services.”
But an adoptive parent cannot serve as a hero or the villain in combating the effects of a child’s early trauma. And the child cannot simply “get over” developmental trauma.
Adoption is better likened to the nostalgic “make your own adventure books” where readers make choices that lead to different endings. But depending on their geographical location, proximity to specialized therapists, level of trauma their child experienced early on, financial situation, insurance provider, etc., adoptive parents don’t have many viable good options from which to choose.
Make Your Own Adoption Adventure: Story of Bobbi
To begin to understand the reality for many adoptive families, take a walk through their unfortunate “adventures”—
Bobbi, age 7, squirrels food away under her pillow and gets into fights at school. Her parents notice these behaviors aren’t getting better. Bobbi needs to see a therapist who has experience working with adopted kids with developmental trauma. This would put her on the path to happily ever after. However, this is unlikely to be a choice available to Bobbi and her family. Here’s why:
- Most adoptive families aren’t equipped to recognize developmental trauma.
- Even if a parent knows to get help, there is a shortage of therapists with the highly-specialized training necessary to help.
- The few qualified therapists may not be taking new patients, may not be local and may not take insurance or the insurance provider does not cover his or her services.
No matter the path chosen, most parents unwittingly go it alone. They often hope traditional parenting methods will eventually work. Or they find a therapist who lacks specialized training in developmental trauma. Either way, matters get worse with time.
By the time Bobbi is a teenager, her behavior is increasingly risky. She’s experimenting with drugs, partying and sexting. At this point, Bobbi needs to go to a specialized in-patient treatment program for her safety and the safety of others. This would put her on the path to happily ever after. However, this is unlikely to be a choice available to her and her family. Here’s why:
- Most residential programs mix together kids with a variety of conditions instead of offering specialized treatment for developmental trauma.
- Many families cannot afford the out-of-pocket costs left over after the limited insurance coverage provided.
Unfortunately, many children like Bobbi grow up in institutions where they do not get better. Others get tangled up with the juvenile justice system. By then, choices are even more limited as early intervention is key for optimal healing.
Why the good options are limited
Developmental trauma can have far reaching and severe impacts. Kids may suffer from attention deficits, developmental delays, behavioral problems and more. Because developmental trauma is a disorder stemming from brain impact during critical developmental stages, there are no shortcuts to happily-ever-after—no quick fixes or easy solutions. Even well-informed adoptive parents and early intervention by qualified clinicians is not always enough. However, proper and early interventions definitely offers hope.
Here’s how that can happen:
- Adoptive parents must be given comprehensive training on developmental trauma and therapeutic parenting. They need support to parent their child and to recognize when they need professional help.
- Adopted children must have access to effective, specialized mental health services. This treatment needs to be accessible and affordable.
It’s both shockingly simple and profoundly tragic. Parent training and specialized mental health services are just common sense. Yet, far too many adoptive families are headed down a rocky and difficult path due to lack of these two basics.
Although the path toward “happilly-ever-after” isn’t as simple as one would hope, friends, family and professionals can at least try to understand the journey. And they can advocate and educate on behalf of these families.
The Institute for Attachment and Child Development and I invite you to choose your own adventure in creative ways to support and advocate on behalf of the adoptive families. It’s time for communities to join together to make sure our vulnerable children have every possible resource to reach their happily ever after. Because when you support adoptive families, you support children from hard places and the generations that follow.
Originally published by the Institute for Attachment and Child Development here.
I live in Charlotte, NC with my family and am working on a memoir about raising my adopted son, Devon.