Our adoption journey begins full force with passion and an excitement which we can barely contain. Who would not want to give an orphan a loving, forever family, we ask ourselves? It’s hard to imagine saying “NO” to 147 million orphans. We dream of bringing our child or children home, and new ways of sacrificial living in order to raise funds become ordinary.
Fast forward … we were a family overflowing with love and compassion yet potentially unprepared despite the hours of Hague-approved, pre-adoption education. Our new child enters the home with a background of trauma and loaded down with unconventional survival skills which have been perfected out of necessity. We determine to hunker down and circle the family wagons, stay strong until the transition passes, and read more of Karyn Purvis. However, the transition doesn’t end. Days turn into weeks, and perhaps weeks turn into years. Slowly, yet steadily, our emotional thermometers have been on the incline, and no one noticed because we, too, have been unconsciously focusing on daily survival. The product of such emotional overload on a parent can be disastrous for every member of the family and detrimental to the healing of the adoptive child.
Who is at risk for parenting overload? Empathetic parents are at risk. We “feel” our child’s pain. We begin to walk the road of healing together. This is the reason we adopted in the first place. As we walk the road of trauma recovery, we do not have sufficient recovery time. We need a respite, a trustworthy reinforcement to step in and give us a break. We need time to breathe and allow our own brains to take a break from being on high alert for what our child might do next. While we are dealing with our child’s “stuff,” our own histories of pain and trauma emerge. This can be problematic as Karyn Purvis warns, “We can never take a child to a place we have never been.”
What are the warning signs of overload on an adoptive parent? Jayne Schooler calls these signs “Vicarious Trauma.” Following are potential (but not exhaustive) distressing emotions, thoughts, and actions which can be effects of working with traumatized children:
Anger, a short fuse
Irritability, negativity, cynicism
Sadness, despair, even hopelessness
No time or energy for yourself
Physical complaints (headaches, stomach aches …)
Disconnection from loved ones
But wait, this is not the end of the story! While the adoptive parent may experience a lack of validation and understanding from those around, there is hope. Parenting a child from trauma is hard work. Adoption is not for the faint of heart. It is a tremendous challenge to care for your child and yourself. A wise parent will take an honest look at the family’s current emotional state and make changes when necessary.
There are tools for transforming areas of distress in the adoptive family. Through sharing our stories and remaining steadfast in our commitment to help our children heal, parents can find hope and help with difficult situations. As individuals and parents, you CAN experience growth. For specific suggestions and tools to support you as a caregiver and parent, read part two of “Adoption – the Impact on Parents and Tools for Self-Care.”
Camie Schuiteman, Family Resources Specialist for MLJ Adoptions, International
Affiliate Trainer for Back2Back Trauma Competent Care