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Challenges

The Role of Parents

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One area of research that I cover in the college course I teach is the study of Information Processing. Information Processing looks at how people process information and experiences which determines behavior. In my class, we discuss the implications on leader behavior. If you are unfamiliar with the concept (especially if you are an information junkie like me), I encourage you to research it.

I remember teaching a class several years ago when the implication on older child adoption hit me in middle of my lecture. I view one aspect of information processing as a mental box where we store information in our mind based on research or personal experience. In my class, we talk about the impact on leadership. The type of leader you are depends upon things you have learned, read, and experienced. If you have only experienced a leader who “hides” in the office while leaving the team to do whatever they think is best, then chances are when it is your turn to lead, you will lead in a similar manner. However, perhaps you have studied about leaders who gather input from their followers. What you learn will also go you’re your mental leadership “box.” When it is your turn to lead or manage, you will look into the leadership box, reflect on the contents, and lead from your knowledge and experience.

So what was my lightbulb parenting moment? At that time, our daughter had not been home for very long and we were struggling with her accepting our role as parent. It was in that moment I realized the application of this theory in our life. She had no frame of reference for the concept of “parent” since she had never truly had a parent before. Her “box” marked parent was empty. Since she hadn’t experienced having a parent before, she did not know how to respond. And she did not know what role parents play in their child’s life. Further, her “box” for “teacher” was distorted. The teachers she had experienced before coming home acted in many ways like a parent by teaching things parents generally taught and providing care and concern. In those first few years, she would say she did not want us to teach her various life skills, she wanted her teachers to do that. It did finally click that teachers taught academics, not necessarily relationship or various life skills.

Since becoming an adult, she has had to readjust her expectations of parents. We do not live close to our extended family, so she had limited opportunities to see me interact with my parents. Consequently, she has had to learn what role parents play in the lives of their independent, adult children. And to be honest, so have I.

How do you think your child views parents based on their past experiences? What information do they have in their mental “parenting box”? How can you contribute positive things to their perspective? And further, how can you not take their inappropriate responses to you (as their parent) personally? Really, that may be the most important question to ask yourself.

From Lying to Honesty

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For anyone to be healed from lying, they must discover what is driving them to lie in the first place. Honesty begins with oneself. Honesty with oneself and others—by accepting and telling the truth—is the foundation of lasting relationships and a must for security and well-being. So, what can you do to help your child progress to honesty? You can start by trying to understand the reasons why your child is lying. (Our list of various reasons people lie is in the previous blog post). When you have an idea of why your child is lying, you can respond more effectively.

How to address lying varies for each child as does his or her reasons for lying. There is no single way to solve every child’s lying. However, according to Victoria Talwar and her colleagues who study children’s lie-telling behavior, forcefully confronting any suspected lying and threatening with punishment only make children work harder to become better and more frequent liars.

If you are trying to get to the truth with your child, you can help your child justify his or her actions by saying how reasonable it is to avoid embarrassment or to want to make a good impression. You can use phrases like: “You wish that were true.” “You’re embarrassed and didn’t want me to find out.” “You want your brother to get in trouble so he cannot go to his friend’s house, because you’re upset you’re not going to a friend’s.”

  • Making children aware of their reasons for lying will help them to understand themselves better and to feel better understood by you. It is important to help them learn the alternative to lying is to be honest. “I wish I had a cool story to tell my friends about what we did this summer.” “I’m embarrassed and did not want to tell you I got a C on my test.” “I really don’t want to get in trouble for breaking the lamp because it was an accident.” You might need to work on acknowledging and accepting some of their honesty. It may mean being careful you hear your child’s honesty and do not focus on something else. If your son says, “I don’t like this shirt you bought me,” rather than focusing on his lack of gratitude and the money you spent, be glad he told you the truth. Try to always be positive whenever your children tell the truth.
  • When possible, avoid lecturing or criticizing your child which can be counter-productive, leading to defensiveness and more lying. Do not ask a question when you already know the answer, because it is often an invitation for children to lie. Instead of saying “Is your bag ready?” say, “I noticed your bag isn’t ready.” Please do not call your child a liar as it can lead to more lying to confirm your expectations. It can also trigger trauma of past name calling (e.g., “You’re a bad kid.” “You’re stupid.”). Further, your child may be convinced that change is impossible and quit trying not to lie. It is also not helpful to bring up past transgressions such as, “This is the fourth time you have lied this week.” Remember to be a good model for what you want from your children. Praising them for telling the truth may encourage them to be less likely to lie. You can also help them to see that a little deceit is not worth defending because the more they lie, the more it becomes a problem in their life.
  • As you use the list of various reasons for lying to help determine your child’s intent for lying, you may start to notice a pattern providing insight into your child’s lying. Perhaps you will come to the realization that your child is lying about his or her grades because of perceived pressure to achieve. If your child repeatedly lies to avoid discipline, perhaps reassessing your consequences with your child might be helpful. The point of consequences should be to teach your child, not inflict distress.
  • Parents have mentioned the frustration of their child laughing when caught telling a lie. Inappropriate laughter can be a sign of anxiety. It is most likely that their laughter is due to anxiety about getting caught and what might happen, rather than because they thought their lie was funny. Pointing out the anxiety will help them learn to be honest. Their lying behavior might not be accepted, but their nervousness can be accepted. You can communicate that you understand them and desire to help them recognize possible reasons for their behavior. Verbally pointing out nervous behaviors like inappropriate laughter or lack of eye contact might also help you to avoid taking the behavior personally.

The more you understand the reasons for lying, the better you will understand your child, allowing you to provide more effective help for your child. Some research suggests children often lie out of fear. Therefore, once the fear is reduced, the lying will also decrease. However, determining the root cause of the child’s lying is not always straightforward which makes reducing or eliminating lying difficult. Therapy may be helpful in figuring out why your child feels the need to deceive, but ultimately, your child must purposely make the choice to tell the truth. For most children, increasing self-confidence (which lowers their anxiety and need for control) and feeling understood and accepted by themselves and others will be more therapeutic. It is much more difficult to help those who use manipulation and self-deception, but continuing to confront them and to point out things from others’ perspective may yield benefits eventually. 

Education Challenges

By | Blog, Challenges, Wisdom

In our research, the majority of older adopted children struggle in some area of education regardless of their home country. Honestly, this finding was surprising. I assumed those children adopted from other countries would struggle due to the language and educational differences. And they do. However, we found kids adopted through foster care struggled as well. Many experienced a variety of moves and school changes. Since every school tailors their curriculum to their school (within state and federal requirements), kids may have missed concepts when they change schools. Perhaps one school introduces multiplication in second grade while another waits until third grade. If a child changes schools between these years, they miss out on vital teaching.

In no way am I advocating that every school teach exactly the same curriculum at the same time, each school has its unique culture. They should have the freedom and flexibility to reflect their school’s community. However, changing schools can bring interruptions in learning for kids.

Kids in care tend to have holes in their education. It may be in social studies, math, science, reading, or writing. Really, it can be in more areas than academics. My daughter had been home almost two years and in high school when I discovered she had never been taught the order of the months of the year. She knew the month names, but she never knew what order they came in. I assumed she knew since it was something often taught in preschool or kindergarten, but she had never been exposed to it before.

Often kids in care “slip through the cracks.” Perhaps the child never had appropriate educational support at home and entered care at an older age. Maybe the child was not at one school long enough (or often enough) for teachers to discover a learning disability. Consequently, the child can go years without diagnosis and intervention causing further educational delays.

Difficulty or lack of understanding can often lead to lack of interest in learning. Some kids refuse to learn because they are embarrassed they do not understand. No one likes to feel dumb and sometimes a refusal has more to do with feeling inadequate than being unwilling.

How can parents help their kids?

  • Ask yourself if this is “can’t” or “won’t”. Sometimes it is hard to differentiate between (and do not be surprised if it is a little of both). Assuming “can’t” will help you have more understanding and patience for your child. Then remind yourself often that they cannot.
  • Talk with their teachers. Ask if they suspect learning challenges. Ask what areas where they believe your child needs the most help. Select a place to begin. Do not try to address everything at once. It will simply overwhelm you and your child which can lead to more frustration for everyone.
  • Encourage your child. They are probably as frustrated with their educational experience as you are. If they put forth the best effort they can do right now, celebrate that. Tell them you notice they are trying. Acknowledge the extra time they spent studying whether the grade reflects it or not. Encourage even small progress.
  • Breathe deep. Probably the best advice shared with me was from a mom who had adopted several older children. She learned early on in older child adoption to repeat: “my child’s behavior is not a reflection of me.” When we do not take on our child’s behavior as ours, we do not respond in embarrassment and frustration. We can want the very best for our kids, but they still have to do their part. And sometimes we need to adjust our expectations for ourselves and our kids.

Staying calm is key to helping our kids push through educational challenges to find a solution.

Kids Parenting Kids

By | Blog, Challenges, Wisdom

Sometimes when you read an article or a book, it changes your life. Maybe the reading speaks in a spiritual way that brings about change. Other times, it brings enlightenment about something unexplained. This article (When Kids Have to Act Like Parents) brought enlightenment for me.

I absolutely realize that early trauma changes the formation of the brain. However, I think many social workers and parents have always lumped a child having to parent other children (whether siblings or younger children at an orphanage) as early trauma. I know that I have. And it is. However, researching it in isolation can be beneficial as well. This article solely looks at parentified kids (kids with the responsibility to parent someone else) and the effects into adulthood.

The article has caused to me to rethink the long-term impact of kids parenting others. Take a few minutes to read it. You may find it help clarify one aspect of “why” behind behaviors you have seen in yourself or your child.

Loving your Child

By | Blog, Challenges, Parenting, Wisdom

This blog post was originally published as a guest blog post on WACAP Now Blog

Those who choose older child adoption face many unique challenges.  Many of the challenges are openly discussed in an attempt to obtain wisdom in how to address them. However, one of the most common challenges is not feeling love for your child, yet it is a topic rarely discussed. Few parents willingly admit they do not feel love for their child; those who do often receive judgment from others.

Admitting you do not feel love for your child is perceived as unacceptable because it runs counter to human nature so why do so many experience it? There are likely a variety of reasons; but consider this: when an infant or young toddler joins your family, you see the sweet smile that melts your heart. You hear the contagious baby giggle. You know how much this treasured baby depends on you for care and comfort. When that cherished baby becomes a preteen, who begins to exude an attitude, you know that sweet, precious baby you remember is tucked behind the challenging exterior. However, when you bring your child home as a preteen (or older), you do not have memories of the sweet, precious baby. You see only the tough exterior and you are not sure what is underneath. Often, it is difficult to look past the exterior to that hurt child hiding deep inside.

How can parents love their child when they lack the gushy loving feelings?

1. Set Realistic Expectations.

    Would you marry a complete stranger and expect to feel immediately emotionally connected to that person? No, of course not. Yet, older child adoption is similar: you are coming to a relationship with a complete stranger who has their own experiences, personality, and likes and dislikes. Yet as their parent, you are expected to feel emotional love for them from the start. It can come, but it often takes time to feel that love. It will take time for your child to feel love for you, too. And they may never feel love for you. You have to accept that loving your child is not about what they do (or don’t do), but who they are as your child.

2. Love is an Action, not a Feeling.

    One dad I interviewed shared, “Love is what you do, what you say, and how you interact with your child.” You can express love to them by meeting their needs. You can show love by giving sincere, authentic praise every day (even if you have to look really hard to find something praise worthy). You can show love through service such as teaching them skills like how to cook, how to sort laundry, how to manage money, etc. You can show affectionate touch by giving hugs, pats on the back, fist bumps, and high fives. Or spend quality time with your child listening to them and doing activities together that your child enjoys.

3. Take Care of Yourself.

    It is hard to help others when you have already given everything within you, and you feel dry. Parched. Out of energy. Done. As parents, it is so easy to get caught up in the needs of our children (or family in general) that we neglect taking care of us. However, you cannot pour from an empty cup; airline attendants tell us to put on our oxygen mask before assisting others. We need to change the narrative that taking time to care for our self is selfish (although too much of a good thing is not good either). Many parents struggle to find enjoyable things that help them feel refreshed. Consider different types of activities that you have tried or want to try; but if you are still unsure of what works for you, consider activities in these categories: reflective (i.e. meditation or positive self-talk), calming (i.e. reading or spending time in nature), physical (i.e. exercise), creative (i.e. hand crafts or coloring), and social (i.e. join a new group or go to a movie). There are many ideas within each category so search the internet for additional ideas. Do not be afraid to try new ideas. Keep track of what works for you as well as what does not. Make sure what you select is beneficial and not detrimental (i.e. over working, over eating, or drinking alcohol in excess). If taking time for yourself seems difficult, start with small increments of time and gradually increase it. Find what works best for you to take care of you.

Setting realistic expectations for yourself (and your child), acting out love by meeting your child’s needs (even when you do not feel like it), and making sure you have energy to give are vital for you and your child. If one day (or week) is really hard or unsuccessful, give yourself grace, recommit to showing love to your child, and purposefully act. It can be hard, but you, your child, and your family are worth the effort.

Ending an Adoption

By | Blog, Challenges, Parenting, Wisdom

Are you or someone you know needing to find a new home for an adopted child?  Perhaps they are considering disrupting their adoption (or ending their adoption) or “re-homing” their child. Re-homing refers to families finding new homes for their adoptive children often without the help of adoption agencies or some other child welfare organization authorized to ensure the new placement will be a healthy environment for the child (many states have laws against this practice). Yet another term is “second adoption” or “second chance adoption.”  These refer to finding new families to adopt the child after the first adoptive family decides they are unable to parent the child.

Of the families in our study, we had two families who had disrupted prior to talking with us and two who found new families for their children in the midst of the study.  Here is some advice from families who have been there:

  • Disrupting is a decision that should not be taken lightly. You may regret doing it when things settle down.
  • Try therapy before pursuing finding a new family. Look for a therapist who is familiar with adoption. You may have to try a couple before you find the right fit. Keep trying, don’t give up! You will find the best therapist for you and your family. Therapy is not going to bring change in just a few sessions, but it can provide glimmers of light in the darkness.
  • Do NOT find a new family for your child via social media groups or boards. Not only is this not helpful for you or your child, it is illegal in many states.
  • Contact your agency. If your agency cannot or will not help you, contact another agency that places older children to see if they can help you by either reaching out to your agency or potentially help you find a new family. Stay persistent. It may not be quick, but it will be the safest way to place your child in a new home.
  • If you need an immediately break, consider finding respite. Many adoption agencies have families who provide respite by individuals and couples who have been background checked, home study approved, and educated that you could consider.

You want the new environment to truly be better for your child and not another stop on the journey.  Working with an agency means the new family has been assessed by a professional to determine their ability to parent your child. These assessments may mean your child is in a safer environment than one you select yourself. An agency is going to help you find some relief so you can make the best decision for your child and your family after your emotions in the moment have diminished.

Finding a new home for your child should be considered only after all other resources have been exhausted. Find a therapist for yourself who can help you navigate your options and your emotions.

The Importance of Allowing our Children to Struggle

By | Blog, Challenges, Parenting, Wisdom

Providing children with love and unconditional acceptance is important to helping them develop a positive view of “self”. However, it is equally important to their positive view of self to help them feel competent and capable. Allowing your child to experience what is it like to discover, figure-out, and problem-solve is the first step toward helping your child to feel competent and capable. When you allow your child to struggle with a problem (all while providing encouragement with phrases such as, “You’re determined to figure it out” or “You’ve got a plan for how…” or “You’re not giving up”) you are showing your child that you have faith in his/her capabilities. Your faith in your child’s capabilities also encourages your child to have faith in him/herself.

For most parents, allowing children to struggle is difficult. However, it is necessary for children to truly feel capable. Most parents do too much for their children and as a result their children have learned to depend on their parents to solve their problems, often believing they cannot do it themselves. When you step in to help or rescue your child, you rob your child of the joy of discovery and the opportunity to feel competent. You will never know what your child is capable of, unless you allow him/her to try! It might take a lot of practice in how to return responsibility to your child to do things he/she is capable of figuring out for him/herself. Using phrases like, “That’s something you can do” or “You get to decide” can be helpful. Returning responsibility to your child will help your child learn to no longer depend on you to solve most of his/her problems. To help illustrate the importance of struggle and self-discovery, I would like to share with you “The Story of the Butterfly.”

A man found the cocoon of a butterfly. One day a small opening appeared. He sat and watched the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to force its body through that little hole. Then it seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared as if it had gotten as far as it could and it could not go any farther.

The man felt sympathetic on seeing the butterfly struggle so much. He decided to help it. He took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bit of cocoon. The butterfly emerged easily.

But it had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings. The man continued to watch the butterfly because he expected that, at any moment, the wings would enlarge and expand to be able to support the body, which would contract in time. Neither happened! In fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings.

It was never able to fly.

What the man in his kindness and haste did not understand was that the restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the butterfly to get through the tiny opening were nature’s way of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into its wings so that it would be ready for flight once it became free from the cocoon. (Author Unknown).

Sometimes struggles are exactly what we need in our lives in order to fly (i.e., to grow and reach a higher potential). Learning to respond to your child in ways that gives your child credit for his/her ideas, efforts, and accomplishments, without praising him/her (e.g., You figured it out! You did it! rather than “You’re so good.”), will help your child develop a positive view of self as capable and competent. Our book has a section on praise and encouragement, and Kelly will discuss more on the topic in her next blog.