In the adoption world, much is made of the concept of "bonding". Children who are not bonding with their new families in the allotted length of time (usually 6 months) are suspected of having attachment disorder. Parents who do not feel a strong bond to their newly adopted children immediately often become terrified and wonder "what if we DON'T BOND?". Parents who struggle to feel bonded to their new child in the first month or two often assume their adoption is doomed to failure and begin considering disrupting the adoption for fear that a lack of bonding is the kiss of death. I am here to tell you that bonding is important but it is not the only glue that holds an adoptive family together.
Let me tell you straight: I am firmly bonded with three of our four adopted children. Two of them came to us in diapers and I have been up to my elbows in their . . .um . . . excrement and not batted an eye. I could not do that for a neighbor's child or even a niece or nephew. Only for one of my own. Just a couple of weeks ago, our newest son got a stomach virus. I knelt beside him and rubbed his back as cup o noodles poured from every orifice. Not only was I NOT grossed out, I felt only pity for his illness and barely noticed the splashage on my night shirt. Yup . . . he's mine.
Those of you who have been around this blog for awhile know the struggles we've had with our thirteen year old. He came to us at age eight and has put us through the ringer with lying, sneaking, disobeying and hurting other children. He came home from residential treatment last May after a 7-month placement. He is not attached to us and THAT IS OKAY. I am parenting a child who does not really love me. AND THAT IS OKAY, TOO. I am here to tell you that it can be done! Attaching in adoption is beautiful but it is not mandatory for a successful placement.
We recently visited a friend's church and a sweet young man from the youth group came and introduced himself to my teens. He invited them to come and sit with him. All of my teens refused except . . . you guessed it . . . my little RADish. He left us in the back of the church without even looking behind. He is no more outgoing than my other children. He is no more social. He just does not prefer our family to other people - in public or in private. When you read a narrative of a child who is waiting for a family and that narrative says "little Johnny has never met a stranger . . . " you can bet dollars to doughnuts that little Johnny has attachment issues. I used to believe that Reactive Attachment Disorder was a ruse. I thought that psychologists made it up in order to sell books and keep their client lists long. BOY, WAS I WRONG! I have no doubt that our son has a significant attachment disorder. He interacts with us as if he's reading from a script. He is not genuine but his words say the right things. When he hurts someone, he is contrite but his eyes are hard. He tries to give his toys away to kids he just met but then is stingy and greedy with family members or close friends of the family. He compliments strangers about their shoes, cars or physical appearances in an odd cadence and during our church's greeting time, he hugs visitors but stands stiffly if a family member extends their arms. Trust me, he is not suffering from mal treatment in our home. He does not recoil because we have hurt him in some way. He just does not like to be close with us - physically or emotionally.
Recently we were able to start a skype relationship with his older brother who still lives in The Philippines. I once asked Lemuel if he wanted to see if his big brother remembers their mom and dad. He could not, for the life of him, figure out why he should care about his birth family. He knows his birthmom is deceased but he said flatly "I don't want to know anything about that stuff" and went on to put his ear buds in and crank up his mp3 player. I could fill at least ten lengthy blog posts with evidence that our son is not securely bonded to us or to anyone.
He cares little about his past. He does not want to keep ties with former caregivers or orphanage mates. He is happy to see them if the opportunity arises but he never asks. He has a biological brother in the same state we live in and I have reminded him often that he can call or see his brother any time he wishes. He simply says "okay" but never pursues contact. Take my word for it. This child has all the textbook symptoms of RAD except that he does not set fires, does not treat his "mother figure" with contempt and does not have sexual deviance issues. He has been with us for more than FIVE YEARS and has never shown genuine sympathy, remorse or unsolicited affection. . . NEVER. I think you get the point. He isn't very bonded to us. He's happy to have a place to call "home". He likes my cooking and he lives for his birthday and Christmas when he gets lots of cool "stuff". He likes "stuff" an awful lot. He found a way to get a football team mate to get him some very nice Nike cleats and I still don't have the facts straight on that story. I'm sure he painted us as some sort of derelict parents who only shop at yard sales and could never buy new cleats - to be honest, I don't really care to chase that bunny down the trail anyway. He has besmirched our reputation countless times. We are growing immune to besmirchism.
Even as I type, he sits in the livingroom eating popcorn and watching "Mr. Bean" with two of his siblings. He is laughing his head off and having a blast. He HAS TO LIVE SOMEWHERE and I have been blessed with three precious adopted sons and two amazing biological children who truly love me. They all think the sun shines out of my . . . um . . . "eyes" and so, I can muddle through with one child who does not follow suit.
Is it difficult parenting an unattached child?
Absolutely! If he was my first child or if he was my only child, I would be devastated. If he was violent or sexually inappropriate with anyone under this roof, I would disrupt the adoption but he is neither. He is just a broken little boy who, for self preservation, decided early on that he could count on no one but himself. And that is how he lives his life.
How does his attachment problem play out in everyday life?
First, he needs to be supervised 100% of his waking hours. If he is not supervised, he plays waaaay too roughly with younger children. He steals on occasion. He is loud mouthed and obnoxious. He has a "me first" attitude to the Nth degree - and no amount of training, punishing or guilting has freed him from these habits. He is addicted to video games and will literally shed tears over lost games but he is remiss to cry over a flesh and blood person he has hurt. He eats to the point of feeling sick if he is not watched. He puts others down verbally. He tells lies about our family that paint us in a less-than-favorable light.
Would you do it all over again if you knew then what you know now?
No. I would not. Not with this child. It's like asking a person if he would choose to have an amputation without anesthesia. It hurts incredibly. It changes life in ways that nobody would choose but I know it's "right" that he's here. I know that God is sovereign and HE put that boy in our house for the duration of his childhood. He needs to be trained and guided and shown the love of Christ to have even a snowball's chance in hell of having some semblance of a normal adulthood. We've been charged with the task and we must rise to it.
/Why didn't you disrupt the adoption early on when things were so bad?
We didn't disrupt because God placed him in our home and we never felt free to change the arrangement. We had no peace about disrupting. We did not believe that a new family would somehow be able to show him how to attach. We believed, and still do believe, that sending him from our home would just start a chain reaction of multiple placements that would reinforce his innate sense of self preservation.
What if he reads this post?
He won't care. I let him read the post about adoption disruption that featured his life story. He could not have cared less. I wanted to get his permission to publish it because it was so very personal. I shared with him that it could help people to understand some things about adoption. He asked me if I would add something that tells how good he is at football and how he's not scared to fight even if the other guy is bigger than he is.
How do YOU feel about him, really?
Honestly, sometimes it really sucks parenting an unattached child. There's a lot of "give" on my part and a ton of "take" on his. I believe that when he is older he'll leave us for a better deal and may not even keep in touch. That's sad. It's hard to invest in someone when the pay off is miniscule. It's hard to keep tending to the daily needs of a child who casts aspersions behind your back. It's also very freeing. My goals are different with this child than with the five others. I hope to help him learn a little empathy for others so he does not hurt people who want to be close to him. I teach him to fear the law so he does not end up incarcerated. I stress to him the love that Jesus has for him and that it is NOT conditional upon him feeling "warm fuzzy feelings" toward God. We are on a very basic track with him. I know that our other five children will have more "normal" lives. I know there will be weddings and grandchildren (oh, I long for those grandchildren!!!!) and job decisions and that they will call home to my husband and I for advice on life-altering decisions. I know they will. I know Lem won't.
I realize it sounds like I have completely eschewed God's ability to heal. I used to pray for Lem's healing and his bonding a hundred times a day. Five years later, I believe it's time to take another approach. I remain open to and hopeful for God's miraculous hand but realistically, we need to plan for the "what if he never attaches to us". That seems to be the eventuality.
Forgive me if this post sounds dismal. It is meant to encourage! We have a joyous, full, happy family life. There are so many fun times, so much physical affection, so many games, sports and chores together that we treasure and enjoy. Every child, Lem included, is here for a reason. Every life is precious to God and He is refining and shaping us all. It's just that with Lem, his heart is off limits to the rest of us and we have to rely on Jesus to get in there and touch the places that we will not be allowed to go near.
If WE can do it, YOU can do it! So your adopted child doesn't open up to you, tell you with sincerity how much he loves you . . . sometimes knowing he would if he could has to be enough. It has to be.