The Dangers of “Crying It Out”, By Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D

baby-in-cribDarcia Narvaez, Ph.D is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame. Her research explores questions of moral cognition, moral development and moral character education. She is also author or editor of four award winning books. Someone shared with me this essay with a catchy title about the dangers of letting babies “cry it out.” We learned this cardinal rule from numerous adoption specialists, but only after we’d done everything wrong.Dr. Narvaez’s essay doesn’t specifically address adoptees but the same principles apply, the notion that the baby needs to know that her needs will be met so that she has trust in her surroundings and caregivers. This runs counter to the prevailing “wisdom” that we’d grown with. Rushing to your crying baby was seen as spoiling; your baby had to learn to be self sufficient. Subsequent research has shown that this isn’t necessarily true.

Thank you Dr. Narvaez!

Attachment Disorder Or RAD?

angry-kidsI’ve learned over time that in adoption circles some people describe the sometimes unusual and extreme behaviors seen in orphaned and abused children as “attachment disorder” while others label it “RAD” (Reactive Attachment Disorder.) What’s the difference and who’s right?

If Wikipedia is any help, it defines attachment disorder as follows:

“A broad term intended to describe disorders of mood, behavior, and social relationships arising from a failure to form normal attachments to primary care giving figures in early childhood. Such a failure would result from unusual early experiences of neglect, abuse, abrupt separation from caregivers between 6 months and three years of age, frequent change or excessive numbers of caregivers, or lack of caregiver responsiveness to child communicative efforts resulting in a lack of basic trust. A problematic history of social relationships occurring after about age three may be distressing to a child, but does not result in attachment disorder.”

Wikipedia describes reactive attachment disorder (RAD) as follows:

“It is described in clinical literature as a severe and relatively uncommon disorder that can affect children. RAD is characterized by markedly disturbed and developmentally inappropriate ways of relating socially in most contexts. It can take the form of a persistent failure to initiate or respond to most social interactions in a developmentally appropriate way—known as the “inhibited form”—or can present itself as indiscriminate sociability, such as excessive familiarity with relative strangers—known as the “disinhibited form”. The term is used in both the World Health Organization’s International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems and in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.”

My reading of both terms as a layman is that they are interchangeable, saying essentially the same thing. The difference is that RAD is the official term used by professionals featured in medical journals. So in that sense, those using RAD are probably technically correct. The problem I have with this is that too often RAD is used as a pronoun, as in “my RAD” or “my RADie” and other variations thereof, as opposed to “my child.” I cringe at these references.

I realize that many exasperated adoptive parents at their wits end need anonymous places to go online and rant. I wish I’d known of such places when I was an adoptive parent. Trust me, I’m ashamed to say that there were times when I slapped (or tried slapping) my teenage daughter Casey for her attitude and language; she could hardly complete a sentence without the s-word or f-word. Of course now that Casey’s passed, these are things my wife Erika and I laugh about. How trivial in the grand scheme of things.

But when RAD becomes a pronoun, even anonymously, it seems to further stigmatize a child who is already stigmatized. One’s child is no longer a child, but a thing. Why encourage this type of thinking?

The broader issue, as I’ve learned from attachment experts, is that both attachment disorder and RAD are overused as convenient labels for behavioral problems that are far more complex. The experts are quick to note that there are multiple factors that play into an orphaned child’s behavior that can’t be diagnosed due to the lack of information about birth families – fetal alcohol syndrome, substance abuse and a wide range of mental health issues from depression to bi-polar to schizophrenia. So when I speak about attachment I’ve learned to use the much broader term “attachment issues” rather than attachment disorder or RAD.

I just hate to stigmatize children for behaviors – as irritating as they are – from experiences that they never asked for.

Another Fascinating Celebrity Adoption Story

Last year I posted a story about celebrity adoptees purely for mindless superficial trivia. Recently I stumbled across another one that I’ll share because his life story is so fascinating and, well, I’m a huge fan.

For any Deadheads out there like me, you may or may not know that Bob Weir is the legendary rhythm guitarist to lead guitarist, Jerry Garcia. The oft-described “heartthrob” of the Dead with his boyish good looks (in striking contrast to the band of self-described “gorillas”), Bob could be the Paul McCartney of the band – the cute one.

But he’s also adopted, something he talks about in the last 10 minutes of the well-done, hour-long Netflix documentary, The Other One. Most will see this as a documentary about Bob Weir, which it is, but I saw it as an adoption story.

Bob was born in 1947 to Phyllis Critchfield and Jack Parber, two college students who had a fling in Arizona but came to San Francisco to have the baby. Phyllis used a phony name on the birth certificate and never told Jack. Bob was adopted at birth by Frederic and Eleanor Weir, a wealthy couple who lived in the posh Silicon Valley suburb of Atherton. As Bob said in the documentary, he and his adoptive parents loved each other, and they indulged Bob’s impulsivity to leave school for a rock and roll band. They both died in 1971, old enough to at least have seen Bob and the Dead attain super-stardom.

In the 1980’s, he hired a private eye (his words) to look for his birth parents and learned that a man with the same name as his birth father ran Hamilton Air Force Base in Marin County. He let the matter drop.

With Jerry Garcia (Bob’s best friend’s) death in 1995, Bob described an “empty space” inside him. He married his wife, Natasha, and at her urging, he resurrected his search for his biological parents. At around that time his office got a phone call from someone named Phyllis, who turned out to be Phyllis Critchfield. Bob went to meet her the day after the phone call, only to discover that she had twelve other kids. He said: “I didn’t feel like I was a huge whole in her life to rush right in and fill.” She gave him some information about his biological dad, but as Bob said: “I didn’t want to blow up his life because he probably didn’t know I existed.”

Still, he called his father, Jack Parber.

“Who’s calling?”

“Robert Weir?” He went onto say that he’d done some research that could be of considerable interest to Jack.

“Were you perhaps romantically involved with a woman named Phyllis? I don’t know how many kids you have but there might be one more than you know.”

Stunned, Jack asked one of his sons, a musician: “Should I know someone named Bob Weir?” His son replied: “The only one I know plays guitar for the Grateful Dead.”

Bob and Jack met the next day, talking for two hours, at first just sniffing around (Bob’s words). But then they got to like each other and grew very close. Bob summed it up: “He was my brother, confidante and dad.”

Phyllis died shortly after Bob met her in 1997. Jack passed away in April, 2015.

In one of his most revealing statements, Bob noted: “For adopted kids you always want to know where you come from,” a humbling statement from someone with fame, fortune and a loving family, not to mention rock and roll royalty.

The Girl Behind The Door Wins The Silver!

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I’m excited to announce that The Girl Behind The Door has won the Benjamin Franklin Silver Award for Parenting and Family Issues. The Benjamin Franklin Awards are regarded as one of the highest national honors for independent and self-publishers. Casey’s story was one of 55 finalists selected from 1,400 submissions.

Not bad for a rookie.

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Myths About Being Adopted

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I appreciated reading this blog post in the Huffington Post written by Mirah Riben, who has researched and written extensively about adoption for many years. All too often, adopted people are seen as “lucky” or “chosen.” Sometimes these comments are genuinely felt (if misguided) by the one bestowing said comment (who was probably not adopted), and sometimes they were an attempt to sugarcoat the realities of what it’s like to be adopted. Some people would tell me how lucky my daughter Casey was to be spirited out of a Polish orphanage to live a privileged life in Marin County, CA. I’d recoil at their suggestion. But I was certainly guilty of the later, trying to make Casey feel included without realizing how excluded she may really have felt. And, by the way, I never want to generalize. There are many adoptees who do feel blessed and lucky for the lives in which they’ve found themselves. Good for them.

Here is a link to the article titled, Living With Adoption’s Dichotomies and Myths.

Who’s The Hero?

top_ten_superheroes_image1How many adoptive parents, like me, have been told what heroes we are and how selfless we were to have adopted an orphaned child? How many of these same (well meaning) people have told us how lucky our children are for having been adopted by us?

I have.

Indeed there are many couples out there who truly are saints. They become foster parents and bring children into their families who otherwise might never have a home at all. They take on the challenge of raising children with severe difficulties and addictions, emotional and physical, that can bring chaos into their homes. And somehow they deal with it without any self-pity. For some, it’s a religious calling, and that’s fine. To me, these people are truly selfless; they are the real heroes.

If I were to look in the mirror and be brutally honest (and I have), my wife Erika and I would have never journeyed to Poland or submitted ourselves to the emotional roller coaster that led us to our daughter, Casey, the centerpiece of our lives, had we gotten pregnant. But we didn’t.

That’s a hard truth to swallow because I simply could never have imagined my life without my Casey, even as it ended tragically with her suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge at only 17. But had we gotten pregnant there would have been no Casey. I hate to admit this, but it’s true – she was plan B. And I can moralize and rationalize all I want but that’s the harsh truth.

I don’t consider myself a hero or selfless at all. Heck, Erika and I wanted to be parents! And if we couldn’t make a child we’d go find one. That’s the unvarnished truth, the truth we try to sugarcoat.

Was Casey lucky to have been adopted by us? Perhaps. After all, she lived a privileged life in Marin County, California, and was accepted at elite Bennington College in Vermont. But what I’ve learned about orphaned children is that that is often not nearly enough. They bare the scars of abandonment, and I don’t think any amount of love and material comforts can make up for that. Though Casey never took our repeated invitations to delve into her past, I often wonder if she’d ever thought “why did my mother give me up instead of my siblings” who, for all I know, lived with their grandparents in a cramped farmhouse in rural Poland.

We adoptive parents are well aware of the supply/demand dynamics in adoption. Adoptive parents far outnumber available healthy (and white) infants who are the most desirable. Though Casey was deemed “special needs” in 1991 and, thus, not of interest to many Polish couples, it turned out that she wasn’t a special needs child at all. If it wasn’t us, I’m quite certain that she would have ended up with another couple from the US, UK, Europe or Australia. As her father, that’s painful for me to imagine.

Now since Casey’s suicide, I’ve become a suicide advocate, speaking to groups (particular adolescents) about mental health issues with a group of teens, and we get a lot of kudos from people. But like adoption, I wouldn’t be giving these presentations either or fighting for a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge if I hadn’t lost my Casey. I’d be blissfully ignorant, living my old life. No the real heroes here are the teenage girls I work with who haven’t been scarred by loss; they simply participate in these presentations out of the goodness of their hearts. They are the real heroes.

So, no, I don’t feel like a hero, but I do feel like the luckiest guy in the world to have been Casey’s dad for 16 of her 17 years. I just do what I need to do to keep my precious daughter’s memory alive.

 

Join Me For My Next Author Event, San Rafael Downtown Public Library Wed Dec 17 @ 6:30P!

Dear Friends and Neighbors – The San Rafael Public Library – Downtown Branch – has been kind enough to invite me to speak and read from my book on Wed Dec 17 from 6:30P-7:30P. My first event went super well and I have more planned and hoped for in Tiburon (Mar 2) and Mill Valley and San Francisco (TBD).

San Rafael

10 Painful Lessons I Learned Too Late As An Adoptive Father

blackboard_iStock_000016212764XSmallLately I’ve been stumbling across various blog postings about things people have learned about [fill in the blank], things they want you to know about [fill in the blank], things you wish you could say to [fill in the blank.] They come from adoptive families, adopted people and others within and outside the adoption triad. I mean no disrespect, but I thought I should add my own painful lessons learned too late about adoption since my precious daughter Casey’s suicide.

  1. Adoption is a very complex and, in some respects, unnatural arrangement between birth parents, adoptive parents and, most importantly, the adopted child in the middle. Consider this: the animal shelter waits weeks before it gives away a puppy but humans hand over children as early as birth. Unfortunately this is the best system we have for now to help children who need homes find them.
  1. All too often (but not always) raising adopted children can be extremely difficult, a constant tug of war. Just loving them enough may not be enough. The adoptive parents may have to accept that their family experience will be nothing like the Hallmark Moments of their own childhood. They may feel like they’re spilling blood for their adoptive family while getting little in return.
  1. Within the adoption triad, the adoptive parents have choices, whether they’re good or bad. The birth mother also has choices, but they are probably ALL bad. The adopted child has no choice. No matter how loving or lovely her new home and family are compared to where she came from, she didn’t ask for this.
  1. When adoptive parents receive their child – whether in the delivery room or from an orphanage – there is a natural inclination for a fresh start. Give her a new name, new fresh clothes and, hopefully, whitewash the past. That’s what we did all the while meaning the best for Casey. But consider keeping her birth name as that is her identity. Keep something with her from birth or the orphanage, even if it’s dirty or stinky. As one adoption therapist told me, “It’s in the child’s nature to cling to something.”
  1. An open adoption may be uncomfortable for the adoptive parents but may be in the best interests of the child. Like our daughter Casey, as she grows up she may deny any interest in her birth or birth family. But I’ve met many adopted adults who are almost universally obsessed with re-connecting, even if it’s painful. The birth mother may have asked to never be contacted, but how can we know that those instructions were genuine. At least have some channel available to your child if or when that need to re-connect emerges. How can a child NOT think about where they came from?
  1. Parenting an adopted child is completely counter-intuitive if you are to follow the professionals. Adopted children need to know that their new home is safe no matter how badly they act out. They need to know that their feelings are respected. Classic forms of discipline – like time ours and withholds – can backfire. Attachment parenting involves some parts discipline and structure but a much greater part helping the child self regulate her emotions. Remember she didn’t ask for this.
  1. You may find yourself in seemingly endless fights and power struggles as your child navigates through adolescence. Controlling her environment is often vital to an adopted child who came into this world with no control whatsoever. So prepare to lose a lot of power struggles.
  1. While many adopted children do just fine in their new world, there are many who need help beyond just devoted parents. As a group, adopted children are at a higher risk for a range of behaviors and disorders, from never-ending tantrums to self-harm and suicide. How could they not? So consider having your child assessed by a qualified professional early on. Many of their behaviors (like rages and tantrums) seem normal for a two year old, but not for a sixteen year old.
  1. If the adoptive parents decide to seek therapy, it is imperative that they find a professional qualified in adoption and attachment therapies. Oftentimes they are adoptive parents, birth parents or adoptees themselves, and are thus better equipped to gain the confidence of the child as they have lived that experience. They know what questions to ask and how to ask them. We had no idea such specialists existed, and thought that a high priced suburban “expert in troubled teens” was enough. That was a fatal mistake.
  1. A qualified professional should be able to provide a proper diagnosis of your child, and without a proper diagnosis she can’t be properly treated. The professional should distinguish between behaviors that suggest attachment disorder from ADHD, FAS, autism, Asperger’s, etc. Attachment disorder and “RAD” are too often casually tossed around when other illnesses may exist as well.

After reading these it may seem as though I’m anti adoption. Nothing could be further from the truth. Make no mistake, I feel like the luckiest guy in the world to have been Casey’s dad. After her death, I learned the painful way that just about everything I thought I knew about adoption was wrong. So I honor her by sharing with others what I’ve learned about adoption since her death. I want to do what I can to help other families avoid our tragic mistake.

John Brooks is a blogger and author of, The Girl Behind The Door, a memoir about his search for answers to his daughter Casey’s suicide. It is available on Amazon and Kindle.

Check Out This Blog – Portrait Of An Adoption

blog-71-128Portrait Of An Adoption is a wonderful blog produced by Carrie Goldman, who lives with her family in the Chicago area. Her blog aims to raise awareness about adoption by chronicling a wide range of adoption stories and books, especially now given that November is National Adoption Month. Carrie is the author of the multiple award-winning book Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear. She is also a co-founder of the Pop Culture Anti-Bullying Coalition, and she also runs Team Bullied. These are such important issues affecting our children in today’s cyber world.

Today Portrait Of An Adoption featured Casey’s story, titled I Want Someone To Fix Me: The Agony Of Attachment Disorder. I’m very grateful to Carrie for sharing Casey’s story with her followers.

Please Join Me For An Author Event in Fairfax, Thursday, Nov. 6 @ 7PM!

Dear Friends and Neighbors – The Marin County Library, Fairfax Branch, has been kind enough to invite me to speak a week from today, Thursday, November 6 at 7PM. Our library is located at 2097 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard right across from St. Rita’s Church. I’ll talk about my experience writing my memoir, The Girl Behind The Door, and read a chapter, maybe two.

The library and I hope to see you there!

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