What I’ve Heard From Other Parents

Before I get into this I want to emphasize two things: 1) I’m not a professional but a reasonably well educated layman and 2) I don’t paint all adoptees or other children who’ve suffered abuse or neglect with the same brush. I deal in degrees, nuance and probabilities.

There are many children who’ve overcome early deprivation to go on to lead very happy and productive lives. They have a healthy self-image and relationship with their families. But I do believe that their early experience leaves them more vulnerable to attachment related disorders and behaviors that can haunt them for years and rob them of the kind of fulfilling life they deserve. One professional I quote in my book believes that ALL adoptees should be treated as at-risk for attachment disorder and, at the very least, be evaluated by a trained professional early.

911While writing this book, I’d been continually frustrated in my efforts to shed a spotlight on attachment disorders with groups that would seem to be most interested – adoption groups. One foreign adoption coordinator essentially slammed the door in my face.

“I’ve facilitated many adoptions from foreign orphanages,” she wrote, “and I never had a problem with these children.” So either Erika and I were either unusually incompetent parents or we picked the rare short straw. Every other adoptee was well adjusted, happy and healthy. This opinion was echoed by one of this woman’s clients, whose adopted son had a similar early life to Casey’s. “So sorry for your loss,” his father wrote. “Our son is doing just fine.”

Could we really be that incompetent?

Then we connected with other adoptive parents whose stories mirrored ours and, I dare say, made our challenges with Casey seem like child’s play.

One mother wrote about her son delivered to an orphanage at five months old; he lived there for two years. His adoptive mother had unusual access to the orphanage, describing a clean, production line existence of almost ruthless efficiency. Bath time was like a car wash. Boys and girls – all under age five, lined up naked and crying – stepped into a tub where one caregiver soaped them up, one rinsed them down, one dried them off and another dressed them in pajamas. Potty training was a group activity with half nakedchildren learning the ropes while seated in a half circle on their potty seats. At mealtime, there weren’t enough hands to go around, so the kids learned to feed themselves. Though her son ate everything in front of him, he was nutritionally starved. When she offered him an apple, he ate everything, including the core, seeds and stem. At the time of her writing to me, he was an eight-year-old at the emotional level of a five-year-old. Though he had recovered from early developmental delays, he was still prone to meltdowns, anxiety attacks and struggles with self-esteem.

anger - 2A twenty-one year old girl I met with spoke about her birth to a prostitute; she believed her father was a client. She’d spent two and a half years in an orphanage before she was adopted. She was very close to her adoptive mother until middle school when she began to pull away, avoiding any kind of intimacy. In high school, their relationship deteriorated into screaming matches, power struggles and defiance. She remained externally stoic but admitted to low self-esteem that had led her to cutting, eating disorders, drugs and destructive relationships.

Another mother shared that her daughter was born to alcoholic parents, unschooled and neglected until she was placed for adoption at age seven. Her mother received her at age eleven with a range of challenges from growth deficiencies to language delays and learning disabilities. At the age of eighteen, she had the emotional maturity of a nine year old. Though delightful most of the time, her mother reported that the slightest provocation could send her daughter into a rage or sobbing fit. She could be sweet and charming to others but defiant and hateful to her mother. Left unsupervised, she was prone to risky behavior. She couldn’t be trusted on her own.

Yet another mother wrote that her son was given up shortly after birth, landing in a shabby orphanage that housed about two hundred fifty children. He was adopted at three and a half. There was no play area outside so the children remained indoors virtually twenty four-seven. With coal for heating expensive and scarce, it wasn’t unusual in the winter for the younger children to be confined to their cribs. Their diets consisted of lukewarm teas, soups, watery juice drinks, canned fruits and breads. Potty breaks amounted to sitting on chamber pots out in the open; diapers were non-existent. Years later at twenty-one, he was emotionally immature, prone to violent temper tantrums, depression and learning disabilities.

More stories emerged of teens and young adults suffering from early neglect. Depression, moodiness, self-mutilation, screaming fits, defiance and academic struggles were part of life. They left home and broke contact with their adoptive families. Job instability, unplanned pregnancies, suicide attempts and stints in disciplinary, rehab and psychiatric programs weren’t unusual.

The point of these vignettes is not to demonize foreign orphanages. Most do the best they can with woefully limited resources. Oftentimes their policies are well intentioned but misguided.

Despite the hardships of raising these children, their parents were clearly devoted to them. Through the chaos they’d found support. In numerous cases their children had been able to forge a life path with career aspirations, attending college and trade schools.

Most importantly, I never detected a sense of “buyer’s remorse,” although on extremely rare occasions there are “failed” adoptions. These parents had hope for their future. One mother, speaking about her troubled teenage daughter, echoed my own thoughts about Casey. “She has brought more love into my life than I ever thought possible.  She’s everything to me and I’ll do anything to protect her.”

25 Signs Your Child May Have An Attachment Disorder

Trying to interpret behavioral signs in our children (or anyone for that manner) as a way of predicting potentially dangerous waters ahead can be an infuriating challenge for all but the most seasoned mental health professionals. That was certainly true for us.

Let’s face it. We as parents want our children to be “normal,” so we look for “normal” behavior, we see what we want to see, hear what we want to hear, don’t want to read anything unpleasant. We don’t want to believe that our children have a disorder that stigmatizes them. When Casey’s last therapist mentioned “attachment disorder” I locked onto the word “disorder” and rolled my eyes. Why did everyone have some convenient disorder?

To complicate matters further, many warning signs (whether for attachment issues, bipolar, suicidal tendencies, etc.) can look much like someone acting out in the moment – a toddler’s temper tantrum, a teenager’s defiance. I keep thinking about my friend – a prominent child psychiatrist – who lost his 17-year-old son to the Golden Gate Bridge. Like Casey, his son was set to graduate from high school and head off to an elite private college. If he couldn’t read the signs, how could I?

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be vigilant, no matter how imperfect the tools that we have to work with.

deborah_gray_00041_xwxvDeborah Grey is a prominent attachment therapist and author based in Seattle. In her 2002 book, Attaching in Adoption, she described a long list of common symptoms that cover the entire spectrum of attachment disorders:

1. Lack of impulse control, self-destructive behaviors, including cutting, eating disorder and other forms of self-harm. Intense displays of anger and rage.
2. Lack of trust in others.
3. Age-inappropriate emotional responses, like temper tantrums in teen years.
4. Marked mood swings.
5. Frequent defiance and opposition. No tolerance for limits or controls. Exploitative, manipulative, controlling, bossy.
6. Frequently sad, depressed, lonely, helpless.
7. Selectively superficial engagement and charm, such as being cool and unaffectionate to parents but charming or affectionate to others.
8. Destructive hyperactivity and destruction of property. Casey battered her bedroom door, stabbed her new IKEA desk with scissors and threw all of her keepsakes in the trash in a fit of rage.
9. Aggression toward others, particularly the parents. How many times had I heard Casey say “I hate you” or “I hate myself.”
10. Consistently irresponsible and forgetful.
11. Inappropriately demanding and clingy. This is a fairly common trait of many adoptees but we never saw it in Casey. She wanted (or claimed to want) independence.
12. Stealing, deceitfulness, lying, conning and manipulating.
13. Hoarding.
14. Inappropriate sexual conduct and attitudes.
15. Cruelty to animals.
16. Sleep disturbance.
17. Poor hygiene and cleanliness.
18. Preoccupation with fire, gore, evilness.
19. Persistent nonsense questions and incessant chatter.
20. Difficulty with novelty and change.
21. Lack of cause-and-effect thinking. Blames others for own mistakes.
22. Learning or language disorders.
23. Perception of self as victim.
24. Grandiose sense of self-importance.
25. Lack of purpose, spiritual faith or remorse (conscience).