My husband, Paul, and I have two biological and two adopted children. Our first adoption was through a private agency, and we brought our daughter home when she was 4 weeks old. She slept through within ten days – it was a dream. Our youngest child was 13 months old when he came home. We adopted him from a children’s home and, unbeknownst to us, he had severe attachment issues. My family and I descended into a nightmare for the next 3 ½ years.
From the time he woke up to the time he went to bed he would fight me. If I gave in to one demand, he would move the fight to the next. He was defiant and destructive and could lie like a champion from the time he could talk. He had no empathy. None. He terrorised my other children. I had to watch him with our pets. He had between 40 and 50 full blown toddler meltdowns every day. It felt like I had brought a 2-foot monster into my home.
My parenting toolbox didn’t work at all. So I tried doing everything with more gusto. Nothing worked. In fact, it got worse. I was angry. All. The. Time. Out of control crazy. I prayed more. I read my Bible more. And some mornings I could make it until 7.15am before I fell apart. Nothing worked. By the 3-year mark of seeing no change, I had to start to get my head and heart around the fact that maybe it never would.
How could God call us to something and then it be so devastatingly hard? I stopped sharing with most people because the Christian answer to ongoing hardship was, ‘Do you think you really heard God?’
I started to see stories in the Bible like Hosea, where God asked him to take on a wife who didn’t love him. Joseph, who was sold by his own brothers into slavery and then wrongfully imprisoned for 15 long years. Moses, who was instructed to go to Pharaoh, but it made things worse for the Israelites. Gethsemane and the cross. God didn’t withhold the hard and the devastating from His own son. I wrestled deep in my heart with God over this. How could I lean into and find God in such a hard situation that may not ever end? Could I trust Him if it never changed? Could I forgive Him and trust Him with my family and other children that were reeling in the shock waves? I felt completely crushed.
Somewhere around the 3 ½ year mark, a chance conversation resulted in a lady from church loaning me a book. In its first chapters, it listed the symptoms of Reactive Attachment Disorder. My son ticked nearly all of them. The last description was ‘a mother who has developed anger issues and feels like she’s going crazy’. Check. Through this book I started researching and found two life-changing resources: The Post Institute, started by Bryan Post; and Dr Karyn Purvis and Dr David Cross at the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development.
For the first time, I had resources that could help both my child and me. I immersed myself in everything I could find by these people. Their parenting strategies were profoundly Christian. They demanded me to be more loving, more patient, more kind and to have more self-control. They taught me not to be reactive, but to extend kindness. Always. They showed me how to discipline out of connection and love instead of rules and punishment. I learnt that children from trauma and abandonment backgrounds have high levels of anxiety combined with an inability to self-calm. So, when they become anxious they stay in that state. Parenting through yelling, smacking, time out or sending them to their room escalates their anxiety and compounds their behaviour.
For my son, every transition created anxiety. The transition from sleeping to waking. From waking to getting out of bed. Coming out of his room. Choosing breakfast. Having breakfast. Brushing his teeth. Getting dressed. Leaving the house. Getting in the car. That got us to 7:30 am. His anxiety was escalating, as was his behaviour. Every transition was accompanied by defiance and tantrums. He lacked the ability to self-calm, so I needed to learn how to share my calmness and my peace with him. Ultimately, enlarging my capacity to draw on and extend life through the Holy Spirit as I learnt to share the peace of God with him. We saw significant changes in our son’s behaviour within 2 weeks.
But it started with me.
Through the journey, I realised I had never been required to love anyone who didn’t love me back. I faced the hard truth that I didn’t really know how to love. Or how hard it could be. I didn’t begin to understand God’s unconditional love for me or His world. As I grew in capacity to love my son in these new ways, and literally share myself with him, the more he healed. The more he learned to connect. He learned to trust. He learned empathy. To the point, that during his rugby games if any of his friends get hurt he stops playing and goes to see if they are all right (not so great for the team that is now 2 players down). He recently traded some of his favourite soccer cards to get players his sister likes. Other than a few minor lingering triggers, he is now a happy, friendly, active, compassionate 8 year old.
“How is it possible to love someone when they are mean, evil, corrupt, horrific, and do not deserve love? I am happy to report that it is a mystery. Not mystery in the sense of it being unknown and we have to accept it as dogma, doctrine or faith. It is much deeper than this. Richard Rohr puts it this way. “Mystery is not something that is not understandable. Mystery is that which is endlessly understandable.””
“Unconditional love is something like this, it is “what is needed” for us to remember who we are.”
– David Durovy, Post Institute
I remember years ago, a friend saying that if two families in every church adopted a child, there would be no more children in orphanages. I know it’s more complicated than that, but it should be challenging. I whole-heartedly believe that every child should be in a family. It’s clearly God’s heart that people belong and are loved and valued well. I also whole-heartedly believe that our church communities need to train and equip us to love as God loves us (as opposed to how our culture teaches us), to forgive and reconcile as God does, and to be willing to sacrifice and grow in our journey with God. We need to learn how to find God in the difficult and embrace the difficult as opportunities to grow and deepen our experience of and capacity for God. Our Christian communities and families need to become sacred spaces where the quality of our love brings healing and wholeness to others, and a place where our capacity to love confounds the world.
Mary Hopkins-Best (2012). Toddler Adoption: The Weaver’s Craft
Bryan Post (2010). From Fear to Love
Karyn Purvis and David Cross (2007). The Connected Child: Bring Hope and Healing to Your Adoptive Family
Dan Siegel (2004). Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding can Help you Raise Children who Thrive
Karyn Purvis (2008). Better Understanding Our Children