Adoptive Families: The Struggle for Belonging

in Blog
March 31, 2017


Rarely are families the perennially loving, supportive, wise-cracking, and conflict-free ideals we see on TV. Adoptive families in particular can struggle to create harmony, and parenting adopted children in constructive, loving ways is not always easy. Early trauma experienced by the child may be one of the pieces at the heart of that puzzle: many behavioral health professionals now believe that many adopted children experienced some degree of earlier trauma – a stressful event or experience that was overwhelming, unpredictable, and toxic to that child’s emotional or social development.  Although we all would agree that abuse, neglect, and violence are traumatic, we are only beginning to understand that trauma can also be emotional rejection felt as an infant or in utero.

Families who have adopted know that adoption can be a stress-filled journey. Stephen Street, a North Range licensed therapist, works with adoptive families and is an adoptive father himself:

“At the heart of every adoption is a combination of hope and pain. Most people hope for a ‘happily ever after,’ but there is at least some amount of pain that brought the adoptive parents and/or the adopted child to the point where a family has been built by adoption, instead of by birth. This pain must be, and can be, addressed. After the hard work of completing an adoption, the really hard work of therapeutic parenting begins. Parenting through the lens of grief, loss, or trauma requires skills that must be learned, often with professional help.”

Every adoptive family has their own journey, and sometimes it can be rewarding, though painful. An adoptive mother we know tells her story:

“To adopt – it’s an easy definition: ‘To choose and bring into a certain relationship, specifically, to take into one’s own family by legal process and raise as one’s own child.’ In fact, adopting has mostly positive connotations.  But the real picture is much more complicated. We are strangers at first, but an instant family. Do we know or did we help lovingly create the history of the child?  More often than not, we don’t.  Why wouldn’t someone want a child? For many of us, that’s a cruel mystery, and one we can’t always understand fully.

In my adoptive parenthood journey, there are no maps, no guidebooks. I’ve felt pain, hurt, and seen my children struggle with trauma, mental health issues, and risky and heartbreaking behaviors. On this journey, I’ve learned a lot about RAD, or ‘Reactive Attachment Disorder.’ Imagine if you will, an infant crying, and no one comes to comfort, hold, or facilitate bonding.  She is placed somewhere new where she tries to urgently engage someone only to find detachment. Her primary response to the world is fear – fear of abandonment, of not feeling safe. This might happen only once, but it can become a traumatic memory; in the saddest cases, it happens again and again. I’ve learned that RAD can manifest in children in many ways, including sabotaging others for reasons of jealously or insecurity.  We have learned that giving our children too much time to worry about upcoming school or other events is unwise, so we don’t have a calendar on our refrigerator. That time might give them the opportunity to plan something destructive. Just last week, our older daughter decided to try to ruin her sister’s birthday party, so we had to move it to a best friend’s house so we could celebrate there. Both our daughters flirt with poking the boundaries of our love and frustration. As the adopted mother, I’m typically the one they like to test. Our youngest likes to say that my deceased dog Jack talks to her from heaven about ‘my problems.’ She made me a valentine that read, ‘You’re the best mom I ever made,’ which was sweet, but oddly manipulative.

RAD is rare, but is heart-wrenching, and can make raising a child a constant battle of wills. (Of course, other disorders can also cause or complicate these behaviors, so please seek the help of people who can help diagnose and provide guidance, as we have.)

For the past nine years, to move beyond the daily struggle, my husband and I have relied on our willingness to learn, a determination to tackle the unknown, and a deep commitment to embrace the broken – knowing that we will often be pushed away and often be helpless in our fight to keep our children safe and whole.  We employ an array of therapies, from parenting skill-building to neurofeedback, to horse therapy, to EMDR (Eye-Movement Desensitization-Reprocessing Therapy).  Our therapists work with our family to build a system of care for our kids. And we hold onto hope, always, and the light of others who have gone before or join us on this journey.   – Kami Chase

As Stephen says, “Adoption is not for everyone—it is a special calling for those who can and will learn the skills and put in the hard work. It is a lifelong commitment, not an easy one, yet the rewards can be beautifully astonishing.”


For more information on trauma and its impact on adopted or foster children:

Reactive Detachment Disorder:

Childhood & Toxic Stress:

Support Resources