Adventures in Parenting an Adopted Teen

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Welcome Home – Now what?

Your kid will lie – it’s nothing personal. It is a survival mechanism. It will take time to teach them a different way. (It is still okay to punish for lying, reward for good behavior). They will probably lie about extremely stupid things, and are easily found out. This is another sign that the lies are automatic not malicious.

He’s just like me… or is he? I noticed early on that our boy kept adopting our opinions, preferences, food dislikes, etc. I pointed out that he didn’t need to be the same as us, and that we chose him on purpose – and valued his opinions as well. He replied that he just wanted to ‘fit in’ better. I didn’t press, but kept reminding him that he didn’t have to suddenly dislike peaches, or change his favorite movies to match our preferences. This took a good year before he felt at home enough to put forth a strong (different) opinion of his own.

Many surprises. There will be endless amounts of surprises – good and bad. You can’t plan for them. From foods they won’t touch (I thought every kid liked ravioli), to things they are afraid of (bugs, belts, dogs, darkness, losing another parent). You are working to undo years of survival, and trauma – they will not always respond like other kids. You may find a favorite household item missing, or that they ate a sandwich with ½ pound of salami in it. Why won’t he wear a raincoat? Is he physically incapable of seeing the laundry needs to be taken downstairs? He may not understand what hair conditioner is – and use it instead of shampoo!

On one Sunday drive through his old neighborhood, our son blurted out happily, “Oh! There’s the little bakery we used to steal food from, so we could eat!” These surprises really drive home the reality that our child grew up VERY differently from us.

Our big ‘surprise’ was discovering a cedar chest in the family room being badly scratched / carved up with scissors or a knife. I was furious – partly for the damage, but more the feeling of betrayal. Didn’t he appreciate the opportunity he had? Didn’t he appreciate us? Was he one small step from hurting the animals… or other kids? There was a lot of yelling at this point. I demanded explanations. I demanded that he decide if he was going to be able to live with a family or not. From the social workers, and his therapist I demanded one answer: was there a hidden ‘violent’ side of him that made him a danger? In the end, it was as my son had struggled to explain: “I needed to know if you would send me back if I did something really bad.”

I was still pretty mad, but I was able to resolve this event (after grounding, TV restrictions, etc.) into a project where he had to work with me and repair the damage. We spent a whole day sanding, staining, and refinishing the chest. While not happy about it, we are able to look back on that as a turning point where he began to trust us, and we began to see past his ‘Mr. Sunshine’ demeanor and start to hear about his past.

Ideas that worked – I kept trying to think of ways to ‘check up’ on my son. To make sure that he wasn’t just putting on a show for us, but was really investing in our family. I experimented with things such as loudly announcing that I was going out for some errands – then just circling the block, coming back to the house a while later and looking in the windows to check on him. All I discovered was that a teenage boy can eat a LOT of cereal, and that if we left him alone, our son would clutch a baseball bat and a plastic sword in case of violent intruders.

…and one that didn’t: At one point, we had an older male gerbil, and we got a younger ‘son’ for him to adopt. My idea was to model the whole adoption process, and show that families could be built, and show how the older one takes care of the little boy… Well that experiment took a strange turn when it turned out to be a little FEMALE gerbil, and the babies arrived! I had to explain that most adoptions don’t end up like this!

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The Furry Traitor We used our pets (gerbils, cat, rabbit) as a barometer of what sort of character our son was, and what his behavior was like when we weren’t around. Did the animals seek him out, or shy away? Did his school friends pass the ‘cat test’? We helped teach responsibility by assigning him the mundane pet chores – feeding, cleaning, etc. We tried to teach perseverance through the daily necessity of these chores.

We had one dramatic result from this: One morning the cat met me howling and insistently led me to our son’s dresser and right to some pornography he had stashed away – out of sight of everyone except a demanding Siamese. He dubbed her “The Little Traitor” after that.

Advice From Our Experience

You won’t have to handle everything – but you will get something. No parent, Adoptive or Birth, gets through parenthood unscathed. You won’t have to handle everything, but you will likely have to handle SOMETHING, you just don’t get to pick exactly what. We found the following movies somewhat helpful in understanding what we were facing: “The Martian Child”, “The December Boys”, “Angels in the Outfield”, “Free Willy”, “Holes” and “Big Daddy”.

Alphabet Soup – IEP, ADHD, AS, RDS, SW and many other acronyms will become familiar, as you journey through the school system, therapists, and socializing your child. There will always be something new, and unfamiliar – but it is manageable. Whichever challenges you get, you won’t get them all at once. Like most parents you get just what you can cope with – plus a tiny bit more.

Build a connection. It was important for us to have a child that was invested in us as permanent family, not a temporary home. We tried to model this with specific, concrete ways. He had his own labeled junk drawer – right next to ours; several pictures up on the wall right next to ours; specific chores he was responsible for, etc. Each item was a small thing, but it was something physical that we could point to whenever he felt like he didn’t belong, or was depressed about his background. We wanted to make sure that he wasn’t a visitor – but had a real place in our in HIS home. We included him in every family event. Whether it was a work project, dinner out, or chore to be done, he had his part (pitching in on chores took the longest – I think I am still working on that one).

Tom and Renee A.


About the Family
We met our (future) Son, Justin in October 2004 in DCF care at age 13. He moved in Aug. 2005, and the adoption was finalized Nov. 2006.  During this time, we also became a family resource for Justin’s roommate in state care, Alex, who became our unofficial son.  Today our sons are 24 & 25 and make us very proud of how far they have come, and what truly nice people they are.  We work in technology, and are active in community events, Toastmasters, Cat Rescue, Politics and Foster/Adoption outreach.  Our two cats, and one gerbil were acquired from shelters.  We also have a thriving goldfish that was rescued from a drainage ditch!   Recently, we were approved to adopt again, and are beginning this journey anew. 

4 thoughts on “Adventures in Parenting an Adopted Teen

  1. Tom, Thank-you for sharing your story. I imagine restoring the chest must have been a great bonding experience for the two of you. An expression of dad leadership, forgiveness, talent, love, and trust.

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    1. Hi, thanks. Actually, we got the idea of fixing the chest with him from our MAPP training. I do think it was a good experience. I think it served to reinforce to Justin in some small way that he would not get beaten for things, but he would still need to take responsibility for them. –Renee

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  2. Thank you. it’s been a challenge, and a joy. I hope we do as well with the child we are newly matched to. I think it’s important to share your experiences to inspire those who may not have considered adoption/fostering. it is a daunting task, made easier if you have an idea what to try. – and what might work!

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