Adoption 101: glitches

I'm not sure I'm completely qualified to write this post, though in truth, I think there are probably very few people who actually are. With that caveat in mind, I will heedlessly jump into the fray and discuss something that a lot of people talk about privately, but that doesn't get mentioned publicly very often. That topic would be the irregular workings of our children's brains... at least those children who have come from less-than-ideal circumstances. I'm not sure anyone really knows what to call this, so I'm going to stick with glitches. Since a glitch is defined as a short-lived fault in a system, it seems to cover what I'm talking about.

I have a feeling that some parents are already nodding their heads in agreement, but probably many others are wondering what this is. Let's see if I can explain. I know a lot of adoptive families and a lot of adopted children. I also am on many internet groups of adopted parents, so my sample size is actually fairly large. Here's what I hear a lot.

"My child does really, really well on something and then it seems as though he forgets everything and has never seen the material before, even though he just did 9 of the same problem."

"My child says everything out loud. I say, 'I'm going to the store," and my child immediately asks, 'Are you going to the store?'"

"My child makes odd noises nearly continuously."

"My child doesn't seem to remember anything."

"My child interrupts. A lot."

And these are just of few of the very consistent statements I hear from a lot of different parents. The only consistent thing about this group is that their children were adopted and that their children had some orphanage time. Other than that, the children come from different countries, live in families of different sizes, go to a variety of schools, and came home at varying ages. I will add that this is my experience as well, both with my labelled special needs children and the supposedly healthy ones.

If you are not expecting it, it can catch you off guard. It can also make you panic thinking that there is something horribly wrong with your child. It is so far out of the realm of regular parenting that 'something horribly wrong' is the only thing that seems to make sense. Until you hear that another family has experienced the same thing, then maybe the alert level heads down to 'very concerning'. Then when you hear the same thing from several other families, you start to be able to breathe again. Finally, when more adoptive parents admit to something like this than not, the whole thing becomes just vaguely annoying and a chance to show your child patience and love while their brains sort themselves out.

So there's the description, now here's my own take on the problem. And it's completely my own personal pet theories and pretty much made up, though based on experience and reading. Take it with as much salt as you like. Disclaimer stated. There are three main points I want to make.

1. These glitchy brains took a long time to create, we can't expect them to de-glitch in a matter of just weeks or months.

Depending on when the child came into care, what the environment was before they came into care, and the number of changes a child went through, there could be a very long history of maladaptation. We want the best for our children and it is hard to think that they will have difficulties with processing for a long time. We love them and really want to believe that this will make everything better. We want to make things better. Right. Now. We give them the enriched, loving environment that we know is good for them and wonder why it isn't working. It is doing something, the trouble is we want the results too fast and we give up too soon. What we are doing may be working, but we need to think in a much longer time frame.

2. We need to think about how a healthy child's brain wires itself and go back and give the glitchy brain a chance to rewire.

I am convinced that as well as supporting our children at the chronological age that they are that we also need to go back and support them at the age when the maladaptation began. If you are an infant and toddler in an orphanage, think of all the things you missed. Putting aside everything that a child learns about relationships in those years, just think about what a child learns to prepare for academic learning. When a Western child raised in a loving, enriching home enters school, they have already had years of learning experiences. They have been read to, sung to, have touched and explored different textures, have built and knocked down hundreds of block towers, have played in the dirt and sand and in water, have colored and practiced writing, been surrounded by print, and played many, many games from peek-a-boo and pat-a-cake to Candyland. They have had parents explain everything to them... how and why we get dressed, why we choose certain clothes at certain times, what we do each day and what order the days come in, what the weather is like and why, how to eat, how to sit and listen, how to share, how to wait and not interrupt, why people feel sad or happy, why they feel sad or happy. The list goes on and on. Much of what a child learns comes from interacting with loving adults.

Now thing about a child in an orphanage or other deprived environment. No toys, no adult thinking that child is the center of the world, no varied experiences, no books, no explanations, no play. A child is left to his or her own devices with very little to stimulate the senses. (I know that some orphanages are better than others, but the point still stands that it takes an adult to help the child order his world and to make sense of it.) When you add in the possibility that a child will move environments and not only have to make sense of the new environment on their own, but the changes as well, you can see why their brains are so different from a child's who has grown up in a stable and nurturing environment.

We really need to go back and let our children, even if they are older, experience those things that they missed. For those of us with little people, it is a fairly easy thing to accomplish since you can make it seem as though you are only playing with the younger, when really it is as much for the older child. (Borrow a younger child if your older child seems reticent.) Get out blocks, play in water, read dozens and dozens of picture books, narrate life the way you would for a younger child, sing songs, play games, hop, skip, jump, and crawl. If you did it with your babies and toddlers, do it with your new (or not so new) older child. It is both nurturing and meets some emotional and developmental needs. Of course, the tricky thing is to be able to do this as well as meeting them at their chronological age as well. I didn't say it was going to be easy. I still contend that having twin babies around for all three of my adopted children is the best thing that could have happened to them.

3. Rewiring is more difficult to do than getting it right the first time and will need more support to be successful.

We need to mediate our children's learning to a degree we don't have to with our children who were raised in stable environments. I posted a little about reading about mediated learning in the work of Reuven Feuerstein. It is still my dream to be able to afford the rather pricey training that is offered here in Chicago to learn more about this, because I think it has great potential to help this population of children. The trouble is that so few in adoption circles know about his work. But in the meantime, we can all be a little more purposeful in explaining and helping our children to understand the connections that are around them. They cannot help the glitches they live with, and as I watch H. grow and understand more of her world, I can see more and more that they frustrate her as well. She just couldn't even begin to verbalize how she felt about it for a long time. She still can't in words, but she can at least express the general emotion now. Can you imagine being so lost in your own head that you can't even begin to understand what is wrong, much less what you feel about it? This is a reality for many of our children. We need to reflect back to them what is going on inside their heads to they can understand as well as explain and describe what is going on in the outside world. It is as though we are slowly blowing away a fog.

If you take anything away from this, take this. Our children cannot help these glitches. They do not do these things on purpose, but only because it is often the only perceived option at the moment. There is no interior life of the mind yet, so everything must be done out loud or it doesn't exist. It is our job as parents to slowly help our children order their minds and their lives so that understanding and a sense of self develops. It is a slow process and often frustrating, but as frustrated as we feel, I truly believe our children feel it even more so. If you've ever asked God for patience, He has given it to you... as a skill to develop, which is, of course, the only way it happens. More than anything else, though, remember that our children are human beings, created in the image of God, first and foremost, and not a problem to be fixed. It may be that the glitches never truly vanish completely, but that does not make them any less valuable.


Carla said…
Great post! Although I currently have no adopted children, I can relate in that I have a biological 2 year old and am sometimes stunned at how often I have to repeat something for it to be learned. I can imagine that if you have an older child that needs this kind of repetition and patience, it could easily be frustrating.

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