The building of trust

I have started packing boxes in earnest, and am quickly entering the phase of it having to get worse before it gets better. Don't worry, I won't subject you to endless posts about me putting things boxes. That would be more tedious than actually having to do the packing. Instead, I'll address something adoption related.

Our children, when they arrive home at older ages do a great job of seeming to understand and navigate their new life. I will admit that I am often fooled by this appearance, and I don't think I'm the only one. The truth is, for a good long time, our children do not understand very much of what is going on around them. I remind people that the first year should just be considered a bust. Not much will make sense, everyone (family and child) are still adjusting to new circumstances and getting to know one another, and survival on all fronts is the name of the game. This is true even for a bright child who really seems to grasp what is going on. I have a story to illustrate my point.

I have been asking children to go through their rooms and start putting into boxes things they think they can live without for a while. Some of this packing has been completely unsupervised, but boxes are full and labelled, and even if I hate myself for it on the unpacking end, this is how they are staying. Stuff in a box cannot be strewn about the house. So in the middle of the process, Y. comes across a marble game that we had given her for her birthday last year. She comes into my room, shows me the game, and says, "You gave this to me for my birthday last year," pausing to shrug her shoulders in a way that communicates complete bafflement, then adds, "but I have no idea why." I paused for a moment, thought, and then asked her to repeat herself so that I could be sure that I understood her. She says the same thing. I then told her that we bought it for her because we loved her and we like to give our children gifts for their birthdays. The lights seemed to go on then, and she looked happy to have this deep mystery finally cleared up. She left with a sense of satisfying comprehension and left me to be the one in complete bafflement.

You see, she understands birthdays. She has told us about how she celebrated them in China. She knows when her birthday is, and has also given us quite an extensive list of items which she would enjoy receiving when her birthday rolls around. She understands it all. Yet, her birthday last year, after she first came home was baffling.

This tells me that she still didn't really comprehend what had happened to her or who these people she somehow ended up with really were. Why were these complete strangers who claimed to be her parents giving her gifts? It is not as though we didn't have Mandarin speakers for her to talk to and ask questions of. This was not a language issue. This was a heart issue.

How many times have a heard a parent who is newly home (as in months newly home) announce, "Oh our new child is so attached to us!"? Can I just say out loud that they are not 'so attached', but merely being pleasant? It takes time to attach. It takes time to form new and deep relationships. It takes time to really trust a person you don't know. In our own lives, we know this. We know deep friendships take time. We know that the love and trust between married couples feels deep and strong at the beginning, but looking back these couples will comment on how little they really knew each other. The attachment between a biological mother and child starts before the baby is even born, and then at birth process continues over the first year as mother and baby get to really know each other. It is actually not normal for a child to attach to a parent immediately. Would you want your biological child, if handed to a stranger, to fall in love with that stranger after a few weeks?

The point to all of this? Take it slow. Do not assume attachment and real relationship too early in the game. Remember the first year is a blur for even a bright, well-adjusted child, and even more so for a child struggling with delays. Do not confuse compliance and pleasantness for trust and love and be careful to continue nurturing those things.

I'll give you another story as to how long trust can take to build, especially if that child has been hurt before. H. continues to process the idea that people can be angry with her and still love her. It's almost as if she is trying to work her way into these specific situations so that she can test her hypothesis. (I know she is not doing this consciously, I might add.) It has only been in the past couple of months that H. has been willing to acknowledge that she might mess up sometimes and do not nice things. She was the perfect child for so long, that this learning of her own imperfection and testing our love for the imperfect her has been hard. There have been lots of tears. It's a little gut wrenching. What most toddlers learn from being toddlers, she now has to learn at a much more difficult age. But underlying it all is the positive news that we have reached a point where she trusts us enough to do this work.

Parents, reframe your timelines. The dance of trust and attachment is a process, one that is not done in a matter months, but over a life time.


sandwichinwi said…
Not the same thing at all, but yet another example of how difficult it must be for our internationally (or domestically) adopted kids:

My high school exchange student, who willingly chose to come to us and speaks excellent English, is just now revealing after 5 months many of the things that were so baffling to her in the beginning. Even with a willingness to join our family AND a good command of the language, she was so confused by so many things. The language and culture barrier is real! And she was hesitant to ask for clarification. She often did, but I imagine it got tedious and embarrassing to ask ALL the time.

I sure wish I had known all these adoption secrets you reveal, e., way back when it would have been helpful with my boys newly home.

Donna said…
"How many times have a heard a parent who is newly home (as in months newly home) announce, "Oh our new child is so attached to us!"? Can I just say out loud that they are not 'so attached', but merely being pleasant? It takes time to attach. It takes time to form new and deep relationships. It takes time to really trust a person you don't know."

I say this all.the.time and get the blank stare. The converse..."my child is not attaching" or "my child has attachment problems"...sometimes while STILL in the birth country! If there is no progress after a year, then consider that there may be issues (and also consider that the issue may be the parents') but don't put that weight on a child just trying to figure out what just happened to his/her life.
Anonymous said…
I would love to know what children's books you recommend on adoption (ages 3-10)!

Popular posts from this blog

Why don't you adopt one of our children?

Adoption 101: Hills to Die On

Adoption 101: Indiscriminate affection