She was four years old. Each night she woke with a tummy ache and most often went to her parents’ bed hoping for some relief. Lying next to her mother gave her comfort, but the pain didn’t stop. A doctor finally determined she had a stomach ulcer and treated her. The pain went away, but her mother worried about the stress she was enduring at this young age.
She was nine years old. Her parents were exhausted and always seemed stressed. There was so much shouting and drama at home that she escaped to her friend’s house, where life was calm. It seemed that she practically lived there for a year. Life had changed so much, but she couldn’t talk to her mom who always seemed worried.
He remembered a time when dinner was a happy event. Now, at twelve years old, he dreaded coming to the table. Everyone was on high alert waiting for the screaming and raging to begin. Mom barely had the energy to cook anymore, so dinner wasn’t likely to be that good. It was probably easier to stay away from home.
He was two, but had only joined the family recently. He came from a “hard place” and feared loud noises that reminded him of traumas from his own history. When the screaming started, he curled himself up tightly, rocking back and forth, eyes glazed over, as he escaped inside his mind. His little heart beat so quickly, but nobody could comfort him, they were all busy.
What could have happened to these children? I can tell you, because they are my children and this is their story.
Dr. Karyn Purvis speaks about the importance of giving children “voice,” and we have embraced this as we’ve loved and cared for our children from “hard places.” But what about the children that were already in our family? Did we neglect to give them voice? Did we fail to meet their needs as we desperately worked to help our most traumatized children?
I can tell you that we did, and it breaks my heart to acknowledge it. In March 2007, we brought three children home from Ethiopia. One of them brought severe challenges that turned our family upside down. Our home, which had once been a very happy place, was now in constant tumult. And the children already in our family suffered more than we could have imagined.
In many ways, we failed them. In our effort to bring healing to our children from “hard places” we created a “hard place” for our other children. In our effort to give our children from “hard places” voice, we neglected to give our other children “voice.” This is the hard truth.
We could never have imagined what was happening in our home, and we struggled to find our footing. I’m afraid we expected our other children to somehow simply adjust and cope. Instead, they lost their way and they lost the ability to reach us. When we weren’t in the throes of coping with our wounded children, we were talking, praying, making calls, and sinking lower every day.
Two years into our journey, we began working with a gifted adoption therapist who helped us with our children from “hard places.” We began to see some light shining down into the pit where we found ourselves. Every other week we were able to process the events in our home with somebody who really understood and could help us. Our children began to respond to therapy and we slowly began to recover.
But what about our other children? Were they meeting with a professional every other week? Were they having their concerns heard? Were they gaining new strategies for coping with what their family and home had become? Nearly 18 months into therapy we realized that our other children were not going to spontaneously recover. We needed to intentionally help them find their voices again and make our home a safe place for them.
We began by creating a safer home environment for our youngest children. As Dr. Purvis writes in The Connected Child: “You provide “felt safety” when you arrange the environment and adjust your behavior so your children can feel in a profound and basic way that they are truly safe in their home and with you.”
Staggering bedtimes and putting the more disruptive child to bed first, gave our other children the focused time they needed. It also increased their feelings of safety knowing that when they were tucked into bed, there sibling was settled. There would be no tantrums occurring and no unkind words or physical aggression would come their way. They could rest and let themselves sleep.
Initially all of our children were educated together, but we made the decision to separate them in order to give some children daily respite and others an environment where they also felt safer. By removing competition among siblings, our children from “hard places” were able to relax and learn.
Once our little ones were more secure, we focused on the older children. One evening we hired a babysitter for the five youngest and took our six oldest out for dinner where we talked, laughed, ate, and just enjoyed being with them. When we returned home, we put the little ones to bed and gathered in our family room where the boys pulled the furniture into a tight circle. We told our children that we wanted to understand how they were feeling. We recognized that our dream of loving and serving orphans through adoption was not playing out the way we had envisioned. We acknowledged our family’s difficult situation and how each of our children had been impacted. We then gave each of them an opportunity to talk about their feelings without interruption. It was a very moving, sobering, and hopeful time, and one that Russ and I will never forget.
As a result of that conversation, we worked harder to alleviate the stress and pressures of our older children. We hired people to provide respite and other assistance, simplified our lives even more, and made choices to no longer leave a particular younger sibling in their care. We also tried to free Russ up to spend time with our older children, even making it possible for him to take two ministry trips to Kenya with our older sons.
We had to dig deep to find our family foundation again. We had to grieve the loss of the family we once were and learn to embrace the family we were becoming. Giving all of our children “voice” and creating “felt safety” were integral to that process.
If you are experiencing significant challenges with your child from “hard places” and your other children are struggling, I urge you to look into the faces of your children and take a deep breath. Get some help, take the time, and connect with your other children. Their world has been shaken, like yours, and they are looking to you to hold the family together. By the grace of God, you are able to do it.