She waltzes through the church, charming grandmas with her sweet-dimpled grin and black curls, enticing friends with generosity, beguiling teachers with clever responses, entertaining classrooms with humor, and impressing ushers with politeness. He does the same. They all do.
The most common symptom of a child with attachment issues is their ability to charm others. They’re not necessarily trying to con people. They are simply employing survival techniques they learned in their formative years of life. If you go to church with adoptive families, please love on those children. But be aware that they’re likely presenting a shiny gloss that camouflages their real selves.
If the church is going to encourage adoption and foster care during Adoption Awareness month …
… then there are some things they need to learn about the children who have experienced trauma and the loss of their biological parents. A great start is The Connected Child by Dr. Karyn Purvis and other resources found at Empowered to Connect.
Here’s the basic gist.
Infants cry because they are in some sort of distress: hungry, thirsty, wet, bored, too hot, too cold, sick, and so on. When they experience stress their body releases hormones (like adrenalin and cortisol), causing their nervous system to start firing, tensing up their little bodies. When primary caregivers step forward and meet their needs, everything returns to normal. This cycle happens tens of thousands of times in the first year of the child’s life, establishing the understanding that a loving adult will always take care of them.
However, if at some point in a child’s life this doesn’t happen, especially at young ages, the child’s bodily systems never get a chance to return to normal. Many live for years with constant elevated levels of physical stress—even when they’re sleeping. Not only that, the child never learns to trust anyone other than themselves. They’ve pretty well figured out ways (most of which are inappropriate) to care for themselves (including charming people).
While these children charm others outside their new home, inside it they feel threatened. They don’t know how to relinquish the responsibility of their well-being to those who are expecting them to do so. So at home they are fighting for their lives. Their tactics include manipulation, stealing, lying (constantly and often ridiculously), tantrums, destroying property, sexual acting out, disrespect, and defiance. Either that or they’re overly clingy and whiny.
Their new parents are confused (this was not what they expected—especially for the long haul), they feel powerless to effect a change, they are exhausted, and feel like failures. When they try to explain what they’re dealing with at home, they find it nearly impossible to find adequate verbiage to express it clearly. And so they end up feeling alone and trapped in a cyclone of dysfunction.
So what can the church do?
Love these children.
They need it, and their parents need people in the church to love them and help them learn how to feel safe.
But, don’t spoil them.
Don’t give them candy or special gifts. Before adopting our children, I had the same impression as many other Americans do: that orphans have never eaten candy and never received birthday or Christmas gifts. Boy did I learn differently! People in this world who have the resources to do so are very benevolent to the fatherless. Candy is the most frequently gifted item. These children have eaten more than most other children. Some of them may have medical reasons (like a zillion cavities) to avoid treats. So when people give these children treats, it may force the parents into the “bad cop” role with their child when they have to withhold the treat.
If a family in the church is adopting a new child and people want to give them “welcome” gifts, this can be very helpful. But please give it to the parents without the child knowing it. The dependency on other adults for things needed/wanted has to be broken. The children must learn experientially that their new parents will provide for all their needs (and some of their wants). Otherwise, the child will continue to depend on other adults well into their own adulthood, reinforcing a deep rooted sense of entitlement.
Consistency in the way all children are treated is essential.
Then some children were brought to Him so that He might lay His hands on them and pray; and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
Matthew 19:13-14, NASB
The church needs to do all it can to present a safe and loving Savior to all children.
Trust the parents.
One of the things I lost as an adoptive parent was friendships. My children knew how to survive, which means they knew how to get people to like them—a skill developed so they could get people to feed and bathe them, giving them the attention their biological parents didn’t (or couldn’t). As a result, they employed these skills on my friends, slowly siphoning favor toward themselves and away from my husband and I. When misbehavior required us to shorten the leash, other adults frequently sided with our children and challenged us.
Adults in the church, please, never let a charming child interfere with your relationship with their parents. Furthermore, don’t let their charm drag you into the middle of their relationship with their parents.
Sometimes children who’ve come from hard places into a new family situation will accuse their new parents of abuse. I’ve friends who’ve had to deal with these kinds of false accusations. Many children are indeed suffering at the hands of adults in their lives and need intervention. So when someone in the church receives such a report from an adoptive child, I suggest they respect the new parents enough to talk to them directly about it. If still uncomfortable, they should talk to another adult who knows the family well. If church leadership has come on board with the needs of foster and adoptive families (discussion on this in the next two weeks), then hopefully there is also a qualified leader in the church who knows how to decipher what’s really happening.
Most importantly, people in the church need to remember the amazing people these parents were before they adopted. Listen to them and support them even when what they say doesn’t make sense. Avoid undermining their parenting efforts at all cost. Though children from hard places need to be loved and safe, they MUST learn it first from their new parents—no matter how old they are. All other people need to take a backseat. And remember, children are served best, when their parents are served first.
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