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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Older Child Attachment/Bonding

An adoptive mom about to bring home her 2 "older" sons from Ethiopia (Hi Stephanie P!) asked me about Jayden, our 8 year old son, and what his transition, bonding and attachment has been like. She was wondering about any differences with attachment in older children.

I have been surprised by how well our son has transitioned into our family. He lived with his mother until he was 6 years old, where he obviously learned to trust and to love. She was a very young mother and she did her best to provide for her only son, but she needed to work during the day to pay rent and Jayden ran the streets with other children. There were periods during his lifetime when they did not have a home, and there were many days and nights when there was no food. He has been able to tell us some stories of violence he witnessed on the streets. About sleeping on the streets with his mother when they did not have a home. He has told us about making shoes out of cardboard, and sleeping somewhere on a dirt floor where a toilet overflowed and sewage flowed onto them and their belongings (he waved his fingers in front of his crinkled nose and said "stinky" when he told us this story).

We had the rare privilege and honor of meeting his birth-mother while we were in Ethiopia and I was struck by how young she was. I remember noticing how muscular her arms and shoulders were from washing clothes by hand all day (that was her job where she earned $10/month which was just enough to pay rent for a single room with a dirt floor). We spoke for awhile through a translator and I finally asked her the question that had been nagging at my heart ... why was she giving her son up for adoption? I was still trying to understand how a mother arrives at such an unimaginable decision. She explained that she oftentimes did not have enough money for food. He was malnourished and his growth had already been stunted. She worried about his safety during the day while she worked and she wanted him to have a chance at life that she could not provide. She wanted him to live - and in their situation, life was not to be taken for granted.

During this meeting, Jayden sat on Jay's lap with his arms firmly clasped around Jay's neck. While my daughters watched our meeting with Jayden's birth-mother in tears (imagining saying goodbye forever to their mom or dad), Jayden sat on a daddy's lap that he had known only for a few hours. He hugged and kissed his mom good-bye and she gave him a neclace with a pendant of Jesus. She asked me for some photos of our family, which I quickly pulled out of a photo album for her. She pointed to our daughters, stroking their faces and said "pretty". She then said through our translator that it is good for Jayden to have sisters. She was clutching that picture to her chest as she let herself out of the gate.

A day or two later, while we were driving through the city, Jayden suddenly began to recognize his "neighborhood". Following his pointing finger, we weaved our way through tiny alleys and pot-holed roads for about 15 blocks, until we arrived in a village of tin shacks. We tapped on a tin door and we were ushered into a tiny courtyard where 7 families were living. Everyone recognized Jayden and came out to the van to greet him. When I motioned for him to come in - he waved his finger at me and said "no".

Sadly, his mother was not there because she had left for her job. But we were able to see the tiny room, with the dirt floor, where they had lived. No running water, no electricity, and only enough income to keep a tin roof over their heads for safety. I began to understand more fully how a mother would choose to give up her son so that he could live. She loved him enough to give him up.

I have seen figures that say 99.4% of the population in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia lives in slums, a hodge-podge of tin structures that weave endlessly throughout the city. We were in the heart of the slums as we stood where Jayden had lived.

So how has he transitioned and bonded to our family? I sometimes shake my head in amazement. This little boy wanted a daddy more than anything else in the world. He had already distanced himself from his mother because he had spent the last year in an orphanage, and before that he was taking care of himself on the streets. For 6 months before we arrived, Jayden was looking at pictures of his new family - mom, dad and two sisters, and he was dreaming of having a daddy. He immediately latched on to Jay when we were in Ethiopia, and that close relationship has stayed strong and has developed security.
Early on, Jayden would phyically get between Jay and our daughters. He would squeeze in between if Jay was sitting next to one of the girls on the couch, and there were a few occassions where he pushed the girls away from Jay if he showed them any attention or affection. Of course this created some intense situations with the girls and jealousy was flaring. But since then, Jayden has grown secure in his daddy's love and attention, and he no longer feels the need to always be in the center of it.

In the early days, his affection for Jay was nearly overwhelming and sometime discomforting. As bedtime approached, he would climb onto Jay's lap and start kissing every exposed inch of skin, down to Jay's feet. Jay would look at me with a baffled, uncomfortable expression, and then try to ease out of the situation with a big bear hug and a playful scruff on the head. I can only assume that Jayden was displaying his overwhelming love for his daddy in the only way he knew how - with overflowing affection. Those types of moments are in the distant past now as Jayden has developed a more comfortable wasy of expressing himself with hugs and rough-housing. He has also developed a strong bond with each of his sisters. His personality has really begun to shine and he is a joyful and silly little boy - always joking and imitating us.

With me, Jayden has been slower to develop an attachment. At first, he oftentimes seemed nervous or uncomfortable around me. When I would hug him, he wouldn't wrap his arms around me and hug back. I have been careful to let him develop a comfort level with me on his own time and his own terms.

I really did not see many of the bonding or attachment issues that can be prevalent with younger adopted children. We certainly dealt with many of those issues with our 3 year old son, Wesley. Neither of the boys have had any food hoarding issues or food issues in general.

I think with Jayden, he was old enough to understand what was happening to him and he had accepted it. He had learned to love and trust his birth-mother which meant that he had the capacity to love and trust us. He had already made the separation from his birthmother because he was living on the streets most of the time - and had lived in the orphanage for a full year before we arrived to bring him home. All children are different and will react differntly to these difficult situations. I worried about him and his feelings of rejection and loss, but he has taken things in stride and has fully adjusted into our family.

And we can't remember what life was like without our 2 Ethiopian sons!

The photo below shows the hand-woven basket we bought for Jayden in Ethiopia so that he would not lose the pendant neclace and string that his mother gave to him. The other thing he keeps in the basket is the wrinkled and folded photo of Jay and me that he carried in his pocket for months while he waited for us to bring him home.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

I did not realize ...

Because we are part of an adoption community, we are in contact with so many people that are in the process of adopting, or are home with their adopted children. On Saturday, our dear friends and travel companions, the Hutchinsons, came for a visit with their 5 kids (2 adopted from Ethiopia). We always marvel at the "coincidence" of our close friendship ... out of all the people in the world, we ended up being the only two AWAA families to travel to Ethiopia to bring home our kids over that particular Thanksgiving - and we happen to live within 30 miles of each other. Ours is a friendship forged during a most amazing, emotional, and difficult time and we quickly learned to lean on each other and learn from each other while we were in Ethiopia.

And now that we are home - the friendship remains strong and true. We get together as often as we can to share achievements and frustrations, and to encourage each other. The photo above shows the 9 kids in the Wistrom and Hutchinson families! We commented on the miracle of 4 Ethiopian children that have been grafted into our families ... and out of curiosity, I did some quick web research to see how many of the estimated 5 MILLION orphans in Ethiopia came home to American families last year.

What is your guess? How many children were adopted from Ethiopia in 2008?? 50,000?? 100,000?? 25,000??

Only 1,725.

I did not realize that of the 5 million orphans in Ethiopia, only 1,725 are now at home with their new families in America.

I was surprised to discover that there were a total of only 17,433 international children adopted by American families. That's 17,433 TOTAL international adoptions. A sharp decline from over 20,000 in 2007. And only 1,725 of those kids were adopted from Ethiopia - and 4 of them ended up in the Wistrom and Hutchinson families.

What about all of the kids we held and interacted with at the orphanages??

I have a tendency to translate the outcome of my own children to most of the other orphaned children we saw in Ethiopia. Within our own small adoption community (several hundred families that we have gotten to know so well through our chat group last year and this year) we have celebrated as we have watched children being united with their forever families. I've told the story before about the 5 kids that arrived at the Transition Home in Ehtiopia on the day we left with our kids. That heartwrenching scene as 5 scared, vulnerable kids tumbled out of the car and sobbed in fear at their new surrounding - alone and scared with nobody they knew to love and protect them. Those 5 kids now have the thing they longed for most - the love and protection of a forever family. But that is the exception and not the rule!! The vast majority of the kids we met, and cuddled with, and held in Ethiopia, continue to languish in an orphanage, yearning for the one thing a child wants most ... a family.

The statistics are staggering - nearly 5 million orphans in Ethiopia alone. That does not include the millions of orphans throughout the rest of Africa, or Asia or the rest of the world. If you have ever considered adoption for your family, I encourage you to take the step and begin the journey. It will be the most rewarding and amazing experience for you, for your bio children, and for the children you adopt.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Easter Photos

Of course, neither of the boys had ever seen, heard about, or done an Easter egg hunt before, but it didn't take long for them to catch on to the idea. We assigned colors, and then Jay and I hid them around the yard. Hard places for the big kids ... easy places for the littlest kid. We counted them before we hid them, so we knew exactly how many each kid needed to find. Much fun was had by all, and the chocolate eggs disappeared as quickly as they were found.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Boy meets turtle ...

It's no secret that our daughters have a fascination with turtles. Fortunately, we have a pond in our neighborhood that provides days upon days of summer fun for the kids. Last year, we bought the girls a small row boat and they immediately set out teaching themselves to paddle and navigate like pros. They use the boat to scout for turtles that are floating contentedly and naively in the water with their little heads poked above the surface. One daughter slowly and silently rows the boat up to the turtle while the other daughter stands in the prow with net poised to scoop the turtle up from underneath. Last year they caught nearly 100 turtles - they released the big ones and put the baby ones in a turtle tank for the summer, and then released them again in the Fall.

On Saturday, it was hovering between 40-50 degrees as we took a walk around the pond. Emme asked me how soon I thought the turtles would emerge from hibernation and I answered, "probably not for a few more weeks. It's still too cold for them." Moments later we saw about 6 turtles sunning themselves on logs in the pond. Emme started jumping and dancing around, begging to take out the boat so she could try to catch some.

Emme ended up catching about 5 turtles in various sizes and then brought the bucket to shore to show the boys. Wesley was immediately interested. He observed for awhile "from a safe distance", moved in cautiously for a closer look, and then reached out a tentative finger to touch the shell. We emptied the bucket on the path and the turtles took off in different directions. Wesley was very concerned, and rushed about using his finger to pin them to the ground so they could not run off. Then he slowly gained confidence and eventually was picking them up and putting them back in the bucket.

Jayden was also very intested but wasn't trying to pick any of them up. I asked him to hold one for a picture and he danced around nervously. I showed him how to hold them and he picked one up and grinned for the camera. The entire time he was grinning - he was barking out short, high-pitched shrieks between his teeth every time the turtle moved. The street-smart, tough kid from the streets of Addis Ababa was scared of a turtle! We were rolling with laughter ... and he was too.

Monday, April 6, 2009

A glimmer of a breakthrough!

Before we adopted, we read the recommended books and thoroughly discussed "bonding and attachment" issues with our social worker. This is a critical topic in adoption because orphans often arrive with "baggage" from their past that can affect how they bond/attach with their adoptive parents. A lack of attachment can have a long-term effect on a the child's ability to fully trust. At first glance, this may not seem like a critical issue - but TRUST is the basis for every relationship, within the family and beyond.

With a biological child, this reciprocal trust occurs naturally in a healthy relationship. Your baby cries and a parent immediately responds to his needs (hungry, tired, cold or hot, wet diaper, etc.) This regular interaction (cry - respond, cry-respond, cry- respond) creates a natural bond of trust and love. Later the child responds and learns and loves because they have learned early in life to TRUST. Orphaned children may not have learned this reciprocal trust early in life for a variety of reasons - perhaps the parent just wasn't there to respond. Children who don't learn to attach, can manifest a variety of relationship issues - as children and later as adults. Experts much wiser than I have written volumes on this topic, so I will leave the complete explanations for them.

With Wesley, our 2 year old, we noticed evidence of bonding and attachment issues within a few days of arriving home. Before we had even travelled to Ethiopia, our monthly reports contained information about his behavior - he would quickly resort to biting or hitting when he was angry. When we travelled to Ethiopia to bring home our sons, each of us were victim to one of his bursts of anger. When something happened that didn't fit his plans, he would turn and bite or hit or scratch. Poor Maea got bit on the cheek on two different occasions - and these were not little nips but a full-fledged bite that needed to have his little jaws pried loose.

The other issue we noticed is that he was not recognizing us as parents with any parental authority. If we said "No" to hitting or biting, or insisted that he eat some fruit or vegetables, or proclaimed that it was bedtime - he would respond with a tantrum, no eye contact, a glare, rhythmic crying - or seek out another person to try to get his way. This would even happen in public - at a coffee shop for example, where he pointed to a cookie and I shook my head "no". He would arch his back and writhe to be put down. He immediately went to Jay, raised his arms to be picked up and then demanded the cookie. When Jay shook his head "no", he writhed and arched his back to be put down. He then stepped to the next person in line - a stranger - and lifted his hands to be held so he could ask for the cookie.

This indiscriminate preference and affection to strangers was exhibited many times in public. As parents, we have a huge investment in his long term well-being and health, and we have the sometimes difficult task of saying "no" for his own good. For a child that has not "attached" to us as parents - we are simply obstacles standing in the way of getting what he wants. And if he does not learn a healthy attachment to us - he will continue to view people as obstacles and will not form appropriate relationships, but will manipulate people to get what he wants.

To others, children with attachment issues seem like the most charming and outgoing and social of children. That is until they don't get what they want - then they are not charming or social. Whether we were in church, in a store, at a coffee shop, anyone that approached to say "hello" was immediately met with Wesley's beautiful smile, twinkling eyes and outstretched arms. Yes - absolutely charming but absolutley not normal or appropriate behavior for a child this age. Think of your children and nieces and nephews - can a perfect stranger approach, and will your child readily dive into their arms?

However - this is normal behavior learned in an orphanage. When a visitor arrives, the cutest, most charming child that clambers into the arms or lap of a visitor first, will get the attention and maybe even a treat from their pocket. This is survival behavior - but it does not work well within a family and is not healthy behavior in the long run.

So what do you do? Recognize it and know that creating an EXCLUSIVE bond of trust and love will take time. For us, once we recognized the behavior, we began to set guidelines and rules so that we can help him learn to trust, bond and attach to us exclusively as his parents. Jay and I exclusively are the ones to meet all of his needs - bedtime, soothing, eating - and the only ones to discipline him. We are also the only ones to hold him.

This can create awkward situations at times when someone you know approaches, and he eagerly reaches for them and tries to climb into their arms - and I have to say "no-no". Sometimes people ask to hold him and reach for him, and I have to explain that we are working on bonding and attachment and only Jay and I can hold him for now. Sometimes this explanation is met with a puzzled look and a frown. With extended family members (like grandparents, aunts and uncles) this is especially difficult to not allow others to hold him or snuggle with him for now. Once we explain the situation, everyone seems to understand but it is awkward and difficult.

Week after week went by, and I saw little progress in this area. The first smiling face or greeting he received in public from a stranger or friend, he would eagerly reach for them and lean in to be picked up or held. About 2 weeks ago, we spent spring break in Florida with Jay's parents. Being outside of our normal home environment and routine, and in a household with 2 extra adults presented all kinds of opportunties for Wesley to push the boundaries and defy the established rules. Jay and I stayed consistent with the discipline which I think was important for Wesley to understand that our rules are the same whether we are home or not. In hindsight, I think he was testing the boundaries on purpose and was reassured to discover that the protective guidelines were still in place. For a child - that is security.

Fortunately, Jay's parents were very understanding of our rules about "no holding or snuggling" and complied with our request, even though I am sure it was difficult.

BREAKTHROUGH - After arriving home from our trip, we attended chuch and Wesley was greeted by one of our friends. Instead of trying to leap into his arms, he leaned back against me, reached out his hand for a "hand-shake", and then promptly pulled his hand back. Wow - that was something new for him. Not sure if this was truly a breakthrough, I watched his behavior through the remainder of the week. And sure enough - each time he was greeted by a stranger or a friend, he leaned into me or Jay, and would even tighten his little arms around our necks. Now THAT is a breakthrough!

It has been 4 months and he is definitely learning to trust us and is forming a healthy attachment to us. Speaking to another adoptive mom about this issue, she too mentioned that it was about the 3 month mark when they began noticing a reassuring behavior change in their adopted daughter.

As I was scanning back through some of our pictures from Ethiopia, I started noticing a recurring theme in the photos with Wesley. In every photo from our trip, he is leaning AWAY from us as we are holding him. When I look back at those photos now, it dramatically brings into focus the remarkable change this little boy has made in 4 short months!

Now that I have come to know this little boy so well, he has become one of my own and I know his body language and his facial expressions. When I look back at these pictures I see fear in his face. I see his little body staying stiff and his face staying expressionless and his body leaning away whenever we hold him. He doesn't know us - we are strangers and we are taking him away from everything familiar and known.

The lack of eye contact, the defiance, the affection to strangers - these are all painful to experience as a mother because at the core level it is rejection. But over time - and with consistent love, consistent boundaries and consistent teaching him how to accept and be secure in our love, he is slowly learning to love us back. Has our son fully achieved bonding and attachment? NO. Are we making progress in the right direction? Definitely YES. Do we need to continue with the guidelines to help him learn bonding and attachment? Yes we are making great progress but we need to firmly cement this concept in his mind.

The pictures below are from our trip to Ethiopia - before he began to bond with us as family. Notice how he is stiff or expressionless or leaning away from us in each photo.

The next several photos below are more recent. In these photos I can see a complete change in his body language. His little arms willingly wrap around us and hug us tight. His face lights up with genuine joy when he sees us. There are times when he is playing with his blocks or fully engaged with a puzzle and I can hear him whispering to himself ... "mommy, daddy, mommy, daddy". Progress? yes!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

THIS is what it's all about!

When we were in Ethiopia, on the day we were picking up our sons at the Transition Home, Rachel had to leave for awhile because she was bringing some new children to the Transition Home. Initially hearing this, I thought how nice it was that a few more children would be leaving an orphanage and coming to the secure and nurturing environment of the AWAA Transition Home. I didn't fully understand what a traumatic and terrifying experience a move like that is to the children.

Oftentimes, the kids don't understand what is happening to them. They are pulled from the only place and the only people that are familiar to them. No matter how bad the situation is wherever they are - it is the only place they know. For some kids, they may be waiting in vain for a parent to return to them and bring them home - and by leaving, they think they have lost all possible ties to a parent (a parent that would not be returning for them). "How will mommy find me now?"

I hadn't really envisioned the trauma of the move to a new place until I saw it firsthand. Shortly after we arrived at the Transition Home, the gate opened and Rachel drove into the courtyard with 5 children in the back seat. She had a distressed look on her face as she got out of the car, and she motioned for a few nannies to come and help. She explained that one child had thrown up in the backseat, and another was sobbing unconsolably. As the children stumbled from the car, dazed and scared, they huddled together in the courtyard, staring back in fear at the unfamiliar faces they saw.

I scooped up one little girl in my arms and reached for another as she stood with her fists balled up in her eyes, tears streaming down her cheeks. She peered through the tears at me and then her sobs turned into a scream of fear. A nanny swept her up into her arms and hustled her off to the home, mumuring calmly to her as they walked away. With one little girl wrapped in my arms, I slowly approached a little boy and girl who were standing together. The little boy's arms were wrapped protectively around the little girl.

He stood like a little island for a brief moment, then his nostrils flared and he fought the tears, but his face crumpled and his little body shook with big sobs. He pulled the little girl closer - gestured between himself and her, and somehow I understood that she was his little sister. He was so scared and he was doing his best to be brave - and to be brave for her. I hugged him and moments later Jay, Emme and Maea slowly approached and tried to comfort the kids. The little boy told me his name was "Bereket" and he gestured to his mouth to ask for water. We got him and his sister a glass of water and they gulped it down thirstily.

I was haunted by this glimpse into the world of an orphan - alone and scared and vulnerable. Rachel asked me to take a few pictures of each of the kids, so she could use them for referral photos. Together, we washed up faces and wiped noses, and tried to coax smiles out of the kids since these would be the first photos their new families would ever see.

A few days later, we returned to the Transition Home to drop off a few items and all of the kids came running to see who was arriving. I was so amazed to see how quickly the new kids had adapted - as they came running to the car, smiling and giggling and waving as hard as they could.

This happened in early December and I have been waiting with great anticipation as these kids were referred to families. Just four months later, several of these kids have passed court and they now have forever families. I am amazed at the change in their lives in just four short months. THIS is what it is all about!!! "God sets the lonely in families" and these children are loved more than they know, by families they have not even met yet!

The little brother and sister, Bereket and Bertu, are now officially VanDruffs, and will soon be meeting their mom and dad. The child that threw up in the back seat of the car and stared solemnly at us with big, terrified eyes has now passed court and is officially a Bartel. Watch their video and look at the transformation (we could not coax a smile from her that day) in this beautiful little girl as she has come to know what love is!

This is what adoption is all about!