Your Expectations About the Emotional Needs of Your Child

An excerpt from The Post-Adoption Blues:
Overcoming the Unforeseen Challenges of Adoption

by Karen J. Foli, Ph.D., and John R. Thompson, M.D.

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"My child will like me, attach to me, and learn to love me."

There are many books that address the dynamics of the child's attachment and bonding, but few have explored how the lack of a child's attachment and bonding create feelings in the parents. These feelings can manifest themselves as confusion, anger, rejection, and deep sadness. Many parents believe that if they love enough, their child will reciprocate that love. Many times the child learns to respond, but there are also times when intervention is necessary. Your child comes to you with months, perhaps years, of learning how not to trust in others. Logically, you understand this; but if attachment is delayed, it can be nearly impossible for you to depersonalize this lack of attachment.

Esther confided to her support group how it felt to feel rejected after years of living with her daughter, Linda. She and her husband had adopted the child 4 years before, when Linda was 3. Now Esther lives with her anger, which has created a power struggle between her and her daughter:

It hurts. She turned to me and said, "You're not my mother anymore. I don't like you." I had just had it with her. I told her, "Fine. You'll give us our name back. You will not be a part of the family. You reject me, you reject the family."

Then she tested that on my husband, whom I hadn't said a word to. She announced at the dinner table that she didn't want me as her mother anymore. He echoed everything I had said to her: she would give up the last name and not live here.

We never heard another word about it. But she constantly tells me, "I don't trust you." I answer her, "I don't trust you either. You haven't earned my trust."

At times, children will attach to one parent more than the other. This preference for your partner can be painful. You're torn between the relief that your child has been able to bond to another and feelings of being alone and confused because that person wasn't you.

"My child will be as happy as I am."

You've waited months, years for this child. The anticipation of finally welcoming your child home is filled with joy. Her room awaits her. You have painted, wallpapered, purchased furniture, and changed your life to make everything ready for this child. But wait. She looks so sad. She's crying. She's confused. This holiday was supposed to be so happy for the family. Why is your child sullen and unhappy at Halloween/Thanksgiving/Christmas/her birthday?

Perhaps you thought things were going well. Your child had adjusted and her behavior had improved dramatically. Now, suddenly, she is exploding again, acting inappropriately in public, and crying for no reason. You're lost and wondering what is going on.

Anniversary responses to placement or other traumas can trigger unexpressed sadness in your child. She probably doesn't understand it herself and acts out the way children do -- through behavior. In some cases, she may have been placed so many times that she has lost track of those specific events and focuses on birthdays and holidays, traditional family times, to express how she feels through her behavior.

Your child may also come into your home with some chronic levels of stress and depression, feelings that are rooted in years of struggle. Responding to her past environments, the child has coped by using skills that were appropriate to that setting; yet behavioral changes (responses to perceived threats) could not alter her stress, depression, and anxiety (generalized fear).

If your child is older, she comes with a past that is one of the most significant influences on her present ability to feel and enjoy happiness. The joy of childhood may have been, at best, interrupted; at worst, that joy never existed. All human beings have basic needs in order to sustain life: oxygen, water, and food top the list. But there is also the need to feel safe. A chronic lack of feeling safe may be at the root of your child's inability to live a happy life in her new family.

"My child's needs will be the same as those of other children."

There are a multitude of parenting books that teach us about development and the "normal" milestones of children. As we've discussed, with time you will understand what needs your child may have. Multiple placements and damaging caregivers can leave a child with multiple and complex behaviors -- behaviors that overwhelm you, frighten you, and fill you with a sense of hopelessness.

But what about the tea parties? What about throwing the ball in the backyard? As with any child, adoptees need to be kids. Their play is their work. That's what they need to do, despite other needs that may exist or develop.

The evaluations by experts, the hours of therapy and tutoring, on top of just keeping a household running, can make us forget that playing is important to the child and to you. When you play, the child begins to know you. You are reminded of why you wanted to parent and of the joy parenting can bring.

Yet there may have been so many disappointments, so many celebrations gone wrong. Perhaps your child has accused you of horrible acts. Your resentment builds upon your anger. The child takes on the persona of a saboteur. A cycle forms. You become defensive when planning special events, anticipating that your child may act out. All of your strategies have failed up to this point. And on top of the anger, you feel helpless to change your behavior or your child's.

At times, you don't think of your child as a child. You forget that underneath the hurt and detachment, there is a young soul. You can't get past your anger to try again. You feel a stalemate has been reached. Yet the status quo doesn't seem to make anyone very happy. You wonder where is the happy family you envisioned.

You know your child needs something, but you aren't sure anymore what those needs are, or where to find help to meet those needs. You know your needs as a parent aren't being met, either. Where has the laughter, the lightheartedness, and the solidarity of the family gone?

"My child's story is our family's story."

Photograph albums now include a new face ... a new child ... your child. She is part of you now and is making family history along with other family members. But her history is different. She will need to make sense of it. Her peers and the public she is exposed to will ask questions of her and she will need answers for them.

[Karen J. Foli, Ph.D., is a registered nurse, medical writer, and the author of Like Sound through Water: A Mother's Journey through Auditory Processing Disorder. John R. Thompson, M.D., is a board-certified psychiatrist specializing in child and adolescent issues. The married couple resides in Bloomington, Indiana. Drawing on their own experience as adoptive parents as well as interviews with dozens of adoptive families and experts in the field, Drs. Foli and Thompson offer parents the understanding, support, and concrete solutions they need to overcome the post-adoption blues -- and open their hearts to the joy that adoption can bring. For more information, please visit Karen Foli's Web site, or]

Reprinted from "The Post-Adoption Blues: Overcoming the Unforeseen Challenges of Adoption" by Karen J. Foli, Ph.D., and John R. Thompson, M.D. (August 2004; $14.95US/$21.95CAN; 1-57954-866-0) © 2004 by Karen J. Foli, Ph.D., and John R. Thompson, M.D. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098. Available wherever books are sold or directly from the publisher by calling (800) 848-4735 or visit their website at

The Power of a Clumsy Hello

What I learned from being "Sister of Joe"

by Maura Conlon-McIvor

[The following is an excerpt from Conlon-McIvor's memoir, FBI Girl: How I Learned to Crack My Father's Code, available from Warner books at all major booksellers in August 2004. For more information, please visit, or]

A fertile revolution against the status quo carved the social landscape of the 1960s. The events that riveted us to the TV mirrored another experienced in our home, albeit one with a quieter face. Joe, my youngest brother, was born with Down's syndrome. In the '60s, mental retardation wasn't cause for flowers or marches on the street. It was hush-hush news.

The scientific explanation for Down's syndrome echoes as a fait accompli: A genetic abnormality occurs in mitosis with an additional 21st chromosome, accounting for an array of developmental and physical challenges. As a kid this meant little to me, beguiled as I was by the poem my mother had placed next to Joe's crib: A meeting was held far from the earth. It's time again for another birth, said the angels to God above. This child will need much love.

I was in the second grade when Joe was born. My parents didn't learn of Joe's diagnosis for months, but they weren't fools to the obvious. Joe's "difference" settled over the family like a dense fog. Dad, a special agent for the FBI, assumed a deeper gravitas. Silence burrowed into our already quiet household. My mother shed tears over dessert. We kids went underground. Finally, my teacher, a concerned nun, rang one night, asking my mother why I'd become so sad.

Her phone call instigated what would become the first of many Conlon Family Meetings, presided over by my mother. We had reached the official switchback going from Life Before Joe to Life After Joe. In the world of the 1960s, my brother's birth was a tragedy. Our mission, if we chose to accept it, was to discover what the tragedy masked. Instinct would be our guide, as would the radar bleeping from our hearts.

I don't want to romanticize the notion of mental retardation. Such oft-called "accidents of nature" can be cause of real heartbreak. The boy you envisioned as star quarterback learns to tie his shoelaces at age ten. The girl who might teach physics instead boards the bus for special school. Opportunities have widened in recent years for people like Joe. Still, these children are paradigm busters. You don't hear them mentioned in wedding vows. And mothers and fathers who devote their lives to raising these kids worry about their care when the parents are gone.

But I was Joe's sister. SOJ. Sister of Joe, the person who helped him brush his teeth and get into his pjs at night. I was the pathologically shy kid and he the severely retarded one. Together we made our way into the world.

Joe spoke with a quiet animation. I learned to understand him by peering into his eyes, deciphering his mono-syllabisms using a combination of intuition, pantomime and later sign language. I discovered he could learn words using lyrics so I'd play the piano and he'd sing along as best he could. Ours became a language similar to music, enveloping the heart's larger truths so often constrained by human words.

Soon enough, my shyness morphed into the palpable hope of learning to scatter joy the way Joe did. My brother was the king of collapsing space and time. After school he'd stand on our corner sidewalk, and wave to car after passing car. The drivers, coming home from work, would crack a smile, some rolling down their window and yelling hi back. Joe approached people in restaurants, markets, theaters, ball parks, surprising them with his eager handshake and clumsy hello. Nobody was a stranger to Joe.

My father, the special agent, was a gravely quiet and sometimes a cynical man. After biting into his sandwich one day, he quipped that normal people were really the retarded ones. His work in the shadowy underworld no doubt contributed to this sentiment. But I knew what my father was saying. Joe held the mystery of love that melts the walls we "normals" spend our lives constructing. Joe made sense of nonsense by teaching us how to live in the moment.

The human heart is wired with an innate intelligence. How easy to forget this when we are preoccupied with pursuing "intelligence" of another kind. These days when fear of the other so pervades our culture, I am grateful for the greatest lesson I learned from Joe: our world is made by our reaching out and saying a clumsy hello.

Copyright © 2004 by Maura Conlon-McIvor

On Tic Disorders

by a Mother in Virginia

Here are 10 tips about tics I've learned through my family's experience.

1. Don't panic or try to make your child suppress tics -- it can only make them worse and damage his or her self esteem.

2. As soon as one tic goes away, another equally annoying one might take its place in a few weeks or months.

3. Don't presume there is a cure. In our case, medications like Clonodine did not help and had other bad side effects.

4. Certain stimulant medications like cough medicines can definitely trigger tics, and once you turn them "on" it can take quite a bit of time for them to turn themselves "off" even if you stop the meds immediately. Be really careful when using stimulants like Ritalin, as these are well known to bring out or increase tics.

5. Keep in mind that most people don't notice the tics nearly as much as you do.

6. Explain to your child that the tic is just the way his brain works, that a lot of really smart people have tics and that it is not a big deal. Tell him he can just explain to friends that he has a "tic" if people ask him. Having a response to give to nosy people really helps, and they stop asking once they get an explanation. You can share the information with teachers and guidance counselors to help them deal with nosy or unkind children.

7. Have faith that your child will come to accept his tic condition (provided you are accepting and act like it's no big deal) as part of who he is. Think about all the people you work with or might know in life from church or school who blink or do other less than typical things but you don't even give it a second thought. These are folks with tic disorders. They are everywhere if you observe carefully. In families where tics are in the genetic code, when Jr. gets diagnosed Grandma might say, "Oh yes, your Uncle Albert did the same thing" ... but in the days before there were labels for everything parents didn't get so excited about tics or think of it as a "disorder." It was just something funny your kid did.

8. If any children are mean or rude, don't hesitate to gently call the parent and politely explain what a tic condition is so that they can ask their child to be sensitive and kind.

9. Stress does exacerbate the underlying genetic conditions causing tics, and kids may improve tremendously after they're removed from a stressful school environment. Talk to your child and see if there's anything stressing him or her out. You can't fix everything, but see if there's any way to relieve some pressure.

10. Most of all, remember that the majority of tics either get a lot better or go away as the child approaches adolescence.

On Lying

by Terri Mauro

Lying is a real line-in-the-sand issue for a lot of parents. It's hard not to react viscerally when a child tells a blatant untruth, and we may feel if we don't crack down, our fibbing kids will become shifty, unreliable adults — or worse, politicians. But while lying is objectively bad, I think the way we deal with it as parents, and particularly as parents of children with special needs, has to be subjective.

My own personal prevaricator has fetal alcohol effects, and this does lead to what some people would call "crazy lying." Most of the time, though, I don't think he's lying with intent to deceive, and so I don't come on strong with punishment. Often, he lies because he doesn't know what the truth is — he's done something impulsively, and he has no idea why he's done it or even that he's done it, and people are demanding an explanation and not taking "I don't know" for an answer, and so he comes up with something. I try in those cases to explain to him why I think he did the thing, and what he could say when asked, and hope that he will eventually develop an emotional vocabulary for dealing with stuff like this.

He has a real fear of strong emotions and anger, and so will sometimes lie to divert those strong emotions away from himself, although in ways that always make it clear he's not telling the truth (as when he blames his invisible dog for whatever's gone wrong); at those times, I deal with the behavior firmly but very gently, and let him know I know he's lying without making a big deal of it. Other times, he just makes stuff up to be part of a conversation; at those times, I'll ask him questions to draw him out and help him develop a story, and that way it becomes a fun interaction between us and not just a pointless fib.

If your child is lying but appears to be without malevolant intent, one thing that may be helpful is to do some behavior analysis and see if there's any pattern as to when or why he lies. If you can find one, it can give you a clue as to how to help him stop. Here's how to start: For two weeks or so, take no action on the lying but just observe. Make a page for each day, with boxes for each hour, and record when he lies, what he lies about, and anything of note that happened during the day. At the end of the two weeks, examine the records you've kept and see if the incidents have anything in common. Does he lie more at any particular time of day? Any particular days of the week? Before or after any particular events of his day? When he's had contact particular children or adults? Does he lie to get out of things? Does he lie in response to impulsive behavior? Do his lies have purpose, or are they flights of fancy? Does he know he's lying? Does he intend to deceive? Is he more likely to lie when he's tired, or when he's wired? Is he more likely to lie when you're tired, or extra-vigilant?

The hardest part of all this may be to turn off your automatic gut reaction of hatred for lying, take a step back, and look at what's really going on. But that may be what your child needs most of all.

copyright (c) 2003 by Terri Mauro

... And More on Lying

by Sharon Bell

Another point to consider in the picture on lying is that in some cases processing difficulties result in honest but inaccurate perceptions, or events get mixed up in the brain in a way that changes meaning. In these cases, the child who is doing his/her best to tell the truth may be accused of lying because of these inaccuracies. Some children with ADD and/or memory problems have to "fill in the blanks" so constantly to make sense out of the world that they don't even realize when they've done it. So they automatically figure out how things "must have" happened, and that's what they remember and tell about. Some children get events out of order -- which matters if you're asking, "Did Bobby hit you before or after you took his toy?"

So when thinking about how and why the lying occurs, consider also: How aware is the child of his own actions? Can she tell a story in order from beginning to end, or does it get mixed up? What are the chances that this child was able to notice and remember the information I am asking for?

[Sharon Bell is the mother of two children with AD/HD and other learning challenges, and veteran of numerous IEP meetings.]

copyright (c) 2003 by Sharon Bell

Behavior Management Plan for Multiple Disabilities

Written for:
8-year-old girl
Hearing impaired (mild-moderate loss)
PTSD, ADHD, learning disorder
Self-contained hearing-impaired class with partial mainstreaming
Reader Submission


Overview of Behavioral Issues Associated with Post-Institutionalized Children

Specific Behavior Plan for [Child]
I. Create rules that target specific behaviors.
II. Provide constant positive feedback when rules are not being broken.
III. Provide immediate, unemotional time-outs when a rule is broken.
IV. Adjust the environment to make it easy to follow rules.
V. Assess effectiveness of plan on a regular basis and make adjustments.

Overview of Behavioral Issues Associated with Post-Institutionalized Children

In working with [Child] and managing her behavior, it will be helpful to understand a few things about the effects of institutionalization on young children.

While there is no single pattern of response to neglect and deprivation, children who have been institutionalized tend to display disturbances in four areas. All studies of post-institutionalized children have found that the presence and severity of disturbances are correlated with the institutional environment, length of institutionalization, and the child’s individual resilience. The four areas are:

• Attachment (characterized by indiscriminant social approach, an apparent lack of awareness of social boundaries, and difficulty in picking up social cues)

• Inattention/overactivity (generally associated with PTSD and anxiety)

• Quasi-autistic behaviors (stereotypies, motor and sensory impairments, obsessive compulsive behaviors, impairments in social-reciprocal relationships)

• Cognitive delays or dysfunction (with greatest delays in the area of language and verbal reasoning)

[Child] is affected in each of these areas and they, in turn, affect her behavior.

Socially and emotionally, [Child] functions at the level of a preschooler. She has made amazing progress in the areas of attachment and emotional development, but she is not caught up yet. Expectations, supervision, privileges, rules, and discipline must be adjusted to her developmental level, with constant pressure toward the next level.

Stress makes things worse. Sometimes she seems to be able to do things and sometimes she doesn't. Her ability to control her behavior declines in proportion to the amount of stress she is experiencing. The stress may have an obvious source -- classroom noise, difficult schoolwork, disruptions of routine -- or one that is less obvious. Sensory integration problems and hypervigilance make [Child] react to things in the environment the rest of us wouldn't normally notice. Sometimes loss of control happens after a stressful event: If she uses a lot of control to get through something hard early in the day, she may run out of control late in the day.

Language and memory deficits make it difficult for [Child] to comprehend, remember, and apply abstract rules.

Because of these difficulties, strategies that require an advanced level of maturity and responsibility or that increase the level of stress will be ineffective at best and may, in fact, escalate inappropriate behavior. These may include:

• Negative consequences
• Unduly large positive consequences
• Cumulative consequences
• Delayed consequences
• Abstract consequences (check marks or sticker charts)
• Reminders to stop behavior
• Offering a choice between compliance and negative consequence

On the other hand, strategies that don't put undue weight on behavioral slip-ups, that are suited to [Child]'s level of emotional maturity, and that decrease the level of stress will be more effective. These may include:

• Positive consequences, on a modest scale, delivered immediately.
• Brief time-outs, delivered consistently and matter-of-factly.
• Changing of environment to make success more likely.
• Behavior analysis to assist in changing the environment.
• Frequent positive feedback and encouragement.
• Concrete, clearly defined rules
• Choices in which both options are acceptable to adult.

Specific Behavior Plan for [Child]

I. Create rules that target specific behaviors.

• Translate abstract classroom rules into five or six specific directives targeted to [Child]'s particular needs. For example:

NO pushing, poking, hitting, or grabbing.
NO hugging or kissing anyone in school (student or adult).
NO interrupting the teacher.
NO using mean words like “stupid” or “shut-up.”
NO tattling
NO outbursts (crying, pouting)

• Post the rules where [child] can see them.

• Include only those items in rules that you will be willing to reinforce with a time-out whenever the rule is broken. Avoid things that are likely to recur with such frequency that she would be in time-out constantly, such as wiggling, or standing up at desk.

• You may want to include at least one rule that [Child] has little trouble keeping, so that she has a constant experience of success and control.

II. Provide frequent positive feedback when rules are not being broken.

• Using the rules above: If she refrains from interrupting, comment on it. Tell her you like the way she’s talking when she chooses words thoughtfully. If she handles a disappointment in an appropriate manner, compliment her on that.

• Use low-key, specific praise of her behavior: "I like the way you handled..." "You're doing a good job of..."

• People and behavior are not described at home as good or bad (except in the phrase "good job"). [Child] understands and responds well to:

Appropriate or inappropriate
Polite or not polite (rude is reserved for extremely impolite behavior and used sparingly)

• Augment the positive feedback with neutral statements indicating that she's being noticed in a non-negative way any time she is following the rules. Comment on the pencil she's using, the clothes she's wearing, the story she's writing, the number of problems she's done.

III. Provide immediate, unemotional time-outs when a rule is broken.

• Say something along the lines of, "Oops, you interrupted. Go sit, please." Be calm but firm.

• Do not give reminders before time-out. Reminders escalate [Child]'s behavior, especially when the behavior is induced or exacerbated by stress. She needs the framework of consistent, clear rules and consequences in order to feel safe.

• Do not allow [Child] to argue about the time-out. The broken record technique works well: Answer every attempt at argument with, "Go sit please," in a neutral tone. She will test you on this but, if you are consistent, the testing won't last long.

• Use a timer or other method of showing how long [Child] has to remain in time-out. A digital kitchen timer works well at home, pre-programmed to a set number of minutes and she waits for the beep. Again, the consistent, clear framework offers security: She doesn't need to panic that she'll be forgotten on the sidelines, and she can't sabotage the time-out by constantly asking if it's time to get up yet.

• Do not discuss the infraction after the time-out. She does her time and emerges with a clean slate.

• Do not ask why she misbehaved. She can't tell you, and being put on the spot only increases her anxiety.

• Keep the time-outs brief to reduce resistance. In the classroom, a minute might be sufficient. Treat it not as a punishment as much as an acknowledgment that a rule has been broken, and a break in the action to get herself together.

IV. Adjust the environment to make it easy to follow rules.

• Maintain an environment in which [Child] can feel safe. She needs consistency, routine, and a clear definition of roles and responsibilities.

• Follow set routines as closely as possible. If it's necessary to deviate from routine, notify [Child] as soon as possible and tell her what will not change, as well as what will. ("We will have an assembly at 10:00 today. That means we will miss ----. The rest of the day will be just like any other Thursday. We will go to the library as usual.")

• Under no circumstances should any adult at school hug [Child]. Hugging is for family members, and adults at school are not family members. Hugging and other "mothering" behavior by other adults confuses [Child] and, as a result, makes her feel less secure, rather than more.

If misbehavior appears to be escalating:

• Try to determine what might be causing stress. Possibilities include: disruption of routine; substitute or absence of adult in classroom; work that is confusing or too difficult; overstimulation at recess; noisiness or other sensory overload ([Child] is very sensitive to scent, some sound, and lights); boredom; need for movement; stress in the others ([Child] is hypervigilant: She acts out the moods of the people around her).

• Keep track of what seems to cause problems and prepare in advance for future occurrences. If possible, send word home in advance of schedule changes or absences so that [Child] can be prepared.

• Talk to [Child] about what you think may be causing her to lose control. "You seem to be having a hard time this afternoon. I think maybe you used up all your control sitting still at the assembly this morning. Let's try to pull you back together."

V. Work with parents to assess effectiveness of plan on a regular basis and make adjustments.

• Send daily behavior report home (in [Child]'s notebook or other simple format). Include information from classroom aide, lunch monitors, and general education teachers on a regular basis.

• Share with parent what seems to be working, and seek advice for what doesn't.

• Report any stress-inducing occurrences that may have affected behavior.

• Meet with parent regularly to discuss behavior that is causing a problem in the classroom and develop management strategies.

• Re-evaluate the rules from time to time and adjust them to reflect [Child]'s changing behavioral challenges and triumphs.

• Take advantage of resources available from the parent.

[This plan was written by Marie Lowry, adapted from a behavior plan for a child with fetal alcohol effects written by Terri Mauro.]

copyright (c) 2004 by Marie Lowry and Terri Mauro.