Overcoming Exhaustion

Are you exhausted? Maybe the holidays have taken what little bit you had left right out of you. Perhaps spending time with extended family was simply too much. Or maybe your children’s behavior over the holidays simply drained your last drop of strength.

If you are experiencing parenting challenges, it is easy to fall into the mindset of “I just need to get through today.” You wake up the next day with the same thought on your mind. I have been there. Sometimes I still struggle to think that way.

How can you get off the hamster wheel of exhaustion? Purposefulness.

There really is no other way to do it than to be purposeful. We often tell our kids to make good choices even when it is hard. Yet, we often forget that sometimes we also need to make the hard choice to get rest despite the many demands on us.

What are some ways that you can purposefully rest without spending several thousand dollars on a vacation? Here are a few ideas you could implement today!

Have “Must-Go” dinner night. What is that, you ask? Whatever-in-the-fridge-that-must-go is for dinner! When I was growing up, every Sunday night was must-go. You could also serve cereal (if your family will go for that, but mine won’t). Pick up a ready-made meal that could easily been cooked in the oven. Make it a night with little work or preparation for you.

Leave the mess. Let go of the need to have your house looking perfect. The toys can be picked up tomorrow morning (with your kids help!). The messy kitchen and dirty dishes can be washed tomorrow. Just leave it and go to bed early. There will be more dirty dishes tomorrow and maybe you can garner help to wash them.

Is that hard? YES! Who wants to wake up to a messy house? But, getting more sleep will help change your outlook on your circumstances so you can face the mess.

Call for an “early” night. If you have older kids, give them the option to read, listen to soft music, or work on a quiet activity in their room until lights out. Then you do the same. Avoid blue light (light from electronics). Instead chose to participate in relaxing activities such as taking a bath or hot shower, reading a fun book, listening to calming music, or practicing mindfulness activities. If you enjoy essential oils, select one a calming one (like lavender, a relaxing blend, or a grounding blend) and put it in a diffuser or place a small amount in your palms and breathe it deeply. You may also want to safely apply it to your neck and shoulders or to the bottoms of your feet.

Maybe you want to do all of these on the same night or maybe you want to pick just one. Perhaps consider working on your personal bedtime routine to incorporate more relaxing activities that promote restful sleep.

It is easy to keep pushing when you are exhausted. However, being exhausted can diminish your immune system and lead to illness. Be purposeful in finding ways to rest even when it is hard.

Problems with Food

One of the most common struggles in adoption—especially older child adoption—is food. For kids who have experienced extreme hunger or scarce food, their body remembers being hungry which can lead to an obsessive focus on food. Some kids spend so much of their life hungry, they are no long aware of what “hungry” feels like. But they may not know what “full” feels like either.

If you take a moment to think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (here is a short video), lower level needs to be met before higher level needs can be. If a person is focused on making sure they have enough food to eat, water to drink, or air to breathe, they cannot even think about whether they are safe or feel loved.

Think about kids who may have experienced growling tummies but see only empty cupboards and empty refrigerators. Their focus would have been on where they were going to get food that day. Or maybe they are thinking about how embarrassing it is that their stomach is growling. This concern would override any learning that could happen in the classroom. The hungry stomach takes higher priority than learning math, English, or science.

Meeting the hunger need is vital. Perhaps giving healthy snacks often or always have one available and visible can help your child gain a healthier perspective of food. Some kids feel better when they have food in their possession at all times so parents can meet that need with pre-packaged, healthy snacks. Many families make sure their pantries, refrigerators, and freezers are full of food so their children can see food is always available.

Take opportunities to talk about what “full” feels like. If you notice your child looks uncomfortable from overeating, perhaps gently teaching in that moment can be helpful.

If you notice overeating is a problem, perhaps consider plating food at the stove and putting any remaining food away immediately so your child does not feel they need to keep eating until the serving dishes are empty. Or maybe make only enough food for everyone to eat one serving. If your child requests additional food, you could suggest drinking a glass of water/milk or offering additional servings of vegetables.

For some kids, once they realize food is readily available, they begin to self-adjust so their obsession with food and overeating becomes less common. For others, they continue holding an unhealthy perspective of food and struggle for prolonged periods of time. Some may never gain a healthy view of food.

As parents, we can offer consistency by providing healthy food regularly. If we do the best we can to meet our child’s hunger needs, we can rest assured that our child’s perception of food is not a reflection of our parenting, but it is a lasting impact of trauma.

Dealing with Lying

If there is one behavior that most parents complain about, it is lying. It is frustrating when children lie about little things.

My co-author, Dr. Kelly Reed, wrote an excellent blog post about lying to help parents understand potential reasons why someone lies.

And while we can often relate to information written about lying, she followed it up with a post about how to help your child choose honesty.

Both are exceptional reads!

 

Long-term Impact of Trauma

Recently I became aware of the death of a young man who had experienced childhood trauma before he was adopted as a teenager. His family wrote the most moving tribute to him and his life. You can read here.

I’m so glad that this young man had a family who loved him despite the challenges he experienced in his past. I’m grateful that they could look past the behaviors to the hurting child beneath. I commend them for loving him well.

But I’m also sad. Sad that part of his–and countless others–story is significant hardship at the hands of someone who was supposed to love and care for him. I’m sad that few are willing to step up to love a child from a hard place with hard behaviors.

Maybe you have stepped up to adopt a child with a difficult past. Or maybe you are considering doing it. But it is not a decision that should be taken lightly. It is a difficult path.

If you do not believe you are called to older child adoption, then I challenge you to find how you can help those who are called. Maybe you can provide respite to give them a break. Maybe you can serve the family a meal or help with chores. Maybe you can be a listening ear to those struggling to parent their older adopted child.

Maybe you can serve kids in foster care by meeting physical needs or serving as a mentor to them. Maybe you can simply be a constant in their life by getting to know them through activities and being a listening ear to their concerns, wants, and desires.

Everyone has a role to play for these vulnerable children. Are you willing?

Educational Challenges in Adoption

In our research, the majority of older adopted children struggle in some area of education regardless of their home country. Honestly, this finding was surprising. I assumed those children adopted from other countries would struggle due to the language and educational differences. And they do. However, we found kids adopted through foster care struggled as well. Many experienced a variety of moves and school changes. Since every school tailors their curriculum to their school (within state and federal requirements), kids may have missed concepts when they change schools. Perhaps one school introduces multiplication in second grade while another waits until third grade. If a child changes schools between these years, they miss out on vital teaching.

In no way am I advocating that every school teach exactly the same curriculum at the same time, each school has its unique culture. They should have the freedom and flexibility to reflect their school’s community. However, changing schools can bring interruptions in learning for kids.

Kids in care tend to have holes in their education. It may be in social studies, math, science, reading, or writing. Really, it can be in more areas than academics. My daughter had been home almost two years and in high school when I discovered she had never been taught the order of the months of the year. She knew the month names, but she never knew what order they came in. I assumed she knew since it was something often taught in preschool or kindergarten, but she had never been exposed to it before.

Often kids in care “slip through the cracks.” Perhaps the child never had appropriate educational support at home and entered care at an older age. Maybe the child was not at one school long enough (or often enough) for teachers to discover a learning disability. Consequently, the child can go years without diagnosis and intervention causing further educational delays.

Difficulty or lack of understanding can often lead to lack of interest in learning. Some kids refuse to learn because they are embarrassed they do not understand. No one likes to feel dumb and sometimes a refusal has more to do with feeling inadequate than being unwilling.

How can parents help their kids?

  • Ask yourself if this is “can’t” or “won’t”. Sometimes it is hard to differentiate between (and do not be surprised if it is a little of both). Assuming “can’t” will help you have more understanding and patience for your child. Then remind yourself often that they cannot.
  • Talk with their teachers. Ask if they suspect learning challenges. Ask what areas where they believe your child needs the most help. Select a place to begin. Do not try to address everything at once. It will simply overwhelm you and your child which can lead to more frustration for everyone.
  • Encourage your child. They are probably as frustrated with their educational experience as you are. If they put forth the best effort they can do right now, celebrate that. Tell them you notice they are trying. Acknowledge the extra time they spent studying whether the grade reflects it or not. Encourage even small progress.
  • Breathe deep. Probably the best advice shared with me was from a mom who had adopted several older children. She learned early on in older child adoption to repeat: “my child’s behavior is not a reflection of me.” When we do not take on our child’s behavior as ours, we do not respond in embarrassment and frustration. We can want the very best for our kids, but they still have to do their part. And sometimes we need to adjust our expectations for ourselves and our kids.

Keeping an open mind is key to maintaining your sanity around educational challenges our kids experience.

The Role of Parents

One area of research that I cover in the college course I teach is the study of Information Processing. Information Processing looks at how people process information and experiences which determines behavior. In my class, we discuss the implications on leader behavior. If you are unfamiliar with the concept (especially if you are an information junkie like me), I encourage you to research it.

I remember teaching a class several years ago when the implication on older child adoption hit me in middle of my lecture. I view one aspect of information processing as a mental box where we store information in our mind based on research or personal experience. In my class, we talk about the impact on leadership. The type of leader you are depends upon things you have learned, read, and experienced. If you have only experienced a leader who “hides” in the office while leaving the team to do whatever they think is best, then chances are when it is your turn to lead, you will lead in a similar manner. However, perhaps you have studied about leaders who gather input from their followers. What you learn will also go you’re your mental leadership “box.” When it is your turn to lead or manage, you will look into the leadership box, reflect on the contents, and lead from your knowledge and experience.

So what was my lightbulb parenting moment? At that time, our daughter had not been home for very long and we were struggling with her accepting our role as parent. It was in that moment I realized the application of this theory in our life. She had no frame of reference for the concept of “parent” since she had never truly had a parent before. Her “box” marked parent was empty. Since she hadn’t experienced having a parent before, she did not know how to respond. And she did not know what role parents play in their child’s life. Further, her “box” for “teacher” was distorted. The teachers she had experienced before coming home acted in many ways like a parent by teaching things parents generally taught and providing care and concern. In those first few years, she would say she did not want us to teach her various life skills, she wanted her teachers to do that. It did finally click that teachers taught academics, not necessarily relationship or various life skills.

Since becoming an adult, she has had to readjust her expectations of parents. We do not live close to our extended family, so she had limited opportunities to see me interact with my parents. Consequently, she has had to learn what role parents play in the lives of their independent, adult children. And to be honest, so have I.

  • How do you think your child views parents based on their past experiences?
  • What information do they have in their mental “parenting box”?
  • How can you contribute positive things to their perspective?
  • And further, how can you not take their inappropriate responses to you (as their parent) personally? Really, that may be the most important question to ask yourself.

Adopting Out of Birth Order

No matter how you grow your family, your family experiences many changes. Of course, it changes in number, but the atmosphere also changes. The dynamics are different. Everyone is finding their place in the new normal. When you add a child younger than any existing children, every family member adjusts to cater to the youngest member of the family. And the family finds their new rhythm.

However, when the new child who joins the family changes the birth order, finding the rhythm is often more difficult. Not only does your new child have to figure out their place in their new family, but the existing children whose placement in the family changed also have to find their place.

For some children, a birth order displacement is minor. They may have a more flexible personality and can easily go with the flow of life. They will still have to learn how to respond or act to their newest sibling. They may need to figure out how to respond to a child who is chronologically older but acts younger than them. The parents may also need to figure out how to navigate that as well.

For other children, a change in birth order causes them to feel “demoted” in family “rank” which can incredibly difficult for some to accept. These children tend to be more competitive or often are identified as “natural leaders.” They may feel resentment toward the new child. They also may be confused on how to respond to a child chronologically older who acts younger than them. It can be especially difficult if the new child is now the oldest but is unable to fulfill the required responsibilities.

Before you decide to adopt out of birth order, consider these questions:

  • How will your existing child respond to a child who is chronologically older, but acts younger than they do?
  • How will your existing child handle the change of their place in the family?
  • How does your child handle change?
  • Will they struggle no longer being the oldest boy or oldest girl?
  • Perhaps ask others who know your child well for their thoughts as well.

Adopting out of birth order can work, but it does not always work. The unknown variable is how your new child is going to respond to their place in the family. Some adjust well while others want to be in charge of every family member. Some struggle to simply fit. Most will feel sad about family experiences they missed before joining the family. Often, this sadness is expressed as jealousy toward existing children. Then parents need to determine the best way to address that jealousy.

Loving your Child

Those who choose older child adoption face many unique challenges.  Many of the challenges are openly discussed in an attempt to obtain wisdom in how to address them. However, one of the most common challenges is not feeling love for your child, yet it is a topic rarely discussed. Few parents willingly admit they do not feel love for their child; those who do often receive judgment from others.

Admitting you do not feel love for your child is perceived as unacceptable because it runs counter to human nature so why do so many experience it? There are likely a variety of reasons; but consider this: when an infant or young toddler joins your family, you see the sweet smile that melts your heart. You hear the contagious baby giggle. You know how much this treasured baby depends on you for care and comfort. When that cherished baby becomes a preteen, who begins to exude an attitude, you know that sweet, precious baby you remember is tucked behind the challenging exterior. However, when you bring your child home as a preteen (or older), you do not have memories of the sweet, precious baby. You see only the tough exterior and you are not sure what is underneath. Often, it is difficult to look past the exterior to that hurt child hiding deep inside.

How can parents love their child when they lack the gushy loving feelings?

  1. Set Realistic Expectations. Would you marry a complete stranger and expect to feel immediately emotionally connected to that person? No, of course not. Yet, older child adoption is similar: you are coming to a relationship with a complete stranger who has their own experiences, personality, and likes and dislikes. Yet as their parent, you are expected to feel emotional love for them from the start. It can come, but it often takes time to feel that love. It will take time for your child to feel love for you, too. And they may never feel love for you. You have to accept that loving your child is not about what they do (or don’t do), but who they are as your child.
  1. Love is an Action, not a Feeling. One dad I interviewed shared, “Love is what you do, what you say, and how you interact with your child.” You can express love to them by meeting their needs. You can show love by giving sincere, authentic praise every day (even if you have to look really hard to find something praise worthy). You can show love through service such as teaching them skills like how to cook, how to sort laundry, how to manage money, etc. You can show affectionate touch by giving hugs, pats on the back, fist bumps, and high fives. Or spend quality time with your child listening to them and doing activities together that your child enjoys.
  1. Take Care of Yourself. It is hard to help others when you have already given everything within you, and you feel dry. Parched. Out of energy. Done. As parents, it is so easy to get caught up in the needs of our children (or family in general) that we neglect taking care of us. However, you cannot pour from an empty cup; airline attendants tell us to put on our oxygen mask before assisting others. We need to change the narrative that taking time to care for our self is selfish (although too much of a good thing is not good either). Many parents struggle to find enjoyable things that help them feel refreshed. Consider different types of activities that you have tried or want to try; but if you are still unsure of what works for you, consider activities in these categories: reflective (i.e. meditation or positive self-talk), calming (i.e. reading or spending time in nature), physical (i.e. exercise), creative (i.e. hand crafts or coloring), and social (i.e. join a new group or go to a movie). There are many ideas within each category so search the internet for additional ideas. Do not be afraid to try new ideas. Keep track of what works for you as well as what does not. Make sure what you select is beneficial and not detrimental (i.e. over working, over eating, or drinking alcohol in excess). If taking time for yourself seems difficult, start with small increments of time and gradually increase it. Find what works best for you to take care of you.

Setting realistic expectations for yourself (and your child), acting out love by meeting your child’s needs (even when you do not feel like it), and making sure you have energy to give are vital for you and your child. If one day (or week) is really hard or unsuccessful, give yourself grace, recommit to showing love to your child, and purposefully act. It can be hard, but you, your child, and your family are worth the effort.

This blog post was originally posted on WACAP Now Blog

What I Wish I had Known…

When I talk to families who have chosen to adopt an older child, I often wonder what were things they wished they had known about before adopting their child.

Here are a few I hear most often:

  • “I wish families who have already adopted an older child would be honest with how hard it is.” So often parents talk about the joys (and there are many), but rarely do they share with raw honesty the intense difficulties. Many agencies have prospective parents talk to other parents who have already brought their child home (which is GREAT!). Except these parents minimize the challenges and emphasize the blessings. While admirable, it does an injustice to prospective parents. A family cannot truly determine whether older child adoption is a good fit for them if they only hear the good. So if you are considering older child adoption, search out those who have adopted an older child. In fact, I would suggest that you reach out those who have been home OVER two years. Why? I don’t know what it is about two years, but things shift. Truth surfaces. Eyes are opened. Patterns are identified. Things start clicking. This was true for the majority of the forty families we talked to and it was true for us.
  • “I wish I had realized how important finding a support group was before we adopted.” Find social media groups. Find area support groups. Get connected. This group will be your lifeline. Or maybe you will find one or two people who you reach out to when you are challenged. Or empty. Or need encouragement. Find them. Before you bring your child home (if possible).
  • “I wish I had realized how absolutely consuming this journey would be.” Yes. 100% yes. One mom advised that you plan to set everything else aside for the first year, perhaps two. Maybe giving up everything is not realistic for you, but please consider reducing your involvement. You truly cannot understand the demands your new child is going to place on you (some purposely, but a lot to simply meet needs). And you truly cannot anticipate the how one person’s trauma impacts an entire household. Everyone will be impacted. Expect to make your world small for you and your family. I would also follow that up with find coping strategies that work for you. And do not feel guilty about TAKING time for yourself doing something you enjoy.
  • “I wish I had known how much un-teaching would be necessary before I would re-teach appropriate behaviors.” One mom commented their household appeared to have absolutely no rules and completely out of control children that first year. Remember, you cannot focus on everything your child needs to work on from day one. It is not possible. Another mom suggested focusing on issues of safety at the beginning. Once those have been unlearned, then relearned, you can focus on other issues (such as manners, grooming, etc.). It is a long journey marked by small successes that lead to larger ones.

These are only a few of the things families wish they had known before they adopted their older child. But I hope these help you—if you are considering older child adoption—to make an informed decision on whether it is the best fit for you. For those of you already home, I hope these help you know what to share with other prospective adoptive families who ask you about your experiences.

Are YOU Taking Care of YOU?

So often we—as parents—pour so much into our children that we do not have time (or energy) to take care of ourselves. There are many ways you can take care of yourself, and sometimes we use that as a reason to participate in activities that are mind-numbing, but do not necessarily fill our cup.

You may be asking “what do you mean?” Several weeks ago as I was indulging in too much social media, someone posed the question: “Are you doing self-care or self-comfort?” The post went on to describe many things we do in the name of “self-care” that are not very caring for our self. I thought about the question for days. Literally.

Self-comfort is good, but too much of a good thing can be bad. I find myself doing too much self-comfort and it does not necessarily help me. Take social media, for example. I often find myself sucked into it for far too long to escape the realities of my current situation. Does it help me feel better about me? Does it help me to feel like I successfully accomplished something? No. In fact, I get frustrated when I realize how long I have been on it! However, when I take time to read a book, go for a walk or a jog, or practice yoga, I do feel better. Then I realized I needed to make some changes.

An entire chapter in Wisdom from Adoptive Families: Joys and Challenges in Older Child Adoption is devoted to providing you ideas on how to take care of yourself. The chapter is broken down into five different types of activities: reflective, social, calming, active, and creative. Some of the ideas may provide you more comfort than care, but comfort is important as times as it is filling a need in that moment. The key is to make sure you are not doing too much comfort and not enough care. Once you read chapter 14, I’m certain you will find an idea (or two) that you had not considered before!

Today, commit to change your focus and include yourself on the list of people you care for! You can purchase your copy of our book here.