Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Adoption Is Not Pretty

Growing up, one of my favorite comedians has always been Steve Martin. As a kid, I found his silliness and absurdity hilarious. While I'm not necessarily a big fan of his movies, I still find him hysterical. Back in 1979, Steve Martin came out with a comedy album entitled "Comedy is not Pretty!"  The same could be said of adoption.

One of the few complaints I've gotten since starting this blog is that I have written about the "negative" side of adoption. I disagree with that. What I've attempted to honestly write about adoption in all of its aspects, of which there are a great many positive, but there can also be some harsh realities. Whenever I approach the latter, I do so through the perspective of faith, hope, and love. Adoption is a roller-coaster ride full of ups and downs and corkscrews and loops. There are joys and heartbreaks around every corner. Adopted kids are damaged kids. They've come from a harsh reality of orphanages. They've suffered major rejection having been given up by their parents thereby setting up serious trust and self-esteem issues. We have seen this in Cava.

Cava's a child who spent eight years of his life never having been held, never hearing that he's loved, and never hearing that he's a good boy or smart. Recently he got only 1 out of 10 on a spelling test, which surprised me since we had gone over the words the day before and he had gotten at least half of them right when I called the words out to him. But he reacted to the shame of doing poorly by lashing out at his brother that afternoon. When Danelle asked him what was wrong and why he was so angry, it took her awhile to get out of Cava that he was unhappy about how he'd done on that spelling test.

Today I was at work when Danelle called me, "Where are you?" were the first words out of her mouth.


"Cava hit a kid at school and got suspended," she replied. These were not words I was expecting to hear. Issues of aggressive behavior have not been surfacing lately so I was surprised to hear that Cava had walked across the room and hit another boy (although he and this boy seem to have a love/hate relationship with each other). When I told her it would be at least an hour before I could go and get him from school, she said she'd pick him up and for me to meet her at home as soon as I could.

The drive home was one that shifted from anger to hurt to sadness to anger to simply asking God again, "Why?" Why would Cava, who'd been doing so well this year, just get up, go across the room, and hit another kid?

A Christian station was on and Mandisa's song "Overcomer" was playing. Now I love this song, but in this moment, I was like, "Lord, I don't feel like that one right now," and, of course, realized that it is not about how I feel but about the fact that Jesus already overcome for me. Still, I found it harder to get into the upbeat rhythms of this song. That song was then followed by one by TobyMac. The opening lines are:

'Cause we all make mistakes some time
And we all step across that line
But nothing's sweeter than the day we find, we find

In the chorus, he adds to that:

Forgiveness, forgiveness

Knowing that Cava would have to pay the consequences for his actions (he was already suspended from school and we would punish him by not letting him watch TV or play on the computer), so I knew that when I got home, I would not react out of my hurt and anger (part of which is having a child others might view as "trouble" or "bad"). 

When I got home, Danelle was sitting on Cava's bed, talking to him. She later came out to tell me that Cava didn't hit this boy but kicked him and the boy retaliated. Cava also couldn't tell her why he did what he did. 

In an article entitled "Anger and Control Issues: Using Empathy to Reduce Anger Helps Parent and Child" by Dr. Christopher J. Alexander, he writes that, "For many people, anger is expressed when they feel out of control. What I find with a lot of adoptees, though, is that they use anger to feel in control." When an adopted child feels vulnerable, they react in anger to "feel safe." 

And there is deep seated anger in adopted children. They are carrying with them the anger of "being given away by birth parents, feeling like second class citizens, and feeling unworthy to have anything good happen to them." I know with the latter, Cava doesn't feel he's valuable or worth anything. He has very, very low self-esteem. 

School is a place that often reiterates his feelings of being inferior because he struggles. Often, when we are helping him with homework, especially math, he tends to get frustrated and wants to quit. He will tell us that, "This is not fair to me," because he views something that is hard as being something that is against him. We have to calmly and patiently reemphasize that he can do it, that he is smart, and that we will help him in any way we can to understand the task at hand.

Dr. Alexander writes:

We must also stay mindful of the fact that many adoptees come from backgrounds where there is a family history of poor impulse control, psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, or other factors that can contribute to a poor modulation of emotions. Thus, when the child is angry, he may have little recognition or control over how intense his response is. Also, children who grew up in violent or chaotic environments had aggression and rage modeled for them and they quickly learn that it is an effective way of getting attention and perhaps even getting one’s needs met.

It's not easy to have to leave work to come home and deal with a child who has hit or kicked another child at school. But that TobyMac song made me stop myself in my tracks and pray, "God, help me to be the parent that Cava needs me to be right now." This meant that I had to let go of any feelings of inferiority I have as a parent and not focus on whether others will label Cava a "bad" child. I know he's not. Cava has a good heart. But he has a lot of anger still in him and he can struggle with impulse control.  But my coming home angry and telling him, "Do you know what you've done?!!?" when he does know will only cause him to feel even more shame and anger.

When I spoke to him, not once did I raise my voice to Cava. I made sure he knew I was disappointed because I knew he was a "good boy" and this kind of behavior wasn't like him. I also repeated that his Mom and I love him very much.

Cava has told me before that back in the orphanages, they weren't allowed to express being upset. They would be punished if they didn't bottle up their emotions, particularly negative ones. So he often has a hard time expressing himself. It's been a huge breakthrough that he has begun to show his emotions, but he still struggles with being able to tell us when he's upset or angry instead of just lashing out in anger. We keep telling him, "It's okay to be upset or angry, but it's not okay to hit or kick." We tell Cava that he can tell us when he's upset and that we won't be angry with him for doing so. "It's normal to get upset or have a bad day. All of us do." When I told him this, he looked at me as if I was crazy. "Cava, we won't punish you for telling us when you don't like something or when you tell us you're upset or mad."

Dr. Alexander writes, "Permit your child to share their thoughts or feelings, but try to educate him or her about the impact their words or actions have on others . . ."  All actions have consequences, good and bad. We are teaching this to Cava, but we are also teaching him that when he makes mistakes that he needs to go back and correct them. "Tell your teacher and that little boy that you're sorry."

 It's hard not to lecture or get upset, but, as the article said, "When parents respond with anger, it confirms to the child that people can’t be trusted and that the world is a threatening place."

We want Cava to feel safe, loved, and that he can trust us. As with everything else, this is all part of a long, slow process. Today was another bump in the road and it probably won't be the last. Just as we are teaching him how his actions can affect others, we, as parents, are having to learn how ours can affect him. 

As I started this article, adoption is often not pretty, but it is worth it. 

To read the full article by Dr. Alexander, go to:

What struck me about this song now, in regards to Cava, was the section sung by Lecrae:

My Momma told me what I would be in for
If I kept all of this anger inside of me pent up
My heart been broken, my wounds been open
And I don't know if I can hear "I'm sorry" being spoken

And I found myself in tears for him. This is a child who desperately needs to feel love and forgiveness.


  1. thank you so much for sharing this!
    I'm not sure if those who complain about you writing on "negative side of adoption" experienced adopting children themselves. I would guess not. But I can't stress how important and valuable your posts to me as a perspective parent of adopted child, and I'm sure for those who struggle to deal with same problem with their adopted children as well.
    I do cry every time I read about these struggles your little boy has. but if you wont share this with us, these problems would not disappear, they would still be there. nobody would know about it, but in this case, you would stay on your own to battle with it. now, you have huge army of readers who can pray for Cava and for your family. and I do, almost daily I pray for you guys. I'm also very thankful that you share how you deal with these problems, how you help your son to heal, to overcome his fears, his anger, his low self esteem. I celebrate his little victories and love his smile.

    I read lots of adoption blogs, but most of them just share lovely pictures of smiling children. I also pray for this families and their kinds. though, if not few blogs and forums where people tell about the real life, I would not even know what they go through.
    on the other hand, it breaks my heart to find blogs where people are completely desperate, their home and lives are mess as they don't know how to deal with their adopted children. and all of them say absolutely same thing - they were not prepared for what's to come.

    thank you for sharing the true story! please don't get discouraged and keep posting the snapshots of your real adoption journey.

    God bless your family!

    btw, thanks for sharing the article as well!

  2. I find your blog to be overwhelming hopeful, positive, AND realistic all at the same time. I am so grateful to be a part of this special journey by reading your blog.

    Cava is a wonderful little boy with a beautiful heart who is healing from a difficult (and very recent) past.

    I have no doubt God will do wonderful things through Cava and through the whole Blackwell family, He already has!

  3. I love to know that we are not the only ones! The way that you articulate the struggle between the "bad boy" label and the goodness in his heart really captures a lot of the frustration that I am experiencing.

    My prayers are with you.