Invisible special needs in adoption

If you see my two youngest children at church, at the grocery store, or wherever else we may be, you’ll see cute kids who almost always remember to use good manners and are delighted to give you a hug, even if they just met you. Though they might interrupt our conversation 743 times, they will still manage to be adorable, and if you’re like most folks, you’ll tell me so.

invisible special needs in adoption at

It’s in the everyday nitty-gritty 24/7-ness of life that problems become noticeable. When special needs are “invisible” to those outside the home, it’s frustrating and can make parents like me feel isolated, a bit crazy, or judged by those who don’t have the whole picture.

On the surface, my children have no special needs. No IEP, no medical issues, nothing on the outside that anyone would notice. Unlike many adopted children, they did not come with a file full of acronyms like ODD, RAD, or PTSD.

Just because a child doesn’t have a special needs diagnosis doesn’t mean they haven’t been affected by traumatic beginnings.

For those unfamiliar with our story, we adopted our two youngest kids from foster care. At just 3 and 5 years old when we met them, they’d already experienced trauma and neglect and upheaval and impermanence during their earliest years.

My boy, now six years old, can still kick into shut-down mode, and can be super sensitive about things I wouldn’t expect. Mostly, though, he is a surprisingly well-adjusted little boy who has an especially great bond with his daddy. He’s somewhat immature emotionally, but not as much as his beginnings would suggest.

Oh, but my girl. In her early days with us, her anger bubbled just under the surface, ready to rage at any moment; that has improved drastically. It really is a miracle she is so bright and cheerful. Her personality is far different from mine, which makes for it’s own challenges, but sometimes, some days, we do just fine.

Reading about it doesn’t prepare you to live it.

Looking back at the paragraph above, I’m almost amused; “fine” must be a matter of what you get used to. Though my girl is intellectually and chronological eight years old, in many ways she’s far younger. Trauma books tell you that kids get “stuck” at whatever age the trauma began, but it’s impossible to explain until you’ve lived it.

To quote Kristen Howerton in this great post,

“This is the point at which adoptive parents start to nod in recognition, while parents of typical kids interject that this is normal kid behavior that all kids engage in. And this is the point where I tell you: NO. It’s not the same. It may happen on occasion, but it’s not as purposeful and constant and desperate.”

I’ve read the books and the blogs, researched online, looked for advice in forums and in real life. I understand where these behaviors come from, I know why she acts as she does, and I know what needs to be done for healthy attachment — but it’s so hard to do what needs to be done because it’s just so always, and the days seem so long.

The hardest thing about parenting any child, I think, is the weight of long-term responsibility. It’s not just about dealing with the day-to-day; babysitters, nannies, even foster parents, are all responsible for children while in their care — but the long term outcome falls on the parents. For my adopted kids, I want to break generations of dysfunction. I want them to be emotionally healthy, responsible adults who don’t fall into abusive relationships or drugs or jail. If they choose to have children someday, I want them to be safe, caring parents.

I’ll never be a perfect parent; I know that and I don’t expect that of myself. But I often wonder if I’m doing a good-enough job to overcome all the previous junk they’ve lived. Or if that’s even possible.

Grace for mama bears (& everyone else).

And sometimes, to be brutally honest, I get downright ticked at their birth parents because we’re the ones dealing with the fallout of their poor choices. I don’t want to be that person; I want to be full of love and compassion, not judgment. Yes, I signed up for this, and yes, I’m in it for the long haul. No, I can’t imagine the pain the birth parents must feel and probably guilt, too. But despite how deeply I want to feel empathy for them (and sometimes I do), the fact remains that they caused the hurt my kids continue to deal with. I’m a flawed human and a mama bear, y’all.

So again, I come back to grace. I have to count on grace. It’s the only possible way any of this will work out, the only way I’ll get through today and tomorrow and all the tomorrows until they are grown.