The Science of the Heart

By Jon Smith, professional counselor and adoptive dad

As a professional counselor in private practice, a behavior specialist for a large school district, and a father of an adopted daughter and two biological children, I have spent the past twenty-some years searching for solutions to all kinds of behavioral, social, and mental health challenges my own and other people’s children have exhibited. Every year scientists and researchers discover more about the brain, and every year I learn of some new intervention, strategy, medication, nutritional supplement, curriculum, theoretical approach, and so on. With the sheer volume of knowledge out there, I find myself easily entrapped by a perpetual quest for the optimum answer to every child’s problems. If I just say the perfect thing, if I can identify the precise diagnosis, if I can figure out just the right behavior program, if I can find the best specialist or the right medication, then certainly this child will steer back on course and develop into a healthy, productive adult. While many children, because of significant trauma histories and mental health challenges, do in fact need evidence-based interventions and highly trained professional support, I was recently reminded by a researcher named Stephen Porges that all of us possess in the foundations of our very own neurology the ability to provide the one thing that every child must have in order to thrive, despite any other supports or services they may need; that is, a safe, trusting neurological connection with others—human-to-human, soul-to-soul.

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Guest Blog Post: You truly are making a difference in families’ lives

By Amy H., Adoptive Mom

Four months ago, after starting the TBRI classes and being “awakened” to what my children really needed from me, I was crying to my therapist that I didn’t know why God would send children to me who I frankly didn’t have the skill set to give them what they needed.  I wrote in my journal, “I know my kids need a more nurturing mom, and I seriously question if I am that kind of mom.”  I was crushed to think that I couldn’t give my kids what they needed.  Seriously, what could be more heartbreaking? Because I really love them!  I remember one therapy appointment when I said to her, “Rex is just so mad at me all the time!”  She said to me, “Well, you’re really mad at him all the time.”  Whoa.  I had never thought of that before.  I really was at rock bottom as a mom.  I determined to make things better.  Over time, through the techniques I am learning in the classes, I have completely turned things around for our family.  It hasn’t been easy.  Sometimes I wondered if anything I was doing was making any difference.  Rex seemed more angry at me for several weeks, but I have since seen Rex blossom into a completely different kid.  He looks at me with that sparkle in his eyes again.  He is not afraid of me anymore. I want to be with him and close to him.  I want to listen to him and meet his needs. I want to help heal his wounded heart.

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The Top 5 Things Transracial Adoptees Need From Their Parents

By Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker

As a parent, how often do you wish you could read your child’s mind? What would you give if you could understand their thoughts and feelings? What would it mean for you to know what they really need from you?

If you are a white adoptive parent to a child of color, it may seem difficult to relate to your child’s needs. If you have not experienced life as an adoptee or a person of color or if you are not trained in the psychology of racial identity development, then as the saying goes: “You can’t know what you don’t know.” Luckily, there is a plethora of resources to learn “what you don’t know” as a transracially adoptive parent, so the narrative can shift to: “When you know better, you can do better” (abbreviated quote from Maya Angelou).

As a psychologist who specializes in transracial adoption, as a transracial adult adoptee, and as a transracially adoptive parent, I’m here to provide you with insight on how you can “do better” for your child. Here are the top five things I believe every transracial adoptee needs from their parents, based on my professional and personal experiences:

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Guest Blog Post: One Adoptive Family’s Story

By Katie, adoptive parent

“Five minutes and then we are leaving.”

“Okay, mom!”

It seems like a typical conversation between parent and child, but to our family, those words reflect so much more.  We are a family formed both through birth and adoption.  In 2005, we had two biological children and adopted a little baby boy from Ethiopia.  Over the next four years, we added one more son through birth and three more sons and a daughter from Ethiopia.  In 2013, we decided to pursue an adoption through foster care.

We were quickly matched with a three-year-old boy and his two-year-old sister.  Within three months of learning about them, they were in our home, and then the true work of becoming a family began.  Our newest additions were traumatized by their difficult pasts and scared of their future with the group of strangers that were to be their family.  As we navigated through the tangible things like doctor’s appointments, school meetings, and food preferences, we also focused on the intangible; safety, comfort, and love. Continue reading

Guest Blog Post: Addressing Difficult Behaviors

By Denise Rice, LCSW, ACSW, LAC

What are Behaviors?
All behavior meets a need and has a function. Let me say that again, there is a function and a purpose to every behavior! A behavior is an external expression (communication) of our internal emotions. Sometimes, we as adults forget that how we behave is our way of communicating how we feel, just as it is for our kids. It is how we often communicate our emotions, positive or negative. When children experience trauma, their most pressing need is survival. Many behaviors we would label as “bad,” “maladaptive,” or “inappropriate” were necessary at one point for the child’s survival; and let’s be honest, our children and teens are master survivors.

We need to reframe our thinking about behavior. Especially when it comes to understanding trauma. If you want to really practice a trauma sensitive or trauma responsive type of parenting it is critical that you see the behavior of your child or teen through a trauma informed lens. Rather than seeing the behavior as negative and hostile, we need to see it as a highly functional survival skill that kept our kids alive in their previous environments and now that behavior isn’t working as well in the current situation. What parents and caregivers are tasked with is how to decipher the message underneath the child’s behavior. What is your child telling you they need through their behavior?

If hiding, stealing, or stashing food away was the only way your child ate when their parent went on a drug or alcohol bender, that behavior has become a survival skill. However, if the same child is hiding, stealing, and hoarding food under their bed and in their closet in your home that same survival skill is now described as “inappropriate” or “disruptive.” This behavior is getting in the way of this child being successful in a different situation or connecting with you because it drives you crazy and is considered “disrespectful;” but, these behaviors that kept your kids alive before, will not simply disappear after a few days, weeks, or sometimes months or years after being placed in your home.

Keep reminding yourself that often the behavior isn’t about you. It may feel like the behavior is aimed at you, but remember that the child is behaving the only way they know how, and when our brains are stressed, we regress. We regress to previous behaviors that may have disappeared for some time. I know that it is extremely difficult to not take some of the behaviors personally. Especially if you are not taking care of yourself and your own stress is impacting the healing relationship with your child. Continue reading

Guest Blog Post: Saving Grace and Stolen Resilience

By Schylar Baber

At the age of six, I entered the Montana foster care system with my half-brother, after being removed from my physically and sexually abusive biological family. Thrust into a system that was intended to protect me, I experienced even more abuse and neglect. I went to eleven different foster homes, then group homes, residential treatment centers, and a flood of respite providers. I was separated from my brother and all contact with my biological family was cut off. I never achieved permanency in the system and aged out of care at eighteen without a transition plan or a known permanent connection; and yet, I not only survived – but also thrived.

I think the question I get asked most frequently is, “How did you become so resilient and so successful?” When I was younger the question frustrated me, because to me, it meant that people expected me to fail. There is a high amount of stigma that comes with being a foster kid. Many view foster kids as being troublemakers, and not just troublemakers, but bad enough that their own families wouldn’t want them. What many people don’t realize is that children in foster care aren’t bad kids. Rather, a lot of very bad things happen to children for them to wind up in care, such as abuse and neglect, and death. Children don’t earn foster care, it is thrust upon them. Foster care is intended to be a temporary safe-haven, but for orphans like me, we grow up and age out of foster care.

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Guest Blog Post: When Difference Matters

By Joie Norby Lê, Ph.D.

Over the course of my life, people have been curious about my adoption story.  It is a story that begins in the Vietnam War.   At the time, adopting from Vietnam was as much a humanitarian movement as it was an opportunity for couples hoping to establish or expand a family.  As such, questions about my adoption were numerous and while many people were supportive of my parents’ transracial, international adoption, it was still a tenuous time and the choice was not devoid of criticism by others.  Adopting a child was one thing; adopting a child from an unpopular American war was quite another.  Even so, my parents fielded the positive and negative comments with dignity and managed to pass on to me a healthy sense of love and belonging in a society that would not always afford me the same.

In the past forty-three years, I have come to understand that being adopted is an integral part of what defines me.  It is not just about “being adopted” that shapes me, but rather how I learned to cope, to survive, and to reconcile the ambiguity of it all that gives my adoption context.  People have asked me when I first knew that I was adopted.  While many young children may not comprehend difference in a family that is based in acceptance and love, I always knew that I was not the same race as my adoptive family.  It was not difficult to see the difference—my skin was as dark as theirs was light.  Their eyes were as blue or green as were mine dark brown.  Their characteristics became markers of what I considered to be “ideal” or “normal” because in my neighborhood, most of the other families were white as well.  I understood that I was a child of another color, and while those in my closest circle of friends and family never blinked an eye about that difference, I soon realized not everyone felt the same.  Racial confrontations were a constant in my life growing up.  One of the most interesting aspects of transracial adoption is that it is not necessarily the difference in ethnicity that matters most to others, it is the difference in skin tone.  While certainly children of any transracial adoption may be subjected to similar confrontation, I always felt that the stark dissimilarity between my family’s skin color and my own was the true determination of whether I would be accepted or rejected by society.  If I had lighter skin, would it have been easier for me to integrate?  While this remains speculation, I cannot help but consider that the darkness of my skin is what mostly relegated me to marginalized spaces.  Couple that with misgivings about the Vietnam War and it would be safe to say that throughout my life, especially up until I turned eighteen, it was not easy being adopted. Continue reading