Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Toddler Attachment and Grieving

I am writing and publishing this post in hopes that those who are waiting for toddlers and/or have a toddler home with them (and may be struggling with attachment) may find reassurance from our experience.

We have been home for 7 months. For several months we saw Samson's attachment to us and our attachment to him grow by leaps and bounds. There was a point that I told people that we were about 95% there. He has been driving us crazy with wanting control over everything but even that has mellowed down a lot. Overall, we saw light at the end of the tunnel and we were feeling good about how he was blending with our family.

Then, with no warning, something changed. Without going into too much detail, we started to have more intense moments and periods of frustration. During a two week period of a change in his behavior, I told Steve that I didn't like how I felt about how things were going. It was difficult to enjoy him. I had feelings of guilt and doubt and asked myself, "is it me or him?" What is different?

For several months, we were on a roll with him and loving him no different than the three girls.

The past two weeks, it felt like our first weeks home. It felt icky. I felt discouraged and I don't know who cried more, him or I.

Some people will say that some of this is just normal toddler behavior. Having the experience of raising 3 girls from birth, I know that his behavior has not been normal for a toddler. It's toddler behavior intensified by a grieving child. It's hard to understand if you have never walked a day in the shoes of an adoptive parent of a toddler but trust me when I say it was difficult.

So, I panicked and I prayed and I tried to stay positive even with the dark cloud over my head. I felt defeated watching the attachment go backwards and exhausted living through it.

Then I reached out to a dear on-line friend. She has a wealth of experience to share and I admire her patience and ability to persevere through her own trials as an adoptive parent. I have read a lot about toddler attachment but most of my help comes directly from those who have walked through it themselves. I know I can share my frustrations and situations with my friend, because like many others I've met on-line, I know she will not judge me and I know I will receive only straight forward responses of wisdom and encouragement from her.

I described to her some of my recent experiences in my plea for help and with her permission, I will share some of her wisdom:

She wrote the following: 

"Attachment is a marathon, not a sprint. It isn't a matter of run the race well for a few weeks/months and then boom you are attached. It is more of a run the race even when you feel like giving up - because the race will eventually get to an easier spot where you are running downhill in the sunshine.. and then later you will be slogging uphill in the driving rain. The sunshine miles give us hope to keep moving forward when the going gets tough. AND everything you write sounds totally normal so don't panic."

I took this metaphor as much encouragement. As hard and overwhelming as a marathon sounds, this description actually helped me put our attachment journey in perspective.

Then she had this to say,
"You are not going to be in this intense struggle the rest of your life - you will achieve victory - but it might not ever look like your relationship/feeling for your daughters, and that is okay. Each child forges their unique relationship with their parents and at different times they are more comfortable than others."

The part about "it might not ever look like your relationship/feeling for your daughters, and that is okay" is a little harder for me to stomach. But this is part of the problem - I want it so bad for this to feel like my relationship with my daughters. I will never stop striving for my relationship to feel the same with Samson as it does with my girls but now I know I may not ever achieve this and that it is OK.

In a nutshell, if you are adopting or have adopted a toddler, don't be surprised when you see the attachment regress after 7 months of being home, or even after 1 year or two or three years. It's actually good that this happened because we have learned not to take this marathon process for granted anymore. We are back on track and doing fine again but I will be more prepared next time this happens.

I have more to share about why we may have gone through this tough time after 7 months of being home...

And that is, there is something about an adopted child, the way they internalize a connection to traumatic events in their lives. Some say, the change in their behavior may directly correlate to a time frame in their past lives.

So, I thought that maybe there is something significant about 7 months. But nothing I had documented added up to 7 months. For example, he was with his birth family for 2 1/2 years and an orphanage for 4 months. 

Still stuck on the "why after seven months?", I read Julie's blog post and only then did I realize that we are approaching the anniversary of a very tragic time in Samson's life.

This event affected him so deeply that what he may be showing us in recent days is his way of displaying grief over this fragile time one year ago.

I also noticed during this time, he has acted differently towards the stories and pictures I share of his life in Ethiopia. I can't say much about his reactions but I will share that the more he learns the English language, it amazes me how much he really understands and can express hurt and pain.

Also, he clearly does not want his past life to be his life. For example, when I share with him parts of his story, he doesn't want it to be him in his story - he actually wants it to be Avery's story. He doesn't want to be the outsider, the one who is different - he wants to be the one who fits in.

Since I am quite sure grieving is behind most of this change in behavior, I now understand better how attachment is a marathon and can be a life long process. Children who join families by way of adoption have to experience a horrible loss in their lives. Knowing now that just the little bit of his story that I shared with him, brings back much pain, I can see where this will be a gradual healing process as we share appropriately.

I have read a lot about toddlers and grieving but now that I am walking along side him through it, I didn't know how much it would affect me. His sadness has become my sadness. Praying that I know the right way and timing to share his story and comfort his grieving. Being aware of his world will help me handle these difficult situations, be a better mom and show more grace.

So glad there are downhill runs and sunny days in marathons!


Julie said...

Oh Tammy, I wish I lived near you. I'd come over and give you a hug. Then you could give me one. Hang in there. Thinking of you guys!( Meazi says, "Hi Yihun!")

Kate and Jeff said...

Tammy, that was so beautifully written. We're praying for you and your family.

M and M said...

Tammy, the courage both you and Samson are showing (and the rest of your family too) is really beautiful. What a wonderful post. And, yes, isn't bonnie wonderful?

Anonymous said...

Tammy - hang in there. you are doing an awesome job. And, I think recognizing issues and his grieving is a huge step. all my hugs...Lyn-Dee

Cindy said...

This is a great post Tammy. Thanks for writing it.

Jones Family said...

Thanks for sharing honestly. My cousin is adopting from Ethiopia soon and hearing from you helps me know how to pray for him and his wife.