My wife’s father was a notorious sex felon. She left her first family at fifteen and entered the foster system where the form of abuse changed without stopping. She could relate to the fears some of our children had as they joined our family through adoption. There are times when adopted children don’t feel safe at home, no matter how hard parents try.
It’s not their fault. When continued abuse is not the culprit, history can be reason enough for a case when adopted children don’t feel safe at home. My oldest daughter is a case in point. Emily lived in a home with a first mother that had absolutely no self-control, no compassion and no mercy. Emily and her six siblings were beaten, starved and tortured, sometimes to the brink of death. In fact, it was an intentionally inflicted, life-threatening third-degree burn on her little sister that got the children removed from a rural Russian shack and placed into orphanages. That removal saved lives.
Emily was forced to divorce her youngest siblings so that they would be able to be adopted. (The Russians were probably correct in their thinking that no one would adopt all of the traumatized siblings, together.) Emily revolted with what she rightfully viewed as the theft of her family and she refused to conform in any way. That resulted in her being labeled as a trouble maker and her placement in an orphanage, set aside for troublemakers. Emily was abused in the orphanage as well, but with one difference. Her life in the home was always in danger. In the orphanage, her life (at least) was safe. She got enough to eat. The shelter was heated against the Russian winters as her home rarely was. Though other orphans abused her, it was never allowed to go to the point where her life was in danger, as it was in her home. In essence, in an institution, her life was safe. In home settings, it was constantly threatened.
When adopted children don’t feel safe at home, you do everything you can to change it. Sometimes everything you can do isn’t enough.
My daughter’s brain had been limited in its development and had built its foundation, frame, covering and roof on the very primal core of self-preservation. The “smart” part of Emily’s brain (the part that encourages short term sacrifice for long-term gains) always took a back seat. The “strong” part of her brain (self-preservation) never allowed anything that it didn’t trust and understand as being fundamental to immediate gratification and/or self-preservation. This caused significant challenges as Emily joined our family. We quickly learned what happens when adopted children don’t feel safe at home.
As much as Emily loved leaving the orphanage for a home, to her own family, and to a place free from abuse, her primal brain did not feel safe. The brain immediately recognized the differences between a home and an institutional type setting. Then it put two and two together. “My life has never been safe in a home setting. My life has never been in danger in an institutional setting. I need to be in an institutional setting to be safe.” When adopted children don’t feel safe at home, you do everything you can to change it. Sometimes everything you can do isn’t enough.
When adopted children don’t feel safe at home, promises are nets when it comes to holding water.
Emily’s behaviors in our home were so dangerous that we told her from the beginning that she could not continue to live in the home unless we could make it safe for everyone. We told her that no matter what happened, she would still be our daughter and would still be an important member of our family. Even so, if she and others could not be safe in the home, with her in it, she would need to be placed in an institutional setting. Of course she strongly objected. Sometimes she screamed out her defiance and made threats. Other times she sobbed and promised to do better. But when adopted children don’t feel safe at home, promises are nets when it comes to holding water.
Even as the smart part of our daughter’s brain pleaded with us to keep her in the home, the strong part of her brain inwardly raged. “Don’t you understand that’s what I need?! Don’t you understand that I’m only safe in an institution?! Don’t you understand that I will never conform to behavior requirements if violation takes me to where I feel safe?!”
Eventually there was no reasonable choice and we put our daughter into an institutional setting. The betrayal she felt was justified. Even though we stayed very involved with her, it took years to rebuild our relationship. With those years came other growth. The smart part of her brain grew stronger. Eventually she had opportunities in group home settings. But when adopted children don’t feel safe at home they don’t feel safe in group homes, either. It took several tries with Emily going into group homes and returning to institution type settings. Each time the smart part of her brain got stronger and was able to better control the strong, primal part of her brain.
Our daughter is twenty-three, now. (She was fifteen when she left Russia to join our family.) It appears that Emily’s hard work, the tenacity and dedication of professionals who worked with her and her family’s refusal to give up have paid off. Emily has lived in her current group home for more than two years without a return to institutional settings. She visits in our home regularly. Recently, she was even able to go on vacation with the rest of the family. All in all, it is a story of ups and downs, but one of success. The best advice I could give you for when adopted children don’t feel safe at home, is to understand the reasons why, and then to give it everything you’ve got for as long as it takes to strengthen that smart part of their brain.
Often, readers receive as much help from other readers in the comments section as they do from the blog article, itself. Please be generous with your thoughts and experiences in the comments section. There are lots of people who need what you have to share. This is your chance to help them.
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