Letter Writer: My 10-year old son Sam was adopted through foster care due to abuse which caused bodily harm. He is struggling with rejection and I’m struggling to help him.
He spent 7 years in foster care, 4 ½ of those years in my home. We finalized things almost a year ago. There had been visitations all along with his bio dad. At termination we decided for open adoption, meaning dad can see him at our house anytime as long as he calls ahead.
That lasted for 3 months, when dad stopped calling. We (his therapist and I) tried to not let Sam contact dad but he got so desperate that he tried running to dad’s house. That wasn’t a safe situation so now he is able to call dad when he feels the need.
But dad is not returning phone calls or heartfelt voice messages. Sam is struggling so bad to understand the rejection. He’s angry, he’s depressed, he’s sad, he’s confused and his heart is broken. His dad has had 4 additional children with his new wife (who I think is much of the problem) since Sam was removed from his home. Sam worries about his siblings who he has gotten to know through visitation.
I try to get Sam to focus more on the good things in his life rather that the bad things, future vs past. On top of all of this he has ADHD, PTSD and anxiety issues. Throw in some anger and I don’t know where to start or what to do anymore. He’s been in therapy for over 5 years. He struggles with peer relations and I struggle with the school in helping him.
I keep him busy in sports, he has a mentor, and there is church. His half sibling from his mom (who is incarcerated) is also part of our family and was adopted nearly 4 years ago.
Do I continue to let him phone dad when he feels the need? I hope that at some point Sam will stop wanting to call him but then I’m afraid the 20th time he calls dad will answer and the cycle will start all over again. Do you have any books to recommend? We are open to any advice! A lot of the time advice from “regular” parents is so wrong.
Guest Advisor: Been There
Offering advice is my friend Beth Ellen. Beth works in healthcare and is single mom to three daughters who came to her four years ago through foster care. Beth is the first to acknowledge she is ridiculously flawed as a mother, and she thinks it’s healthy to be able to talk about the tough stuff. She writes at AdoptionAintaSaint and on her Facebook page and has presented at national and local adoption conferences.
As a fellow mother who adopted older children and dealt with visitations, my heart broke for you when I read your letter. Your son is dealing with big emotions and you are yearning to help him.
What stands out to me is your son’s feeling of desperation and helplessness. This would make me act out too! Here’s what I do with my children when they are feeling this way.
Do whatever you can to empower him and give him a sense of control over something…anything. From choosing whether or not to pick up his clothes, to being in charge of the pets, let him manage it himself. Involve him in deciding how daily schedules should look and what the rules should be. I go so far as to have my children pick out their consequences and we write them down so they know what to expect.
Provide lots of structure; he will feel safer with a regular routine. And he needs to have established coping mechanisms when he is dysregulated and struggling with big emotions. These may include a punching bag, exercise, headphones, music, or tactile objects such as kinetic sand. Brainstorm with him acceptable ways of dealing with his emotions — including practice naming them — and then let him choose from these options.
The fact that his father is not responding to voice messages must be so difficult for him. I thought about having him writing letters but I’m assuming with his ADHD, Sam is not big on sitting still. I wonder if maybe recording messages would soothe him? Maybe it would be cathartic to say everything he wants into a recording app. It’s private and such expression might help him sort out some of the complicated emotions he has.
You mentioned looking for books to help your son grieve and I found one in particular that I liked. Michael Rosen’s Sad Book talks a lot about sad feelings and grief in a way I think he would understand without it being “a little kid book.” It also doesn’t focus completely on death, which will hopefully make it more relevant to him. I also discovered When Children Grieve by John W James and Russell Friedman, which many in my adoption community highly recommend.
One final aspect. You said, “I try to get Sam to focus more on the good things in his life rather than the bad things, future vs. past.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t really work. He has to process and accept the bad/past in order to move forward. He’s stuck. Be sure you are not using phrases that discourage sad and painful feelings, instead help him verbalize his fears and doubts. Allow him to talk about his memories and don’t correct his recollection. Ask open-ended questions so he can explore his emotions more thoroughly. I know it’s hard and his behaviors escalate but he must work through it and you must support him doing so. Squashed emotions just come out sideways.
I am in awe of your love and dedication to this boy. You, too, are in a position to feel helpless so remember to do some self-care and make sure you have a group of people supporting you, people who understand your journey.
Good luck Mamma!
My 2 Cents
Like Beth, I noticed your sentence about wanting your son to focus on the good rather than the bad. And like Beth, I know this sentiment, though well-intentioned, doesn’t tend to work.
Any time we are in an Either/Or mindset, we are less effective at helping our children. You can’t replace Sam’s past with his future, his bad experiences with new loving experiences. Life just doesn’t work that way.
Instead, we must find a way to walk with our kids in their Both/And space. We must understand that the loving and “good” times we experience with our kids don’t take away the scars left by “bad” times. Your son needs help incorporating both sides into his being; not using one to vanquish the other.
As far as books for you and Sam, Beneath the Mask Workbook, by C.A.S.E. just came out. It’s a companion resource to Beneath the Mask. They both address teen years, so keep these ideas in mind for the coming years.
Dear Readers, what advice do you have for Janet?
- Closure: A documentary featuring Angela Tucker
- Her Letter Hurts! Dealing with a birth mother’s rejection
- How to Have Openness in a Foster Adoption: Contact isn’t the only way to have openness
- How to Have Openness Even When You Can’t Have Contact: ways to foster openness with your child.
About this Open Adoption Advice Column
- I am not a therapist. Please do not rely on words in this space to make your own major or minor decisions.
- Readers, please weigh in thoughtfully and respectfully. This is a teaching endeavor, not a shaming endeavor. We we aim to bring light rather than heat. People do the best they can with what they have to work with, and our goal is to give folks more to work with.
- Send in your own open adoption question for consideration.
Lori Holden, mom of a teen son and a teen daughter, blogs from Denver. Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, is available through your favorite online bookseller and makes a thoughtful anytime gift for the adoptive families in your life. Lori was honored as an Angel in Adoption® in 2018 by the Congressional Coalition of Adoption Institute.
I have no advice, but I love this wording: “You can’t replace Sam’s past with his future, his bad experiences with new loving experiences. Life just doesn’t work that way.”
If only it did….sigh…
This is an insanely hard situation. But the advice here is excellent and empathetic.
There was a recent article in the Atlantic about anger and how anger is actually a healthy emotion when address facilitated healing. (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/01/charles-duhigg-american-anger/576424/)
What stuck with me is how we tend to view anger in a negative light, trying to suppress it instead of giving it attention. Hence I completely agree that the focus should be on addressing the anger and sadness the boy is facing. Let him own all his feeling because there are adults in his life you have failed him horribly.
Sending love and light to this mother as you both tackle all of this together.
Oh, Cristy, this is such a great article! What a thought-provoking take on anger. As USEFUL.
“The ratio of beneficial to harmful consequences was about 3 to 1 for angry persons,” Averill wrote.
Thanks so much.
My children were a few years older when they began to grasp that their birthmother had the option to see and know them and chose not to. At that point they had zero interest in hearing from me about possible extenuating circumstances. They wanted free rein to hate her and they wanted me to pile on.
I don’t think there’s any easy way or even adequate way to navigate that, and no way to eliminate the pain and anger a child is feeling. The best I could come up with was to acknowledge their anger and assure them that she was missing out on a wonderful chance. I did ask them to consider keeping even a tiny space in their hearts open for the possibility that either the situation or their perspective might change in time. That’s a tough conversation: “I can see why you’re mad, and it makes me mad too, but for myself I just can’t hate a person who created you guys.”
That’s part of the dilemma, isn’t it? We need to empathize with the emotions a child is having right now, but we may also see ahead to a more nuanced situation than that child can grasp.
Now I have a seven-year-old grandson, also adopted from foster care. He’s been asking me about his adoptive mother’s (my daughter’s) experience as a child, why she didn’t stay with her own mom. I suspect he is using these questions as a stand-in for ones he’s not ready to ask about himself and his birthparents, neither of whom are in a position to be in contact at this point.
My best to you in this tough situation.
I love the way you walked the edge with your daughters, empathizing yet keeping the nuanced, bigger picture open, too. I’m sure this approach will come in handy for others who read here, like it does for me.