The romanticization of adoption is common, draining, and harmful. If I say “adoption,” and you say, “Awwww,” picturing cute waifs on a charming playground smiling with their interracial family–well, you have bought into a Disney/Hallmark version. It’s unattainable because it isn’t real. Yet it’s rare for someone to say to a biological family what is all too often said to parents who adopt: “Wow, I really admire you. You’re a saint. I could never do that.”
That romantic view is pervasive and powerful, one that puts a burden on adoptive families and adopted children. It allows, even encourages, parents to embrace unreasonable expectations, and then pass them, unfairly, on to the child.
What happens when the child does not and cannot meet the romantic image?
Two unromantic realities that some adopted children deal with are (1) hoarding and stealing food and (2) difficulty with appropriate bathroom behaviors. These behaviors can be very frustrating to adoptive parents, especially those who have raised bio children, and who are used to setting limits and being obeyed.
Hoarding food, overeating, and stealing food are common behaviors for adopted children, at least early on after their arrival in a home with plenty of food. Hoarding food can give a sense of control to a child, a back-up in case the food disappears again. We might look at hoarding as survival skills for children who have, in their short lives, been deprived of food, been painfully hungry, or have been forced to compete or struggle for food. Or we can see it as defiant and selfish.
This was true for Hana and Immanuel Williams, and apparently for the two Barbour children: Allegations of hoarding and stealing food are part of these child abuse cases, and the children were viewed as rebellious.
In the case of Hana and Immanuel, the parents did not seek help; in the case of the Barbours, they ignored it. In both families, the children were abused and endangered.
For unprepared adoptive parents, the hoarding and overeating behavior can seem insolent and pointless. Maybe the adopted child snatches food from the bio child. Maybe the adopted child continues to steal snacks and perishable foods (sticks of butter, grapes, cheese, hot dogs) and stuff them in between mattresses or in coat pockets–even though he’s been told repeatedly not to, or has been punished severely.
Restricting food, as Kristen Barbour apparently did for the 6-year-old boy, and as Carri Williams did for Hana and Immanuel, is often an unsuccessful approach. Hana died from malnourishment and hypothermia. The Barbour boy was diagnosed with malnutrition and possible hypothermia as his body temperature was 93.6 when he was admitted to the hospital and removed from his adoptive home.
Food issues are challenging in our society, and we often don’t like to talk about them. They can be huge in adoption. A child who hoards and steals food, who overeats compulsively, who constantly asks for food even when he’s likely not really hungry–it’s not attractive behavior.
Even harder to talk about and even less attractive are toileting issues. Toilet training is a major obsession and developmental issue for us as parents, never mind for the children.
They can be enormous issues for adopted children, since peeing and pooping are self-regulatory processes that are affected by emotions, fear, trauma, genetics, a need to control an unsettling situation, and medical conditions. And we don’t like talking about any of it, so too many people, including children, suffer alone. The Barbour boy had lesions on his skin because he’d been made to stay in urine-soaked clothing. Immanuel Williams was sprayed with a garden hose, and made to sleep on the floor of a shower room, because he peed on himself.
Children often regress in toilet training when there is trauma in their life. Some children forget to take time to pee until it’s too late; some children hold poop in until it’s dangerous to their health. Boys take longer than girls generally to master the art of toileting. Did you know that some children who have been sexually abused defecate in their beds to keep predators away?
As a society, we generally don’t like to talk about urine and feces. As adoptive parents, we like to think that we can get these long-hoped-for, finally-arrived-home children to behave nicely and politely and appropriately. We want to be the Hallmark card.
That can be an absurd expectation, at least early on and sometimes years after placement in an adoptive home, especially for children who may well have experienced trauma.
Here’s a further complication. In addition to expecting the same behaviors from adopted children that non-traumatized, physically healthy bio kids from birth have, one of the biggest burdens in adoption is the wrongful expectation that the adoptee should be grateful for being adopted. It’s difficult being the child of a saint, I imagine. Gratitude is complex in adoption. So are the notions of “rescue” and “saving.” What happens when a child is not grateful for being adopted? (“We adopted you, and saved you from the hellhole you were in, and you steal our food and pee on the floor?”)
Let’s do a much better job preparing prospective parents for the scary things, many of which may not happen–but could. Let’s celebrate the joy of becoming a family by understanding that the child had and lost another family before this one, something that can create a trauma even for infants, and let’s be open to the child’s needs. Let’s emphasize the benefits of flexibility in handling children’s behaviors, and decrease the element of shame in seeking help.
Let’s stop romanticizing adoption, and Hallmarking adopted children and their adoptive parents. Let’s build families in a positive, healthy, and realistic way.
You can find information about adoption and hoarding food here and here, and information about adoption and toileting issues here and here, as well as many other places on the Internet and elsewhere. Finding information and community is key. There are plenty of solutions and approaches to hoarding and toileting that don’t involve abuse.
My post “Does “Adoption” Really Equal “Trauma”? may be of interest as well.