Thursday, December 27, 2012

Rage, Grief and Defiance in the Older Adopted Child, Part 1

---This post continues with my series, The Good, The Bad, and The Downright Ugly: Realities of Older Child Adoption. Click on the link above, titled "Older Child Adoption" to read the first several posts in this series.---

Imagine with me for a moment, that you're an orphan. Abandoned as a newborn, you've spent years in an institution, deprived of the loving nurture that you so desperately need. You are ignored and ostracized at school, so you sleep through most of your classes. You are undisciplined and unloved, so you lie, cheat, steal, hoard, manipulate, scream, hide, and bully in order to survive. You are unattached and ignored, and you scratch and rock at night in order to simply feel something.

 Now imagine with me that tomorrow morning you wake up in a new place. In a different bed, in a strange home, with disgusting food, surrounded by unfamiliar people speaking a language you don't understand. They tell you this is a family, and you've always wanted a family, but you haven't the slightest clue how to survive in this environment.

They take you out and you are constantly overwhelmed. Your first time in a store, you play under the racks of clothing like a toddler. You make noise in church, unbuckle in the car, and run out in front of cars in parking lots.

You lie about absolutely everything because it feels safer that way.

You are slowly stripped of your lifelong survival skills, as your new family teaches you a better way. Truth replaces lies. Work replaces cheating. Kindness replaces bullying. Sharing replaces hoarding. Snuggles on Mommy's lap replace the rocking. And eye contact replaces the hiding.

In many ways, you begin to love your new life, the shock of the change starts to wear off, and a bit of sparkle returns to your eyes. The food starts to taste better, the people aren't quite so weird, and the new language slowly gets easier.

Its not that you really want to return to the old life--you don't--but you still long for the familiar, the comfortable, the only way you've ever known.

And so you grieve. Not every day, just sometimes. Like when you get a letter from a friend from your orphanage. Or when your mother expects you to do something you never had to do before. Or when you watch your siblings, with their seemingly carefree life and you start to wonder, "WHY ME? Why wasn't I born into this family? Why wasn't I adopted as a baby? Why does everything have to be so hard for me?"

You act out, because it's your only survival skill, because you miss your old home, and because you're furious that life is NOT fair.


Everything I wrote above is true for our Johanna. Things are going pretty well most days now :), but we've been through some dark, long, heavy grieving and raging times as well. The worst of it shook our family to the very core, and sent us sobbing to our knees.

Please understand that we empathize completely with our sweet Johanna. She did not choose to have to face these struggles. We know God has an amazing plan for her life and we are just one of the parts of the process. :)

That being said, I would be lying if I said this has been easy. It's been the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. It's been exhausting, confusing, and downright painful.

BUT! The lessons the Lord has been teaching me, the fruit in Johanna's life, the strength of our family in the midst of everything makes it so so worth it.

There are reasons families aren't coming forward in massive droves to adopt older children. There are reasons older children are disrupted in much larger numbers than younger children. I personally think part of the reason for this is lack of education, preparation, and support. Very few people talk about the really hard things, in part because they don't want to hinder others from adopting and in part because they are afraid they will be judged if they admit that things are not always perfect.

Adopting a child from a hard place is just that: HARD. It is also quite possibly one of the sweetest life experiences you could ever have.

Families need to be prepared, equipped, and supported, long after the adoption has been finalized.   In an effort to offer support, understanding, and education for other families, I'm going to elaborate on some of the behavior challenges and coping techniques regarding rage, grief, and defiance in the older adopted child.  


I'm sure there are fancy definitions for the kind of rage I'm talking about here, but this is the word that comes to mind for this behavior, so I'm using it. :) It's not always an "angry" rage, as many times it can be a mourning, sad kind of rage.

Raging (in Johanna's case) involves any (or all) of the following: screaming, scratching, self-harm, hateful words, inability to calm down, tantruming, kicking, throwing things, and running away.

Picture the worst toddler tantrum, on steroids, for hours, and you have a tiny glimpse into the world of a raging adopted teen. :)

The combination of an inability to control her emotions and not being taught much of anything--coupled with the frustrations of life--combine to create the perfect storm.

If you're familiar at all with the teachings of Dr. Karyn Purvis (if you've adopted, you should be!), you'll remember the "flight, fright, freeze" brain mechanism that happens during stress for our kiddos. Unattached, unnurtured brains react unusually to duress.

Anyway,  Johanna goes to all three. :) Sometimes she runs (very far!), sometimes she cowers in fear, and sometimes her eyes go blank and she freezes up.

Most of Johanna's raging seemed to coinside with a period of grief and defiance. I think the "honeymoon" had worn off and she began to mourn the loss of her old life in China. She struggled defiantly with learning to obey and learning important life skills (like brushing her teeth or learning to read English). No one in her life had ever made her do much of anything, and she fought this transition HARD.

 It was several months of daily raging.  Various things would trigger it, anything from being asked to do a "difficult" math problem, to being told to wash her hair correctly, to being disciplined in any way for anything. Even a simple "Johanna, you did wrong." could trigger a raging tantrum. Getting injured, losing a game, being teased, getting sad, being nervous, being forced to make eye contact, being overstimulated or overtired, etc, etc, etc.....

Basically, any time her emotions were affected, she would start to shake her head, kick, and scream. Loud, open-mouthed, horrible-sounding screams. If I didn't give in and cater to her every whim (I didn't), they were even more unbearable. The longest tantrum lasted six hours. Yes, six long hours of uncontrollable screaming, kicking, and throwing things.

The rages were daily at their worst, sometimes multiple times a day, often late into the night. We were exhausted and our other children were beginning to be very angry at this child who was literally controlling our entire family with her screaming.

I knew much of this was normal, but I truly wasn't sure how many more months I could take of the screaming. I tried all of the traditional parenting tips I had accumulated over the years, most of which didn't work. I scoured the internet and my adoption books, called social workers and researced everywhere for what to do when your child quits anything "hard", lies about absolutely everything, and screams for hours and hours on end.....

Our attachment was already new and in-process and the screaming did nothing to encourage my attachment to her. The natural boundary between mother and child that prevents abuse, even when you're angry was not always there, and I felt overwhelmed and guilty with my own feelings of anger and frustration. I loved her, yes, but there's only so many loving feelings that flow when you're holding a kicking and screaming child in her room for three hours while your other children call for Mommy outside the door.

Even in the midst of the darkest, loneliest days, God was molding, teaching, and equipping me to parent our sweet girl. He was teaching me some life lessons that I needed to learn, and He had not forgotten about us. Over the months, as I learned and utilized some techniques and methods that helped Johanna, God filled my empty heart over and over again with love for her.

Johanna is not perfect. Her upbringing and past abuses have left their mark on her life, but God is in the miracle business---HE IS THE REDEEMER---and He is redeeming her beautiful life for His glorious purpose. She has come SO far over the past year and a half and is such a gorgeous redeemed treasure!

We have no regrets for following God's call, even when the "going gets tough".

Next time, I'll share some of the wonderful techniques that have helped Johanna learn to control her emotions, obey, and succeed in so many other ways. (I was hoping to put it into one post, buuuuut, you all know how "wordy" I can be, lol.) 


  1. So true, Selina. So thankful to be walking this road with you, and to hear how well Johanna is doing theses days.

    Hope you had a great Christmas with your blessings!

  2. hi there....i am the one who sent pictures of your little one that we had from our pick up. :) we also adopted an older child...she was 8 when she came home...and everything you said rings true for us too. it was a tough tough couple of years. i have never known someone so broken and hurting....sometimes it was tough to remember she was just a child. some encouragement though...she is now 18...and while there will always be some stress and anxiety about her past and her life, she is a happy healthy girl. :) keep up the good work!

  3. Selina,

    Thank you for your inspiring words. Our Tristen has many of these issues too. He was a,baby when he came to us. Ever since Michelle came (we met HER birhmother), he seems so angry. He said to me, " I want my REAL mom. You made her give me to,you!". It broke my heart. My husband wants him on meds. I want hum to deal with his feelings. He can't do that if hes Medicated. It's kids that don't deal with their aNger that burst into schools and shoot people. Mike sees kds. Like that all the time as a middle school teacher. I Will pray for your beautiful family. Rena Sano

  4. I appreciate your honesty, your reliance on the Lord, and your tenacity. Thank you for not giving up. We adopted our daughter at only 13 months, and yet she would rage for hours. Watching our children become who they can be for God's glory is one of the most encouraging things in the world. During the "heat" of the battle with our daughter, I would often meditate on Christ's heart of love for us- He came to us when we didn't know Who He was. We fought against Him when He only wanted to pour His love out on us. We preferred our lives of sin and destitution to the riches in Christ He offered us.... I really felt that my daughter's fight against us gave me a depth of understanding regarding the heart of Christ that I have found in no other way (so far! God always has ways of surprising us!). May He continue to be glorified in Johanna's life and in your family.

  5. Friend, I REALLY need those tips now!! Message me please.

  6. I have yet to experience the rage that you have dealt with. I know that I am not immune to these issues, I read with interest so that I can learn from those that have walked this path. Thank you for opening up and sharing the hard parts of older child adoption.

    I'm thankful that Johanna has you for her mother. She is truly blessed to be part of your family.

  7. Thank you so much for your honesty. We are hoping to bring our two daughters home from China in the spring. One will be seven by then, the other six. I am anticipating grief and anger issues, and it is encouraging to hear that there is a light at the end of the proverbial dark tunnel. Looking forward to part #2.

  8. So many people who haven't done this cannot accept the reality of when we say they scream for hours and hours. They think it's an exageration. I've emailed you! Thank you for being another honest mom out there. I'm not sugar-coating my experiences with my teen daughter either. I want to help people understand and have coping mechanisms so they go into their older child adoption as prepared as possible, and not disrupt. You have adopted a lot at once, as have I, with another in process. I really identify with you.

  9. We adopted an older child. China said she was 10, but she was 11 y.o. She did the raging 3 times. The first time she threw something across the room. Right then I decided she could do what she wanted, but it was not going to be in the house. I dragged her to the garage and slapped the kitchen door. I went out and checked on her every 15 minutes, but pretended it was to ask if she was ready to apologize. She stayed in the garage each time 2 to 3 hours screaming and even making her nose bleed. She would end up sitting in a pool of blood. When she apologized I would tell her to clean up the blood and and go take a shower. After the 3rd time when she acted up, all I would have to do is ask her if she wanted to go to the garage. She would say no and straighten up. The key was, when she was in the garage she knew (or thought) no one was listening to her.

  10. Picture the worst toddler tantrum, on steroids, for hours, and you have a tiny glimpse into the world of a raging adopted teen. :)
    lior lustig


I welcome any and all comments as long as they are Christ-honoring. Please let me know what you think!