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Destinations, Dreams and Dogs - International adventure with a fast-track family (& dogs) of Old World values, adopting the Russian-Italian-American good life on the go…!

Self-Sabotaging Behaviors in Older Adopted Children

Our older daughter, Mashenka, was turning twelve. This would be her very “first” birthday ever and I imagined that she would be on her best behavior in true orphanage wheedling style. How soon I forgot.

While the wheedling and ingratiating behavior happened on a regular basis when more computer or TV time was sought, our newer children had other issues that came to a head when it came to Major Life Events.

They were unworthy.

Try as I might with my daily motivational pep talks and filling them up with the idea that they were Somebody, when push came to shove, they would always revert back to the lowest common denominator: they were Nobody. And so it was that as Mashenka’s birthday loomed on the horizon, just a couple of weeks after mine, she tried to make everyone miserable, starting with deep-sixing my birthday and making a grand crescendo of ugliness building up to her own.

Suddenly, Baba Yaga, the wicked witch of Russian folktales, had come to roost in our abode. I was ready to chase her up the chimney and across the skies in her mortar-and-pestle-mobile. Ugly faces and even uglier attitudes were not coming to roost in our house!

It’s then that it dawned on us (again). You see, some of us adoptive parents are slow learners. We expect these kids to be excited, and happy, and thrilled with the idea of their Big Day coming up. Instead, we get Sullen, Sarcastic, and Stinky.

Why? Because they don’t think they deserve any of it. Self-sabotaging behaviors prevent them from relaxing and releasing the past. Never had a real birthday before:  who says I get to deserve one now?

None of our kids was like this on a daily basis, but only when it really “counted”. When I had to give a post-placement report for Russia to the social worker, they would descend into the abyss. Someone wanted to take them out for social events like mini-golf or lunch and they would be fine… until the next day when we would all “pay” for it. Maybe it was too much stimulation or hormones kicking in, but I began reading something else into it.

A pattern was emerging. I remember our first visit out to meet the grandparents. Many plane rides later, up mountains, down mountains, sightseeing in historic environs, dining on the best homecooked Russian and Italian meals, after hugs and kisses and gifts from their elders, we spent our last couple of days decompressing and reflecting on our trip in a mountain-top lodge in a blinding snowstorm, just the six of us.

Once again, extreme ugliness surfaced from Mashenka. She simply could not handle goodness and graciousness surrounding her. Unless she had her high drama in high gear, she felt uneasy and unsettled. In order to feel good, she had to feel bad. I made sure to stay away from the edge of any mountain, lest I help her to an early demise.

At a time when others in the family felt like hiking to an indoor, heated pool, or watching fox and elk trot past our little lodge, or painting pictures by the roaring fire, she demanded our time and attention. Her goal, at times, seemed to be sucking the very life out of us.

Mashenka needed reassurance and reaffirming that she would fit into this family, this Russian-Italian-American family in which she presently felt so foreign, for reasons not at all relating to language nor culture. It was a class war in a way, a clash of sense and sensibility. She believed that she would never measure up… and she had me pretty convinced, as well.

There were times in her school work when similar patterns emerged. Bomb out on a spelling or math test and she would comment, “I didn’t try, anyway.”

Now that was bright. After all, if she “tried”, she would prove herself to be “stupid”.

But there, in the deep snows, surrounded by towering pines, Benedetto walked with the children and explored frozen streams and horse prints, and helped with a snegovik (snowman) or two. He talked with her, not to the exclusion of the others, but reaching out to her as to a lost person who had veered from the path and needed a friendly voice and strong hand to lift her to her feet. She eventually came out of it. Not soon enough for my tastes, but maybe I was on my own Higher Education course of sorts. I was suddenly thankful for our happy-go-lucky first son, Petya, who never had an “adoptive child issue” one minute of his life.

This past week was the same, Mashenka at last deciding to do a 180 and pull herself out of her funk, bringing me kisses a dozen times a day, just as her birthday was fast upon us. How convenient, I inwardly sighed. I was too weary to respond wholeheartedly, but thankfully, she didn’t yet know the difference between Good and Bad Acting. I stirred her cake batter methodically and monotonously, trying not to dwell on the undeserving injustice of making a big fuss for Miss Ugly Face turned Well-Behaved Fairy Princess, but instead, I pondered how this poor child had had to fare for herself and even take care of her younger siblings when she was much too young for any of the above.

I had heard of other adopted children mourning birth parents around the time of their birthday or anniversary of being adopted, but my kids were old enough to know the real score, and held no tremendous illusions there. No, there was a systematic self-esteem slump, the overwhelming sense of unworthiness every time something fun or lighthearted came her way. Beyond the unworthiness factor, there was the realization, also, that other children had enjoyed birthdays, or loving relatives, or special outings all their life. Rather than relax and revel in these new experiences, Mashenka delved deep within to conjure up anger. If she made us mad enough, maybe we would cancel the birthday and she would not need to face such thoughts. All we had planned was a special family meal at home, some of her favorites, a homemade cake, and a handful of presents, which still proved too much.

Well, she was going to have her muted and subdued first birthday if it killed us, and it was going to be pleasant.

All went well, and she was suitably impressed, jumping up and down and clapping her hands like a five-year-old over every simple gift. Her velvet party dress and Venetian necklace made her look the little lady. Benedetto’s gaze met mine across the long, black lacquered table, and we smiled, genuinely happy that she was happy. She was not a monster, but a young girl moving into the teen years, trying her hardest not to be adrift, yet not totally feeling comfortable in a safe harbor. We would help her and be her anchor through the storms, whether real, or of her own making.

That night, Sashenka-the-younger came to me after bedtime, tummy ache raging.

“Too much cake, maybe?” I hugged her, giving her an antacid and tucking her in bed, yet again. In the dim darkness, her little whispered voice began her mantra, speaking on and on about the horrors of her past, her favorite bedtime talk, as I rubbed her arm and smoothed her hair. For her, the terrible talk was as reassuring as rocking. She didn’t know how to talk about the weather, nor the events of the day, no matter how many times we had play-acted Polite Conversation for Polite Society.

Even she knew how to self-sabotage a nice day, following her in sister’s footsteps.

Pain for them always conjured up the Past, as did Pleasure. Either end of the spectrum spelled a safety of sorts for our adopted children:  either the familiarity of what had always been, or the sudden and unexpected love lavished upon them made them feel free to chat and unload their heaviest burdens. It was the planned and scheduled and orchestrated love fests, whether birthdays, holidays, special excursions, or family reunions, that pushed them to the breaking point. I therefore tried to limit any information about upcoming events to notifyng them the day before, otherwise the pressure was too much. That way, we would simply suffer after the fact, and not before the event-! A birthday was kind of hard to hide, though, and we had to go through the funk of unworthy feelings ahead of time.

Here I was with Sashenka, whose constant talking about her terrors did not seem to prove very cathartic, at all. The older would act out her anger, and the younger would talk out her fears. We were on a constantly-looping tape that never ended. I tried to be understanding, and direct Sashenka’s thoughts beyond the same rehashing.

“And now you’re home,” I said soothingly, trying to wrap it up. “We don’t have to worry about that, anymore.” In my mind’s eye, I envisioned myself as the director, off-camera, making a “wrap” sign with my hand.

“Da, Mama,” and then she went right back to the loop, holding on for dear life, no time for a commercial break or a word from our sponsors.

The fact that someone else had been Princess for the Day was probably hard to bear. She needed me all to herself for now, in these fleeting moments near the midnight hour where all might disappear as in a cruel dream that was never really real.

The girls’ figurative cries for help were more plaintive and pitiful than my own comfort zone, but I reminded myself that they simply wanted what we all wanted: to know that we measured up in some small way, and that others cared enough to help us cross to the other side of wherever we might be tossed in the winds and waves of life.

 

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