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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…!

Trauma In Adoption


I should have seen it coming. But I didn’t. “Hindsight is 20/20” and all that other stuff. What happened?

I made my son flinch in terror, pure and simple.

He had been declared ours only two months before. Almost to the day. And now he was cowering in fear. Here’s how it went down.

The kids were becoming rambunctious at my office following a Major Event. They were darting in and out of the door, leaving it open to the outer office. Way too many people were wandering into my office, and more importantly, I could see the kids’ frenzied energy levels rising. It was time to decompress, quiet down, and chill. I told them several times to please close the inner door and the outer door. Then I went to the restroom, just inside the inner door. Big mistake.

“Pasha, get in here!” I overheard Petya’s urgent voice. “What are you doing?”

This was a fairly normal exchange, heard all of a dozen times a day at our house. The problem was, this was a night they were supposed to be on their Best Behavior. And I know the stress that this expectation causes, but was I not allowed to go the potty for one full minute without all who-knows-what breaking loose?

So I come out, my usual angry self. Both doors are wide open for the nth time.

I hiss-whisper, “Would-you-close-that-door-and-get-inside-NOW?! Go over there!” I point my finger toward their area of my office where we have installed a table and chairs for them to sit and quietly do their activities for such a time as this. As I gesture with a wave of my arm pointing toward another area, I see my new son cower in fear.

He flinches and braces himself, having been hit too many times in the past. And I have just conjured up such a memory for him. Subconsciously, at his most basic level of comprehension, he believes that I may strike or beat him.

We have discussed it ad nauseum. You can never reassure enough a child of trauma or abuse. But the reflexes were still raw and activated even after eight weeks of ecstasy chez nous.

Many adoptive parents refuse to ackowlege the fact that their child is suffering loss on so many different levels: loss of birth family, loss of familiar surroundings, loss of friends, loss of soothing foods, loss of native language, loss of birth country, only to name a few. We put a happy face on the situation, and rightly so, because we believe that their life has wildly improved for the better. To be adopted often means to have “won the lottery” in figurative terms. But for the child, there is still loss involved, and grief to sort through.

For both Petya and Pasha, the orphanage meant an improved existence. Often, birth parents are impoverished and abusive, or they are imprisoned criminals, or they are dead-beat alcoholics, or they are simply dead. There are a few who are good-hearted and poor. Let’s put it this way: no one becomes an orphan through positive life experiences. One way or another, the child is left parentless, with no one to care for him. To be taken in, even by an institution, guarantees a certain amount of food each day, and a roof over the head. Not bad, according to what they were used to. Not good, according to what we are used to.

Syndromes such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder take time in order to make it to the “post” phase. Though the trauma is not currently occurring, there is a lot of other trauma and change to take its place. I’m not so sure how much can accurately be described as being in the past, if our child is still adjusting to the new realities, and still flinching at the old. A child is different from a war veteran, where the war is over, finished and done, but the nightmares linger on. For an adopted child with PTSD, the war may never be fully over.

There are innumerable examples of abstract reasoning that stump Pasha. I believe he understands that we will never hit him. In Russian court, we swore to the fact that we would never use corporal punishment. But then he tends to push the envelope.

Pasha basically knows nothing of cause and effect, of responsibility and reward. A simple “Preenehstee’, Mama,” (Forgive me, Mama) usually makes everything alright. That was hard enough, to have him admit that he ever needed to say “sorry”. But there are times, I hestitate to say it, there are times when you don’t want all to be well. You want your child to learn their lesson the hard way, if no other way is working.

Earlier this week, he had not made his bed, yet again. This is no big deal to me, after all, you’re simply going to climb back in tonight, but even in an orphanage, all the kids had to do something. They kept order. To have less than that now, indicated a certain level of disrespect. My posted mini-chart of daily responsibilities and privileges did nothing to help the matter, since no one ever consulted it. Made me feel better, though.

The couple of times when I reminded him during the day to make his bed, he was always quick to comply. And he received his allowance. Then I heard him telling Petya that Papa would not take away his “dyengee” (money). In other words, he could forget to do his chores and still receive his allowance, no matter what.

Bingo. Wrongo. In our house, you don’t get an allowance for breathing.

When the non-bedmaking occurs again, I call Benedetto at the office, in a conspiratorial manner.

“When- you- get- home,” I mouth into the phone, “check- out- his- bed. He- has- not- made- it- for- a- few- times. NO ALLOWANCE. Okay?”

These are the measures to which we are driven, meeting in secret, sneaking phone calls, acting out phrases above children’s heads at the dinner table. All to withhold a couple of bucks from our traumatized son.

It does the trick. He seems relieved that we have held him accountable. We are not the usual push-over parents, where the child calls you Russian names behind your back, or to your face.

Like a mother’s rocking, there are certain soothing routines that these institutionalized children never had: a set bedtime preceded by a specific ritual: take a bath, brush the teeth, bedtime story, prayer, lights out. Or lights not out, if it conjures up images much worse than the proverbial monster in the closet, or boogeyman under the bed. A set daily routine of what-happens-when is so helpful to these kids. They can count on the fact that you will be there after school, or practice, or rehearsal, to bring them home.

Don’t ever be late. Don’t ever gesture suddenly. Don’t ever forget to pack their lunch. These are not isolated, non-incidents as it would be with home-grown kids. The children are bruised and battered, whether on the inside or the outside, from before your time. Like a rare find from the back corner of a curiosity shop, we dust them off and discover they are a priceless treasure. Handle with care.


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