Today, Shannon Dingle continues her series examining adoption and the church. In addition to serving as a Key Ministry Church Consultant, Shannon is a co-founder of the Access Ministry at Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC. Today, she looks at the second of five ways churches can love their adoptive and foster families…Become Trauma and Attachment-Informed.
Adoptive and foster parents know about trauma and attachment, so their churches should too.
But what does that mean?
Attachment is the act of bonding, usually focused on the child bonding to his or her adoptive or foster family but also applicable to new parents bonding to their family’s new child. Children who have been adopted or who are in foster care don’t have the typical attachment process of biological children. Even a child adopted at or soon after birth spent months in the womb hearing a different voice than the mother they went home with, and research has shown that bonding of a child to mother begins with those first sounds and smells in the womb and soon after. For children who have learned not to trust adults (for example, if trusted adults have abandoned them or died or lied or hurt them), attachment can be even harder. This affects behavior, nutrition, learning, self-worth, and more.
Trauma includes a constellation of previous experiences a child has that could have a negative effect, including abuse, neglect, loss, grief, starvation, medical mistreatment, and being witness to violence. That’s a long list, isn’t it? And it’s not comprehensive. Every child is different, and so are the responses of each child to their own trauma histories. That said, research shows that trauma can impact children’s developing brains. Research indicates that childhood trauma is sometimes misdiagnosed as ADHD, early trauma leads to changes in brain chemistry and development, and institutionalization of children leads to higher rates of lasting sensory processing issues. And that’s just the tip of iceberg on what experts have to say about the effects of childhood trauma.
So, church leaders, what can you do to become trauma- and attachment-informed and to then use that knowledge to serve adoptive and foster families well?
Just say no to romanticizing adoption and foster care. Can there be beauty there? YES! But is it borne out of hard places? YES! God calls us to care for unparented children, so we should be willing to say, “Here I am, Lord, send me,” but we aren’t serving anyone well if families dive in after being presented with a glamourized version of the realities of adoption and foster care.
Give high fives instead of hugs. Okay, that’s not a firm rule, but please resist the desire to shower our kids with affection. Ask us first. That might sound harsh or like we’re helicopter parents, but the reality is that our kids might not understand who to trust or how to know what love is. God designed children to learn about love for the first time in a family environment: the womb, then their parents’ arms, and so on. Those moments of early feedings and middle of the night soothing develop a child’s brain to know that mom and dad are their secure sources of affection.
Sometimes well-meaning folks forget that many kids in adoptive and foster placements never learned that. One of my children showed this to the extreme with what experts call “indiscriminate attachment.” In layman’s terms, she would willingly go with any adult, with no preference for me or my husband. For her to learn healthy attachment, she needed us to be the main sources of affection.
Same goes for food and gifts. Once again, ask us first. Kids learn to trust and attach to caregivers through nourishment (i.e. food) and provisions (i.e. gifts). Getting those from us and from others can be confusing, especially at first.
Let us enter children’s ministry on our timetables. In other words, be flexible. Understand that our kids might need to be with us more and in the nursery or Sunday school less, and please help us navigate that reality for the season in which it applies to us. Be willing to change some rules if they don’t make sense for us. For example, the nursery program for our ladies’ midweek Bible study program is run by a precious woman who gently pushes moms to go to their own small groups instead of lingering, and that works for most kids. But when our youngest cried so hard she ruptured a blood vessel in her eye when we finally started putting her in the nursery? We both knew that wasn’t working for our family, and we adjusted accordingly.
Don’t say, “Oh, every kid does that.” We feel dismissed by those words, and they show that you don’t get it. Let’s return to the previous example. Did my daughter’s reaction look like typical separation anxiety? Yes. Was it? No. Many of the attachment- and trauma-related behaviors for kids in adoptive and foster families might look like the usual kid behaviors, but they’re different.
Respect our children’s privacy. To love our family well, you don’t need to know the specifics of our children’s history with attachment, trauma, and life in general. Some families choose to share limited information, but most of us consider our children’s stories to be theirs to own and share on their own timetables.
Finally, understand that every family is different. Every adoptive and foster family deals with attachment and trauma differently, so this entire list might not apply to all the families in your church. So be willing to listen and learn from us before acting based on assumptions.
By reading this post, you’re already showing great love for the adoptive and foster families at your church because you care enough to learn a little about how child development might differ for our kids. Thank you for that.
This post concludes Shannon Dingle’s blog series on Adoption and the Church. In addition to serving as a Key Ministry Church Consultant, Shannon is a co-founder of the Access Ministry at Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC. Her series can be accessed in its’ entirety through this link. Here’s Shannon…
I love adoption. You don’t become the mother to six children, four by adoption, without loving kids and loving adoption.
I think sometimes when we celebrate adoption, when we observe Orphan Sunday in our churches, and when we make glossy brochures or memes based on our children or families, we fail to acknowledge that any beauty is born from loss or pain. I cringe when people talk about our adoptions as some great thing that Lee and I have done for the children in my home. I cringe because no one talks about my two childbirths, both of which were challenging at the end of difficult pregnancies in which my body was stretched literally and figuratively far beyond what I ever thought it could be, no one says anything about what a great thing I have done with our first two children in making that sacrifice.
That’s because it’s what we do as parents. We sacrifice, both in adoption and in birth.
We sacrifice for our kids as we lay down our lives for them. And, especially when they are new to our family and demanding and reeling from the realities of life, be that as a newborn or as a newly adopted teenager or as a foster child just dropped off for the night, they don’t show a whole lot of gratitude. And? Please hear this next part: We don’t and shouldn’t expect them to.
Please, church leaders and friends, be careful how you portray adoption and foster care. Especially in front of my children, who – like most kids – don’t want to be singled out as different or as being or having been needy at some point in their lives. Especially to other people in our church who while well intentioned might not be prepared or equipped to say yes to adoption or foster care, maybe not ever or maybe just not yet. Especially when so many Christian messages imply or outright present adoptive parents as the savior when we have only one Savior (and it’s not us).
It doesn’t help my children to be, from the pulpit or in the hallway at church or anywhere in between, frequently reminded that some people view them as a charity case. Because while some of my children were once legally classified as orphans, they’re not orphans anymore. They’re kids, simple as that.
And it doesn’t help the rest of the church to be faced again and again with the romanticized version of adoption. It would be disrespectful to my children to share all of them details of the battles we have fought behind closed doors and on our knees to present the happy, well-adjusted, sweet family of eight our church body sees walking through the doors and filling an entire row in the worship center. None of this is for the faint of heart.
So might I suggest something? Might I suggest that we begin to preach about adoption in the same way that we preach about marriage? We tend to talk about marriage as this beautiful thing, this covenant commitment before God, this institution that needs to be safeguarded. To that end, we require pre-marital counseling, we examine or at least mention the reality that many marriages do end in divorce, and we talk openly about how hard marriage can be. As we balance the beauty and the hard, we stress the importance of marriage. We don’t worry that our messages will scare people aware, because we know we speak the truth and we believe there are great rewards in the midst of great difficulties in marriage.
Why not do the same with adoption and foster care? When we say yes as a church to caring about vulnerable children and families, let’s also say yes to talking about related challenges too. As we address the topic of divorce before couples say “I do,” maybe we should proactively address to topics of disruption and dissolution of adoptions before families step forward to that covenant commitment. Just as we share the realities that marriage requires much work during some seasons of life, or all seasons of life, could we also affirm that parenting through adoption or foster care requires a lot of us too?
It’s easy, relatively speaking, to host Orphan Sunday at your church. It’s harder to say yes to children from hard places the other 51 Sundays of the year, plus an occasional week for Vacation Bible School and other days here and there. It’s harder to say yes if you come to the realization that one special needs ministry coordinator did, as shared on my friend John Knight’s blog: “At Bethlehem we have a disproportionately high number of the last three [fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and reactive attachment disorder] mostly because of so many adopted children in our church body.”
I love adoption. And, if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you do too.
Let’s show it by loving even when it requires us to change and even when it isn’t picture perfect for some glossy advert and even when the broken is looming bigger than the beauty.
In other words, let’s love like Christ loves.
By Shannon Dingle
A reader gently asked me this, and I immediately understood what she meant. I’ve written about trauma and attachment difficulties, and I’ve written about permanent brain changes resulting from institutionalization at an early age. I wrote a whole post about how “all kids do that” dismisses the hard histories that have shaped some of the behavioral responses our children show. I’m speaking soon at the Global Access Conference about the special needs of foster and adoptive families.
So, yes, I can see how it might seem like I’m saying that kids in foster or adoptive placements are broken while other kids are whole. That’s not what I’m saying, though, so I want to take a moment to clarify.
We are all broken. In Genesis 1, we see a perfect world in which everything God created was good. In the absence of sin, everything in the garden would have stayed good and pure and right and perfect. In the garden, adoption and foster care would never be necessary because no parents would die or be unable to care for their children or get sick or abuse their offspring or be coerced into giving up parental rights or neglect the ones born to them or give birth to a child outside of a loving and safe family environment.
But then we know what comes later in that book and what effects the first sin and all the ones that came after, including yours and mine, have reaped on this world. The need for adoption and foster care is one result of the brokenness of this world, and those of us parenting children who entered our home through adoption or foster care see daily the impact of that particular kind of brokenness.
But all of us are broken. I see the impact of other kinds of brokenness when the daughter who grew in my womb comes home in tears because someone made fun of her hair and when a healthcare professional rudely said “What’s wrong with him? Get it together, hon,” to my son whose sensory issues were manifesting a meltdown that didn’t seem age appropriate. I see it in the slumped shoulders and quivering lips of my dear ones when I lose my temper and yell at them instead of respectfully addressing whatever issues are at hand. I see it in our marriage, when a disagreement can escalate because I tend to shout more because that’s what my family did growing up while my husband withdraws more because that’s the behavior he learned at home.
It’s true, though, that I often write and speak specifically about brokenness in adoption and foster care. That observation is valid. We at Key Ministry are seeing an increase in the number of families telling us of challenges in church involvement after adopting and foster care, an uptick in the number of churches asking for help in including these families well, and – in Steve’s case as a child psychiatrist – a rise in the number of families seeking professional help for the children who entered their homes through adoption or foster care. At the same time, we’re seeing positive stories shared without the challenges (often because sharing those wouldn’t be respectful to the children involved), sermons about the need for orphan care with no comment on the difficulties that may arise, and memes that romanticize and glamourize the brokenness that leads to adoption or foster care.
Do I love adoption and foster care? Yes. Do I think the church ought to be involved in both locally and globally, as well as family preservation efforts to prevent their need? Certainly.
But I also want to make sure we’re telling the whole story. I’m not saying “don’t adopt” or “stop it with those memes” but rather standing in the gap between Hallmark movie versions of adoption/foster care and the hard realities that sometimes persist after placement. I’m saying “we’re all broken, but it seems like we’re glossing over this kind particular kind of brokenness.”
As Christians, we are people of the Truth, so let’s act like it by telling the whole story and loving children and families in the midst of both the beauty and the brokenness of adoption and foster care.
This week at the Global Access Conference, presented by Joni & Friends, Shannon will be leading a session titled The Special Needs of Foster and Adoptive Families. There she will share five specific ways your church can make itself a safe place for these children and teens, drawing from her experience as a special educator, a disability ministry leader, a church consultant for Key Ministry, and a mom of six children, four of whom joined their family through special needs adoption.
By Key Ministry
In Part Seven of our blog series…Dissecting the DSM-5…What it Means for Kids and Families we’ll take a closer look at the decision to redefine the diagnostic criteria for Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). Following this post, we’ll next look at the new companion diagnosis related to pathologic care in early childhood…Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder.
When I read through the new criteria for Reactive Attachment Disorder, I found myself hard pressed to think of any condition in which so great a disconnect exists between the way it is defined by academicians and community-based clinicians.
Beginning with the publication of the DSM-III-R in 1987, two subtypes of RAD have been recognized…an emotionally withdrawn, inhibited type and an indiscriminately social/disinhibited type. In the DSM-5, the term Reactive Attachment Disorder has been reserved for the emotionally withdrawn, inhibited type. The indiscriminately social/disinhibited type is now referred to as Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder and considered a separate condition.
The new criteria for RAD are as follows…
A consistent pattern of inhibited, emotionally withdrawn behavior toward adult caregivers, manifested by both of the following:
The child rarely or minimally seeks comfort when distressed.
The child rarely or minimally responds to comfort when distressed.
A persistent social or emotional disturbance characterized by at least two of the following:
Minimal social and emotional responsiveness to others
Limited positive affect
Episodes of unexplained irritability, sadness, or fearfulness that are evident even during nonthreatening interactions with adult caregivers.
The child has experienced a pattern of of extremes of insufficient care as evidenced by at least one of the following:
Social neglect or deprivation in the form of persistent lack of having basic emotional needs for comfort, stimulation and affection met by caring adults
Repeated changes of primary caregivers that limit opportunities to form stable attachments (e.g., frequent changes in foster care)
Rearing in unusual settings that severely limit opportunities to form selective attachments (e.g., institutions with high child to caregiver ratios)
The care in Criterion C is presumed to be responsible for the disturbed behavior in Criterion A (e.g., the disturbances in Criterion A began following the lack of adequate care in Criterion C).
The criteria are not met for autism spectrum disorder.
The disturbance is evident before age 5 years.
The child has a developmental age of at least nine months.
Specify if Persistent: The disorder has been present for more than 12 months.
Specify current severity: Reactive Attachment Disorder is specified as severe when a child exhibits all symptoms of the disorder, with each symptom manifesting at relatively high levels.
What don’t you see in the criteria that you’d expect to see, based on the common understanding of RAD in the therapeutic community and the broader culture? Any description of the pathologic behaviors that generally lead adoptive and/or foster parents to seek out mental health services for children in their care!
When I’m asked to evaluate kids because a parent or professional suspects RAD, the child is usually exhibiting some combination of problematic behaviors from the following list:
The question of whether attachment disorders can reliably be diagnosed in older children and adults has not been resolved. It is clear that central attachment behaviors used for the diagnosis of RAD, such as proximity seeking, change markedly with development. Defining what behaviors in 12 year olds, for instance, are analogous to proximity seeking in toddlers is difficult. Even developmental attachment research has no substantially validated measures of attachment in middle childhood or early adolescence, leaving the question of what constitutes clinical disorders of attachment even less clear.
Nevertheless, there have been reports that many oppositional or aggressive older children, especially those who have been maltreated or raised in institutions, have RAD (Levy and Orlans, 2000). The diagnosis of RAD in these reports is based on an expanded set of diagnostic criteria for RAD; the additional criteria overlap with the disruptive behavior disorders, including conduct disorder (CD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), and attention-deficit disorder. Claims that many children with a diagnosis of attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder and bipolar disorder, in fact, have RAD highlight the problems with diagnostic precision in this area (Levy and Orlans, 2000). In effect, DSM-IV-TR criteria have been largely transformed by groups of clinicians such that psychopathic qualities such as shallow or fake emotions, superficial connections to others, lack of remorse, and failures of empathy are viewed as core features of RAD (Levy and Orlans, 1999, 2000). There is certainly evidence that some maltreated children exhibit both disruptive behavior disorders and disturbances in interpersonal relatedness. Historical accounts of so-called ‘‘affectionless psychopaths’’ detail the challenges that children deprived by institutionalization are alleged to present (Wolkind, 1974), although this construct was never validated. Furthermore, foster and adoptive parents who care for such children can become overwhelmed by managing remorseless aggression. Although some of these children may have met criteria for RAD as young children, few are described as either indiscriminate or inhibited in their social relationships.
There are two significant problems with the trend toward stretching the criteria for RAD to extend the diagnosis to older children. First, diagnostic precision is lost when signs such as oppositional behavior and aggression are viewed as aberrant attachment behaviors in older children. To say that these children do not have ODD or CD because their behavior is better explained by negative attachment experiences is to suggest an etiological pathway that can be neither proved nor disproved.
Second, untested alternative therapies, loosely based on the proposed etiological model for RAD in older children, have been developed and implemented, sometimes with tragic results.
So…what are we to make of the severe difficulties with emotional self-regulation and behavior common among foster and adopted kids if their difficultiesaren’t because of attachment problems? Why might kids adopted from orphanages or placed in foster care exhibit severe behavior problems?
Genetic predisposition: Let’s consider why newborn babies are placed in orphanages or consider why children are placed in foster care. We know that women with ADHD engage in more risky sexual behavior. They’re more likely to be impregnated by men with ADHD. Impulsive sexual behavior is common among persons with Borderline Personality Disorder…we know that the complex patterns of behavior associated with borderline personality are strongly inherited. Parents with serious mental illness may have more difficulty appropriately caring for children.
Effects of trauma and neglect upon brain development: I would very much encourage our readers to download this excellent monograph from Harvard University… The Science of Neglect-The Persistent Absence of Responsive Care Disrupts the Developing Brain.
Abuse and neglect can contribute to the development of personality disorders in adults.
The child’s placement occurred because of their disability: In the case of Russian orphanages, a recent report in the Washington Post claimed that “Children in Russian orphanages are almost certain to have at least one disability.”
There are many reasons why children adopted from orphanages and children in foster care frequently exhibit severe problems with conduct and emotional self-regulation. Effects of trauma and neglect upon brain development combined with genetic and environmental influences appear to be responsible in most instances…as opposed to a primary attachment disorder.
By Shannon Dingle
Recently the AP reported that for the first time in more than 10 years, foster care numbers rose slightly in 2013 and more sharply last year. We should be unsettled by this news, which you can read in full here. But how can we respond?
First, these numbers should break our hearts. More than 415,000 children are in limbo, waiting to see where their future will go. Of those, 108,000 are available for adoption and waiting for a family to say yes to them as a son or daughter. Yet for more than 22,000 kids in 2013, that day never came as they aged out of foster care as adults without a family of their own. If those numbers weren’t hard enough, 14% of children in foster care live in group homes instead of foster family. And 4,500+ foster children are unaccounted for as runaways, unable to deal with life in foster care but who knows what they are going through now that they are on their own and particularly vulnerable to child trafficking and other dangers.
But more than breaking our hearts, these numbers should move us to action. If one family from every three churches committed to adopt one child and those three churches committed to support that family, there wouldn’t be children waiting to be adopted in foster care. Sure, there would still be temporary placements and other similar constructs, but the foster care system as we know it would be destroyed.
By the church.
Imagine that. Imagine if the church was known more for reflecting Christ like that instead of reflecting hate or intolerance. Imagine if we called families to adopt or foster and rallied around them as they say yes, with the support of one or more area churches, knowing they may need reinforcements and respite as they do battle with their children against previous traumas and fear triggers. Imagine that.
Better than just imagining, though, engage with ministries who are working to make that a reality. Some include The Forgotten Initiative, ALL IN Orphan Care, Tapestry, and The Hope & Healing Institute. If you know of others, no matter how large or small scale or how local or global the efforts, please leave a comment on this post or our Facebook page to share who they are and what they do. We’d love to share the good work being done by others in the kingdom of God!
In addition to serving as a Key Ministry Church Consultant, Shannon Dingle is a co-founder of the Access Ministry at Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC.
Today’s blog post is from Shannon Dingle. Shannon serves as co-director of the Special Needs Ministry at Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC alongside her husband (Lee). Shannon also serves as a church consultant for Key Ministry. Here’s Shannon…
Children cry. Children have meltdowns. Children sometimes push or shove or hit. Kids act out from time to time. Some kids shut down when disciplined or even simply when an adult talks directly to them at all.
I could go on, but you get the picture. Many behaviors or responses are common for kids.
But behavior is always a form of communication. Who we are, where we’ve been, and what we want others to know all direct our responses. While all children act out or shut down or lose tempers or cry from time to time, what each one is communicating with that behavior might be different.
While all children display certain behaviors, not all children have lost their parents to death or abandonment or addiction or disease. Not all children have been uprooted from the home or country or familiar voices in the womb to live out the rest of their days in a different home and maybe a different country and with a different mother. Not all children have witnessed or experienced abuse or neglect or malnutrition. Not all kids have permanent structural changes to their brains due to early childhood trauma. Not all kids have learned that adults aren’t always trustworthy, home isn’t always safe, and family isn’t always forever.
Some of my kids have, though. And some other kids who have been adopted or are in foster care have too.
I have two daughters turning 8 soon and two sons who’ll be 6 in March. For each pairing, one arrived via birth from my womb and one joined our family by adoption after years of life experience before us (almost 7 years for our daughter and 4.5 years for our son). Sometimes our kids act out in similar ways, but I know their behavioral responses aren’t coming from the same place.
For example, my friends recently adopted a preschooler. They already had another son less than a year older than their new addition, so they’ve parented a two year old boy before. They’re familiar with those things that all kids do. But like any good parents, they know their kids. They know that when one son is clingy at Sunday school drop-off, it’s just age-appropriate separation anxiety that will resolve not long after they’re out of sight. Likewise, they know that when their other son does the same, he’s acting from a genuine fear based on a history in which other caregivers left and never came back. It looks the same, but it’s not the same.
I get the temptation to say “all kids do that.” Truly, I do. But when foster or adoptive parents like me hear that, it feels dismissive to the real grief, pain, and trauma our kids have experienced and how that history still influences their actions today. Usually when someone tells another parent “all kids do that,” the words are meant to be helpful, to soothe our nerves or encourage us in the midst of a hard parenting moment. But that’s not what your words do. Instead those words invalidate what we know to be true and minimize the extra layer of thinking that parenting kids from hard places requires.
Finally, every adoptive and foster parent has different ground rules about how much we can or will share about the children in our homes. You might not know our children’s trauma or circumstances, because you don’t need to. You don’t need to know the details of their personal pain to understand that when our kids cry or yell or fight or melt down, they might be acting out of deep losses and hurts.
So, please, don’t say “all kids do that” because even if behaviors look the same, that doesn’t mean they are the same for our kids from hard places.
In order to provide you with high quality, current content that is relevant to your journey, we’re proud to announce that we’ve partnered with several child welfare leaders including Key Ministry and their blog Church4EveryChild! You’ll have the opportunity of learning from dynamic thought leaders in Special Needs Ministry.