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Is it always happily ever after? ~ By Tom & Sherry Bushnell

Adoption is a very special way of adding the blessing of children into a home. Not only is the idea Biblical, but for those of us who have been adopted as sons and daughters by our Heavenly Father, adoption takes on a very special meaning. For millions of adoptions, things have gone very smoothly. Even those who adopt older children have had happily-ever-after situations. Bonding with a child is an adoptive parents dream. We have heard it said, from experienced adoptive parents, that it is safe to plan on a close parent/child bond to be complete in just about as long as the child was old in years or months at the time of adoption. For instance, if a child is two, it will take two years. If a child is sixteen, there may not be a close parental bond until after a child has moved from home. I don’t think any of us adoptive parents really know for sure exactly what we are getting into when we enter into a relationship with an adoptive child. But that is O.K. Birth parents don’t either! It is still important to dream, plan and hope for the best. This article shares about a problem most social workers don’t talk about in preparing a family for adoption. If you have adopted your special needs child, no doubt you have formulated a good answer to the question of, “WHY ADOPT A CHILD WITH PROBLEMS?” I know we have. We admit, some of our reasons are personal: we want a large family, we had all birth boys and wanted a girl or two to compliment our home.


Other reasons come from a strong desire to put into practice James 1:27 “..taking care of widows and orphans in their time of distress.” One of our strongest reasons for adopting a special needs child comes from the realization that special needs children are little children first. Each of them longs for the love of a Mommy and a Daddy. Millions of special needs children go without a Mommy and Daddy, without a home, without someone to rock them when they are hurting or scared. Overseas, the special needs children who do eventually find a home of any kind are blessed. Many children die before the age of 10. There is only so much room and so much food, and very little money to care for them. The children have given up asking. Their tears are all cried out.

The following is what we witnessed in India, when we brought our daughter home, is not meant to be a putdown of India’s social services, but to give adoptive parents a clearer understanding of what they may be getting into.

Madras, India

November, 1990:

The beautiful, tropical, picture Madras, India gave us as we landed on the hot, steamy, tarmac just after the rainy season, belied little of what we were to see the next day. We received a summons from a Social Services official first thing in the morning. In broken English, spoken typically fast, he repeatedly asked us, “Why are you choosing one of our deformed children? We have many healthy children to choose from.” I don’t think he ever understood our reasons for adopting Sheela, born without eyes. Hindus believe in reincarnation. In this social service person’s estimation, it was more productive to raise a normal child.

Deformed children were those, who in a past life, had committed a crime and were being punished. He felt it was better for them to suffer and die, thereby paying their dues. Perhaps, if they accepted their punishment, they would come back in their next life as someone in a better position…maybe even in the upper class as himself. Our first glimpse of social health and medicine was staggering. The hot sun beat down on the block-long, line of children in their weary mother’s arms. Some children did not get help in time.

The unpainted cement building looked cooler than it really was. Huge open windows let in the moist air and along with it, volumes of flies to rest and multiply on open sores, messy eyes, excretion and vomit. Mothers are always admitted with the child to help protect from vermin. Some hospitals require each family to bring a cat to keep the rats at bay at night.

Sheela was in the top story of this hospital. The fourteen flights of stairs left one soaking wet with sweat by the top. The marble stair landing (even the side walks are marble in Madras because of its abundance) was being wiped by a tiny woman, squatting on her heels, with an incredible smile, yet horribly crooked teeth. She rang out her dirty rag in the red-brown water, and stood, pointing us to two dilapidated wicker chairs. She hurriedly gained admittance through the metal barred doors. Ten long minutes later a short, grinning matron came back with the announcement that Sheela was napping and would be out for us to meet in a few minutes. This gave us a chance to view our surroundings in more detail. The rotten smell of sickness, the noise of crying, scared and dying children, clanging bedpans and buckets reverberated against dark gray cement walls. In our hearts we found a strange mixture of horror and happy anticipation. The hospital was a nightmare. Our long awaited meeting of Sheela was a dream come true.

This experience opened our eyes to life outside of abundant America. We know that not all orphanages or hospitals are like this. However, for children living without parents to care for them no matter how kind the nurses are, no matter how nutritious the food is…it is still orphanage life. Children who have been there since birth and made it through age 2 are relatively happy. This is the life they know. From early infancy these survivors have learned complete emotional independence. Their hearts, designed by their Creator to need love and affection, harden. The sweetest, cutest and most demanding children get the treasures when visitors come. It is dog-eat-dog in every orphanage. There is always a pecking order. Those on the bottom die. Those on the top grow to be the most manipulative.

Each year thousands of children are adopted by warm, caring parents. Motivations are usually pure and expectations of life, after the initial adjustment, are high. Just as a birth parent has dreams and aspirations for their soon to be born child, so adoptive parents have dreams for adoptive children. At least we do!

The days turned to months. We not-so-patiently waited for the day we could go pick up our daughter. Each day we imagined what she would be like. In our minds we saw her crying for Mama and not being comforted. We saw her sick and not being cared for properly. We saw her reaching out for love and finding none. These things were all true, but in addition, what we did not see, were the scars left on her little heart. The Lord, in His perfect plan, made mothers and daddies for nurturing babies born into loving homes. Sin entered the world and corrupted His ideal.

Many children have experienced a painful separation by death from loving parents. Most have experienced abuse and extreme deprivation, physical or emotional, in the first years of life. Early experiences do not go by unnoticed by these little ones. They can be so incredibly damaged for life that only the Master Physician can heal them totally. These experiences can result in what is commonly called “attachment disorder.”

Parents choosing to adopt a needy child have gone through a home study deeming them as warm, caring, loving, generous; physically and emotionally able to parent a child such as this. Very soon after the child enters the home, the parents realize all is not what they had pictured it would be. Instead of the warm fuzzies and cuddles before bed, parents begin to experience a lot of frustration. In spite of their best efforts to be patient, they feel like they are being used and manipulated instead of getting reciprocal love. Parents may begin to feel confusion.

Further feelings of rejection from the child trigger in the parent anger, coldness, and desires of wanting to give up on the adoption. Children who are unattached can be superficially charming and engaging. This can really get parents in hot water. If the family chooses to get counseling, professionals see the parents at an extreme point of frustration and the adoptive child putting on a “show.” The professional may view the child quite charming during the hour-long therapy session and see the parents as angry or rejecting.

Christian parents choosing to go for counseling should find a professional familiar with adoption and attachment problems. It is essential that the counselor look at the child’s early childhood situation. Other very helpful clues would be:

  • How does the child act around other authority figures such as baby-sitters, Sunday school teachers, close relatives, or even neighbors? Is the child’s behavior (according to other’s report) consistent with what is seen in the office?

  • How are the parents doing with their other children?

  • Attachment disorders can be especially frustrating for mothers and fathers who do not have any other children. There are no successes to lean back on, no comfort for an aching, failure-ridden heart. Ouch! Unfortunately there are relatively few professionals truly trained in this area.

  • Children who are experiencing attachment problems will exhibit most of these symptoms:

1.) Superficially engaging and “charming” to strangers. This behavior can last an hour, a week or as long as the child’s will is basically not crossed.

2.) Lack of eye contact with parents when the parent is wanting to communicate with them. They’ll look on their own when they feel comfortably in their own court.”

3.) Affectionate with strangers. This can mean kicks, screams and “I hate you” for parents, but cuddles and the demanding of attention of Grandma, doctors, family friends or others who happen on their path that they feel they can manipulate. (One of the worse times we experienced this was at the doctor’s office with one of the girls. The doctor came in and our little one sidled right up to him, all hugs, sweetness and coos. The doctor fell head long into her trap. He reciprocated with his own affection. I felt helpless to described to him, in the limited 5 minutes I got for the appointment, what was going on. As soon as the doctor left our daughter threw herself on the floor in a fit of rage. If she could talk her screaming would have said, “Help, come back and rescue me from these evil parents. ”I carried her kicking, pinching and screaming from the office. The nurses must have wondered what I had done to her! It was right around this time that we were not having success in getting others in the church we were attending to stop hugging and gushing over our girls. Although these folks meant well, they did not understand the dynamics of our present situation, nor the importance of keeping their distance. We grew weary of explaining especially when we felt they would not agree or comprehend After all. These girls were soooo charming and cute. We knew the Lord wanted us to worship at home, at least for a while. We started an evening fellowship with just a few understanding families. It was then we started seeing success in the area of bonding.

4.) Not affectionate with parents. Does not give cuddles to parents, or worse yet, will choose to give love to one and not the other.

5.) Destructive to self, others and material things. Can be accident prone or careless.

6.) Cruel to animals.

7.) Lying about the obvious.

8.) Very impulsive, may even be labeled hyperactive and medicated.

9.) Learning lags, may be labeled LD or ADHD.

10.) Lack of cause and effect thinking.

11.) Lack of conscience. This means hitting little brother and laughing.

12.) Abnormal eating patterns. (We have experienced this. One of our girls, when she first came, would only eat when left alone, by herself, out of sight of others, like an animal.)

13.) Poor relationships with brothers and sisters or friends.

14.) Preoccupation with murder, gore and bloody stuff.

15.) Persistent, non-stop chatter. Nonsense questions or questions they already know the answer to. This can be used as a means of holding the attention of the desired “victim.” (Victim is our terminology for the stranger our girls would trap and try to engage as long as possible.)

16.) Inappropriately demanding and clingy. This can be seen often with one parent being on the receiving end of this and the other being left out in the cold.

As Christian parents dealing with “attachment disorder,” we asked the Lord for wisdom. How do we go about helping our girls from a Biblical perspective? We do not go for worldly psychology, yet these girls had real problems negatively impacting our entire family. The Lord did answer our prayers.

Christian families have a greater opportunity for success in adoption situations like these. Here is why: Christians are not motivated strictly by feelings. They are motivated out of a love for God and a desire to obey what He has called them to do.

We had to come to the realization that our daughter may never give us warm fuzzies. However, we knew that God had called us to parent this child. Acknowledging that we may never get a hug, “I love you,” or genuine “Thank you,” from her was a hard pill to swallow. Still, out of love for our Savior, we determined to continue obeying Him. We would love this child, doing our very best to convey God’s love to her.

Adoptive and prospective adoptive parents need to be aware of the possibility of attachment problems. We have found several things to be paramount in successfully integrating an unattached child into the home.

A.) Husband and wife relationships must be solidly anchored to the word of God. There needs to be total agreement about disciplining techniques and “game plans”. This works best when the husband is acting as the Godly leader the Lord designed him to be and the wife acting as the supportive, help-meet the Lord designed her to be. Together they work towards seeking the Lord’s wisdom in helping this wounded child have a better life.

B.) Take a break now and then. Not an escape from the situation, but literal planning sessions away from the child. (Editor’s note: This works best for the two of us alone, in a park, having a picnic or ice cream cone, or over dinner in an edifying restaurant) Parents must realize that this is the child’s problem, not their fault. This puts a correct perspective on the whole overwhelming situation. The ability to separate ones self emotionally from the situation (even just briefly) helps us to see a little more clearly.

C.) Consistent, firm discipline is an absolute must. However painful and unpleasant this may be for the whole family, an unattached child will not begin to progress until your faithful, consistent, loving, discipline is proved to him or her. Teaching our girls that we were here to stay whether they liked it or not,

and here to love and train them was definitely the hardest thing as parents we have done. Biblical principles of child raising lead us in the right direction. The instructions our Lord gave us in His word, the Bible, plus 100% consistency gives a solid message of love to a child, OVER A PERIOD OF TIME. In our case, years.

However, we have known Christian parents who have diligently employed consistent Biblical principles in raising their older children adopted from the USA social services or orphanages over seas that are not experiencing a happily-ever-after success story. The painful part of parenting.. .letting go…has been made even harder when their older adopted children are choosing not to serve the Lord. WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?

Biblical child raising principles, consistent love and discipline, will not get our children into heaven. It will give them a solid base for a relationship with Christ. They may have the head knowledge. But living the Christian life is their choice; it is what is in their heart that counts.

Going back to the beginning of this article and for a moment closing one’s eyes and imagining the loneliness and intense grief these children have experienced it is easy to see how they may be scarred for life. This period of deprivation can cause an independent attitude in a child’s heart that can be a difficult weed to pull.

It is here we see a poignant example of how the God-ordained roles of mother and father truly work. It is this God- placed authority that shapes and molds even a very young child into a soul that strives to please God and those a child loves. Consequently, we can also see what the absence of parents can mean in a young child’s life. Physically and emotionally meeting a child’s need for love and security creates a healthy trust and “opening-up” of a child’s heart with those in authority over him or her. Without this trust, an independent and damaged heart cannot bond healthily with those who come into his life to be a parent figure.

Can this be why many of the latch-key, “day-care” children seen today are rebellious to those in authority over them? An independent attitude toward authority (parental or the Lord) is natural. A child left to himself will not automatically find a God pleasing heart. We all have a sinful nature. In the event children choosing to “go their own way” decide not to follow Jesus, it is important to remember that God loves each of our children much more than we do.

His desire to see them enter the gates of heaven is even stronger than ours. He will not stop bringing these wayward ones, who know of His1ove and are still hurting, to a point of decision. As these parents, and all of us may experience, every child that becomes an adult “must work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.” Prayer for our children never ends.


We do not recommend worldly behavior modification techniques such as rage therapy. This goes directly against the grain of Biblical instruction. What is working for Christian parents experiencing attachment problems with a child?

1.) Becoming an authority figure in the child’s life actually brings about a stronger love between child and parent. What a little one wants is someone who cares enough to make them obey. Kindness and love is still very important, but will not carry the relationship when things get rough. Do you remember the tough-as-nails math teacher who required the best out of you and didn’t smile until Thanksgiving? The same principle applies. Requiring our children to respect us first, leads to a firm, trusting relationship. Sometimes loving a child means getting tough; tough enough to make them obey.

2.) Parents must be together in everything. Communication between spouses is a must. Do not let a child’s manipulation tactics steal your beloved. Hang together at all costs. Do not disagree in front of the children about important issues. This creates a confusing atmosphere.

3.) Create a peaceful home. Make your family home a solace, a place where members can relax and receive comfort. This may be done by removing blaring music, a T.V. running constantly, the pull of computer or video games, and reading material that is not God honoring. Be careful how busy with extra curricular activities such as scouts, lessons in the arts and youth activities the family becomes. In order to feel the peacefulness of a home we’ve got to be there!

4.) Be extremely careful about all social outings. If your child is using their attention-getting tactics on “strangers,” try to eliminate their exposure to those they easily ensnare. At least until you can get your child to understand that you do not want them to be held on stranger’s laps, or hold hands with people they do not know.

(For us this meant staying home from church, restaurants and being careful about who came to visit us in our home. For a season we knew that in order to teach our girls what it meant to have a family we would have to separate ourselves from “outside” life. We actually did this for a few years until we were confident our girls would act appropriately We wanted to eliminate the opportunity for our girls to pour out their stored-up warm fuzzies on others who were not permanent in their lives. It perpetuated the “orphanage syndrome.” Love and affection is only meant for those very special to us.

Sound extreme? It is. There were times we actually came the point of giving up. Perhaps this is just where the Lord wanted us, so He could minister his healing touch in our daughter’s lives and our own pain. Looking back even a year ago, there has been incredible progress. The ironic thing is that if someone could have shown us the joy we are now experiencing with the girls, life then would have been much easier to bear.) What these children need are parents willing to stop the “orphanage syndrome.”

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