Love Is Not Enough

By Dianne Harrison

Special Adoptions Program, Western Region

Most successful adoptions of older, behavior-disordered children can be attributed to strong, confident parenting skills. These parents know the importance of structure as well as nurture. Unfortunately many families find it difficult to discipline these children. All one has to do is read the tragic histories of these children to understand why. "This boy was neglected, burned with cigarettes and molested," reports one prospective adoptive parent. "Now I just want to take him home and give him all the love he missed." Unfortunately, love is not enough.

Children who have lived in abusive and unpredictable environments, will try to re-create these environments when they move to safe, loving homes. Psychologists call this "the Battered Child Syndrome." For these children, the world seems unsafe and out of control. They believe there is certain danger around every corner. They see every parent figure as untrustworthy. They believe the only control they have over a situation is to decide when (not "if") they will be hurt again. A parent or parents who believe love will conquer all soon find themselves frustrated with a child who rejects their love.

Abused and angry children are generally not ready to accept parental love until they feel safe and secure. It is up to adoptive parents to provide the child with security by providing fair, consistent discipline as well as unconditional affection that may not be immediately returned.

This task is not as easy as it seems. People who adopt special needs children usually do so in hopes of healing past hurts. "Before he came to us, our son Bill had his hand burned on the stove when he stole money. We want him to know we would never hurt him like that." Of course children should never be disciplined in so brutal a manner but they must not be allowed to steal (even once) without being consequenced. It is the job of Billís new parents to substitute effective disciplinary measures for abusive ones. They must never make excuses for or ignore Billís dishonest behavior if they want their son to develop a conscience and to grow up to be a responsible adult. Billís parents decided to check his room and pockets daily. When stolen goods were found, they made him face the person from whom he had stolen, return the items, and give the person 50% of his allowance money to help compensate for the inconvenience he had caused. It took numerous repetitions of this scene before Bill actually believed he would not be abused nor would his dishonest behavior be tolerated.

Many adoptive parents report that their child may actually ask for physical abuse. "Go ahead! Hit Me! I know you want to." Some children scream, "Stop hitting me!" when they are merely being schooled or appropriately consequenced. These children seem to believe the past will certainly be repeated. Angry children will often test new parents with verbal challenges. This is a great time to gain more information about what the child is really thinking and feeling. It isnít easy to do in the heat of a confrontation but take a deep breath and listen:

"I hate you and this dumb old house. Why donít you just send me away." Translation: I know you are going to leave me so just get it over with.

"This is the worst birthday I ever had! I wanted hot dogs and chocolate cake. I hate your ugly presents. I had better birthdays in my foster home." Translation: I am remembering other birthdays and I miss the people from my past. Why did everything have to change?


Many capable but poorly prepared parents have been deeply hurt by a childís hateful outbursts. They harden their hearts a little more with each assault until the relationship between parent and child becomes irreparably damaged. Parents end up bitter, disappointed and distant. "She rejected our love and never showed an ounce of gratitude," said one mother in despair. The adopted placement disrupts and the childís belief that parents are not dependable is reinforced once again.

I am convinced that a lot of pain can be avoided if parents can approach special needs adoption from a position of strength and confidence. There is a big difference between feeling empathy (having an understanding for a childís feelings) and pity (feeling sorry for the child). Pity interferes with effective parenting. Parenting abused children requires a great deal of self-confidence. These children need more than love. They need consistency, structure, discipline and commitment no matter how tragic their histories may be.

Because life has been so unpredictable and cruel, they will test, test, and test again to see if you are abusive and if you mean what you say. They may say and do things that seem hurtful but remember, they are in pain. You are a convenient target for all the stored up anger and hurt.

It is not pleasant to be tested but you are a safe, strong target. You must avoid the use of physical discipline with an abused child because it only reinforces the childís idea that parents hurt kids. You can, without guilt, administer appropriate and immediate consequences for unacceptable behavior. You can constantly remind yourself when your child shrieks "I hate you" it is really a way of expressing general frustration and pain.

Never, for one minute, doubt yourself. You may not be perfect. You may need to learn new strategies, get advice from professionals or even lose your temper once in a while. This does not mean you are a bad parent. You have strong and healthy beliefs in a childís needs for love, safety, nurture or you wouldnít have decided to adopt. You have the patience and strength to solve problems. You are not afraid to make unpopular decisions if you believe it is in your best interest.

Parenting is one of the worldís toughest jobs. Parenting children with special needs is even tougher.

Reprinted from Growing Together, Vol. 4, no. 7, July 1989.
Keywords :
  preparing for adoption : special needs
  behavior : strategies for parents