Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Adopted Child and Socially Awkward Behavior

The other day I heard a friend calling up to Sporty, who was near his bedroom window.  "Hey, do you want to come out and play basketball?," his friend asked.  Without missing a beat, Sporty responded, "Sure, I'll be right out!"  Now, I know what some of you are thinking.  So what?  What is the big deal about that?  Kids have these sorts of exchanges all of the time.  While that it certainly true, those of you who have experienced seemingly socially bizarre behavior with your adopted children know that it is a huge deal when our children learn to interact in socially acceptable ways with adults and other children.  I believe this past summer was our turning point! 

When we first came home with Sporty a little over 19 months ago (Wow, has it been that long?!), this exchange would never had happened.  In fact, the reality of how this situation has played out in the past had me scratching my head for quite some time.  (And sometimes apologizing to the 'victim'.)  Sporty, a child who was by all means very social and active at the Transition Home in Ethiopia, seemed to display socially awkward or downright rude behavior in most social situations here in America.  This went on for months.  A friend would go out of his way to stop by and try to include Sporty in some activity and Sporty would turn his back on said friend and refuse to answer.  An adult would ask him a question and Sporty would look at the ground and mumble some incoherent response.  Sporty's soccer teammates would try to start up conversation only to be met with a sullen facial expression and silence.  (Fact: I had more conversations with his teammates while carpooling to and from practice and games than he had with them the entire season last year.)  What was going on?  At home, Sporty had normal interactions with me and his immediate family, and his teachers were singing his praises.  He was cooperative and would play with others at school, but outside of the school setting he seemed to be at a loss for how to act socially.  Why the bizarre behavior in social settings?  

For those of us with older adopted children from Ethiopia, these awkward behaviors seem inconsistent with the social and engaged children we met at the orphanage or transition home.  Read: at the transition home.  In her or his home country, in her or his comfort zone.  Of course their behavior will be different in America, at least initially.  Everything is different.  Ethiopia was a place that he or she was familiar with and here, well, he or she is just learning about the new environment and I can only imagine how stressful that may be.  Do you like to be called on or called out unexpectedly in class or at a meeting?  Probably not.  Our children are called out daily...whether at school, church, or just out and about in the neighborhood.  Yikes!  All eyes on the new kid...

With Big Sister arriving on the scene this past summer, I had the chance to view her initial social interactions with veteran eyes and saw something that I probably missed last year.  Our adopted children, already under so much stress due to this huge life change and probably filled with anxiety beyond measure, were trying to hide.  I believe they were trying to make themselves invisible as a means of coping with the anxiety.  I imagine them having an internal conversation along the lines of this: "Maybe if I don't make eye contact, this situation that is making me feel distressed will go away?"  Or this:  "Perhaps if I don't answer, they will forget about me and I can just return to my comfort zone."  As parents who may want for our children to be connected socially with peers, these situations can be both heartbreaking and frustrating.  However, with compassion, consistent coaching, and lots of reassurance, our children can learn how to respond in socially acceptable ways and build confidence along the way.  Most of us are social creatures and crave acceptance and belonging.  We all want to live a purposeful life.  Our children are no different.  Just because they may not know how to respond, does not mean they do not really want to learn how to respond, no matter how hard they may fight us initially.  It is our job to teach them and coach them and eventually, we hope, things will start to flow.  

Last Spring, after prayers one night Sporty came right out and asked me how he could make friends.  He must have been wrestling with this for some time and came to a place where he was comfortable and secure and ready to take the next step.  So, we had a little chat about making friends, filled with examples and illustrations.  This past summer, Sporty spent a good portion of every day with neighborhood friends...playing sports, swimming, riding bikes, etc.  They had a summer like the ones I remember: outdoor all day with friends, home only to check in and eat.  And I was a happy mom.  

While Big Sister, perhaps due to her gender, craves social interactions and is thrilled to be in a classroom with peers and on a soccer team with girls her age, she has some socially strange behavior of her own.  She growls, friends.  Yes, growls.  And chews things she finds on the ground.  Two nights ago, my mother-in-law gave her a birthday gift.  Not knowing how to respond or how to be grateful, when asked what she thought she was going to do with the gift she said, "Throw it in the trash."  Yup, that is what she said.  Side note: I am becoming a damage control expert.  So just when we normalized one child socially, another has backfilled.  That is OK.  We will work through her anxieties as well.  One day at a time.  If you ask her a question and she doesn't respond appropriately, please do not assume she is being rude on purpose or blowing you off.  Trust that I am coaching and reassuring her at home and that her behavior may simply be rooted in anxiety.  Her previous life was not a walk in the park.  It taught her not to trust.  She is now learning that it is OK to trust and that will take time.  God heals! 

I pray that one year from now I will be able to report on the relationships she has formed and the hurdles she has jumped.  God is walking with us, carrying us some days, and telling us to pick up the pace on others.  Some days, God simply asks that we survive.  Being an active part in God healing a broken child is extremely difficult.  Sometimes I don't have an ounce of energy left at the end of the day.  I crawl into bed and pull the covers up.  I thank God for transforming me on this journey and allowing me to take part.  I thank God for another day in his creation and ask that he provides all the wisdom, discernment, and energy that we all need to make it through another.  I thank God for new mercies each and every day.  Then, I crash.  Joyfully, humbly, and purposefully having exerted all of the energy I was given for the day.

Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed,
  for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
  great is your faithfulness.  -Lamentations 3:22-23
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1 comment:

  1. You have such wisdom. Your insight would be a huge blessing for anyone bringing home an adopted child!