Sunday, March 23, 2008

Living with an Emotional Vampire

My husband and I are the parents of two children born in China. Our oldest daughter "Mandy" is now 7 years old. We adopted her in China when she was 12 months and one week old. Our younger daughter "Lilly" is now 5 years old and she came home from China when she was almost 14 months old. Both of our girls are from the same province, but their personalities and life experiences prior to coming to us are like night and day.

Mandy lived in very poor rural orphanage for her first year of life. We don’t know what her life was like, but from photos, things looked very stark and she came to us with the back of her head asymmetrically flattened. We assume she spent a lot of her time doing not very much in her crib, flat on her back. She was tiny and slightly developmentally delayed in her fine and gross motor skills. She was my first child and I didn’t realize she was delayed until much later. She was also serious, very verbal and cuddly. I was in love with her from the moment I held her in my arms.

Lilly was from a much larger orphanage where most of the children live with foster families. She lived with the same foster family for 13 months before coming to us. She was plump and healthy and advanced in her developmental skills. She even knew how to work a remote control. She was joyful, loved to laugh and eat. She is the poster child for the happily-ever-after China adoption. She is a joy to parent, easy to love and fun to be around.

I first began to feel like something was different about Mandy when she was about two and a half years old. She never slept very well and getting her to go to sleep had become a huge battle every night. My husband and I couldn’t agree and how to get her to sleep and where she should sleep. Getting her buckled into her car seat was a huge, physical battle every day. She needed to control everything she did and everything I did. My husband was working in a different town and gone 2-3 nights per week and didn’t see the difficulty that I was experiencing with Mandy. He didn’t see the morning that I missed an important meeting at work because I couldn’t get her buckled in her car seat for an hour because she physically fought me so strongly. He called it normal "terrible twos," but somehow I just knew that it was more. Only now I thought that something out of the normal was going on. No one else believed me. I began to doubt myself and my own judgment.

Soon we would be adding our second child from China to this crazy mix and I was worried and scared. I became depressed, but again, I didn’t realize that until much later.

Lilly came home when Mandy was 3 years old and things really began to get difficult then. Mandy hated her new sister and would hit her all the time. No amount of redirection and correction from me stopped this. She simply would not share me with Lilly and it was extremely stressful to me. Finally one morning I broke down and cried at breakfast and told my husband that I felt like I was parenting a vampire all alone and she was sucking the life out of me.

That began our journey to seek help for Mandy and our family. The first counselor we saw did not understand or believe that Mandy might have issues stemming from her early life. But she did understand that Mandy’s behavior was putting severe stress on our marriage. She helped us to get on the same page with our parenting choices and strategies. She also helped me to get on anti-depressants. I was no longer feeling that I was alone having the life sucked out of me. This was a critical step for our family – getting my husband and I working as a team again.

But Mandy’s behavior was escalating. By four years of age or so, she would hit her sister and attack me and my husband if she didn’t get her way about the simplest things. She would hit, kick and spit at us. She began to destroy things when she was angry at us. One day when I was taking a short break in my room and she wanted to be in there with me, she got a knife from the kitchen so she could cut her way through the bedroom door. She still needed to control everything and she was mean and rude to us. Everything things was a battle, getting dressed, taking baths, going to bed, eating, playing. She was a darling at daycare and at the grandparents’ house and they all thought she was the most charming, smart little girl on the planet. She would cry and tell us that she wanted to be with her mother in China and then rage and tell me that she hated me. Our relationship was very strained. I felt I had nothing left to give to this child.

We saw a child psychologist from our local FTC group who felt that Mandy had sensory integration issues. So we worked with an occupational therapist for 3 months. Many things got easier, but the rages and control issues continued to escalate.

We began to search for a therapist who had worked with adopted kids and finally found someone to work with. We saw him for about six months and his evaluation of our daughter was that she had anxiety and adoption issues, but not RAD. He did talk therapy with us and with her. We didn’t see much improvement and after six months, because of changes in his practice, he could no longer see us. He promised to help us transition to a new therapist. He sent us to a counselor was experienced with teens with oppositional behaviors, but not adopted children. She was totally charmed by Mandy and felt that the issues were mine. After a few sessions with her we stopped our treatment with her.

We could not find any other good therapists to work with in our town. Our daughter was now raging and talking about wanting to die and hating us and wanting to hurt us. I feared for our safety and the safety of our Lilly. I couldn’t imagine how she could be healthy growing up in such a terrible situation.

When I first began to realize that our daughter has some “issues”, but no one else believed me, I had read about a therapist who worked almost exclusively with children adopted from China with RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder). For a long time, I suspected this is what was really going on with Mandy, but no one seemed to agree with me. Our next step was to call this therapist who lived in a different state. He talked on the phone to us for an hour that day and for the first time, we felt we were talking to someone who understood what we were dealing with in our home. We decided to bring him to our home for an intensive weekend of therapy and parenting coaching. He worked with both of us and our 3 and 5 year old daughters. We learned that our daughter indeed has RAD and we learned out to parent her therapeutically. We began to see positive changes almost immediately.

For us, this type of parenting was not intuitive, we really had to work at it and we had to learn how to physically hold her to keep her and us safe during her rages. After parenting her this way for almost a year, we finally felt that we had made real progress with her. We had more good days than bad; she no longer had to attempt to control everything; I no longer felt scared of her and unable to handle her behavior; she acted lovingly towards us and would cuddle with us.

It is now 2 ½ years since we began therapeutic parenting for our RAD girl. Our children are 5 and 7 years old. Mandy is not completely healed, but she is making great progress and we have a happy family life. She is able to function normally and happily in our home. She and I have a good relationship at last. Just a few weeks ago, we went to Disneyland as a family and had a great time with no rages, not tantrums and no meltdowns. It felt magical.

I had read about RAD before we adopted for the first time, but I thought that it was uncommon in Chinese adoptees and if our child has issues, I felt that we were smart, capable parents and could love our way through it. I know now that love is not enough to heal these children and that not all adoptions are easy and blissful. I’m so glad that we finally found the help we needed to help our daughter heal. Very few people saw or understood what we went through to get to the point where we are today. How can we help future adoptive parents prepare to parent a RAD child when the existence of RAD in our children is rarely addressed honestly and openly in the adoptive community or by agencies? How to we get past blaming the adoptive parent? How can we help some families to know that they aren’t cut out for therapeutic parenting and perhaps shouldn’t even become parents by adoption because of that? These are questions I think about a great deal.


Anonymous said...

Thank you. I know I'm not crazy after all!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this article. My ex wife is Chinese and raised be her paternal Grandmother. She as a result didn't bond with our child. She stated that bonding was a "Western Thing" and she had no concept because of the way that she was raised. Luckily in our case I was a stay at home dad and gave my daughter the security and bonding that she needed. I have to say that in my experience there is a cultural trend in China that ignores early bonding so that infants orphaned or even cared for my grand parents don't get emotional attention and go through the first years often emotionally ignored. Caregivers will "present well" as caring when visited but it ends there leaving Children that grow up with dealing with their own "attachment disorder" later in life.