How many handfuls?
A couple of weeks ago, I took Dane to get his dog’s toenails trimmed. Now Hershey, Dane’s chocolate lab/shar-pei mix, is apparently a dog from a hard place, at least when it comes to toenails! We’ve tried multiple groomers, and we use all of our best trust-based parenting strategies of "felt safety" on him.
Still, he cries - real tears! He growls & snarls, he tries to bite and pull away, and has to be muzzled. It’s a scene! One we keep enduring because we love Hershey. So as we were driving home from the groomer’s, Dane said, “Hershey’s a handful, but I love him!” Then without missing a beat, he asked, “How many handfuls do we have in our family?” I'm pretty sure he was considering himself as he pondered the names that could go on that list. I'm also certain my name could have been on it quite a few times!
I cracked up as I said we definitely had a few. It can be a lot of time-consuming work and emotional energy to handle our "handfuls."
So as we consider children from hard places and the many early risk factors that have led to challenging behaviors and emotional needs, I think we need to ask every parent, “How many handfuls do you have in your family?” And the even harder question is - how many hands do you have for those handfuls?
And if you already have more handfuls than you have pairs of hands, how can those of us in adoption and foster care professions, ministries, and support groups come alongside you and provide some more hands?
I'm not writing this because I have some great, easy answers. I'm writing because I see some great, big problems! And I think it's time we open up some dialogue about how to prevent some of the family chaos and in some cases, severe family crisis, that is taking place in adoptive and foster homes.
I believe it is important for adoption agencies and ministries to better equip families on the pre-adopt journey. The risk factors for early harm are high and prospective parents must be educated about how to help a child heal from significant changes in brain development, neurochemistry, sensory processing, and attachment. Check out The Institute of Child Development at TCU for some great training DVDs. This type of healing work takes dedication, sacrifice, and many hours of hard, hard work.
If outside therapies and specialists are needed, it also takes a lot of money. There are some wonderful organizations that provide scholarships to help fund an adoption, but that's just the beginning and often just the tip of the iceberg. Parents should ask themselves if they will be able to afford the multiple medical, therapeutic, and educational needs of that child once they bring him home.
Placing agencies and parents need to consider the ages and number of children already in the home at the time of placement. How will placing a high-risk child impact those little lives or those big lives? It can often take years of one-on-one investment to bring about the needed healing and behavioral changes in a high-risk child. What provisions can be made for caring for the additional children in the home while the parents are spending so much time with one child? How do parents keep the other kids feeling safe and emotionally connected to them and not feeling robbed of their parents?
And finally, we need to open up dialogues about post-adoption support. What types of ongoing parent training will be needed to help a family be successful with a child who has suffered this kind of abandonment, neglect, abuse, trauma, and in-utero harm from substance abuse? And once they have the training, how do we empower parents to have the stamina to carry out the time-consuming and emotionally draining work?
I love and understand the hearts of those involved in adoption/orphan care ministry. I truly believe we are meant to care for the least of these. I promise I'm not trying to enrage the folks with large families, but if we don't ask the tough questions we can't come up with any solutions. It breaks my heart to see conferences with multiple classes on how to start an adoption ministry in your church, but very few - if any - classes on how to help a child from early harm begin to heal. I think that is starting to change as people have begun to honestly admit what this journey has been like and the many tears they have shed trying to meet so many needs in one family.
I would love to see our professional organizations and ministries truly put their heads together to come up with real solutions for handling the handfuls. Where are those extra hands? How do we fund getting extra hands to these families? How do we help parents stay emotionally healthy enough to even use the hands they still have left?
It's a handful of questions, huh? But I believe there are smart, capable people in the adoption community with amazing hearts that can come up with these answers.
So open up the dialogue.
Be honest about the needs.
Ask for help.
P.S. It's okay if YOU are sometimes that handful on this tough parenting journey.