The Painful Reality of Adopting Older Children Who Have Experienced Trauma

The Painful Reality of Adopting Older Children Who Have Experienced Trauma
Guest post by Brittney Dalton

Adopting older children out of foster care is a very different experience from infant adoption, and it is my experience that there are fewer books and stories available about this topic.  I am pleased to share the following guest post with you, written by Brittney Dalton:

By Brittney Dalton

I am scared to allow you to see the truth of our story. I am scared to admit the dirty secret of adoption that most people cannot tolerate the existence of. I am scared because I know that it’s easy to think you know what it’s like to do something you’ve never done.

The entire time I have been a mom, I have wrestled with accepting two truths.

  1. This is about learning to live with a significant amount of daily sadness.
  2. This is doable.

My kids watched Ice Age 4 the other day, and I was struck with a simple scene that told the story of our life. One of the characters fell into the water, in the midst of an oil spill. Another character saw this, jumped in, and they wrestled around for a bit. I don’t know if it was the second character’s intent to clean his friend by flopping around with him in the oil-laden water, but all I could think was, “What is he doing? It’s going to get all over him. Then they’ll both be oily, and vulnerable, and sickly.”

Burden-sharing makes me nervous because I now know first-hand how painful it is. That it -- like the oil on the Ice Age character -- gets all over you and into every bit of your life. What once was well and easy quickly becomes dismantled and chaotic.

It makes me think of the mandatory training for foster care and adoption, and how the social workers do the best they can to prepare you for something that cannot be prepared for. Sure, the bases are covered. The pragmatics of what the kids have gone through, what they will need and what never to do are addressed. You’re given several pamphlets outlying numerous diagnosis, and lists of local resources to assist you when you’re stuck. But try as they may, they cannot prepare a person for the emotional despair. They warn you that it’s coming; they urge you to gain a support system if you don’t already have one, and to ready yourself for the impending shock, but a person cannot be taught how to grieve what shouldn’t be grieved.

I waited for the natural sort of love I watched happen between my friends and their kids. It didn’t come. I waited to rise above my own grief with the saintly strength in so many adoption blogs and books I read leading up to bringing our kids home. It didn’t come. The only thing that came was busyness and grief, and I had never in my life been so thankful for busyness. Without the influx of various therapy appointments, I am not sure if I would have made it. Every morning I grew increasingly jealous as I watched my husband leave for work, leaving me to care for the children I now homeschooled because school was only exasperating their trauma. Don’t think arithmetic and chem labs, think “Today we will learn how to brush our teeth, and let’s use a towel to wipe our mouths this time instead of the dirty carpet.”

Whatever I read about happening to the families in the books and blogs, was not happening in our home. We were lacking the miracle of the rescue.

By the time we adopted our children, they were 4, 8, 9, and 14; and were all sworn to be surprisingly unaffected. I’d like to say that’s the reason we agreed to take in this sibling group; but it’s likely we would have said yes to a small hyena had they offered us one, we were desperate for children, specifically those who were desperate for parents. The length of time our children spent in their abusive and neglectful home caused a potent amount of emotional trauma; unaffected they were not, just well-practiced in adjusting.

We have grieved nonstop over what our kids went through, and what that means for their future. But I’ve also had to make room for the grief that this motherhood is not what I foolishly hoped for. I didn’t expect this grief. I had already dealt with my own infertility (something we found out after deciding to adopt), and presumed adopting would slough off whatever residual sadness we had left. It inconveniently irritated it. Our life felt all too clinical to be familial. Too methodical to be sweet. Every interaction we share is weighted with the threat: Will this cultivate or hinder attachment? This amount of hyper-vigilance to stay one step ahead of them made us crazed with worry, hinged on the quote our therapist often tells us, “The insane mind will drive the sane mind insane.”

Every single one of us is sad.

Something that acceptance gifted us with though was the space to adjust and appreciate. Suffering whittles away the fluff of life and gives you the eyes to see the truth behind the truth. Is it ok that our kids may not be self-sufficient? Will the world make room for them? Yes, diplomas, and degree’s, and marriage, and careers are wonderful but not necessary things. Suffering forces you to suck the marrow from life, because a passive approach to life no longer will do. You must work to absorb the good and take part in pleasantries, because they aren’t often given day in and day out, and like Hemingway says, “When you stop doing things for fun you might as well be dead.”

Suffering forces you to apply the rhetoric of living intentionally.

What happened to my kids was traumatic and unbearable. It left lasting effects, some that will never go away. What my husband and I chose to do was enter into that world with them, to flop around with them in the oil, in hopes of neither of us going under, even if it meant neither of us would come out clean. We are all better for it. My good friend, Miranda Hersey, said it well when she said, “Whatever this is, it’s wonderful.”

Brittney Dalton blogs about raising her children at

Portrait of an Adoption is hosted by Carrie Goldman, author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear. Please email guest post submissions to

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