Lowering the Bar
William Shakespeare said, “Expectation is the root of all heartache.” In parenting children who have experienced trauma, expectations that are too high not only create heartache, but also cause attachment to be more difficult. Because we want the best for our children, it’s only natural to create standards in our homes. However, children from hard places need time to heal from challenging histories before we give expectations that they aren’t ready to meet. It’s also important to remember that trauma arises throughout a child’s development. Adoptive and foster parents face the challenge of checking the appropriateness of the standards placed on our children as we remember their past, help them in the present, and prepare them for the future.
Well-meaning people who open their homes to a vulnerable child have a picture of what their expanded family will look like. This picture is rooted in speculation and assumption, simply because we cannot predict the future! On top of that, parents tend to assume what a child’s history was like, and while we have some information about the past, we will never know for certain what it was like because we weren’t there. In short, parenting children from hard places begins with inaccurate and incomplete information. One mom I know adopted an eight-year old who had spent all of her days in orphanages. This first-time mom was so excited to give her daughter a real bedroom with a big, beautiful bed. When her daughter arrived home and got in bed that first night, she sobbed uncontrollably. After finding a translator to overcome the language barrier, the daughter explained that the big bed was scary, and all she wanted was a little bed like she had in the orphanage. This is an example of how good intentions don’t always comfort or help our children. We must lower our own expectations to help them heal from what they’ve encountered. Sometimes that means we have to grieve the fact that the picture in our head will not come to fruition, either now or ever. When parents start to see the challenging behaviors that are rooted in trauma, it’s essential to remember that we don’t fully know what happened in their yesterdays.
Expectations we put on our children in the present can also cause a tremendous amount of heartache. Parents with biological children tend to expect their adopted or foster children to behave the same way their biological children do. They assume they will be able to parent them the same way. Parents also tend to forget that the meaning behind the behaviors of their adopted children is going to be different from the meaning behind behaviors of children who have not experienced trauma. Manipulation from a biological child could be just that; manipulation in a traumatized child is likely what that child used to survive. Such incorrect assumptions are understandable, but they do not help the healing process. Do not be afraid to have different expectations and standards for your adopted and foster children when it comes to behaviors, academics, and relationships. Lowering the bar actually helps parents see the child more clearly through the lens of compassion and enables the celebration of small milestones that might have been missed otherwise. That bar can always be raised as healing from trauma and attachment to new parents occurs.
All parents have hopes and dreams for their children, but making our own plans for their futures can be detrimental. As children enter new phases of growth and maturity, it’s important to always check their ability to meet the standards we believe we are lovingly placing on them. Trauma can surface throughout developmental milestones. Often, adopted and foster children need more time and more space to mature. By refusing to force our expectations for their future on them, we allow them to make choices and decisions that lead to healthy independence as adults.
Awareness of the moments when we are forcing our own expectations on our children is extremely helpful as we seek to attach. If you are a person of faith, it’s imperative that you ask God to show you when you are pushing your expectations on your children. Are you taking the time to remember what might be behind the behaviors you find challenging? Are you asking God to reveal His plan for your child’s future or are you hanging on tightly to your own plan? If faith does not play a role in your parenting, be mindful of the times you are pushing your agenda on your kid. This one change will give your child more freedom to heal in your loving home, and it will allow you to see the milestones being made.