After years of trying to have a baby, my husband and I adopted a girl of early primary school age. Despite doing lots of homework, we were naive. Our daughter presented with a host of challenging behaviour we felt ill-equipped to cope with. She was subsequently diagnosed with disorganised attachment disorder and learning disabilities. She found it hard to attach to us because of the trauma and neglect she had experienced.
Growing up, we had some lovely moments with her, although she continued to provide many challenges. After a few years, we became desperate: we travelled a huge distance to access support and our relationship with her improved. We had new techniques to prevent situations from escalating, and were able to bond with her to an extent. She got accepted into college and seemed more focused on her GCSEs.
Then she got a boyfriend and began rejecting us. Things came to a head when she ran away to live with him and did not start college. She got pregnant, social services became involved, and she did not want anything to do with us. Their baby was placed in foster care and is now with family members with whom we have established a reasonable relationship.
Our daughter now lives with a different boyfriend and has stopped caring for herself. Our concerns have been ignored, and she has told us she is happy. Many of our family and friends advise us to move on and keep her at arm’s length. But we love her very much. We have done our best in difficult circumstances, and would be so grateful for any advice to help maintain and strengthen our relationship with our daughter, and to help her to heal. We feel very let down by social services.
Your letter was heartbreaking. It’s obvious you’ve tried many things to get help. As you’ve discovered, parenting a child with such severe trauma is a complex process. I’m sorry you didn’t get the support you needed for so much of the time.
I consulted Alison Roy, a child and adolescent psychotherapist (childpsychotherapy.org.uk), and author of A For Adoption. Roy felt very drawn to your line about having done your best. You have. But I think when doing our best results in (at the moment, at least) such an unsatisfactory conclusion, it’s hard to see the significant progress you have made. I think at the core of all of us is a need to love and be loved, and when that doesn’t feel as if it’s happening, it can make things seem futile.
“Acknowledging your sadness feels important,” Roy says. “But it’s also significant that children who were neglected and deprived bring their experiences to their adoptive families, all too often leaving them feeling deprived of the resources, nurture and support they need.”
Roy and I wondered if you had connected with other adoptive parents. It can be helpful to offload and get perspective with people who have gone through something similar. Roy added something that may help you: “[You had a] three-course meal of love to give your daughter, but she only had, and still only has, stomach for a teaspoon at a time.” She also suggested “providing a consistent relationship for your daughter does and will matter, even if she can’t show it. Healing is a gradual process.”
Think about what sort of help your daughter will accept and keep doing that, even if it’s seemingly small things for now, such as sending parcels of food or just regular texts. Do what you can sustain and what she will accept.
“It’s so hard to keep going when you feel powerless,” Roy says. “But it’s important to remember that you are not powerless – these may well be feelings transferred from your daughter.”
Roy suggested resources you may find helpful, including the We Are Family adoption charity and a short film called Relinquishment And Adoption: Understanding The Impact Of An Early Psychological Wound. She is also running a free masterclass for parents and older adopted children on 21 July.
I think the most important thing to take away is that it’s not all or nothing with your daughter. Of course you don’t want to keep her at arm’s length but you do need to be realistic – she is an adult, and you also have your own needs that you must attend to if you wish to carry on parenting her effectively and also be a grandparent to her little girl. You must be emotionally exhausted. But you have not failed. Please remember that.
Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to [email protected] Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions: see gu.com/letters-terms.
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