I had the great privilege of serving for a short time with Kenneth and Kristy Bruce at Westwood in Alabama. Kenneth serves there as the Minister to Students. They are the parents of four boys, all kindergarten and younger. For that alone they deserve a prize! In today’s post, Kristy shares a little of their story and how our ministries can better serve families who have adopted, especially international adoption. You can read more about the crazy adventures of the Bruce boys, and the honest life of adoption, on her blog.
In November 2009 God led our family to begin the adoption process. At the time we had a biological son who was two. In June 2010 we became a family of five when we brought home two boys from Ethiopia, aged two and 9 months. By October we were a family of six when God blessed us with another biological son.
Although this was a time of incredible blessing, it was the toughest year of my life. My husband and I felt very alone. Each day was a fight for survival. Adoption is intense spiritual warfare and there were times I felt like I was barely hanging on. I felt consumed by the battle to not act in the flesh and joyfully surrender to continued obedience. My faith in the Lord was sure but I felt and thought things that were awful.
The adjustment period is very challenging for multiple reasons. Perhaps the most challenging for me was feeling like I could not truly be honest with people because they would misinterpret my struggle for regret, or lack of trust in the Lord. I in no way wanted to convey that I regret the adoption. In fact, I pray that more people will willingly take on the fight for orphans. It is messy and dirty and tough and worth it.
There are several ways that a children’s ministry can minister to the needs of internationally adopted children and their families:
- Please be patient and understanding. The first six months after homecoming are especially rough. Everyone in the family is experiencing some sort of trauma, no matter what age. The fight for survival is real. Adjusting to a newly forged family can be difficult. As a new adoptive parent I needed people from the church to verbally assure me that they knew my life must be difficult and that it was okay if real life was not the magical picture of adoption we have formed in our minds. I needed to be assured that people were praying for me and for my family.
- Understand that internationally adopted children do not behave the same as biological children, at least not at first, and probably never. Do not expect that of them. It does not make them a bad kid. Wounds are very deep, even when a child has been adopted as a baby. Please do not expect the newly adopted child to have any sort of manners or even basic skills like drinking from a bottle or making eye contact when spoken to. It is common for children adopted from hard places (which includes all international adoption) to act half of their age emotionally. This is true for both of my Ethiopian-born children. Their bodies are similar to their peers, but in several areas they are far less emotionally mature.
- Do not be surprised if the child has special needs. Sensory Integration or Sensory Processing Disorder and behavioral issues are especially common in internationally adopted children. While you may not be familiar with the particular issues, it is helpful to ask the parents how to best minister to the child. Things that have worked with biological children will probably not work. Be willing to do things a little differently to accommodate special needs. For example, a child may need to suck on a mint through class or have a fidget toy to get proper sensory input. Another child may need to sit in the hall with an adult if the music in class is too loud. The amount of toys, colors, and people can be overwhelming to children who are not used to such stimulation.
- Understand that drop-off time can be very challenging. One of my sons has been home for two and a half years and still throws himself on the floor in hysterics, kicking and punching anything or anyone in his way. He is typically fine within three minutes, but those few minutes are ugly. In those three minutes, he needs to be held tightly and spoken to softly, no matter how frustrating it can be. In those minutes you can offer him security, stability and love just by reassuring him that it will be okay and he is safe.
- Remember that these children are in a new culture. The behaviors that we despise in our churches are likely the behaviors that kept these children alive. Selfish behavior, stealing, lying, manipulation and entitlement are some of the common behaviors I have seen in my two boys. Although they should be disciplined, do so gently because newly adopted children have to unlearn some of the behaviors they had to engage in to survive. It is best to ask the parent how discipline should take place. This too should be handled with great care.
- Expect tantrums for no apparent reason.
- Please do not pass judgment—on the children or the parents. Although you might not be able to see it, most newly adoptive families are hanging on by a thread. We already feel like we are alone and drowning. Our failures are ever present in our minds. Please rally around us in support. Even if it is leaving a meal on the front porch or sending prayer notes in the mail.
- Remember that your words matter. Harsh, negative words can crush the spirit of an adoptive child and or adoptive parents. Positive, encouraging words can be like salve for the soul. When we found out that I was pregnant during the adoption process words of encouragement were hard to come by, and we were on a church staff. In the midst of everyone’s shock and disheartening words, one friend said, “The Lord is showing you favor.” Tears flooded our eyes because it was the first positive we had heard, with no reservation. Our youngest is named after him. Adopted children and their parents need your kind words as they fight an intense spiritual battle.
- Envelop the family in prayer.