When to Hold and When to Fold

Part 1

by Dr. Nancy Spoolstra

I was 5 years old when I told my parents that I wanted to be a veterinarian. I was 14 years old when I told them that I wanted to build my family through birth and adoption. I was fortunate enough to be able to accomplish both goals, but both of them came with a price. During the time that I was struggling to get through Vet School, I wouldn't have guessed that one day I would abandon Veterinary practice (and the appreciation of clients) in favor of the ego-building(?) experience of parenting unattached children......

After our second child was born, my husband and I began to give serious consideration to the possibility of adoption. We were fortunate enough to have a healthy boy and girl, and we felt that we were ready to explore other family-building options. Our first adoptee was Anchulee, a beautiful, tiny, and very stubborn little polecat who was born in Thailand and arrived home in October of 1989 at the tender age of 21 months. Boy, were we in for a rude awakening! I had not studied polecats in Vet School; nor was I at all educated about Attachment Disorder. I was already parenting 2 normal, on-target kids, so I thought I had some idea of what this job was all about. I was totally unprepared for the control battles over the tiniest of things; the lack of "warm fuzzies" towards my new daughter for many, many months; the lack of understanding that I received from the other adults in her environment that she was so adept at conning. Intellectually, I was sure that I was ready, willing and able to love "another mother's child" as much as I loved my birth children, but I was emotionally not feeling that way about Anchulee. After many years of struggle and self-education, I came to realize that it was the lack of reciprocity in the relationship between Anchulee and her family that was the problem--NOT my "inability" to love her. It wasn't until her brother Tony joined the family at the age of 9 years thatI had a real understanding of Attachment Disorder, and the effects that an AD child can have on the dynamics of a normal family.

My birth children, Adam and Laura, were 5 and 3 years old at the time of Anchulee's arrival. I, myself, was parented by a "drill sergeant" as defined by Foster Cline in Parenting With Love and Logic. My parenting style was pretty similar to the way I was raised. I told them what they needed to do, and, by golly, they had better do it and do it now! I soon found, however, that my new daughter was not at all responsive to that approach. She didn't care what I wanted her to do, and in fact, was just as happy to do the opposite of what I wanted. As my frustration escalated, it became obvious that there had to be a better way.

It would be a full 2 1/2 years before I stumbled into a group of experienced Moms who started me on the teachings of Foster Cline. I credit those ladies with saving my sanity, and I am a lifelong fan of the teachings of Dr. Cline. However, it would be another 3 1/2 years, after the arrival of Tony, before I would be given Foster Cline's book on Attachment Disorder. In other words, I used his parenting methods long before I knew anything about AD. We had taken Tony to see a therapist, because Tony's behavior was destroying our family. At our first meeting, the therapist handed me Hope for High Risk and Rage-Filled Children. He wanted me to read it and see if I recognized Tony in the descriptions. I will never forget how I felt when I realized that all the feelings I had experienced, all the bizarre behaviors, the community reactions, the guilt, were all documented in this book! They were legitimatised, validated, believed! I wasn't crazy after all! That day was the beginning of the end of my plans to return to Veterinary Medicine, for I came to realize that there was a far greater need for people to be educated about AD than there was for another veterinarian. Besides, I don't believe my education has been wasted, for I was told by a well-known Attachment therapist that her best foster parents were horse trainers, and I am very good at "Basic German Shepherd", (another Foster Cline term!)

I still clearly remember the day we made the decision to adopt a second time; the decision that resulted in the addition of Tony to our family. We were on our way to a vacation in Colorado, and it was the summertime. Anchulee's behavior was very difficult even when school was in session, but summer times were even worse. So here we were, discussing the addition of a second adoptee, when the first one was about as much in reverse as a kid could be. We thought we had it figured out, though. We would make sure that this time we would get a child with a good attitude. We weren't concerned if he wasn't cute or smart, but we wanted to assure ourselves that he would move in a forward direction at least part of the time. As I write this, it amazes me how unprepared and naive we were at the time. However, the fact was that we still had never even heard about AD, so we were not operating with all the facts.

Tony arrived in July of 1993. He had spent 8 of his first 9 years in an orphanage in Ecuador. He is very cute and probably smart, but we are not sure about that because his bad attitude causes him to be quite adept at noncompliance. My "enlightening" occurred in January of 1995, when the therapist handed me Foster Cline's book. Prior to that time, in November of 1994, we had welcomed home Cindy, a 14-year-old from the Philippines. So now our happy household consisted of two birth children and three Attachment-Disordered adoptees, only we still didn't KNOW that we were dealing with AD. We just knew that these kids operated from a different frame of reference than our birth children. We knew that they were unmotivated, unhappy, and uncooperative. We also knew that they had experienced a great deal of pain in their young lives, but they seemed unable or unwilling to address those issues, and without their cooperation we were unsuccessful in our attempts to help them. After years of watching Anchulee charm the socks off of every human being over the age of 5, we discovered that Cindy and Tony were equally as skilled in that area. Of course, the ability to be charming in public while totally destroying your family in private is a well-documented characteristic of AD children. However, the other adults in the child's life have to recognize and understand what AD is before they will believe the parents that this charming child may not be what he or she seems.....

Ultimately, the incredible stress at home, the criticism and condemnation from the community (mostly the schools), and the increasingly negative impact on the more "normal" children precipitated the disruption of Cindy. Although I still felt that we could possibly make the placement work, Cindy was adamant in her vocalization of her desire to leave our family (with its attendant emotional requirements). I simply could not cope with her behavior, the school's negative contribution, and the behavior of Tony and Anchulee. Cindy was with us for 6 months, and we poured a great deal of time, money, effort and emotion into her. She walked out of our lives and we have not heard from her since. Neither Tony nor Anchulee appeared to be very affected by Cindy's departure. It hurt my birth daughter very much, although my birth son was not too affected. Truly, Cindy had contributed very little towards the family and had been protecting herself emotionally, so Adam was not that attached to her. Cindy and Laura were closer, partly because Cindy had a birth sister in the Philippines about the same age as Laura. Ironically, it was also that fact that caused Cindy to be jealous of Laura, because Cindy's birth-mom made no secret of her preference for the younger girl. One of the many times we had to deal with Social Services was over Cindy's contention that "we treated the birth kids better than the adopted kids". Cindy left in May 1995, just in time for Tony and Anchulee to move into their annual summertime disintegration......

By the end of that summer, I was emotionally and physically a wreck. The entire family was planning a trip to Colorado over Labor Day weekend, but I just couldn't do it. I could barely tolerate being in the same house with Tony, much less take a vacation and be stuck in a van with him for hours. I also felt that I was bearing the brunt of Tony's behavior by myself. (AD kids typically pick on Mom the most.) I told my husband that I would take Adam, Laura, and Anchulee to Colorado and he could stay home with Tony, or he could take the kids and go to Colorado while I stayed home. My husband chose the latter option; however, he had not bargained on the response he received from Adam and Laura. Neither child wanted to be with Tony either, and they both elected to skip the vacation and stay home with me! When I realized just how polarized and dysfunctional my family had become, I took more drastic action. Ultimately, all 6 of us DID go to Colorado, but only 5 of us returned. Tony spent 90 days being evaluated and treated in therapeutic foster care in Colorado. He was diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, severe birth mother issues, and possibly depression. We picked him up the day before Thanksgiving, and he started a control battle before we even got to our hotel room that night. By March of 1996, things were worse than before, and the family faced the fact that Tony needed longer term placement. Financially, this has been a tremendous burden, but the family remains committed to Tony. We just can't live with him. He returned to Colorado, but this time he was placed in a group home with about 8 carbon copies of himself. He quickly earned the reputation as the child most skilled in creating chaos, and then stepping back to watch the others take the blame. Small wonder my other kids were having a terrible time being around him. Around the time of his departure, I was diagnosed with Shingles, in addition to the hyperacidity and migraines that I was already treating. The other children were clearly relieved at his departure, and the family dynamics improved tremendously.

As of this writing, Tony is still in the group home. We attempted to spend a week with him recently, on another family trip to Colorado. He did very well for 3-4 days before the family closeness became too much for him to bear. He ended up stealing money from Adam, returning early to the group home, and refusing to hug his family before we left. He doesn't write or call, even when given an opportunity to do so. After telling his therapists for the last 3 months that he thinks he needs about 2 years in Colorado to work on his issues, he surprised everyone recently by announcing that he thinks he is ready to go home now. A big part of me is thrilled to hear him say that, but an equally large part of me is wondering how a child who can't make it with his family for a week is going to be able to live with them full time. I also know that I cannot and will not allow my family to become what it was when Tony lived with us before. As of now we are taking it a day at a time.

Go To Part 2