HIXSON, Tenn.—Jennie and Mike Landreth have been married 18 years and have three children, the oldest adopted. Mike, a tall Southerner, works at the insurer Unum, doing network security. Jennie, gregarious and energetic, used to work in marketing but now stays home with their kids. Abbie, 12, is a fire-haired beauty. Hunter, 11, is dark-haired and more serious. Sammy, 10, is blond with glasses and an effervescent personality. They live in Hixson, Tenn., in a small house in a suburban neighborhood and attend Hixson Presbyterian Church. They have two dogs, a pet rat, and a king snake named Houdini.
The Landreths, both 41, adopted Abbie domestically. They adopted Abbie at birth, so they thought they would avoid the attachment issues other families sometimes have with older adopted children. They were wrong; Abbie was violent and had fits that went on for hours, tantrums on steroids. Jennie points to recent research about trauma that children experience in the womb as an explanation for why Abbie struggled. Abbie has been diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, along the lines of post-traumatic stress disorder for children. Before Abbie, Jennie said she and her husband had a “Pollyanna view” of adoption.
“All families hear about the challenges, but ... it’s not uncommon for a family to say, ‘Yeah, that won’t happen to us,’” said Kris Faasse, the director of adoption services at Bethany Christian Services. Faasse emphasized that, statistically, most adoptions go well.
Some parents whose adoptions didn’t go well spoke with me and said they had minimal support after they adopted. Churches and ministries are eager to expand adoption and foster care, but as child psychologist Karyn Purvis put it, they leave for the trip “before they filled up the tank.” Ministries often don’t have training or resources for families facing post-adoptive issues. And parents often feel as if they’re bad disciplinarians instead of recognizing that their child may be dealing with trauma.
“Families have got to understand—a child coming from hard places has dramatically different development processes,” said Purvis. “Otherwise their behaviors are quite mystifying.” Purvis, a child psychologist at Texas Christian University, is a foster parent herself, and she runs camps for parents that Bethany recommends. Purvis’ camps are usually swamped with demand. Bethany itself is recognizing the need for these services and is opening a post-adoption center this fall.
Children who didn’t have a consistent caregiver in the first few years of life especially develop “survival skills” because at their most formative stage of life they were hurt by the people closest to them. They approach their new adoptive family with distrust and often take out their feelings of abandonment on the adoptive mother. Screaming episodes last for hours. The child rips the house apart, literally.
Faasse said traumatized children are easily overstimulated and have no internal resources to regulate their emotions, which means their fits can quickly spiral out of control. Traditional parenting doesn’t work, because punishment makes parents the “enemies” to the child’s survival. Some families recounted their experiences to WORLD, not to dissuade other families from adopting but to point to a light at the end of the tunnel for those with traumatized adoptive children.
When Abbie was 2, Jennie first noticed that something was off. Abbie would be up dozens of times in the night, screaming. At age 4, a doctor diagnosed her as probable bipolar. When Abbie was 7, Jennie said, “We were in living hell.” Abbie was violent as well as verbally abusive to her mother.
“I would hit my brothers,” Abbie recounted a few months ago, as the whole family lounged together in their living room.
“I don’t remember that!” said Sammy.
“Like this?” Hunter interjected, punching Sammy in the arm.
Every night Sammy and Hunter would try to sleep through the battles their parents had with Abbie. Abbie slammed the door to her room so many times that Mike took it off its hinges. A doctor prescribed Ambien to help Abbie sleep, but she had hallucinations, and after one night her dad refused to give her any more of it. Family vacations always ended early. Even when the family tried to watch a movie together, they would have to end it in the middle because of a meltdown. Hunter once prayed that Abbie would go back to her birth mom, making Abbie cry.
“I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean it,” Sammy said as they talked about it later.
“OK, change the subject, I don’t want to think about it,” Hunter grumbled.
Abbie wore a hood everywhere she went, and she was so shy she couldn’t speak up to order at a restaurant. Jennie dreaded church events; it took a while to convince fellow church members that Abbie was more than a difficult child (now her church is supportive financially and emotionally). Jennie said she looked like “a frazzled mom who was overreacting.” Most of Abbie’s violence was directed at her mother: She threw a boot at her, and sometimes threw things while Jennie was driving. “Mostly stuff that wouldn’t kill you,” Abbie says now. “I didn’t want to hurt her, but I would just get angry and throw things at her, and then I would start crying and say I’m sorry.”
Abbie wrote in her diary, “I hate my mom. I hate my family.” She said she felt as if Jennie and Mike were her real parents because she had lived with them her whole life, “but I felt different.” Every day Jennie found herself crying in her bedroom closet. Mike said Jennie grew “jaded,” anticipating a battle from the moment she woke up.
For a while Mike thought Jennie was the one who needed therapy, calling the conflicts “normal mother-daughter stuff.” Jennie started recording meltdowns with her iPhone, holding it at her side so Abbie wouldn’t notice, and Mike agreed that something was wrong. The Landreths put Abbie in a succession of education environments, public and private schools, and took her to therapists, counselors, and doctors. They drove a car with 280,000 miles on it as the expenses piled up because insurance didn’t cover her treatments. Jennie worried that Abbie would soon end up in juvenile detention.
“I don’t know if our marriage would have survived and I don’t know if our family would have stayed together if we hadn’t gotten help,” said Jennie.
Under new parenting techniques the Landreths learned at a post-adoptive camp last year, Abbie is a different girl. She jokes with her brothers. Mike showed me a video on his phone: He’s picking up Jennie around the waist, and then turns her upside down while Jennie laughingly protests. All the kids are cracking up on their parents’ bed. “A family moment that was not miserable!” he said. Abbie doesn’t wear hoods when she is out anymore. She orders her own tuna sandwich, her favorite, at Subway. She showed me her room, which her mom decorated as a surprise for her with her favorite things: pink and zebra stripes. A One Direction poster hung on the wall, and she has diaries lined up on her desk. She now has a tutor, which seems to be the best form of education for her, and she is working on tap dancing. She still has friction with her mom, but nothing like before.
“Still I sometimes complain about doing the dishes,” Abbie said. “I don’t like doing the kitchen, but I’m the best at it, so it’s a curse.”
Not far from the Landreths in Tennessee, Tim and Ellen Stowell, both 60, are dealing with similar, but more extreme, problems. They never had children, and over the last few years have adopted four children from China and Taiwan. The Stowells’ children came to their family grown, ages 8 to 12. Ellen has worked for decades in special education, so she did not approach adoption naively.
“I never expected one of these kids to come running into my arms the moment I met them,” she said.
But her training didn’t prepare her for the exhausting battle with her youngest, Yu Hsuan. The Stowells adopted Yu Hsuan at age 8. He had lived with the same foster family in China for seven years, but Ellen recalls that he “didn’t shed a tear” when she and Tim picked him up. She now sees that as one symptom of trauma.
Three years later, the Stowells are still desperately seeking solutions to reach an unreachable boy. Yu Hsuan, now 11, hits his mom, which has become more serious as he’s grown older and stronger. He mumbles or whispers so Ellen has to ask many times what he’s saying, which she sees as a tool for control. I visited their home while he was at school, and Ellen showed me his room. He had punched holes in the walls, ripped the blinds off the window, and slammed his closet door off its hinges. The clearest sign of trauma from his childhood: He doesn’t sleep in his bed. He gathers all the blankets from around the house, covers the bed, and then he climbs underneath the bed to sleep on the floor. The bed is the only remaining furniture in the room because he has destroyed everything else.
Yu Hsuan is obedient at school; in his school photo he is smiling and wearing an American flag shirt. Children with post-adoption issues can be well-behaved toward people outside their family. But during this past summer, without the structure of school, he had meltdowns. At one point Ellen told him if he hit her one more time, she would call the police; he did and she did. Ellen wanted the police to “read him the riot act,” she said, to impress on him the significance of his violence. But when the police officers came, they didn’t know what to do, and she sent them away.
In another one of his summer meltdowns, he said, “Hurt dog, hurt cat,” and Ellen realized it was time for psychological treatment. Children with trauma issues will sometimes try to hurt animals. Yu Hsuan stayed at the hospital’s children’s psych ward a couple of times over the summer and arrived home with more coping skills. Ellen has learned that anytime she tries overtly to help him, he recoils and gets angry. She has learned that she herself cannot show anger toward him, which only fuels the fits.
“There’s no cookbook for it,” said Ellen.
This fall the Stowells as an entire family attended a parental training camp as the Landreths did. The Landreths sought help at a camp run by Nancy Thomas, an adoptive and foster parent who has written about attachment issues. Faasse from Bethany declined to recommend Thomas’ camps (Thomas is not a child psychologist) but did recommend Purvis’ camps, emphasizing the importance of professional help. Faasse and Purvis didn’t criticize Thomas but criticized treatment that is “parent-centered” and “punitive,” instead of “child-centered” and focused on trauma.
While a child can misbehave, they say, the problem is usually that parents are treating trauma as bad behavior. Thomas told me that she agrees completely with Purvis’ methods, and also agreed that families need professionals to come alongside her parenting advice. Children are all different, and solutions will be different—Thomas’ training worked for the Landreths. But they all agree on the bottom line: Families shouldn’t try to handle troubled children without professional help. Faasse said families shouldn’t hesitate to contact adoption agencies if something seems off.
“All too often families call us because they’re desperate,” Faasse said. “We’d rather get involved with families earlier than when they’re exhausted.”
Even if some children require extra care, Jennie said the Christian call to adoption remains the same. “These kids need homes,” she said. “We don’t want to discourage people from adopting. But it’s going to discourage them more if we don’t say, ‘There’s hope and healing for these kids.’ You can adopt, but get equipped.”