Years ago, my friend’s teenage son lied, stole, and behaved so aggressively that it affected their whole family. I remember thinking, “If anyone could fix this kid, it’s Donna.” She’d served on the mission field, ministered full-time to the homeless, and counseled single mothers. An adoptive mom, she had the patience and compassion to address her disrespectful adolescent.

And that’s how most of us would have thought of her son back then: a problem to be fixed. Adoptive parents like Donna were expected to bring enough discipline and love to save orphans from their traumatic upbringings and reshape them into well-behaving kids. The cultural narrative around adoption was a lot more straightforward then.

These days, we have come to see the complexity of adoption for all involved. Americans—and particularly those of us working in orphan care—increasingly recognize what parents like Donna knew all along: the trauma of abuse and neglect do not go away when an orphaned child finds a loving home… no matter how kind, patient, or godly that family is.

For the nearly 400,000 kids in the US foster care system, such instability and pain are inevitable. Many children behave like Donna’s son did, operating out of fear and control. They needed that mental “survival mode” to withstand the trauma of their earlier childhood, and once in a healthy family environment, they cannot simply turn it off.

“Tough love” techniques prove frustratingly ineffective. Thankfully, there are more resources available on parenting kids from difficult backgrounds. For example, Texas Christian University’s Institute of Child Development, headed by Dr. Karyn Purvis, ...

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