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, works with parents through a ministry called Empowered to Connect. Purvis and her team walk parents through common discipline situations, emphasizing the need for redirection and practice when a child misbehaves, rather than a zero-tolerance consequence policy.
They also ask parents to pray and to consider what’s behind their overreaction to defiance and misbehavior. Some worry others will think they’re “too soft” if they handle things differently than parents of typically developing children. But was Jesus “tough enough” in his handling of Zacchaeus? Throughout Scripture, we see Jesus provide healing and transformation from the inside out, through relationships.
Similarly, these kids need the safety and stability of a relationship with God through faith in Christ. And although they will do it imperfectly, their families need to mirror this same unconditional love. This kind of merciful, forgiving, passionate, patient relationships might be something these children have never experienced.
These crucial differences are at the core of our foster care adoption education and training at Focus on the Family. Before beginning the foster care adoption process, prospective families are advised to learn, and ultimately embrace, a trauma-informed approach to parenting. But no matter how well prepared they are, it’s one thing to hear and read about it and another to actually experience it. We offer free counseling through a help line (1-800 A-FAMILY) for parents having difficulty.
Throughout Scripture we read accounts of how God’s people were ungrateful, obstinate, and hostile toward him; yet his love is relentless and he never gives up. That’s the kind of love kids with trauma histories need. I know this struggle firsthand now, after having adopted four kids from foster care.
As followers of Christ, all of us try to exhibit patience, love, and other fruits of the Spirit with co-workers, sales clerks, relatives, and so on. But parents of kids with trauma histories or other special needs are often required to go further. You give your cloak when it is taken from you, turn the other cheek when struck, and have mercy for the broken and beaten little hearts that are living in your home. And you need to do it every day, all the time—even when a child doesn’t appreciate the help or begins to blame you for all of his or her troubles.
Whether it’s the through the literature reviews done by Dr. Purvis at TCU or the specifically trauma-based approach of American psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Perry, modern neuroscience demonstrates that providing this kind of unconditional love to traumatized children through relationship is exactly what they need.
“Because the link between human contact and stress relief is so primal, it's not surprising that supportive friends and family have so many health benefits,” Perry writes. “As we grow up, we learn to connect other social contact with stress relief, generalizing from our early experience and learning to take pleasure in being in touch.”
It’s no surprise when science affirms the timeless truths of Christ.
It’s a long and painful process, but it produces fruit. There have been times in this journey when I didn’t know how I would survive another day, and times when I could count it all joy (James 1:2). Before I became a parent, I thought my friend Donna was crazy when she said that this type of parenting was not about fixing the kid, but about the parents becoming more like Christ.
Now, I see how God is changing me through the challenges of raising kids with trauma histories: fetal alcohol effects, in-utero drug exposure, Tourette syndrome, mental illness, sensory process issues, and the list goes on. God has taught this recovering type-A, control freak parent more than I could have imagined. I regularly must confront my own pride and selfishness. I sometimes want to make sure my kids know I’m right and they’re wrong more than I want to stay in relationship with them.
But I have also discovered that God’s unbelievable forgiveness, extravagant mercy, unfathomable grace and relentless, unconditional love are far more real than I could have ever known. They are more real to me in my abundant failures, and I pray they are more real to my children through me.
God has used my children to change me in profound and meaningful ways. My prayer is that I will continue to be refined and to become more like Christ through this messy, challenging, and beautiful process.
Kelly Rosati is the vice president of community outreach at Focus on the Family, serving as the ministry spokesperson on sanctity of human life and adoption & orphan care issues. She and her husband, John, live in Colorado Springs with their four children.