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Not Annie the Musical

The little-discussed side of adoption is the crisis some families face with traumatized children

Not <em>Annie the Musical</em>

DEALING WITH TRAUMA: Jennie and Abbie Landreth. (Handout photo)

Taylor Hill/Getty Images

DEALING WITH TRAUMA: Karyn Purvis.

Billy Weeks/Genesis

A DIFFERENT GIRL: Jennie and Abbie and her pet rat Buttercup in her bedroom.

Handout photo

SEEKING SOLUTIONS: The Stowells with Yu Hsuan (far left), two of their other children, and two friends, in China.

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.”

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.

Comments

  • Kym in WA
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:16 pm

    What a blessing this article is!  We have three adopted children, one with RAD.  How true that those adoption classes never prepare you for what your child has gone through.  Our youngest, with RAD, was delivered to our doorstep at age 6 and is now 13.  It has been a nightmare and we have sought help in so many places.  The church has not understood, other parents flee, and finding good counselors and psychiatrists are so hard to find and to afford.  We have been so stressed for so long that we live day to day and much in isolation.  Our lives are dictated by one child so much of the time.  This article gives me hope and I'll be looking into both camps.  I am thankful that God is the glue holding our family together!

  • Ellen Stowell
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:16 pm

    I am grateful to World Magazine for publishing the article on attachment disorders or what is now classified in the latest DSM as Developmental Trauma Disorder.  I was one of the subjects interviewed for the article.  I have attended a weekend long workshop featuring Dr. Karen Purvis from TCU and read her book and some of her articles.  I also purchased several DVDs and have viewed some of them.  My husband had the good fortune to attend a day long workshop in which she was the speaker.  Dr. Purvis'  information came to us 18-24 months ago.  Late last winter we figured out that at least two of our four adopted children had attachment issues and the article in which we were featured tells of some of what we went through.  Never in a million years did I see myself as a person in that scenario but none-the-less there we were.  Once we determined what was wrong we were put in contact with a local support group and given the Nancy Thomas resources.  We believe that this was God sent.  And just last month, almost a full month ago, our whole family attended a camp directed by Nancy.  It was life changing.  Nancy researches all of her methods very carefully.  She has worked with RAD kids for a very long time; in the 3000+ children she has dealt with, well under 20 failed to heal.  Nancy is well educated and uses research to back up her methods.  But aside from that, it just plain works!  We have seen changes in our whole family that I could not imagine.  The son that called me vulgar names and physically abused me has become another person.  We are all still in the process of healing.  But we are not alone; the other 21 families from all over the U.S. who attended camp with us continue to report excellent progress and healing with their children.  Our children's behaviors were mild in comparison to other family's experiences.  At any rate, I want to make sure that Nancy Thomas be given positive credit for her work.  She does this because she is convinced that God made her for just this work. 

  • creampuff_sugar
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:16 pm

    We found out about Nancy Thomas parenting before we adopted our 7 & 8 year old siblings 10 years ago.  We are utterly and completely grateful for the help we received.  We went to several camps with Nancy.  We made radical changes to our lives after the first camp and it took YEARS...YEARs of tight structure and faithful consequences to even glimpse changes that the Lord was working in their hearts and minds.  Our son is finally coming to grips with the need to face his past at 18.  We started seeing very significant changes in our daughter about three years ago.  It helped that we changed churches and the children now faithfully hear the gospel preached to ALL (not just non-believers).  The hymns and psalms fed and continue to feed their souls.  And just today, I heard from my daughter how the first prayer in the Valley of Vision Puritan Prayer book significantly impacted her to believe that it was okay to really feel all of her feelings and that Lord would meet her their.  I think what most don't realize is that adopting traumatized children takes YEARS.  Expect EVERYONE to misunderstand.  I didn't have the trouble with the Husband not understanding, but everyone else...well, they did.  Don't tell your stories of how the kids tell you they are going to kill you in group of parents parenting normal children.  It's a conversation killer~believe me!  But your friends with kids with RAD, they will understand!  We have a fabulous support group in our area.  We tried therapy for years (and thousands and thousands of dollars) but saw very little benefit.  We didn't find public school (or any school, for that matter) helped.  Our son triangulated the adults and harassed the other kids and didn't work.  I finally go the teacher to give a consequence every time our daughter disobeyed.  Warnings, to our daughter, meant "another lying adult".  We finally brought a tape of her rages that she had faithfully every Friday.  The rages stopped when the teacher consequenced instead of giving warnings.  We said it didn't matter how tiny the consequence; our daughter needed to feel safe and for her, feeling safe was part and parcel of adults keeping their word.  Our son has struggled much more and perhaps he is turning a corner.  Our daughter...I don't think I could have raised a biological daughter like her.  She shames me  with her devotion to the Lord; her love of the Body of Christ; her clinging to Him in all her losses.  We have people wanting her as their daughter and calling to do things with her.  We allow that now, but for years we kept both very close.  Adopting an older child is asking for misunderstanding to the nth degree.  Expect it.  Learn to see the Lord's sovereignty in it and what He is teaching you.  And most all, be thankful to your own parents that they didn't abandon you.  I never realized that one of the greatest gifts my parents gave me was being there. 

  • Shputzbulk
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:16 pm

    We are the Landreths before they went to camp - our stories are, to all intents and purposes, identical. We've been through 4 therapists, only one of whom even mentioned RAD!!  Our psychiatrist doesn't know anything about it.  We've been unable to find RAD experienced professionals within a 2 hour drive.  We attended Jennie's camp and it was amazing!  Nancy Thomas, with her 30+ years of experience, taught us a graduate course in advanced parenting.  She may not have the "proper" certification, but she cites those that do, and says having professionals on the team is a must.  The camp staff, wonderful volunteers with vast RAD child parenting experience, provide great practical knowledge from the trenches.  Going to the camp gave us the first glimmer of hope in 4 1/2 years of hell.  Our daughter is 16 1/2, and while we have a long way to go, with the Landreths as our inspiration, we know we can get there.  Camp was 4 weeks ago and we are already much better off.

  • JulieATN
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:16 pm

    Thank you Emily and a big thanks to the Landreths and the Stowells for sharing their families' struggles so candidly!!!  It is so very important that pre-adoptive families take their training seriously and truly understand that many children coming to them through adoption have come from trauma and loss that significantly impacts them.  Specialized parenting is needed -- along with continuous support - which is exactly why the Attachment & Trauma Network was formed in 1995.  Finally, there is more public recognition of the impact of early childhood trauma on the children from "hard places".  Families who adopt traumatized children and those with RAD, PTSD, drug or alcohol exposures will need continuous support, access to resources and ongoing training/peer mentoring.  There is hope for healing -- the camps described, intensive therapy sessions and other services are successful in many cases.  We now know so much more about how the early maltreatment changes our little ones brain development.  Instead of this situation being rare, as it used to be reported, it is now estimated that 45% of children will need some type of therapies and/or therapeutic parenting to address their trauma and loss.  Thank you all for shining a light on this very serious situation!  And God bless the churches and church families who rally around these families, showing love and support for the parents and caring for these struggling children.  (Sadly we often hear of church families who don't understand and become judgmental.)  There is much that a church can do to help these families - just lending an open-minded ear or bringing dinner when the family's in crisis are great ways to start!

  • Kent
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:16 pm

    Thanks for the article. Been there and have dealt with RAD.

  •  Cavanaugh's picture
    Cavanaugh
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:16 pm

    I hope this is one article that makes it to print - it is extremely valuable [and very well written!].   Had this level information been available 17 years ago, my wife and I [not to mention our sincere, but confused, friends] would have been relieved of much frustration [though I know that some of that learning, ouch, was God preparing us for later service].    Like Steven [below], my wife and I are thankful that God brought this child into our family - His plan is ALWAYS best   

  • Musumba
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:16 pm

    In my role as a pastor, I have the opportunity to help parents dealing with a variety of adoption issues, including children struggling with RAD. This artcile accurately expresses the reality of what some adoptive families and parents face: It is incredibly difficult and there are no easy answers. These challenges often make it difficult for non-adoptive families to know how to help their adoptive family brothers and sisters in Christ. Some feel uncomfortable and don't know what to say or how to help. Others, as Emily's article pointed out, view the challneges through traditional parenting lenses and can even become judgmental toward their adoptive family friends. But there are ways to help and it begins with "weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice." Listening to and attempting to understand the difficulties is a source of comfort for adoptive parents who are under constant stress. Additionally, providing practical help so spouses can have some time together away from the stress can allow for much needed peace and quiet. Most of all, choosing to be compassionately present rather than judgmentally critical will greatly bless these brave and loving parents.

  • stevenjan
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:16 pm

    Thank you for this article.  Our son with Reactive Attachment Disorder is now in his mid thirties.  I got my first voluntary hug from him when he was 30 years old.  His life is far from perfect but we are still glad we adopted him. 

  • Larry Roff's picture
    Larry Roff
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:16 pm

    I am Jennie's father.  Her mother and I are incredibly proud of how she has handled this enormous difficulty, and eternally grateful for the goodness of the Lord in providing the wisdom, strength, and endurance to overcome these truly life-threatening hurdles.  And we are so very impressed with the wonderful insight Nancy Thomas brought through the parenting skills she teaches in her family camps.  Jennie is now organizing these family camps several times each year to help other hurting families.  If you, or someone you know, has these adoption issues (especially RAD - Reactive Attachment Disorder), call Jennie today!