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When You're Not Sure How to Love Your Adopted Children

  • Mary Ostyn Author
  • Published Nov 24, 2014
When You're Not Sure How to Love Your Adopted Children

A few years ago while on vacation, my kids and I went shopping. I decided to get everyone a t-shirt as a memento from the trip. I was able to find one for everyone except two of our teenage daughters. I kept pointing out items hoping to find them something they liked, and they kept rejecting everything.

After half an hour or so, I was getting frustrated. I tried to explain to them that I just wanted to buy them a shirt. “Pick something,” I said. But they couldn’t–wouldn’t—make a choice. Finally we left, having purchased nothing.

I probably should have been happy they’d saved me a few bucks. But I was angry. This was not about t-shirts. This was about me offering a gift in love and them refusing it.

The same thing had happened so many times over the years since they came home from Ethiopia. My hugs were met with stiffness. My cooking met with disdain. Games were scorned. Special outings flatly declined.

I expected that bringing home kids at age 9 and 11 would not be an easy endeavor. I knew they'd be mourning their first family for a long time. But I still wasn't prepared for the level of push-back I got. That day on vacation, my heart felt broken—not by t-shirts—but by years of love offered and rejected.

A few weeks later, I came across a handful of gummy bears in a baggie. Treasure. I stashed them in a corner of the kitchen, thinking of a bedtime snack. My teen daughter came in, spotted them, and asked if she could have them. I refused, saying there weren’t enough to share with everyone. It was true, but really I just wanted them for myself.

Later that evening I pulled out my hidden stash and nibbled a few, but I kept thinking of my daughter. I knotted the bag and set it aside. The next day I walked up behind her, tucked the baggie quietly into her sweatshirt pocket with a wink, and walked away quickly without even waiting for a reaction.

Sometimes I get so caught up in loving kids how I want to love them that I forget to love them the way they want to be loved. I’m not sure if she saw the love wrapped in the bag with that handful of gummy bears. But that day was a turning point in how I approached loving my kids.

Since then I've discovered there are lots of different ways to love your children, even one who doesn't seem to have much use for your love. Sometimes chocolate and gummy bears work just fine. Other times, it means spending an afternoon running from store to store looking for just the right prom dress. It can also mean giving a gentle reply when a teen speaks rudely to you (a conversation about respect will almost always go better if you give him a chance to cool down first).

Love can mean letting your teen go out with friends instead of hanging out at home with the family. It can be jumping in to help him wash the dishes after dinner, because you know it’s his least favorite chore. Or love can mean cooking her favorite food even if you, and the rest of the family, are getting tired of fish sticks.

And remember, just because we're the parents doesn't mean we always have to play the heavy hitter. Very often, a cranky kid can be charmed back toward sweetness with the judicious infusion of humor. Even eye-rolling at a dumb joke is better than the stone face we're likely to receive if we lecture.

It's also hugely important to be a student of our kids, approaching them with humility and curiosity, instead of always assuming we know what's best for them. Keep in mind that sensory issues can sometimes make certain foods or activities difficult for a particular child. And your introverted son is much less likely to be into social gatherings than your daughter who loves being the center of attention. We need to love the children we have, just as they are, instead of prodding them endlessly in hopes that they'll become the ones we expected when we first embarked on this adventure.

Because here's the thing: as long as we expect them to act like the people they're not—whether that be pushing them toward football when they'd rather be reading, or dragging them on shopping trips when they don't even like clothes—we're going to struggle with negativity toward them. When we can allow them to be the amazing people they were created to be, we allow the relationship to grow towards something enjoyable, instead of always wallowing in frustration.

That's what I didn't quite have a handle on in those first years home with my older-adopted kids. In trying to make things good between us, I wasn’t stopping to notice them as unique and amazing people in their own right, people who are learning to navigate the world as individuals.

It also helps me to remember the pain in my children's past. They didn't stop hurting after they'd been home a year—something I realized later that I'd been subconsciously hoping. My compassion needed to stay every bit as fresh as their pain. If you're struggling to love your child well, really think about some of your child's hardest moments in life. Did he spend time in an orphanage? Did she experience abuse? Did he stand by a parent's grave?

It is an enormous thing we asked our kids to do, ripping them away from their entire life and expecting them to grow happily in a new place. Some plants transplant easily. Others struggle. It is true for children as well. Obviously our children need guidance and direction – we can't leave challenging behavior completely unaddressed. But approaching them with compassion instead of frustration gives much greater power to our interactions. And we can only do that if we remember why they're struggling so hard in the first place.

I don't claim to have adoptive motherhood all figured out. I'm just as much a work in progress as my children are. But I do know that the more open-handed and personalized I am in loving my children, and the steadier I am even in the face of negativity, the better things are between us. Do I sometimes have to give up more than just a few gummy bears? You bet. But my kids are worth every bit of it. And so are yours.

Mary Ostyn is the author of Forever Mom: What to Expect When You’re Adopting (Nelson Books, October 2014). Mary and her husband John live in Idaho where they are parents to ten children, including four daughters from Ethiopia and two sons from Korea. Mary blogs at Visit for more information.

Publication date: November 25, 2014