"Our Son Has Special Needs"
The Counselor's Turn
As Lisa and Phil discovered, the dream of adopting a child can in very rare cases become a nightmare, and the ensuing guilt, confusion, and stress can wreak havoc on even good marriages. Their experience shook their strong relationship to the core.
"To save their marriage they needed not only to better understand their son's problems but also to acknowledge their own negative feelings. 'You expected a wonderful life once your family was complete,' I told them. 'Instead, your family is in chaos.' I reminded them that caring for any new child, even a biological one, is emotionally and physically exhausting. 'Denying that you're angry or overwhelmed only causes you to lash out,' I said. 'You need to find a way to talk safely about your true feelings, just as you used to.'
"Lisa and Phil took my advice and joined a support group of adoptive parents of children with attachment disorders. There they were able to talk openly and learn practical parenting tips. Phil especially found the meetings helpful. 'It was a relief to hear other parents talk about how hard it is to like, let alone love, their child,' he admitted.
"Phil's attitude toward Max began to soften, but tension between the couple remained high and it was hard for them to speak without irritation. I asked Lisa to consider whether there was any truth in Phil's complaint that she was neglecting him. 'In your efforts to protect Max you may be forgetting to pay attention to Phil,' I said. 'Your marriage needs nurturing, too. And snide comments about Phil's immaturity don't help.' Until their household calmed down, a weekly date night was unrealistic, but they made a commitment to talk quietly every evening after the children were asleep.
"For his part, Phil needed to curb his temper. His father had been an angry parent, and he was falling into the same pattern -- not with Annie, a naturally compliant child, but certainly with Max, who was anything but. Being a caring father was central to Phil's self-image and when he failed at it he was as furious at himself as he was at Max. From reading the psychologist's diagnosis, I suspected that Max's early experiences had left him distrustful of men. I explained to Phil that his son's rejection, which so wounded him, was not personal. In fact, he should try to view it as resilience. 'What you see as aggression is Max's survival instinct kicking in,' I said. I also pointed out that Max's impoverished background was one reason he 'stole' other children's toys, including his sister's. 'He's afraid he'll have nothing again,' I explained.
"We spent several sessions talking about how to set loving limits. 'Never discipline when you're angry,' I said. 'You'll say things you don't mean and your true message won't get through.' Phil learned to say, 'I'm disappointed right now, Max. I'm angry so I need a time-out. Then we'll talk about what happened.' When Max had a meltdown, Phil and Lisa would crouch to his eye level, wrap him firmly in their arms and rock him until he calmed down. Then they'd say, 'Tell us what you need.'
"Next we turned to the issue of downsizing to a smaller house. A move would be disruptive but would ease their money worries. Happily, they found a new house near their old neighborhood in a school district known for its work with special-needs children.
"Lisa and Phil saw me for a year and made enormous progress. 'We no longer argue all the time,' said Lisa in our last session. 'And we have a wonderful new nanny who's terrific with Max.'
"'We don't always agree,' Phil added, 'but now we can talk calmly.'
"Max continues to see the psychologist and, as I predicted, his defiance and anger have gradually diminished. 'You're learning to accept your child's unique personality,' I told Phil and Lisa. "'And in the end, isn't that what any parent must do?'"
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Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, June 2009.