Book review: Keeping Your Adoptive Family Strong: Strategies for Success

Today we have two reviews of the same title – so very many thanks to @onroadtoadopt and our anonymous reviewer for your posts on  Keeping Your Adoptive Family Strong: Strategies for Success by Gregory C. Keck and L. GianforteKeck-Soronen-Gi_Keeping-Your-Ad_978-1-84905-784-4_colourjpg-print

It is obvious when you start reading this book that the authors are American. However it is aimed at families who adopt children from foster care so has a lot of relevance to adoption in the UK where the vast majority of our children have experienced some level of trauma whether it be in-utero or while living with birth family in their early life. I found it a fascinating read and would recommend the book as a good introduction to adoption both in its joys and its difficulties. Both the authors are adopters themselves of children from the foster care system in the US. I am going to apologise now in that this review may seem impersonal at times – penalty of being an academic is that I am so ingrained to write reviews in one way it is difficult to adjust to a more personal way.

The authors talk from the Preface about the effect of trauma and how even moving in with their new family can be a traumatic experience for adopted children. One line that really struck me as such truth is:

“The bottom line is this: when parents and children approach adoption from opposite directions – when one sees salvation where the other sees disconnection – the already challenging journey becomes fraught with unnecessary twists and turns.”

The Preface does very much highlight the need for parents to look at the real picture and not to romanticise the concept of adoption as them saving the child. This book is honest about the level of challenges adoptive parents may face – giving examples of what children may have experienced before they came into foster care. The authors talk about facing up to reality without fear and give a set of what they call ‘keys to a healthy and functional adoptive family’:

  • Accessibility to honest, accurate information about the child’s background;
  • Willingness to recognise and accept things for what they are;
  • Support, compassion, and understanding from family, friends and mental health professionals;
  • The comfort that stems from knowing that other families face similar difficulties;
  • Confidence in the ability to succeed.

 

The first chapter covers the familiar (to anyone who has read much about adoption) ground of the effect of trauma on human development. In this chapter, the authors talk about the common diagnoses (in the USA) particularly concentrating on complex trauma and also the emerging greater knowledge about the effect trauma has on the developing brains of infants. They look at how adopters can be properly prepared for what they might face and how expectations can so much differ from reality. Throughout the book, real case examples are used to highlight what the authors are talking about which helps the reader understand what they are saying. In this first chapter the importance of attachment in helping with trauma is discussed as well as how critical it is that professionals help keep families strong after adoption.

The second chapter is entitled ‘An adoption checklist’ and discusses the things prospective adopters need to think about before adopting a child with potential trauma. It gives a series of questions that prospective adopters should think about and uses real life examples of adopted children’s behaviour to illustrate why the questions are being asked. To me this chapter is a good way to make anyone think about adoption and understand the potential issues.

In the third chapter, the authors discuss how you should prepare for an adopted child arriving in your home. This includes the importance of getting as complete a medical history as you can as well as the need for as much training as possible. They discuss the home study (which is part of foster care adoption in the US as well as UK) as well as the need to not be rigid in your thinking and be prepared to adapt to your child’s needs.

The fourth chapter is all about the potential for secondary trauma or in the authors words ‘trauma is a potentially transferable condition’. The authors discuss how existing relationships between parents, or with other children (birth or adopted) can be strained by the arrival of a traumatised child. They also discuss the need for the ‘right’ therapist who understands adoption and the issues it brings, and also what to do if it really does all go wrong (from an American perspective). This was an interesting chapter for me as I would love to adopt again but my husband is wary having seen the issues it can bring.

In chapter 5, the authors discuss what might happen after placement – how life can change and how to use your knowledge of what your child has been through to understand why they are behaving as they are. They look at how being truthful and honest with your child can be a powerful tool in the parental toolbox.

Chapter 6 addresses the question of blame and highlights the importance of not blaming the child, but remembering the (past) source of the problem and addressing the current situation in light of that knowledge. They also may the interesting point that life books tend to present the birth family with a very positive spin which can make a child wonder why they were ever removed in the first place. This raises the question of how we approach lifestory work and the need to be truthful within the child’s ability to understand.

Chapter 7 is very much addressed at the situation in the USA where even adolescents can and are adopted – but it still have some useful anecdotes and ideas on how to deal with situations that could be relevant to adopted teenagers in the UK. Chapter 8 is entitled ‘The Power of Optimism and Love’ and very much gives balance to what has gone before – it presents a series of stories from adopters and adoptees about what has worked for them as a family. They are a great read and give a very balanced view of adoption which does counteract the view readers may have got from this book up to this point which has much more seemed focussed on the negative/difficult side of adoption.

Chapter 9 again is very much about how adoption is worth it – how much it generally benefits the child. Yes struggles exist but there are many positives from adoption and even if the end result is maybe not what you expected going into the process it can still be a happy positive one. The final chapter is one where adult adoptees talk about how they feel about adoption. It is a real view onto the viewpoint of adoptees and how they see their life.

All in all I found this book a fascinating read and the use throughout of real case histories helps bring home the points the authors are making. It gives a real insight into what it is like to parent a traumatised child and indeed to be that traumatised child. Although the book is written from the American perspective it is one I would recommend to UK adopters and prospective adopters as giving a good viewpoint into adoption. You do need to persevere to get to the positive viewpoint – or do as I did and skip to the last 3 chapters first and then go back and read the book as a whole. There are useful tips and hints scattered throughout some of which I knew already from my reading and others I shall no doubt find myself using with our little boy.

Our second review is from an adoptive parent who wishes to remain anonymous…

When I was asked to review this book and was given the title, I expected it to be focused on post placement strategies for managing challenging behaviour and techniques for keeping parents mentally strong. However, the first half of the book is very much about preparing for adoption and it covers the impact of developmental trauma, questions about whether adoption is right for you, the information you will need to make matching decisions and much more. It gives a very honest view of what to expect when adopting a traumatised child. We are several years post placement and I found the preparation part a really good reminder of where my children have come from and why they were the right match for us.

The book goes on to look at post placement from the view of the child, the difficulty that parents may face with blame, the power of honesty and other challenges like parenting adopted teens. It has a huge number of real examples of challenging behaviours and tricky situations and full explanations of how these were dealt with effectively by real families. The key message is about optimism, whilst acknowledging that not all the struggles will pay off, they are a part of life and its how you face them that makes you stronger. At the end of the book there are a number of stories from adult adoptees about what it feels like to be adopted, their views on their birth family and adoptive parents and how they feel about their lives. They are a powerful insight.

The authors are American and therefore details about the adoption process and the foster care system differ from my experience but are none the less interesting and did not detract from the usefulness of the book in general.

Something I found very refreshing was the frequent references to sexual abuse. As the parent of a sexually abused child I have found it incredibly difficult to find any resources and was pleased for once to have my child’s trauma addressed equally alongside domestic violence and neglect.

Whilst writing this review and looking back at my sticky notes, I have noticed a whole lot more that I overlooked in the first reading and I can see myself returning to this book many times in the future.

Bits I found a bit tricky or challenged my beliefs:

In the section on developmental trauma it suggests that children relinquished by their parents with thoughtful planning and who haven’t suffered in utero or early days conflict or misery have no trauma, ‘we’ll call them the lucky ones’ it says.

The authors disagree with parents apologising for their own behaviour. This is something I’ve seen suggested in other books, where you might say sorry for losing your cool. The book suggests parents are admitting guilt, that they are in the wrong and states that ‘this is definitely not the message you want to give’. I am currently undecided on that one, I have apologised to my children in the past with the intention of repairing and modelling, but I’ve no idea what the impact was.

They also mention another technique I’ve used, ‘I love you but I don’t like your behaviour’. The writer challenges whether your child will understand this concept. If we are what we do then what message does that give?

Bits that made me laugh:

Technique for dealing with personal questions about you or your children ‘It’s none of your ******* business’.

Bits that helped me reflect:

After reading the section on the child’s point of view I thought about how I would feel if the doorbell rang now and a policeman took me to a car and drove me away to a new home, the first of several over several years, never to return or see my family, friends or possessions ever again. Does it make any difference that I am 40 and my child was 5? Do I have more to lose because I’ve known it all for longer? Would I suffer more? Would I have better capacity to deal with it?

Life story work is usually respectful of the birth family. Why is there a need to avoid appearing judgemental? For example a photo of my child and his birth father at his fifth birthday party (fictitious). A lovely family memory? My child’s memory might be more about how he came into the bedroom later that evening and abused him. How confusing would that be for my son that his life story book only referred to his father positively?

View regression with optimism. It’s the process of moving forward for my children. Remember that periods of plain sailing are temporary, acknowledge this to minimise your disappointment later.

Realistic expectations = balanced optimism = ability to provide consistent nurture.

New things I learnt:

A technique called prescribing the symptom, it’s about interrupting your child’s automatic thought and behavioural processes, so if your child likes to have a tantrum every time you need to go out, you would start with ‘I know you always like to have a tantrum before we go anywhere, so please start now so you can get it over with’. The theory is that they won’t want to do what you say and will respond with ‘well I don’t want to have a tantrum today’. You can then go on with ‘ok we are about to get into the car, are you sure you don’t want to have just a little tantrum’. I can see how well this would work with my daughter and how hard she would fight my suggestion whilst I smile and say ‘ok but you just let me know later if you change your mind’.

Derailing conflict by creating a shift in focus. I’ve already used this one, not so much with a conflict but with a situation that I had been trying to manage for several days and was escalating at an alarming rate. Earlier this week tensions were rising about school transitions. Lots of worries were surfacing and conversation was becoming a bit of a feeding frenzy about who had the biggest worry about next year. So I announced a surprise trip to a pizza restaurant, where, between mouthfuls of pizza, we calmly made our way through all 37 transitions worries (hugely helped by a large glass of wine for me). It was as much an effective technique for derailing my thought process as it was for theirs.

Many thanks to both reviewers who received no payment for this review, other than the copies of the book itself. Keeping Your Adoptive Family Strong is available here from Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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