Thursday, February 4, 2016

How Adoption Affects Even a Daughter-Puppy Relationship

I have mentioned before, likely on several occasions, that I have been so surprised, over the years, by how adoption (perhaps particularly of older children) affects every facet of our lives:  The conversations we have (daily, sometimes hourly); how we discipline; how we feed our children; what we save our money for; how we interact with strangers; sibling relationships; what we pray about; how we 'do' school (and, in fact, our decisions around homeschooling); relationships with parents and friends; how we go on vacation; whether or not we hire babysitters; and so on and so  on.

Pre-adoption, I always assumed that these things would exist for a time and that, after life settled down again, we'd be pretty much done with these kinds of issues.  Life would normalize, I completely assumed.

And life has normalized so much...the kids are doing well and and are well attached.  But adoption, and the trauma that accompanies it for our children, is a live and active entity in our it is, I'm sure, in many other adoptive homes.  It really is like a whole other being that exists in the household...the sixth person in our family.  And how it manifests continues to surprise me.

The most recent example has to do with Lizzie and her relationship with our beloved puppy, Charlie.  Lizzie loves Charlie.  Adores her.  Wishes she could inhale Charlie because getting close to Charlie can just never be close enough.

There is fervent love there...on Lizzie's part.

Not quite so much on Charlie's part.

Charlie is attached to Lizzie, to be sure, but she's also wary of Lizzie, and willing to growl (and twice air-snap) at Lizzie in order to make her doggie voice heard.  She doesn't like it when Lizzie wants to (constantly constantly constantly) pick her up, kiss her face, invade her territory, cuddle with her, talk to her, play with her...pick her up, kiss her face, invade her territory, cuddle with her, talk to her, play with her...pick her up, kiss her face, invade her territory, cuddle with her, talk to her, play with her...well, you get the's an ongoing, persistent, frequently-overwhelming issue in our household.

It is like a magnet exists from Lizzie towards Charlie.  In fact, if I happen (as I did yesterday afternoon) to tell one of the kids that Charlie has had enough play time and needs a rest, Lizzie will instantly and reflexively and without any reflection or consideration, drop to the floor to pull Charlie over to herself and want to pick her up and/or squeeze her...which, of course, leads Charlie to growl at her, and me (with a testy edge to my voice) to tell Lizzie that I have just asked her to leave Charlie to rest for a while and that she must put Charlie down.  I have been utterly baffled at this many-times-daily just makes no sense.  Remember my most recent blog post when I asked the kids various questions about myself and, in response to my first question about what I say most often to the kids, Lizzie said something like 'don't pick up the dog?'  Well, that stems from real life examples where I say that kind of thing to her many, many (many) times every day in response to just such a situation.

I have had, I'm sure, well over a thousand of the same conversation with Lizzie over the ten months that we have been dog owners.  I have failed to understand why all of my (frankly extensive) efforts to manage this girl-puppy relationship have failed.  I assumed that the Lizzie/Charlie dynamic would improve over time, after enough conversations had been had, after Lizzie would (finally) understand what was going on and make some accommodation for it, and so on.  But it has not all...since the beginning, and I have been so utterly puzzled.  Lizzie is a bright girl and she loves the dog - why can't she remember how to treat the dog or at least remember the rules that we have set out to help her?  Over and over again, I have asked myself these questions.

Incidentally, in case you're wondering, I refuse to discipline Charlie for growling at Lizzie, for two reasons.  First, this is one of the few ways that Charlie can express her displeasure about anything, and I am totally ok with her having a voice - a growl is a warning sign, a cautionary sign and we all need to respect, even appreciate, when a dog is giving us a warning.  A warning means that Charlie doesn't want to act on her displeasure.  Second, if I train Charlie to stop growling at Lizzie, she will stop growling at Lizzie; and then we will receive no warning whatsoever the day that Charlie decides she is going to bite Lizzie (a day which I hope never occurs, obviously).  Those two air snaps that Charlie has given Lizzie were not accidental oversights on Charlie's behalf - they weren't misses...dogs, including Charlie, have lightning speed and if she wanted to bite Lizzie she would have...her air snaps were further warnings that Lizzie needed to back off.  Charlie does not want to bite Lizzie.  (Hopefully she never will.)  It is we who need to manage this situation.

I have been thinking lately of the classic definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and yet somehow expecting a different result.  I have been the model of insanity over the past ten months, doing and saying the same things over and over and over and over and over again, and somehow miraculously expecting that Lizzie would change something and be different with the dog.

No longer.  I am now in investigative mode, taking stock of where things are at and figuring out why nothing is working to help Lizzie.

It was a conversation I had with Lizzie about ten days ago that stopped me in my tracks and helped me begin to understand what I should have understood months ago.  All of the Gordon Neufeld teaching that I should have been thinking about in the past number of months suddenly came to the forefront of my thinking. I felt like clapping a hand to my was suddenly that obvious.

I was talking to Lizzie (again) about leaving the dog alone when Charlie is resting and not grabbing at her to pick her up because it shocks Charlie and she doesn't like it...and I said that I knew how badly Lizzie wanted a good relationship with Charlie and that we needed to work further on ways of respecting Charlie's boundaries so that this could happen.

"Well, I don't even care about that," Lizzie said to me flippantly, rolling her eyes at my tirade.

"You don't care about what, specifically?" I asked in return.  I'd never heard Lizzie say anything like that about Charlie.

"I don't care if I have a good relationship with her," she countered.

Well, didn't that just stop me in my tracks and make me start to think differently.  (This was the head-clapping instant.  I was just about bowled over by the sudden clicking of my brain.)  Because the fact is that I know Lizzie cares very much about her relationship with Charlie.  She adores her.

This is about adoption and trauma; it's about attachment and defendedness.  That is exactly what it's about!

How so, you might ask, puzzled?  Maybe the brain clicking isn't happening for you yet either. :)

How?  Because Lizzie has attachment issues (though most don't see this in her because she seems so 'normal'), and because Lizzie has alpha issues that make her need to control everything around her  (usually in a very, very loving way, which makes it deceptive) in order for her to feel safe.  Although she is not conscious of this, what she fears the most is being left again.  She talks readily about her sadness and horror at having been left by the most important people in her life (first her mother, through death, and then her father, through relinquishment) and how this has hurt her.  But what she is not able to connect yet is how this impacts her current (and future?) relationships...including, oddly, now with the dog.  She has a defended heart, despite her seeming emotional availability and warmth and charm.  She is so scared of losing relationship with the dog, so terrified that she will be rejected by the dog, that she acts in a way to make sure that this very thing, her worst nightmare, happens...but on her own terms, so that she can be braced/prepared for it and know that she can survive what she most fears.

Does that make sense?

She's tried desperately to do this with Geoff and me, she unconsciously tries to do this with her brothers, and she's trying to do it with the dog now.

For example, she adores Matthew...thinks the sun rises and sets on him and thinks he's awesome.  But she is relentless in annoying him and making him crazy and her actions have a major impact on Matthew's attitude towards her - so although he is maturing and learning how to deal with her antics, he doesn't really think that well of Lizzie over the past year or two - she really does make him crazy and invade every bit of his space and make him want to have nothing to do with her.

She is so terrified (and convinced, based on her life experience) that Matthew will reject her that she is doing everything in her power to make that very thing happen so that she will be able to tell herself that she is in control of it and that she will be able to survive another rejection.

And that's exactly what I now see her doing with Charlie, except I wasn't cognizant of it with the dog until she said that words that she didn't care about her relationship with Charlie and I knew that not to be true. Suddenly everything clicked into place in my ever-so-slow brain.  She needed to not care about her relationship with Charlie, just like she's gone through in every other relationship in our family, because eventually Charlie was just going to reject her anyway so she may as well gird herself to not care (because otherwise it would hurt too much for her to handle it) and to bring that outcome about on her own terms because then she knows she could handle and survive it.

Make sense now?

Totally, completely, absolutely makes sense to me now.  I just wish I'd seen it months ago.  Because now I can handle it differently.  Now, when Charlie growls at her, when Charlie wants to be with someone else, I can work with Lizzie on her heart issues (and not behaviour issues), to help her start to grieve what may in fact be lost (eg. the love of her puppy); I can do so many things to encourage her to feel her pain and her fear (rather than going into automatic mode where her brain, based on past trauma, pushes her to shut down her feelings and to do things unconsciously so that she can cope with certain pain of rejection later) and then help her to understand that she will survive because she has fully grieved her losses (and not because she has orchestrated the destruction of her relationships in a twisted, self-fulfilling prophecy kind of way).  This will be a long process, but if we can help her with it, it will be sooooo helpful for her in future relationships.

I experimented just a little with Lizzie yesterday after a growling incident when Lizzie was just way too much in Charlie's space and clearly over-stepping her boundaries.  Rather than rebuking Lizzie...

"That must be so hard when Charlie growls at you, Lizzie," I said, and I went over to give her a hug.  "I feel so sad when that happens to you, Lizzie, and I think if Charlie growled at me I'd be super sad."

Lizzie just nodded and looked at me.  Her eyes were instantly tearful...although no tears actually fell, I was stunned by how close to the surface her sadness actually is.

"Lizzie, I've been thinking about something you said recently," I said, ready to touch just a little more on a difficult area.  "Remember when you told me last week that you didn't even care about your relationship with Charlie?"

She nodded.  Just stared at me, unusually silent.

"I've been thinking, darlin'.  I have this feeling inside of me that I actually think you care a lot about your relationship with Charlie."

Another nod.  Tears ready to brim over.

"Lizzie, I'm actually thinking that you care with your whole heart about your relationship with Charlie and that you might actually care so much that you can hardly stand the thought that she might not love you as much as you love her."

Total gushing of tears.  She launched herself at me and absolutely flowed tears.

I just kept saying things over and over like, "oh, that must feel soo sad, Lizzie," and "your heart is so full of love for Charlie and it must be so scary to think you might lose that..."  Even though I don't think that Charlie will ever really 'reject' Lizzie, this is an inevitability in Lizzie's eyes and so I need to help her feel in her heart the pain of that rather than try to convince her cognitively that this will never happen.  I offered her no hope...just let her feel the pain and sat in it with her.

She cried and cried.  And when she was finally done, she said that she loves Charlie so much but she's never going to have a good relationship with her so she didn't want to care any more.

How profound is that??!  She could even articulate some of the essence of the issue, with just a little help from me.  How could I have missed this for so long???!

Anyway, there have been no miracles yet, and there is much work to be done, because this is just the tip of a much larger, hidden iceberg.  But I couldn't help but notice that, yesterday afternoon after our conversation was over and the tears had dried, she actually completely left the dog alone for about an hour.  She was more relaxed; less frenetic.

I'm not sure where all I need to go with this, but I can say one thing:  I'm changing my approach towards Lizzie when it comes to the dog and I am going to treat it as a heart issue, rather than a behaviour issue, which is (duh) what I should have been doing all along.

I guess when it comes right down to the root of it all, despite all of the ways in which adoption trauma infiltrates our every day, day-to-day lives, I never imagined that it would be important when it comes to the puppy that Lizzie loves with her whole heart.  I never for a second contemplated that bringing a dog into our house would be one of the many ways in which we would be able to help our daughter navigate the complicated world of adoption and relationships.  I'm a slow learner, to be sure.  But the good news in all of this is that the penny has dropped now...I'm on this.  We'll see this through to the end.  And I don't think it's going to be 'just' the Lizzie-Charlie relationship that will benefit.


  1. I just have a second to write briefly:
    I think Lizzie fear is not rejection, it's abandonment. In many ways it looks the same behaviourally. With rejection and abandonment children often internalize a sense of "I was bad/unlovable/too much, etc. and that's why this terrible thing happened to me." It's a twisted, necessary form of control, for if I hadn't been bad/unlovable, then this terrible thing could have been prevented. I think you're TOTALLY on the right track with Lizzie on this with Charlie, and I wonder with Matthew how this new strategy might work as well?! How wonderful that the penny dropped for you! Brilliant.

    1. Thanks, my friend, for the usual insight. :)

      I'll have to ponder these distinctions between rejection and abandonment. Can it be a fear of both?? Either way, I think that it is definitely a twisted form of control, perceived to be necessary for survival. Yes. And I think this kind of strategy might well work with Matthew, though I'm trying it out on the dog first! I'll probably need to think further/more deeply about how to strategize about Matthew.

      You know, now that the 'penny has dropped,' I can't believe I didn't see it sooner. It's more than a week later and it's like a veil has been lifted and everything I'm seeing since is consistent with what I wrote about in this post. In fact, I have an update, if I ever have the energy to write it!

      OK, thanks for your support and encouragement and for calling me brilliant...need those boosts sometimes!

      Love and hugs, J.