Note: the scientific information and statistics I mention herein are all from empoweredtoconnect.com and from their various resources for adoptive families.
The two flights of stairs that lead to our second story are notoriously creaky, but the many children who were raised at Eyrie Park know just where to step. I’m in my twenties now, but the dance is not lost on me and my feet seem to move down the carpeted steps with no help from my brain. I’m one flight down and I nearly run into my little brother, blocking the way. Younger brother, I should say. He’s long been taller than I am, and stronger, with great big hands. One big hand is on the wall to the left, the other is on the rail. “Can I have a piggyback ride?” he grins.
I know he’s kidding. After all, a piggyback ride from me would probably break one of Newton’s laws…and my spine. He knows I can’t give him a piggyback ride, but that’s not what he’s really asking. He’s asking me to stop my constant skittering about and pay him mind. He’s asking for my time and attention. And what I didn’t understand when I was his age is that he’s asking to bond. That may seem like a strange thing for a twenty-something woman to say about her teenage brother, but with a little examination you will likely find people asking you to bond with them constantly.
Babies cry for their mothers and reach up for their daddies and snuggle into their grandmother’s laps. Toddlers say, “Watch me! Watch me!” and do the same performance for you time and again. In elementary school, we see the change in expression when you agree to play their favorite game or you show up at their recital. In the teenage years, things may get trickier, but bonding is still crucial. Can you compliment their choices, enjoy their music, joke around? This is all bonding, and we don’t stop when we grow up, either. We continue bonding with new friends, spouses, our own children and even pets. That is, if we have a healthy capacity for relationship.
My little brother wasn’t born into my family. His early years are forgotten by his mind and remembered by his brain. They are hard for me to understand. Malnutrition, abuse, abandonment. I don’t know how things can get that out of order. Now he’s my brother and we’ve loved him and cared for him since he was a toddler, but the past cannot be undone.
“Piggyback ride?” He is flashing his cheesy grin.
“Sure!” I say, and pretend I’m going to hop on his back. He laughs. The moment has passed. No one gets a piggyback ride, but we do put a penny in the bonding bank, so-to-speak. We’ve had a positive interaction and we’re both laughing now. He lets me pass. I follow him to the kitchen for breakfast.
My younger brothers have been home for over a decade, but a sister’s work is never done. You never retire from the career that is post-adoptive bonding. It can be exhausting (especially for parents, I’d imagine) but all relationships are exhausting. Think about the word “relationship.” It’s the art of relating to another person. That’s not always easy. Especially when he’s male, six feet tall, black, pubescent, wily and sometimes exasperating. Out of all those adjectives, we have only “exasperating” in common.
My youngest sister has only been in the family for a year-and-a-half. She’s remarkably well adjusted, much like a cancer-survivor can be remarkably healthy. She isn’t “over” being traumatized, but she has survived. And yes, every adopted child has been traumatized, some more than others. And trauma equals brain damage. Real, visible brain damage. That’s not something a hug and a new last name can undo.
Her symphony is a tragic one and her tender heart knows it’s every crescendo. She can tell you details that would make a grown man cry. I’ve seen them cry. But she’s a survivor and she’s still healing. The thing I so often wish for her is that she could just relax. Stop with the patrolling. Stop with the monitoring. We all still love each other; you don’t need to organize that for us. Yes, we love you both equally. No, we aren’t going to do something fun with her while you are gone. Relax.
And then there’s the testing. Pushing the envelope. Shutting down completely. Hours of sitting on the floor, not responding. And then she recovers and everything is better for a couple of days. And this is a girl who is remarkably well adjusted.
The thing I’ve learned most recently about bonding, particularly with my adopted siblings, is that we bond to meet someone else’s need, whether that need makes sense to us or not. You can tell a child there’s no monster under their bed every night. You can lecture them about the ridiculousness of their hypothesis until the cow’s come home, but that won’t make them feel safe. You have to physically kneel on the rug and lift up the dust ruffle and “check” for monsters. This is how you make them feel safe, this is how you gain their trust and this is how they move past their fears until one day, you don’t need to check anymore.
The other thing I’ve learned is we have to bond over things. The Beatles taught us to sing, “Come together, right now, over me.” I have no idea what that means, but I still love The Beatles. And my older sister and I can come together at any given moment over our love of The Beatles. But what can my youngest brother and I come together over? I can indoctrinate him with my favorite music, but he’s probably not relationally adept enough to meet me halfway. I have to go all the way. (That’s what’s so exhausting.) So we watch Marvel movies together and talk about Greek mythology and I draw pictures of leopards on his math notebook and print off recipes he wants.
I don’t give him a piggyback ride, but I do pat him on the back and rub his head and give him a hug. I do hide the books he has obsessively read over and over and over again, but I also pick up new books I think he’ll like from time to time just for fun. I don’t share his love for rap, but I don’t make fun of it…much. We joke a lot. Sometimes I don’t think the joke is funny at all, but I laugh hard. When he walks up behind me and grabs my ponytail, I ask him if he knows how to braid and I’m thinking about “healthy touch,” “behavioral matching” and “playful engagement.” We have survived the interaction, we have succeeded in making it a positive interaction, he has learned a new skill and we’ve put a penny in the bonding bank.
They say a baby is usually comforted by a loving adult a hundred thousand times during their first year. That is how a baby attaches to his or her family. They also say that when functions are lost, such as in the case of a baby who cries and is not comforted, we can only regain it the way we originally gained it, by going back and redoing that action until our brain learns it. Skills take approximately three to four hundred repetitions to learn, unless they are taught through play. In these cases, skills only take about twenty repetitions.
When my brother asks for a piggyback ride, he doesn’t know he’s doing exactly what a six-month old does when he wakes up from a nap alone. He doesn’t know he’s crying for someone to comfort him in order that his brain can learn to attach. But he certainly is. In the words of many mothers, I can agree as a sister: the days are long but the years are short. I’m playing “catch up” with as much playful interaction as I can muster. If we do it twenty times a day, maybe one day his brain will be fully recovered. By that time, I’ll probably be beyond exhausted, but I won’t retire. I may, however, need a piggyback ride.
If your family has any work to be done similar to the work to be done in my own home, please consider perusing the resources available at TCU’s website or reading Dr. Purvis’ book (link below.) Dr. Purvis was a greatly influential leader in the effort to help unattached children. Tragically, she passed away earlier this year (2016.) Her work must now be continued through ordinary families.