Do you remember turning 18? I do, and even without a history of trauma and multiple moves I knew I wasn’t ready for the real world. Oh, don’t get me wrong I wanted my freedom, but I wanted my parents to sponsor it.
Whenever I hear our families speak of their child turning 18, I cringe. Why? Because they are almost always referring to their child “ageing out.” This term is a relic of the child welfare system that is as destructive as a leftover landmine hidden in the jungles of Vietnam. In the system of care, when a child turns 18 they are somehow deemed adults who can now take their lives into their own hands. If they elect to stay in school, they can (if the foster parent agrees) stay with their foster family until they are 21. In truth it is rare for our children to take advantage of this opportunity. Somehow this concept has crept into adoptions.
We see the pattern again and again. Our child (yes, they are still children), almost always hangs on to the belief that bio family is going to save them. Despite all the therapy we may have put our child through, they cling desperately to a fantasy that their “real” family was just misunderstood. So our child turns 18, and often that very morning we see them with their bags packed, ready for someone to drop them off at the last known address of the bio-family.
We are offended and angry (especially if we are the adoptive parents), convinced that our love and sacrifice has been wasted on this ungrateful child, often allowing this to forever cripple our relationship.
What happens next is truly heartbreaking. The realities of the bio-families dysfunction, often the very issues that brought our child into care in the first place, hit our child head on. Sometimes after just a couple of days, almost always within a few weeks our child is lost. They are again rejected. More often than not they are again re-traumatized. They make increasingly self-destructive decisions.
These facts were again brought painfully to my attention as a coworker recently shared that an 18 year old adoptee was raped within ten days of leaving home on her 18th birthday.
So how do we address this? We can’t force the child to stay. The concept of “ageing out” will likely forever be a part of child welfare and the system of care. Agreed. But let me give a couple of thoughts of how we may approach this in regards to our adopted children.
1. We have to have tougher emotional skin. Our child’s love and conceptions (regardless of the history) of bio-family is a constant. Any word we speak against the bio-family or attempts to “set our child straight” about them will almost always horribly backfire. Trust me on this, the realities of life will slap them soon enough. We need to be tough enough not to be offended or jealous of our child’s love for other people. This means we need to reassure them of our love (even as it is being rejected) while they pursue the realities of long held hopes. We need to leave the door open: physically and emotionally.
2. The very concept of “ageing out” needs to be eliminated from our vocabulary. Having this concept as part of our conversation is like a married couple speaking of divorce every time they have a disagreement. Say it enough and it is going to happen.
3. We want to prepare our children for the day they leave our home, but that is not “ageing out.” That is simply growing up. And we do this in steps, walking with them to the degree that we can through their decisions.
4. Our conversations need to reflect the future tense of our relationship looking way beyond the 18th birthday. Speaking of what we hope to see in our future relationship: grand-children, their education or career, marriage, holidays together, our hopes and expectations to be involved in their lives as we both get older. Our language needs to be consistently reinforcing to our child that our relationship with them, where ever they may live, is lifelong.
5. And finally, we are going to need to expand upon our world to include their world. At the very least making connections.