The sense of abandonment and the feeling of being unlovable among adopted and step-children, especially step-children whose mother is not a part of their lives, seems to be growing in today's society. This is a phenomena I am well acquainted with, having suffered with it, myself, for most of my life.
I was recently speaking to a friend who was telling me about the experiences of her child, who was adopted. I will not be using any identifying information for the friend or her child in order to protect their anonymity. Yet, while I was speaking to my friend about the behaviors of her daughter, I realized just how many of those same behaviors I exhibited during my life, especially as I entered and lived through my teen years.
Attention seeking behavior is common, but the underlying cause of this behavior is what I call, "proving your love." The child will act out in ways that are designed to test the limits of the parent or guardian, so as to "prove" they love the child beyond all condition. If the parent or guardian "gives up" and places the child in some type of residential program, they have, in the mind of the child, proved that the child is unlovable or that they never loved the child, at all. Often, the child isn't aware of the core motivation or cannot explain why they behaved the way they did, but that is truly the underlying psychological motivation. They feel compelled to behave in the most outlandish ways in order to make the parent or guardian prove their love by continuing to accept them and keep them in their care and custody.
These behaviors can include, but are not limited to, lying, smoking, sexual behavior, breaking rules, talking back, failing grades, even mildly criminal acts such as breaking and entering and petty theft. Even while behaving in this manner, the child is miserable, argumentative, unhappy and confused. They're more likely to be unable to explain their mood and feelings because they truly don't understand why they are doing the things they do. It took many years of therapy before I began to understand why I had behaved the way I did as a pre-teen and teen.
In my own life, my Mother was absent for over 9 years, beginning at age 4. As a teen, I had no memories of living with my Mother until just after my 4th birthday, but I knew I had had no contact with her for 9 years, 2 months and 10 days, between the ages of 4 and 13. It didn't help my own situation that my step-mother treated me differently than she did her own biological child, or that she left me on the anniversary of the day she took over the care and custody of my brother and I, leaving us to be shuffled across the country for several days, unsure where we would land.
The fact that my father constantly told me I was uncontrollable and kept getting me kicked out of my living situation also compounded the feeling that no one could love me. Add in being rejected by step-mother (twice in 1 week) and my Mother rejecting my pleas to live with her while being physically abused by my father and you had the perfect recipe for a screwed up kid who was desperate to find ANYONE who would love unconditionally.
I'm not sure what the answer is for these children, other than intensive therapy and showing unconditional love while also setting boundaries for behavior. The child must be made to understand that there are limits to behavior, as well as consequences, while also being assured that they could never do anything to cause the love to come to an end. I know it's a tricky tightrope to walk to make a child understand these things, but the child must also be made to understand that the missing biological parents did not abandon the child due to anything the child did or is. The child must be made aware that the circumstances were beyond their control or influence, and if adopted, they must be made aware of the amount of love it required for their birth mother to give up custody of their own flesh and blood to ensure a good life for the child with loving, caring and responsible parents.
Above and beyond anything else that is, or can be done, the child must be made to feel the love, acceptance and concern of their parent or guardian; even in the face of behavior that makes you want to rip your hair out by the roots. And never voice to the child that you're at the end of your rope or threaten them with being sent to military school or some other residential program, as that will merely reinforce for the child what they are already feeling: that they're unlovable and that there is a limit to the love, acceptance and approval of their parent/guardian.
It's a scary, frustrating situation for the parents/guardians of this type of child, but it is equally scary, frustrating and confusing for the child. They will often complain to themselves that they don't know why they behave the way they do, and they will constantly promise themselves they will stop that type behavior, only to find themselves repeating the behaviors without thinking.
For my friend that's going through this, all I can offer is love, support, prayer and encouragement; the same things I offer her child. Hopefully with both individual and family therapy, they will get through this time and come out the other end stronger, and more bonded than ever before. That's my hope and my prayer.