In all of the adoption books we read in preparation for Kembe’s homecoming, the experts described a honeymoon period, which would be followed by a period of limit-testing and acting out.
We had a wonderful first couple of weeks. Oh my word, it was lovely. Kembe was happy and exuberant most of the time. He and his siblings got along so well. He was sad on occasion, but he just cuddled into us, so it was cute and endearing. We were trying to minimize his transition trauma, so we were letting a lot of behaviors slide. It was pretty blissful, but I knew it wouldn’t last.
After a few weeks of “choosing our battles”, (and by “choosing our battles” I mean “letting him do whatever he wanted”) we realized it was time to lay down the rules on a few things.
No, you cannot sleep with the plastic knife from dinner
No, you cannot play soccer/football in the living room
No, you cannot bite Jafta because you want his toy
No, you cannot take a tiny bite out of every apple in the apple bowl before deciding on a banana
No, you cannot write on the walls with crayons
No, you cannot carry your baby sister around the house like a football
In retrospect, it’s hard to know if we should have tightened the reigns sooner. We wanted to be gentle with him at first. But I will tell you that after the first few weeks of honeymoon, Kembe was very, very disappointed to discover that he was not going to be in charge of this house. We had a serious battle of Who’s The Boss going on for a couple weeks.
Kembe reacted very dramatically to our discipline once we started it, regardless of how minor the request. His response to not getting his way was consistent, and it was loud. We call it the frozen wail. (Not to be confused with the frozen whale). He stands very still, with a frozen expression, and wails at the top of his lungs. Loudly. For a very, very long time.
The first few times, I must admit, we gave in with whatever he wanted just to get him to quiet down. But then we started realizing that he saw this wailing as a currency: he who cries loudest, wins. We started to hold our ground, but we would try to sooth the crying by holding him, comforting him, talking to him softly, etc. After a while we noticed that he started looking almost a little bored with the crying. There would sometimes be a lull when he seemed to be reconsidering, before he would pick it up again. We noticed that if we gave him a funny look, he would even laugh in the middle of it and then start again. We noticed that if he got distracted by a sibling or an activity, the wailing immediately stopped. Still, it felt wrong to just totally ignore a crying kid. So we went through some very difficult weeks where Kembe was very volatile, and there were many long outbursts over not getting his way. It made it hard to leave the house, because we never knew when it would start. We were exhausted by it, the other kids were exhausted by it, and he seemed exhausted too. The charming, silly kid who came home seemed to have been replaced by an angry, unhappy little boy, who did not seem to like us very much.
We explained the whole situation to the therapist we saw, who helped us to see that giving affection and attention to the wailing might be perpetuating the behavior. She gave us permission to stop coddling him when he was upset over not getting his way. We still comfort him when he is sad or hurt or just wanting affection. But we stopped comforting him when he started wailing over a toy or a request to clean.
We also started ignoring the behavior. If he started the wailing, we just left the room. We acted like we didn’t even hear it – even though sometimes it was really, really grating. And amazingly, within a few days, the wailing decreased. When he realized it didn’t get him anything, he stopped. And oh, the peace that came with that.
We’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing when he’s getting ready to do the wail. Sometimes we will preemptively leave the room when we see him take that frozen stance, and invariably if we peek back in, we can watch him decide to move on and do something else. We’ve gotten pretty good at wail-averting, and it’s been a couple weeks since he’s gone into a big, dramatic frozen wailfest.
A couple days ago, I had a friend over and Kembe was sad about having to take turns with a toy. I was out of his line of sight, and he started the wail in front of my friend, who was so caught off guard by his sad demeanor and loud cries that she started to let him bypass the other child’s turn. But I walked up and shot him a look – a look that can best be described as a “what you talkin’ bout, Willis?” look. And he smiled like he knew he’d been busted. . . and moved on. He’s a smart one.
He is understanding more and more that while we love him, we are also in charge. And he is also understanding that no amount of crying is gonna change that. So we’ve inched just a little closer back to our honeymoon existence. We are watching him relax within our boundaries and the understanding of his place in our family, and we are seeing that silly, happy kid re-emerge. There are still tough days, but there are even more better days. And somehow, through the rough patches, we seem to have emerged with a stronger family bond. We’ve all been a little ugly to each other – and yet we’re all still here. And really, isn’t that what family is all about?