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The Kind of Love That Changes Things

My adopted son is 4 years old. We know he has challenges, but we don’t yet have a diagnosis. I’m learning to look beyond his difficulties to see the unique, talented little boy that he really is. And I’m realizing the power that comes from believing in him and loving him exactly the way he is.

As an adoptive mom to two biological siblings, one with special needs, I have visited some deep places in myself over the years to wrestle my own fears and expectations.

I often revisit the nature vs. nurture debate. Is it true that the destiny of these two precious children I love so much is written in their genes? Were their lives set on some inevitable course before they ever came into our family?

I must admit, when I have spent all day pouring love and encouragement into Jack, my 4-year-old son, and then suddenly from nowhere he picks up a wooden block and hurls it at his little sister’s head, I get that desperate feeling that there’s nothing I can do to help him with the invisible battles he’s fighting inside.

This sense of helplessness is one that many parents of kids with special needs know well. The moment of confusion and bewilderment when some professional in a room names a diagnosis and you suddenly feel like they know your child better than you do because they understand the illness. In an instant, your child seems reduced to the name of that condition and you find yourself asking this professional stranger to predict your child’s future — will they ever talk / walk / get married / hold down a job? Like the course of their lives is somehow set in stone with a diagnosis.

We don’t yet have an official diagnosis for Jack. We know he has speech delays. That he takes a long time to learn new concepts. We know he struggles a lot to control his impulses, gets frustrated easily, and has great difficulty with focus and concentration. But so far none of the professionals involved in his life have given it a name.

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In my own mind, I swing between wanting to put a name to his condition and not wanting to.

Names can serve a purpose. They can get you funding for services and therapies. They can help bring some order and coherence to an otherwise chaotic set of symptoms. They are certainly helpful to throw at well-wishers and not-so-well-wishers who tut under their breath at how you could possibly allow your child to behave like that.

But names also have the potential for damage. Diagnoses can create a sense of fatalism. This is who my child is. These are his limitations. There is now a ceiling on his potential that no one expects him to rise above. His behavioral issues are just the result of how his brain is wired. Most of us wouldn’t say all this in as many words but it’s so easy for the name of that diagnosis to become a lens through which we see our child.

So easily the child himself gets lost.

We’re right at the start of our journey with Jack and still have so much to learn. We make many mistakes and often have to fight back feelings of discouragement. But there are also some important truths we’ve come to understand along the way.

Jack responds to love like a plant to water. When he’s in an environment where he feels deeply loved and valued for who he is, he opens up and blossoms in ways that are simply awe-inspiring.

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I will be forever grateful to the staff at the first daycare Jack attended when he was two and a half years old.

We decided to put him in daycare a few mornings a week because we wanted him to socialize with other kids, and my attempts to take him to mother and toddler groups were becoming traumatic for both of us.

At mother and toddler mornings, Jack couldn’t tolerate being in a room with other children. As soon as everyone gathered in a circle for an activity, he would bolt out the door. He would then spend the rest of the morning in the yard obsessively playing with the door or turning a faucet on and off, ignoring all my attempts to play with him.

Different professionals advised us to try part-time daycare, and we managed to find one that was small, family-run, and gave lots of opportunity for physical activity, which Jack definitely needed. The staff members had no particular experience with special needs, but they had a lot of love.

When Jack started, it was really tough. He didn’t have words to express his anxiety and discomfort, so he showed it by scratching other kids and pulling their hair.

I took a deep breath before getting out the car to collect Jack at lunchtime each day. When he saw me, he would jump into my arms with a look that made me feel like the worst mommy in the world for leaving him there. And the other kids all gathered to tell me about the injuries they had sustained at his hands!

Many daycares would not have persevered. But what I saw from these staff members, who had no formal training in special needs but a lot of compassion and intuition, was truly remarkable. They understood that his aggressive behavior was borne out of distress, not malice. They understood that he wasn’t trying to misbehave and that what he really needed was not punishment but love and affirmation.

So, when Jack locked his fist around another child’s hair, the staff didn’t shout at him or get angry. They just calmly put their arms around him, stroked his hand and he released his grip.

What was truly amazing: The other children in the group learned from this example and never responded violently to Jack’s actions. Instead, they tried to bring him into the group. I’ll never forget overhearing a little group of two- and three-year-olds trying to teach Jack how to talk!

By the time Jack left that daycare, he was comfortable and secure playing with other children. He had made friends and was a much-loved member of the group. I will always be grateful to the staff there for giving him such a wonderful first experience of being in a group. Of course, he still has his struggles, but I believe that early experience set him on a positive course for preschool and kindergarten that he is still on today.

So, will Jack overcome the behavioral and developmental challenges he has now? Or will he always struggle because of some sort of ‘mis-wiring’ in his brain?

I don’t have the answers to those questions. But what I do know is that we can make an enormous difference to the course of a child’s life by providing a nurturing, supportive environment, even though there may be moments of deep discouragement along the way. I also know that, as Jack’s mom, it’s my job to believe in him passionately, to be his greatest advocate, and to never allow myself or others to put a limit on the great things he can achieve.

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