Not the Same

April 5, 2016 adoption realities, Whitney 24 Comments

I feel like there are many people in the lives of adoptive families who want to try to downplay the differences our adopted children have from those who have grown up in a more stable, loving, safe, home environment. The downplaying? It’s not malicious; in fact I wholeheartedly believe that many of these friends want to encourage us by praising our children! And while I am thankful for the kindness that is behind many of the comments…

The bottom line is this: any child who has experienced a traumatic start to life is not the same as a typical child who grows up in a loving family knowing that their needs will be met.

The bottom line is that this is directed toward any one person at all. It’s the culmination of a little more than a year of watching not only our own story unfold, but also the stories of many other children in many other families. My own story is the one I’m most familiar with, but there are so many others who live in shades of the same story as we do.

The bottom line is that we need grace. I know it seems like we are beating a dead horse if we bring up the struggles, or if we make comments about behavioral regression we see, but the horse is far from dead. In our lives, in the lives of so many adoptive families, there are still days when the trauma gallops full speed ahead, and we just try to hold on to the reins, often knowing that the best (only?) thing we can do is throw them up in the air and let a gracious Father take over.

Here’s the thing: she is not the same.

Our daughter? She is not like other five-year-olds.
She might be of average height, weight, and build.
She might be adorably cute, especially when that dimple pops out!
She might know how to throw her hands on her hip and give me a sassy attitude.

But she is not the same.

She might want to be held and talk like a baby sometimes.
She might want me to lay in bed with her for a few minutes at night.
She might meltdown when I give her water in her cup instead of juice. She might even want to try to hide her favorite pieces of candy from her siblings. All of these things might trick you into thinking she is like other five-year-olds. But she is not.


Your five-year-old might be of average height, weight, and build. I imagine you never worried about whether or not she was being well-fed while spending time in an orphanage.

Your five-year-old might be adorably cute, but I imagine she never felt the need to be a favorite just to get a little bit of extra human interaction. I imagine that she isn’t constantly assessing who might be her competition; who might get more attention than her and fighting to maintain control over any and all new or stressful situations.

Your five-year-old might throw her hands on her hip and give you sassy attitude. I imagine it’s because she’s just giving attitude. I imagine it’s not because she feels the need to prove something to people she’s only known for 8 months.

Your five-year-old is not the same as mine.

Your five-year-old might want to be held and talk like a baby sometimes, but I imagine it’s not because she spent her babyhood and early preschool years in a crib without the attention small children need. I imagine that your five-year-old had the chance to be a baby when she was a baby.

Your five-year-old might want you to lay in bed at night with her for a little while. I imagine that you don’t have conversations where she tells you about how sad she was that you weren’t there in her orphanage with her.

Your five-year-old might meltdown when you give her water instead of juice. I imagine it’s not because she has such a desperate need for stability after transitioning from one country to the next that even small changes in the schedule can cause serious regression. I imagine that your five-year-old had the chance to drink water when she was thirsty rather than having to wait for scheduled bottle breaks.

Your five-year-old might want to hide her favorite pieces of candy, but I bet it’s not because they grew up without anything for most of their lives and they are terrified that these precious things will just disappear.

Your five-year-old is not the same.

Now, I know that our five-year-old is, well, five. And there are things that five-year-olds do that all five-year-olds do because they are FIVE. The motivation and thoughts that go into the actions though? They are vastly different. We are constantly assessing whether her behavior is typical of age five, or if it has some deeper something lurking in the background.
I promise when I tell you, “it’s not the same”, I mean it. It’s not just my imagination. Yes, she is doing amazingly well. Yes, she loves preschool and being social. Yes, personality is a factor. But deeper than that is the straight-up fact that parts of her brain haven’t had the chance to develop like your five-year-olds have.

Here’s my struggle… I feel like the longer she is home with family the less understanding people are of the fact that she is not the same. The protective layers that she has built up over time are breaking down, and now is when she needs more understanding than ever before. Now, when her mimicking skills have taught her how to behave like everyone around her is when people need to refuse to stare at the surface and declare “she is the same.” I have had four five-year-olds, and I promise you, it’s not the same.

The longer she is home, the less likely people are to understand that her past requires more than just hugs and kisses to recover from. Love heals wounds, but it takes time, not just months, sometimes years.

Years, friends. Years.

I know I sometimes lack the words to express the realness of how this affects me. I completely understand that the training we have gone through to be prepared for her is not the typical training new parents go through. I understand that most parents don’t need to understand how the brain develops, and how brain development changes when there is an overabundance of cortisol washing through your system as a baby. I get that. I never knew any of that stuff, either.

But I also get that I am her advocate. I am her defender. I am her mama bear. Being her mother is a privilege and an honor. A friend once described it as having an app running in the background all the time; my mind is constantly flashing the low-battery signal. It’s a different kind of tired that comes with loving this girl. It’s worth every ounce of energy it takes, but it is not the same.

There are days when I wish it were, trust me, there are. But I also know that while sameness is desirable on many levels, the differences are teaching me so much more…

Love. Understanding. Patience. Compassion. Grace. Peace. Respect.


Although you are perhaps not in our shoes, I would ask that you please respect her and don’t assume that she is like your five-year-old. In this case, respect is not to treat her just like every other five-year-old… respect is knowing and acknowledging where she came from and understanding that her actions and reactions require different actions and reactions from us. Respect means not playing off behavior I know has a deeper root in sadness than any child should have to experience by claiming that she is “just like every other kid”.

She’s not the same, and I love her for it. She’s making it possible for the Father to make me not-the-same. If you give her the chance, if you love her in a different sort of way, you will find yourself becoming not-the-same, too.

24 responses to “Not the Same”

  1. Angie says:

    My daughter was adopted at the age of 8 from China Special Needs. She will be 14 in April. I still notice that she covers up things that she doesn’t understand- I forget her past at times and hold her to an unfair standard. Your written piece was spot on. It is important to remember the past when embracing the future! Good luck. My daughter’s blog:

    • Whitney says:

      It’s so easy to forget, isn’t it? I do that all the time, too. I forget that she hasn’t always been here.

  2. “The longer she is home, the less likely people are to understand that her past requires more than just hugs and kisses to recover from. Love heals wounds, but it takes time, not just months, sometimes years.”

    Yes! and…

    “A friend once described it as having an app running in the background all the time; my mind is constantly flashing the low-battery signal. It’s a different kind of tired that comes with loving this girl. It’s worth every ounce of energy it takes, but it is not the same.”

    All the time, I find myself saying, “I’m not sure how to put it into words, but I am just not able to *insert caveat here*” It may be that I am not able to be gone from home even though my littles are 4 and 10, or I cannot fill that volunteer spot, or…

    Thank you for puting some of this into words!

  3. Nicole Renee says:

    YES! I wrote a post along the same lines awhile back on my personal blog. It’s so true! Thanks for writing this one!

    • Whitney says:

      Ha! Confession… this one was originally posted on my personal blog, too. 😉 There were a few instances that popped up recently where I found myself processing this all over again, so I brushed it off to use again. It’s definitely a topic that will (sadly) never lose relevance with the adoptive community.

      • Margaret says:

        Thank you all so much for validating my feelings. We have had legal guardianship of 2 traumatized and neglected children for over 10 yrs. my husband is 63 and I’m 58. This is so different from raising our first family. We don’t get sitters this time . . Too hard on the kids, the sitter , and us. Besides we are usually too tired and overwhelmed to plan anything or make the needed arrangements. You are right, people with normal kids don’t get it. Hmmm..maybe if I tell them that “My battery is always running low! ” thy will understand. No, probably not, but I’m glad to know you all do. Love that metaphor! Thank you all for your transparency! I sense God in it and he is smiling. <

        • Whitney says:

          Oh Margaret, you are definitely not alone in this, even though I know many days you may feel isolated. Never alone. Babysitting (especially overnight or long-term) is a challenge for lots of people.
          Make sure you take care of yourself, okay? I know it’s not easy, but self-care is SO important when you’re walking the road we walk.
          Thanks for the comment and the encouragement. <3

  4. Mike Snyder says:

    Spot on. Grace. Grace. Grace.
    Becoming a student of my son — — is something that I look forward to for the rest of my life. (10 years old now — home for 8). Thanks for the good word!

  5. Tricia says:

    So true! We have two boys very close in age, one adopted and one biological. There are so many similarities in their behaviors but are rooted in BIG differences. I wrote a similar post about a year ago. I SO understand where people are coming from, and they mean no harm, but it can be wearing on us adoptive mothers!

    • Whitney says:

      Our younger two are almost exactly a year apart in age, and very similar, size-wise. I understand that challenges that can present themselves in that situation! This seems to be a topic that will always be relevant. I’m always surprised when I hear the “that’s just like any kid” comment how strongly it still affects me. I’m glad you wrote about it, too. Grace in the hearing, and grace in the teaching others. <3

  6. Mary says:

    Thank you for writing this, it’s good to know how I can support my friends.

    I have a question though about what you said about extra cortisol, what would cause that and what would be the result?

    • Whitney says:

      We first learned about the effect of cortisol on the brain when our agency had us read The Connected Child, by Karen Purvis. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is activated by and responds to stress (pg. 53) Basically, children who have had a challenging start to their lives have too much cortisol for a long period of time flooding their brains. The result of this varies from child to child, but overall, results in the “fight/flight/freeze” instinct being much stronger than it should be.
      I highly recommend getting/reading this book if you have many adoptive families in your life! It’s just great insight. I know the first time I read it (before we traveled for our daughter) I was fascinated by the science behind the behaviors we might see.

  7. Cheryl Mexin says:

    This can still apply when they’re teens. I have difficulties getting people to understand that my teens are different! You explained this so well. Thank you!

    • Barbara says:

      Yes! Most definitely. We adopted two at approx 7yo and the teen years have been turbulent, and while most people chalk it up to “just being teen”, it goes far deeper and requires completely different parenting. I wholeheartedly agree.

      • Whitney says:

        Thanks for commenting, Barbara, and oh yes… so many folks have mentioned life with teen kiddos. Although our daughter is only five, I know that this “not the same” is a song I will be able to sing for years to come. It’s not an easy song for others to listen to, but for her sake, I will not erase her past. I will acknowledge that circumstances in her life (in anyone’s life!) affect her. Keep chugging along, friend. You are not alone. <3

    • Whitney says:

      Thanks for commenting, Cheryl. I imagine that the explanations never get any easier. But it’s all worth it. <3

  8. Kristen Miller says:

    We adopted a 15 and 17 year old about a year ago…they spent over a decade in an institution. There are no words for the trauma they endured, first the abandonment by their parents, then the abuse at the institution. If I could tell people one thing it is that loving them does not fix anything…if it did I can promise you they would be healed and whole. Love is not enough…it takes a complete surrender as an adoptive parent, specifically for older child adoption because they do not know how to love, how to have relationships and no 15 year old who has never had parents wants what loving parents offer. I would do it over again in a heartbeat, but it is the hardest thing I have ever done.

    • Whitney says:

      Oh, this breaks my heart, Kristen. So much hard stuff in such a short time period. I’ve often thought the same things about loving our girl and wanting my hugs, kisses, snuggle time, and love to fix it all. She asks me almost every day if I like her. This repetition of hearing, “yes, I like you, AND I love you so much, forever” is something I hope sinks into deep places over time. Keep it up. It is totally the hardest thing, but I agree, I would do it all over again, too.

  9. Danielle Borzillo says:

    Thank you for posting this. I have twin 6 year olds from China. Adopted at 16 months. About 1.5 years after they came home I quite shockingly become pregnant at the age of 42. Lately we have been experiencing some turbulent times. They have become quite disrespectful towards me and mean spirited toward their brother who is 2. They often say that I don’t care about them, which of course could not be father from the truth but I know that they must be truly feeling this way.
    This is tough. I am trying to be consistent in practicing Karen Purvis’ IDEAL but it is so hard when you are flat out spent and exhausted.

  10. Ruth says:

    I am a single parent with a soon to be five year old adopted daughter born in China. In May, she will be home 3 years. I feel very isolated. I don’t know anyone else personally who has adopted a child from a China orphanage. There are so many issues to face each day. Sometimes I struggle trying to help my beloved daughter “fit in”. Thank you for reminding me that it is okay that she is not the same. My energy button flashes all day long until I fall into bed in the wee hours wide awake thinking about how I can meet her needs. I am glad I found a website that helps me feel less alone.

    • Tabitha says:

      Hi Ruth,

      I’m so sorry you are feeling alone. There are a lot of groups on Facebook where I’m sure you can find some community (if your real life community can’t relate to you.) You can try Special Needs Resource–China Adoption for starters. Blessings to you!

  11. Jennifer says:

    Whitney well said. Our pediatrician said to is when we were struggling with our oldest many years ago “it might look like typical behavior but it comes from someplace else” we remind ourselves of this constantly. People dont understand why he is so sensitive. Why he feels the need to hug and kiss us many times even before he goes to school. He is old enogh now that he put it into words “im worried I wont see you again” it has been 10 1/2 years. Thank you for putting this eloquently so I can share it with others to help them understand!

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