Adoptive Mamma, are You the Nurturing Enemy?

Nurturing Enemy 

Today, for the first time, I heard the words, “nurturing enemy” used to describe the way a child with an attachment disorder may perceive their mother, particularly an adoptive mother.

That’s me – the nurturing enemy.

If you are parenting children from very “hard places,” kids who have experienced severe early childhood trauma, this unflattering, yet painfully accurate, name may ring true for you too.

We may try to nurture our child, showing love and care, but our very nurture triggers deep fear in the child who does not feel safe trusting a mother. Deep in their core, they feel their very survival is at stake.

We become the “nurturing enemy.”

This title also lends some understanding to the fact that children with attachment disorders may be very comfortable with teachers, youth pastors, and other adults who take an interest in them. Those adults are not attempting to create a parent-child attachment and are not a threat.

I’m feeling very broken today, and “nurturing enemy” seems to sum it up with some of my kids. I’m tired.

Russ and I fly to Texas early tomorrow morning to speak at a retreat for couples whose adoption experiences are very challenging. We’re walking side-by-side with them and want to offer hope, even in the midst of the hard.

If you got my friends-letter earlier this week, 5 Thankful Thoughts, I hope you like the streamlined format. I do! If you haven’t subscribed yet, take a quick second to join my inner circle of readers. Life is better with friends.



Courage and hope, my friends. And much love from me to you.

Lisa

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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.

26 Comments

  1. Patti
    March 21, 2018

    Six years in, this is my story. My daughter recently asked if we could just be like “roommates”. She is able to verbalize that she does NOT want to be connected to me, and that she “hates moms so much”. While I understand that this has everything to do with her hard experiences with birth parents and little to do with me, the feelings of rejection and failure are sometimes hard to shake off.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      March 21, 2018

      I hear you, Patti. Maybe she’s doing the best she can do and she’s figured out that some people live together happily, but don’t have the challenges of being family? How old is your daughter? She sounds pretty insightful.

      Reply
      1. Patti
        March 21, 2018

        She is 16, and has been with me since just before turning ten. I am a widow and it’s just her and I in the home (I have three grown children).

        Reply
      2. Patti
        March 21, 2018

        She is 16, and has been with me since she was nearly 10. I am a widow, so it’s just the two of us in the home, although I have three grown children whom we see as regularly as possible. She is pretty self-aware.

        Reply
        1. Lisa Qualls
          March 21, 2018

          Maybe living as roommates is the best she can do – not what you dreamed of, to be sure, but not total rejection either. Sometimes our attachment goals and hopes may have to transition to setting the stage for Earned Secure Adult Attachment in their future. I wrote a post titled, “Have We Made Attachment and Idol,” which I tried to link here, but it won’t let me. You might want to search the title in the sidebar of the blog.

          Reply
        2. Lisa Qualls
          March 21, 2018
          Reply
  2. Emily M
    March 21, 2018

    A nice concise little video explaining this. How do we overcome our – or at least my tendency to withdraw from nurturing during the day in order to protect myself? It’s a withdrawal from interaction in order to keep myself going all day, which stems from a fear of interacting and either overwhelm of their demands of me or knowledge that anything I do will be thwarted in small ways by their efforts to control the interactions. Withdrawal can take the form of reading, hiding, looking something up online, etc. – anything that takes us out of the present.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      March 21, 2018

      Such good questions, Emily. It’s so painful and fatiguing to be the “nurturing enemy” and we do begin to guard our hearts from the abuse and pain. At the same time, we know connection is what our children most need! It puts a mom in a very hard place. I would love to think about this and write more. If you have more thoughts, send them my way. lisa@onethankfulmom.com

      Reply
      1. Megan
        March 21, 2018

        This is a great conversation to start- I find myself thinking the same thing- the answers for what our children need (and how we can provide it) don’t change, essentially, beyond what we all know from our wealth of resources on adopting kids from hard places- and yet- there must indeed be some strategies or stories that can inspire those of us out there in similar situations. (I am one of these moms myself!). I know I am mostly encouraged to not be alone, but also, this thread has caused me to reflect and consider some things that have helped us- things we have learned along the way and through counselling. Thank you for getting the conversation going!

        Reply
        1. Lisa Qualls
          March 21, 2018

          You’re welcome, Megan. Maybe this could be presented as a question for a Tuesday Topic. How would you word the question?

          Reply
  3. Christa
    March 21, 2018

    I have heard this term before and it sums it up here for one of my kiddos today and often. It’s spring break and he would rather be with his teachers than with me. It’s hard to swallow. Thank you Lisa for sharing. Needed this reminder today.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      March 21, 2018

      I completely understand this experience, Christa. Thank you for commenting. Hang in there this week.

      Reply
  4. Adoptingmama
    March 21, 2018

    Sweet friend. I so see you. I see this pain. My tears well up as I watch this video. I am the nurturing enemy and I only ever sought to be a mother, whatever fairytale that was….

    Hugs and strength to power through another day!

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      March 21, 2018

      Still, we rise. Much love to you, sweet friend.

      Reply
  5. Michele Hiatt
    March 21, 2018

    “I’m feeling very broken today, and “nurturing enemy” seems to sum it up with some of my kids. I’m tired.” – me too… I had never heard this term but it is definitely a title I wear. Keep leaning on Him.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      March 21, 2018

      Only God can sustain us through the long journey, and there is always hope.

      Reply
  6. AmyE
    March 21, 2018

    Saying a prayer for you right now. And hoping that this time away refills you for the ongoing struggle at home. Can’t remember the first time I heard this phrase but it is one that I have used often to explain how our son views me. For spring break this year my husband is taking our two boys still at home on vacation. I’m staying home with my college girl. It is hard to split up for the week and the two bio kids are sad to be apart for the week. However, since my presence is the trigger for most of sons melt downs we are going to try it. Hoping that everyone has a great week. And longing for the day when being together can be fun, too.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      March 21, 2018

      I like the creativity you’re using to create a happy spring break for everyone. Take some time to catch your breath and enjoy every moment with your daughter.

      Reply
  7. Jeri
    March 21, 2018

    I wish I could sit and listen to you and Russ. 6 adoptions here, plus one bio. 5 at home. I’m tired. That just is me. I put one goot in front of the other everyday but I’m tired. We have one low iq child that we made the decision to put in public school this year. One almost 18 and in ninth grade and I’m praying she doesn’t drop out like our oldest did when at this same spot. We didn’t get these two girls until ages 10 and 11. I knew and said it out loud that I would not be loved, would not be their buddy, for I was their 4th mom. 7 and 6 years later I’m not hated. One has no emotion and has dedicated her art drawings to her teacher in school. I was so shocked that my feelings were hurt. I was more shocked that I cried over it. The other, the almost 18yo kisses me constantly, always touching me, and the truth is it makes my skin crawl. How terrible is that! But it’s the truth. Some days I’m sure I’m the one that needs therapy because I’m certain I shouldn’t feel this way. Some days. Some days I fake it til I make it. Some days I think I’m going to lose it if one more person wants to kiss me or touch me or hug me. And I realize what I’m thinking and then feel very ashamed because I no longer have that from our 20yo who no longer speaks to us. A mother’s heart is a very tangled web some days.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      March 21, 2018

      Parenting kids with early trauma is so complex. They have emotions, challenges, and needs. We have emotions, challenges, and needs. Balancing it all can be very hard. Thanks for commenting, Jeri.

      Reply
  8. Nancy Bates
    March 21, 2018

    So interesting and Im figuring things out as we go. I came home one day and our daughter 12 had removed her photo from the 3 picture frame, she was in the middle of our 2 boys. She has since made things so miserable for all of us that we almost have let her live somewhere else. Right now we just dont know what to do as she roams from 1 friends house to another and doesnt come home. She 14, almost 15.

    Reply
  9. Gina
    March 21, 2018

    I am a mom of an adopted RAD son. When the behaviors are so bad and I want to give up and get mad I remember a saying that my friend with four adopted RAD boys told me. “The only thing worse than parenting them is being them.” It softens my heart and gives me the will to keep trying. They CAN heal!!

    Reply
  10. Kathleen Johnson
    March 28, 2018

    Hi Lisa. My name is Kathleen Johnson and I am one of the moms in the video you posted with this writing. We have had our daughter for 6 years and it has truly been one of the most difficult and painful years in our lives. We had no clue about RAD and certainly didn’t know that was what was going on with our girl. Through the experience, we have learned so much and believe that God did not walk us through the experience to just see if we could survive. I believe he allowed us to experience those dark dark days so that we could reach out to others in that same place and walk alongside them. RAD Advocates was born out of our experiences trying to raise RAD daughters. Nurturing enemy is a perfect description of our roles.
    Thank you for writing this blog and for the way you have chosen to walk along others who are experiencing the pain of what childhood trauma has done to their children.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      March 28, 2018

      Thank you for commenting, Kathleen. I truly empathize with the experience of adopting children with attachment disorders. It’s the hardest thing we’ve done in our lives. I agree, “nurturing enemy” sums it up. Many blessings to you.

      Reply
  11. Sammy
    April 10, 2018

    I raised one with RAD. But, I didn’t know it bc that was way, way back. Now he is 32 y.o. Raising him I didn’t know hardly anyone who had adopted. I know people pitied me. Like her she goes again complaining. Now I know a lot of people who have adopted and have a child with RAD. I’ve read 1 in 10 abused kids will have RAD. Before I figured it out there were times I screamed at God asking him why! Only about a year ago the Holy Spirit spoke to me… literally!! : – ) He let me know he not only picked the number I adopted, but the specific kids! I also know part of the reason He spoke to me was bc I was about to become bitter. Now I know it was REALLY His plan. Honestly, I always thought I had done some of it on my own.

    Reply
  12. Marilynn
    August 22, 2020

    I’ve spent 20+ years helping separated families reunite for free. A large number of the sons and daughters reunited were diagnosed as having reactive attachment disorder yet they don’t have issues with attachment to their own family members or their significant others. They describe being angry at the woman that adopted them because she was trying to be their mother rather than just their caregiver. When they acted out against her, it really was her they were mad at and not their own mother for leaving them or for her past offenses. One of the signs of RAD is that they are great and charming and affectionate to people who did not adopt them. This behavior is not shallow and manipulative as the therapeutic text books imply; they are being genuinely nice to people who are genuinely nice to them who are not lying to themselves and others about who they are in relation to them. These people are nice to them without placing expectations on them. Attachment parenting advises adopters to ask people not to be nice to their adopted kids and advises that nobody but the female adopter hold an adopted infant, or provid sweets to the adopted child. Parents don’t do that except in the context of “don’t take candy from strangers” or “grandma stop giving jr. candy unless you pay the dental bill”. Friends and relatives can hold the child, babysit the child and its not a threat because the relationship between a mother and her offspring is real and is not undermined by interactions with outsiders. Look at how illogical it is to say that RAD kids show affection to arbitrary strangers when they don’t show affection to their own mother – but she is not their Mom, she is an arbitrary stranger in her own right even if she obtained them at birth and she’s pretending not to be an arbitrary stranger and wants the kid to go along with the charade! An adoption decree and lawyers fee does not change who she actually is in relation to the child other than in law and her own mind. Imagine someone payed a fee to call herself your mother and tries to hug you as your mother and expects you to be fine with it as if she were your mother and then finds it dysfunctional if you hug your teacher or random people at church or the supermarket. An adopted person’s relationship with those people is just as random as with the woman who adopted only they are not pretending to be their mother and they are not trying to erase their actual mother or family. It may be shocking and upsetting but they are not taking out their anger at their past on their adopters, they are actually angry and resentful of their adopters for trying to be more than their caregivers and for forcing them to go along with it in order to get fed and clothed. It’s a very tall order. Look at the posts here on this article and read what the people are saying; one woman commented that she adopted a girl at birth who recently told her she wanted to be her room mate. That girl is not disordered at all she has a handle on the reality of the situation on an interpersonal level even though legally the woman who commented paid a fee to legally be referred to as her mother. That fee and that decree mean something to the woman mean something to the judge but not the kid. The law can’t erase relationships it did not create so an adoption does not erase a person’s mother and father other than in the mind of whoever is adopting and in the eyes of the judge. The girl she adopted is rare in her ability to verbalize what she feels clearly. The girl she adopted is rare in her ability to set ground rules and establish boundaries that sound respectful. She’s not striking back resentfully as many do bite that hand that feeds them because they are pissed they have no choice but to get their food and needs met by someone who is brainwashed into thinking that she is different than any other stranger just because she adopted. If your mother had a crisis say she became addicted to drugs and she lost custody of you – you’d be upset with her but imagine landing in the hands of someone who believed she was your mother and expected you to call her Mom just because she fed and clothed you. Where you could have had a great relationship with her as a caregiver with no expectations of being referred to as your Mom, now your mad because she’s lying to you and herself and the whole world calling you her daughter like it was true. Yeah she’s the nurturing enemy you need her to survive but you hate her for lying and trying to force a ‘forever family’ on you when you already have one. The fact that your family is dysfunctional and your mom is not perfect is your own problem not hers. If she really wanted to be close to you she would not change your name or put her name as mother on your birth certificate. They’re pissed off and rightfully so. They might or might not be mad at their mothers but that is not why they lash out at the women nurturing them. People that have just standard guardianship or informal care arrangements don’t report RAD with the frequency or severity of those who adopt and that’s because those people are not lying to the kids and giving them something to be angry about. Read the comments above, one girl cut her picture out of a family photo on the mantle. She’s driving the point home that she’s being forced to be someone she’s not in order to be fed and clothed. Most young people would lack the strength of character to be so brutally honest at the risk of loosing what they need to survive, she’s brave. Most just lash out in various ways at attempts to become close and bonded to them as their daughters or sons. Now other behaviors like bullying other kids or harming pets or sexual assault on other kids in the home are psychiatric disorders outside the realm of what I’m talking about those are disorders not attributed to the adoptive caregivers and are truly either originating from genetic inherited mental illness, prenatal exposure to toxic substances or physical abuse suffered prior to entering the home of the people that adopted – unless of course the kid is subjected to physical or mental abuse by the adopter above and beyond the whole lying about being the child of the adopter and isolation from their own families. I think the abuse of being forced to play the roll of another persons child is profoundly damaging to a person’s ego and sense of reality and does damage people terribly, but that in and of itself would not explain acting out against anyone other than the people who adopted unless the acting out was specifically to hurt the people who adopted them. So the whole nurturing enemy theory kind of takes the blame off of the adopting female and places it back on trauma experienced in utero or pre placement and that may make women feel better by thinking they did everything they could and the kid was just too damaged to love anyone – that kind of thinking is just going to bond them to other women who adopted and won’t help their relationship with the person they adopted at all. Women in this bind should take inventory of the kid’s behaviors and separate out those that target her from those that target others. Those that target others are likely not caused by her, those that target her are likely directed at her because they are pissed at her specifically related to her trying to be their Mother instead of just a care giver. Being their mother destroys who they are and who they are related to. It does not matter if their mother sucks or is a saint, the problem is pretending to be someone they are not in order to receive care. It’s so logical and so crystal clear. Blaming their mother and past experiences for their behavior only amplifies the anger because the woman who adopts fails to accept responsibility for her roll in making them miserable. All the toys and cars and vacations in the world won’t help as long as the woman has the dillusion that she’s just a Mom trying to love her son or daughter rather than she’s just a woman trying to raise someone else’s son or daughter. That is a money pit. Keep giving expensive stuff and showering love on someone who is pissed at you they will take and take and treat you like crap endlessly unless they have the maturity to say something like “lets just be room mates.” Most kids don’t, they’re kids. Stop showering them with expensive gifts and just tell them OK so I’m not your mom and if you could ever go back to your mom, I’d let you because you deserve to have your own mom and own family function and support you of course you do and I would never stop you from having what you deserve from them. Until then I signed up to take care of you and I love you as if you were my son or daughter even though your not, that’s just how committed I am to you. You can have your own name back you don’t have to call me Mom whatever it takes to let you know that I love you for you and want you to have what you deserve in this world you can count on me like a Mom even though you and I know, I’m not your mom. Then watch what happens after they let go of the Mom illusion, the kids will relax. That’s just my two cents from having talked to hundreds of normal people diagnosed as being RAD. Totally unscientific but true.

    Reply

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