Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Day 24: Bullying

"I love Mama."

"I love Baba."

"I love Nathan."

"I love Julia."

Wenxin pauses and then glares at Katherine. "But I DON"T LOVE YOU!"

Home only a few months, 7 1/2-year-old Wenxin is still adjusting, still grieving. He has sized up things in our family and decided to vent all his frustrations on the one person he perceives to be beneath him in the pecking order, his younger sister, Katherine. 

"I know you don't love me," Katherine says softly but firmly. "But I still love you anyway."

He has absolutely no idea what to do with that one.

Wenxin's initial mistreatment and rejection of Katherine was one of the hardest parts of our older child adoption. We noticed it almost from Day 1. Here's an incident I recorded on this blog.

This morning I tried to have story time for Katherine and Wenxin. I picked fun, simple English books. I read Dr. Seuss's Hop on Pop in my silliest dramatic voice.
It was going really well. Wenxin was engaged. He was laughing.
And then he began to grab for the book. I said, "No," and continued to read and hold the book up for both kids to see.
More grabbing. . . He wanted to hold the book.
When I insisted on holding the book myself, Wenxin turned his back to me in anger and sat facing the opposite direction. Then he got up and walked away.
Poor Katherine was left having to listen to Hop on Pop. Returning, Wenxin walked past us a time or two and made vomiting noises in our direction. Then, he ran by and slapped Katherine on top of her head.
Mike and I intervened and gave Katherine lots of loving and had Wenxin apologize to her.

It never got more physical than that. But the emotional bullying was unrelenting. Driving down the road, I'd often catch him sticking out his tongue and making mean faces at her when he thought I wasn't looking. And he made it a point to constantly remind her that she was the only one he didn't love.

Let me make a few observations before I share how we handled the bullying that was happening in our own family.

First of all, this was not normal sibling bickering. It was our newly adopted son actively bullying our youngest daughter. Think about that for a moment. It's a hard thing to see happening in your own family.

Next, this is one of the reasons prospective adoptive parents are often warned about adopting out of birth order. Traumatized children may be abusive to younger children in the family. I'm not saying it always happens, but prospective adoptive parents should be aware that it's a possibility.

Finally, in Wenxin's defense, the skill set needed to survive in an orphanage housing 1000 children is not the same skill set needed to live in a loving family. Once we adopted him, he was safe and loved and didn't need to use the old orphanage behaviors anymore. But what other option did he have? Wenxin needed us as his parents to teach him how to live in our family.

Looking back, we focused on two things as we tried to eliminate the bullying in our house.

1. Anytime we noticed Wenxin mistreating Katherine, our first move was to comfort her. We'd give her a hug and some encouraging words -- even before we addressed the behavior with Wenxin. It was important for her to know that we had her back -- that we were committed to protecting her. And it was important for Wenxin to see that we took our jobs as parents seriously -- that he could trust us to keep everyone in the family physically and emotionally safe.

2. We got creative about how to teach Wenxin our expectations for family behavior, even before he had the language to really have a discussion.

I made this chart on my computer. I printed and laminated two copies, putting one on the fridge and carrying one in the car. Even with the language barrier, Wenxin could grasp these three simple rules. 

When he disobeyed one of these rules, we'd refer to this chart, and then, I'd give him a do-over, helping him try again. This gave him success at doing it right. 

Most of the time, that was enough, but if he dug in his heels and refused to correct his own behavior, I'd set a timer for 5 minutes and have him sit in a chair close to me. When the timer sounded, I just dropped the whole matter and let him return to play. 

It took a lot of practice, but it worked. 

Let me say it again. Living in an orphanage is totally different from living in a family. It's wrong for us to expect our new kids to do something they've never been taught how to do. We have to patiently teach them a new way.

So for that whole first year, there was a lot of learning going on at our house. Mike and I were learning new parenting skills. And Wenxin was learning how to live in a family. When he'd been home almost a year, I recorded this little success on this blog.

Every now and then I see a little glimpse of the boy I hope Wenxin is becoming.
Wenxin hated what I prepared for dinner tonight and continued to whine and cry that he was hungry long after we'd finished.
Food is a big deal for kids who've suffered significant trauma, so even though I want him to learn to eat what I prepare, I decided I needed to feed him something before bed.  I remembered that I'd bought some frozen chicken strips when they were B1G1 last week and thought that would be an easy solution.
When Wenxin saw what I was preparing he asked, "Can you fix some for everyone, Mama?  I know Katherine really likes those."
Thoughtfulness, empathy, sharing, kindness.  I like that.

To read the whole series, start here.
Shared over at Emily's place and WFMW.

Would you help Death by Great Wall get 500 likes on Facebook? Just click "like" below.


  1. Dana, I am popping over from Jen Fulwiler's blog. I have four from China. One adopted (out of birth order) at nearly 7 yrs of age. Just looking at your previous post titles makes me smile. I probably could have written them. My son is still learning how not to be a bully. We actually had to spend 2 weeks at an attachment treatment center because things had escalated. However, he has had the further loss of my husband, who died unexpectedly 18 months after we adopted him (he's been my son for 2.5 yrs now). I am definitely going to bookmark your blog. For Jen's challenge, I blog under a different name on a different blog, but I am commenting here under my real name and our family blog.

    I can't wait to read the rest of your posts! We are doing so much better and I learned a lot but there is always more to learn.

  2. Okay, I have been lurking in the background not commenting! We adopted our two girls from China at 6 mos. and 16 months. Not older children and not out of birth order. But our second daughter could be a bit of a bully! Our petite 31/2 year old did not know what to expect...and it was hard to prepare her since we did not know either, having known children that age who were not yet walking etc. She wanted to feed and baby her new sister and baby sister wanted to be an only child! The younger one would shove the older one around..and the older one would scream in baby sister's ear. Both would dissolve in tears ans after a month I was at my wit's end. One day in frustration and to buy myself a few peaceful moments, I plopped the little one in her crib and put the older on her toddler bed in the same room and walked away. A few minutes later I heard giggles and felt that some serious bonding was going on as two sisters united against mom. From that point on, there was less shoving and a lot more fun. When my old daughter was at preschool, our baby got lots of one on one mommy time, and things settled down. They are now teenagers..the younger can still push a few buttons on her sister, but they are great friends and companions. I know that there can be and could have been for us, many more serious issues and we count our relatively smooth course a blessing, and home a haven.

  3. this is amazing. i am going to bookmark your blog. I found you through emily's imperfect prose, and i am so amazed by what i'm reading here.

    my husband and I have a ten month old daughter and we hoping to adopt at least one child {older is an option, though younger seems less...daunting to me}. but this is so inspiring, so powerful...and something I will need to remember.

  4. Just want to say it sounds like your approach is amazing.

  5. Wow! Kudos to you for your patience and desire to understand and help all of your children. You show great wisdom and restraint and he is fortunate to have the family he does. I adopted an infant from China and only have the one child, so I never had to go through any of this (except for the food -- that rung a chord), but reading about your experience was a great start to my day. It's not easy being in your shoes, but there is hope.

  6. Hi Dana,

    Thank for this glimpse into older child adoption. I know friends and family who have adopted various aged children, and this time of transition and questioning sounds familiar. I see Jesus in your youngest daughter Katherine's unconditional love back. It blesses me.

    Jennifer Dougan

  7. You're definitely not alone. Our son adopted from Ghana (at the age of 9.5, 18 months ago) still struggles to not bully our youngest (homegrown, age 6 now). She's the easiest to pick on - because she's younger, and because she (over)reacts when he does it. And it irks him to no end that she can do a lot of things that he can't (like read books).

    It's a long road, but we're walking it right next to you. :)

  8. (Since I'm de-lurking :) )
    One of the main reasons I appreciate your blog is because of your willingness to acknowledge that it's not all sunshine and roses. It isn't the most common thing~ many people want to share successes and downplay challenges, and I wonder if some disruptions happen because parents weren't prepared for the serious difficulties that come with adoption. I won't be ready to adopt for several more years but I'm learning from stories like yours. Thank you for all that you do!

  9. Nick, whom we adopted at the age of 8, was just horrible to his sister who is a month older. It got pretty bad, to the point that we told Anna to lock her door at night. Nick would go in while she was asleep and slap her, then run back to his own room and pretend to be asleep. Its gotten so much better and he treats her like a princess now. SO glad I homeschool!
    Did y'all break birth order? Is Wenxin older than Catherine?

    1. Yes, Wenxin is a year older than Katherine, which is probably why she was the recipient of all his frustration.


Comments will be visible after approval by the moderator.