Adoptive families can struggle as they try to manage and make sense of the confounding behaviors that come from their adopted children. They love their child and are committed to them, but are often exhausted, confused, and beaten down by the intensity of the parenting struggles. At times the issues that arise can be clearly identified and linked to the early influences on the child, while at other times the behaviors of the child leave the parent puzzled by what might be causing such strange and troublesome responses to life.
As they make their way through difficult parenting issues with their adoptee, parents can tend toward extremes. Some faithfully prioritize obedience and hold their children accountable to biblical truth, but at times lack compassion and understanding for the biological needs of their child. Other adoptive parents have good insight and understanding of the biological, but when it becomes the main focus of their parenting they may compromise the spiritual needs of the child. However, as wise parents, we need to strike a balance between the two, prioritizing the soul and spiritual needs of our adopted children, while at the same time seeking to understand and attend to their biological needs. We must lovingly care for both the immaterial and material needs of our adoptees, attempting to understand how each influences the other.
The Material Needs of the Adopted Child
Although focusing exclusively on the biological is incomplete, we do our adopted children a disservice if we do not consider how their early experiences have shaped the function of their brain and body. Since the experience of the adopted child affects the child’s brain, and the brain greatly influences the child’s behavior, it is appropriate for us to consider this when caring for our adoptee. A child who was born to a drug-addicted mother will likely struggle with the physiological repercussions in their brain and body. Likewise, a child who was abandoned early in life and grew up in an orphanage with minimal physical or emotional nurturing will also be negatively impacted. In both scenarios, the adopted child will likely exhibit sinful and broken responses in their behavior over time. Therefore, it is wise and loving for believing parents to conscientiously care for the biological needs of their child, showing great patience for how they have been negatively impacted in the outer man (Proverbs 14:29; Colossians 3:12; 1 Corinthians 13:4-5).
This will require us to be attentive to the needs of our child and consider how variables in their environment, body, nutrition, and relationships might be making it more difficult for them to respond in righteousness. A wise and loving parent will be attuned to why a child may be struggling to obey and whether there are biological things at play which are weakening the child’s resolve (Matthew 26:41; Galatians 5:17). There may be times that a glass of water, a snack, rest or a change in a child’s surroundings may help the child to better hear and apply what they are being taught. As believing parents we must recognize the importance of these biological effects on the spiritual being of our children, and conversely the strong influence of the spiritual being on the biology of our children (Psalm 73:26).
That being said, it can become a temptation for parents and children alike to exclusively blame one’s biology or past experiences for inappropriate or sinful behaviors, without any consideration for the inner workings of the child’s soul (Mark 7:20-23). The adopted child must be expected and responsible to function in their body without excusing bad behavior or even declaring they are incapable of good and appropriate behavior (Galatians 5:16). Each child is an immaterial being as much as he is a biological being created in God’s image for a dependent, intimate, and loving relationship with God as his father. However, this does not mean that care, patience, and thoughtfulness in relating to the biological weaknesses and experiential distress of the adopted child should not characterize adoptive parents. To the contrary, the theological framework of the doctrine of adoption in the Bible speaks to the child as created in the image of God, and the correlative relationship between the material and immaterial should motivate adoptive parents to parent with compassion and sufficient care (Galatians 5:22; Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:12-14).
The Immaterial Needs of the Adopted Child
The adopted child’s behavioral and relational problems are often incompletely interpreted as issues pertaining only to their circumstances and environment rather than the combination of both their experiences and their sinful heart, desires, and will. As parents, we must be careful to not lean predominantly toward changing our child’s experience and biology as we seek to right what wrongs our child has experienced. We must not allow these material concerns to eclipse spiritual concerns and must keep in mind that the child is body and soul. Genes, neurons, and chemicals do not generate choices in moral behaviors. Those originate in the heart and mind of man. The body is the platform for living out those inclinations of desire and thought.1Calvin, The Institutes, 1. 15.3. The adopted child is an embodied moral agent, and their brain does not function apart from their soul. Likewise, their soul does not function apart from their brain.
Unfortunately, secular therapies like TBRI (Trust Based Relational Intervention) reduce the functions of the soul to the functions of the body, confusing and convoluting how parents perceive their children and how to help their child perceive and respond in a godly and healthy way to their experience. Many adoption therapies found their methodology because adopted children are at one level victims of their experience and sufferers of their physiology. Yet, a biblical view also recognizes that they are moral agents with active desires and perceptions that exist in their immaterial self.2Pierre, Dynamic Heart, 29-52. In order to sufficiently care for our children, we must realize the moral inability of the child that renders them weak and unable to appropriately interpret or respond to their experience.3Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 225-26. There is truth about the affects the brain has on one’s body, but it is imperative to acknowledge again the other crucial components of behavior, namely desire and will. A child’s biological component is not an adequate causal explanation of the desires and thoughts of the adopted child’s soul.4Edward T. Welch, Counselor’s Guide to the Brain and its Disorders: Knowing the Difference Between Disease and Sin, 2nd ed. (Glenside, PA: Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, 2015), 34-36. It influences and conditions the soul but does not determine it. The soul and brain do not function apart from each other, but are distinct from each other. Thus, more than the brain must be cared for and healed, and thankfully we can turn to God’s Word in order to care for the soul of our adoptees. The gospel underscores the severity of their greatest need and brings with it a corresponding solution. This is what brings the appropriate healing to the soul of the child (Ephesians 1:5-7).
As adoptive parents we must assess both the potential body-based influences and the potential heart issues our children are facing. This can be difficult, and there is often no easy answer. However, the possibility of bodily pressures along with a sinful disposition should increase our compassion and grace for the difficulties our adopted children face5Emlet, “Obsessions and Compulsions,” 18. (1 Thessalonians 5:14; Hebrews 4:14-16). We must parent our adoptees with tremendous humility and dependance on God (Psalm 121:1-2). We can be hopeful and rest in Him, knowing that beyond the bodily weaknesses that our children may battle is their eternal soul. Their soul is where the lasting and true change comes as they learn to bring their beliefs, thoughts, and desires in line with the truth of God’s Word and are transformed by becoming an adopted child of the Creator of the Universe.
Read A Biblical Identity for Adoptees by Andrew Rogers and Cody Newcome.