The Harm in the Hug

Long before God gave me a heart for the fatherless, He gave me a heart for all little people under the age of 12. (My love for those 12 and up came much more recently.) As a 10-year-old, I became known as a "baby hog." And as a teenager, I babysat several days a week, participated as a leader in every VBS possible, taught Sunday school, and went on every missions trip that involved any activities that included working with kids. So naturally, I went to college to pursue a vocation that centered around children: teaching. Then, I had my own kids. And after staying home with them for 4 years, God called me to take a part-time position in our church as, you guessed it, the Children's Ministry Director.  I have spent the last 20-something years hugging on kids everywhere...in my neighborhood, in my church, at pretty much every job I've ever had (except for the retail job I had at Gap Kids during college...that would have been super weird for me to hug random kids in the store), and in countries like Alberta, Canada, the DR, Guatemala, and now Costa Rica.  


So the first time that I read this post by an adoptive mom friend whom I "met" (on Facebook) through a mutual friend, I didn't know how to feel about it.  One of Maralee's kiddos was adopted from Liberia, and this blog post is actually a guest post from the woman who runs the orphanage where Maralee's son spent the first few months of his life. It's about the harm in holding babies in orphanages on short-term missions trips.  Here's one of her quotes:

"When visiting children, specifically children living in orphanages overseas, we cannot treat them as if we own them, or treat them differently than you would treat my child in my back yard or your friend’s foster child. The practical reasons for this are the same, which involve not making a child afraid, respecting boundaries set by those in charge of the child, etc, but there is a more serious factor that can be very detrimental to a child’s development. The biggest potential harm for these children is the high likelihood of forming attachment disorders. Many adoptive parents have experienced serious attachment issues with their children that resulted largely in part to short-term visitors holding their child during their orphanage stays. These issues can can have long-term consequences on a child which effect how they interact with their peers, how they relate to their adoptive parents, and if they aren’t adopted, how they relate to individuals once they leave the orphanage, either after reunification or as young adults."

The first time I read this post was shortly after our trip to Guatemala, where this happened...

I spent the better part of our 10 days there with this sweet little nugget (who isn't an orphan, but craved a whole lot of love and attention) on my lap.  We both cried the day our team had to say goodbye.  God used her to break my heart for older children. Until very recently, I never fully considered what our time together may have done to/for her. 

I cannot count the number of kids whose names I didn't know whom I have snuggled, carried and hugged.  And I always felt that I was just loving on them in Jesus' name...which was true.  And even in the midst of the "waiting" part of our adoption process, I didn't see a problem with loving and hugging on kids without families...or any kids for that matter.  Until a month ago...

On this side of adoption, we have seen firsthand the effects of such actions, some helpful and some very harmful.  Our kids were blessed to have a wonderful missionary family, who live a few blocks from the albergue, minister to them on a very regular basis.  True, healthy relationships were formed, and through this, our kids learned to how to love and how to be loved.  They learned how to accept healthy physical touch.  They learned about the Good News of Jesus from people who live like He did.  And we are reaping that harvest now.

But there have been others in our children's lives who have come and gone, who have hugged and held without boundaries, who have loved on them in a way that only someone with whom they've developed a healthy relationship should, and it has hurt our kids in the long run. (And I am personally so guilty of this.)  Students who have visited for a few Saturdays.  People who love Jesus and kids, but who are unable to give more than an afternoon to a house full of orphans.  They gave what they could in the moment, and I can't fault them for it.  They were just lovin'.  

We saw the effects of "unrestrained orphan hugging," as I'll call it, during our in-country stay in Costa Rica. We stayed on a beautiful Bible school campus for a month.  There were 13 students living there.  We saw them at meals and hung out with them on campus and in town.  They were seriously awesome people.  There were also several wonderful staff members who lived on the campus.  Very soon after we brought our kids to live with us there, we realized that they would pretty much hug or sit on the lap of almost anyone...especially young people...because the only contact they'd had with young muchachos was when they came and gave them candy and let them play with their smart phones and sit on their laps on random Saturdays.  We also noticed that our oldest would bond with any Tico man who said more than 5 words to him or mentioned the word, "futbol," at any point.  

It got particularly bad when the students at our Bible campus invited students from another Bible campus to come have a bonfire.  It just so happened that 2 of the students from that other school had visited the albergue on random Saturdays...and hugged our kids indiscriminately, which they innocently did right in front of us without ever speaking to us.  (Super awkward.)  When we asked our kids to tell us the names of the people whom they had just hugged very warmly, they had no idea.  Every child needs love...but is teaching them that it's ok to hug nameless foreign strangers "love" if it hurts them in the long run?  I don't know.   One of them even asked Gina right in front of me, "Why are you here?  Is this your family?"  And never spoke to us.  Never even made eye contact with me as I was standing 2 feet from Gina when he asked in broken Spanish.  Not a great way to help us teach them boundaries, bro.  But he honestly didn't know better.  Which is why I'm writing about this.   People who have not walked through this part of adoption don't see the impact that free hugs from strangers and pity gifts can have.  If those same 2 students could've seen the melt downs our kids had just 20 minutes after we took them back to our casita, they would have had just a glimpse of what our kids have to work through as a result of what was innocently done out of love.  

And we've seen it here at home.  Because we worked with youth at church for the past few years, we have random high school and college kids at our house frequently.  Honestly, they're my people.  And they will be my kids' people, too...once they get to know them.  We have to set up some serious boundaries for our friends and even our immediate family members.  It's so very hard because everyone has loved them and prayed for them for more than a year...and they're HOME!  But they have to learn to trust us as their primary caregivers first.  They have to bond with us first.  There was an awesome quote in our training that went something like this: "Trauma that has occurred in the context of relationship can only be healed in the context of relationship." Our kids' trauma centers around their parents.  They need to develop healthy, stable relationships with us before they can start hugging on everyone person they meet.

I still feel torn about the whole issue of baby holding and orphan hugging.  There's a big part of my heart that still wants to go hug all 153 million of them.  And even in our kids' albergue, we hugged the other kids there.  How could we not??  I held a baby there.  I made Michael hold him, too.  We were loving on them.  But now, we're gone and I pray that we didn't leave any damage in our wake.  So I'm not sure that I can take a firm stand on either side on this issue right now.  I just know that watching our kids struggle has made me keenly aware that there is an issue.

Anyway, my point is that for our kids right now, hugs are harmful if they're not from us.
With the Christmas season at-hand, we are planning to be out and about a bit.  And shortly after Christmas, we are planning to try to start bringing the whole herd to church. It's a big deal!  So, church family, friends, and random strangers, here is how you can help us: 

*No hugs.  At least not for awhile.  And definitely no lap-sitting!  At this stage, 99% of physical touch needs to come from us right now.  We'll give the green light for hugs and tickles and snuggles when we feel that everyone is ready.  They desperately need to learn that hugs come after you've known someone for awhile and developed a fairly close relationship with him or her.  High-fives and handshakes are awesome!  Wagner, in particularly, likes to shake hands with adults. 

If one of our kiddos tries to hug you, please don't freeze or scream or push them away awkwardly.  (Not that anyone I know would do that!) Give them a quick squeeze, and then gently take them by the shoulders and move them a step back with a smile.  They've experienced more than their fair share of rejection.  If they plop down on your lap, smile and pat the spot next to you.   If they ask you to carry them, point them to us.  :)

*Defer all basic needs to us.  Food, especially, is a huge deal.  Our kiddos have known true hunger.  Meeting that very basic need for them has to be SOLELY our job for the first year.  It is a seriously powerful bonding tool.  So please don't offer them candy or treats or even gum.  Or water...unless of course there's an emergency.  Then by all means, save them. But otherwise, everything has to come from us.

Boo-boos, zipping coats, comforting tears, tying shoes, fixing hair, discipline...all of it has to be done by us for the first year or so.  We plan to hover awkwardly at all times, so you should be able to find us when you need us.

*No gifts.  This is a tricky one...especially at Christmas.  We decided immediate family can give gifts to the kids this year, and that's probably even overdoing it a bit.  Like food, gifts create a bond.  Please don't give them anything...even stickers... without asking us first.

*Please don't rave about their appearances in front of them.  We know they're wicked cute, and it's hard.  But they're already keenly aware of how different they look compared to the rest of us blondies with blue eyes.  They don't need to be reminded.  They don't want to be treated like animals at the zoo (even though they sometimes act like them).  They want to experience family and community.  (And the Wednesday night Kids' Celebration and youth kids did an awesome job of welcoming them this week!  Thanks for your love and your restraint!)  Also, in their old life, they used their cuteness to manipulate.  We want to leave that business in the past.  

*Please try to talk to them and not about them. I honestly haven't done a very good job of this (especially during what we affectionately named, "The Longest Week.")  But they are understanding more and more English everyday even though they don't speak it.  Feel free to try to talk to them in English or broken Spanish (they're totally used to that by now).  We will help translate anything you want to say.  They may act super shy, but deep down, they love the attention.  They'd much rather be talked to than talked about.

*Let us guide introductions.  Please let us bring them to you.  We can gauge whether or not they are overstimulated or anxious.  Sometimes, they look content and perfectly friendly, but inside they're freaking out.  Or sometimes, they just roll on the floor.  Either way, let us take the lead in bringing them to you and guiding the introductions.

I know that for some people, following these guidelines will feel very unnatural.  I promise, it won't be forever!  Most of our life feels a little awkward and unnatural right now, so you can join our club...when we have time to start one.  ;)  

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