FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Children From Hard Places

with Karyn Purvis | March 22, 2010
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There are joys to adoption, but there are also risks. Today, Karyn Purvis, a leading expert in developmental psychology specializing in at-risk children, talks about the risks factors associated with adopted and foster children, those children she calls “children from hard places.”

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • There are joys to adoption, but there are also risks. Today, Karyn Purvis, a leading expert in developmental psychology specializing in at-risk children, talks about the risks factors associated with adopted and foster children, those children she calls “children from hard places.”

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Karyn Purvis, a leading expert in developmental psychology specializing in at-risk children, talks about the risks factors associated with adopted and foster children

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Children From Hard Places

With Karyn Purvis
March 22, 2010
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Dr. Purvis:  I have served children that were newborns that were drug positive.  I’ve served children of all ages.  I’ve served a 16 year old who tried to cut her mother’s throat with a butcher knife. I’ve served a schizophrenic boy standing on a roof top in a foster home in Romania.  I’ve served children in Ethiopia and Rwanda in orphanages. 

I’ve never seen a child who can’t come to profound levels of healing – never.  There’s no timeline on healing.  It’s easiest when they’re little; it’s easiest before the history of failures so if you can be proactive and be pre-trained that’s the desire.

Bob:  This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, March 22.  Our host is the President of FamilyLife Dennis Rainey and I’m Bob Lepine.  We’re going to talk today about what parents and caregivers can do to help adoptive and foster children heal from the deep wounds that are often left as scars on their soul.

Welcome to FamilyLife Today thanks for joining us.  I’m going to tell a quick story here at the beginning of today’s program because I figure it may be the last thing I get a chance to say today.  Well, and we’ll explain why here in a just a minute okay?


Dennis:  I have a soapbox where there’s room for two: me, and the guest!


Bob:  Well, I had the opportunity to speak a number of years ago at a chapel service at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis.  We were up there for some meetings and they invited me to speak at chapel.  I don’t even remember what I spoke about but I do remember the young man who came up to me afterwards.

I must have said something about adoption, and the needs of orphans in the midst of my message because he came up afterwards and he said please pass this along to Dennis.  He said, “We listen to FamilyLife Today.  We’ve heard you talk about adoption – please tell the truth and the whole truth about adoption.”

I was a little taken aback when he said that wondering what he meant but this was an adoptive dad.  He did not feel like he had buyer’s remorse but I think he had realized post adoption that he had signed on for more than he had imagined at the very beginning. 

Dennis:  There is a side to adopting a child where you count the cost.  In fact, as we were preparing to come into studio I turned to Luke chapter 14.  I read Christ’s words – He said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brothers, and sisters:  Yes, and even his own life he cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not bear his own cross, and come after me cannot be my disciple.”  Then He talks about building a tower and also going into war and just says you wouldn’t do either one without first counting the cost.

Now, what Christ was talking about was discipleship but He’s giving us a very important principle of life whether or not you’re getting married, whether or not you’re about to have children or whether you’re consider adoption.  We need to count the cost of adopting a child. 

We have with us a friend who well goes way back with FamilyLife.  We’ve been a champion of the orphan here on FamilyLife Today for a number of years.  I met Dr. Karyn Purvis at Focus on the Family’s headquarters as we did I think it was the third summit for orphans a few years back.  Karyn welcome to FamilyLife Today.

Dr. Purvis:  Thank you.  It’s good to be here!

Dennis:  Dr. Purvis earned her doctorate in Developmental Psychology, and has specialized in serving at-risk children, and for the last ten years she’s developed a research-based intervention for children who have special needs, and specifically around those who have been adopted. 

She is the director of Texas Christian University’s Institute of Child Development, and she’s written a book called The Connected Child.  I have to tell you Karyn, and I’m going to call you Karyn because you gave me that permission.  I have wanted to do these broadcasts for a number of years.

Bob and I’ve been talking about this – this friend that talked to Bob about the need to make sure we help couples who are contemplating adoption have realistic expectations is really important.  Do you see a lot of adoptive parents who kind of blindly enter into adopting without counting the cost? 

Dr. Purvis:  We do.  We see so many families that come into adoption sort of dreamy eyed.  When issues of their child’s history start to emerge those families are not prepared, and when they crash and burn they burn hard and the children go down with them. 

Dennis:  Where would you say adoptive parents most miss it?  Is it because they’re expecting more of a storybook ending to this event of adopting happily ever after?

Dr. Purvis:  I do think so.  I think there’s a lot of lore around adopting.  So, you’re going to lay your eyes on this child, and they’re going to look deeply into your eyes, and it’s going to be magical. 

You’re going to bring this child home from these really hard places.  You’re going to love them and love is going to be enough.  Then you bring them home and you pour all the love you can muster, and you didn’t realize that brain damage from their history, and their inability to trust – those were beyond what you were prepared for. 

Bob:  Now wait you talk about brain damage from their history – are you saying adoptive kids have some kind of brain damage?

Dr. Purvis:  Well, let me tell you this way.  My passion and calling since I was a child myself is for the child who comes from hard places.  So, hard places can be defined in several ways.  A hard place can be a difficult pregnancy.  It can be a difficult birth where the child’s caught in the birth canal – they may have oxygen deprivation for a brief period, they may have a protracted labor, early hospitalization where the child can’t be held, and touched and loved but maybe they’re in the ICU or an incubator.  Then abuse, neglect and trauma. 

What we know from our research and the research of others is that all six of those risk factors create changes in the brain development, changes in the brain chemistry, changes in cognition, and thinking, changes in the ability to process sensory input. 

So, if I just reach across here and I touch your hand you can process my touch but if you’re a child from a hard place and I touch you lightly like that they may fall apart, or explode or become volatile because even something so simple as the way their brain processes touch is altered.

Bob:  So, if we’re parents and we’re thinking about an overseas adoption – a child who’s been in an orphanage for maybe just a few months, maybe a few years are we automatically getting a hard place child and going to have challenges ahead?

Dr. Purvis:  You know what I would say to you is if you adopt or foster a child you have a child from a hard place.  A child doesn’t become available to us to foster or adopt unless they have losses.

Dennis:  Yes, Karyn as I was listening to you I was thinking God gives us children in all kinds of ways.

Dr. Purvis:  Exactly!

Dennis:  I mean the adoptive process.   Maybe a child came through foster care or biologically.  Children can come with all kinds of losses – all kinds of hard places. 

Dr. Purvis:  Absolutely they can.

Dennis:  I think in American Christianity we have this picture of wanting a child that doesn’t come from a hard place.  We want one that’s perfect, and the reality is we’re in a broken world.

Dr. Purvis:  Yes, we are.

Dennis:  There are a lot of things that need to be fixed.  What I want to challenge people to do is take a step back and think you know what can I trust God with what He’s up to in my life with this child that we’ve been given?  Because there are children placed in families that are going to take families through some very difficult times.

Bob:  But let me pull you back from that because maybe you haven’t been given a child yet.  Maybe you’re thinking about adoption and you’re hearing us talk about any child who’s in a position of being adopted, or foster care being provided for a child, that child is coming from a hard place and is going to have unique or special challenges that we have to be ready for as parents that our biological children may not have the same set of unique experiences right?

Dr. Purvis:  Yes, but may I say this.  It’s very possible that your biological child has some of the same risk factors.  Maybe you had a hardship during your pregnancy and that baby’s brain chemistry is different. 

I spoke not long ago in McAllen, and a beautiful sweet spirited woman came to me and she said, “I came to listen to you because I have a baby adopted from Vietnam but I stayed to hear you because of my eight year old biological child.  She’s been psychotic since she was two.  She’s been on anti-psychotic drugs since she was three or four and she is now eight and she cuts herself.  We have to lock her in her bedroom that we just completely stripped down.”   It’s a biological child.

I looked at this mother, and she had a tender face when she talked about her child – her eyes were tearful.  This was a darling mother; this was a precious, godly mother.  I said to her, “Tell me about the prenatal period.” 

She said, “It was the worst time of my life.  My kid sister was in an auto accident and they told us she would die.  We went to the hospital on the death watch, and we were there for hours and days.”  That little baby’s brain development and brain chemistry set points were established then.  So, let me say it’s not only a child that I’m called to from really hard places, but our biological kids can have some of these same risk factors.

Bob:  I know if I were sitting down with parents who are expecting the birth of a new child I would say, “You know get ready.  As parents you’re going to have challenges ahead.”  But it sounds like we’re saying if you’re sitting down with parents who are about to receive a baby through adoption or bring in a child through foster care there is a different level of warning or sobriety that you would attach to that choice?

Dr. Purvis:  There absolutely is because see if we say there are six major risk factors:  Difficult pregnancy, difficult birth, early hospitalization, abuse, neglect, and trauma.  Most children who come to us that are available to foster or adopt have a loading of risk factors.  They don’t have a single risk factor.  They have multiple risk factors. 

Dennis:  So, it’s kind of like a cup of water; each of these are poured in one after another and some children come with the cup filled with these risk factors – others the cup may be half filled!

Dr. Purvis:  Exactly!  Now, let me say this to preempt anything that I say okay?  What I will talk about is what we’ve learned through our research and the research of others.  There are serious issues with kids from hard places.  There are very sobering things that parents need to be aware of and count the cost about but there’s no problem that there’s not an answer for. 

Dennis:  If we had our listeners tied to a meter that measured fear especially couples who are considering and contemplating adoption I think the fear meter might be pegged.

Bob:  I think we’ve raised it up fairly significantly!

Dr. Purvis:  What I have to tell you is when I speak to families you start talking about some of these issues and you realize that no one in the room is breathing – panic mode!

Dennis:  Yes – I’m feeling it!  I’m feeling a listener right now who maybe hasn’t already adopted but maybe has a child where he or she has seen some of those risk factors.

Bob:  Or maybe they just brought home a new baby and they’re thinking oh we’re so excited about this new baby and now we’re listening to FamilyLife Today and we’re wondering did we just make the biggest mistake of our lives?

Dr. Purvis:  So, let me say for those people right now – the first thing out of the box there are so many answers.  For example if you’ve just brought home a little one the best investment you’re going to do is $15 on an infant massage DVD.  We know from research that you can change the brain chemistry level to optimum.  You can impact and calm the central nervous system if the child’s come from a difficult pregnancy or a difficult environment.

Dennis:  By massage?

Dr. Purvis:  Massage – simple human touch!  God designed us for relationship and a healthy mom who’s able to care for her children – not physically ill and a healthy Dad who’s not physically ill and able to care.  Everything we communicate is through our touch and the warmth of our hands and the warmth of our body.  When we hold that child to our chest they feel our chest vibrating. 

So, if you’re bringing home a child the first thing you do is you start infant massage or toddler massage and by touching that baby you can begin to change the brain chemistry and right whatever is off in the brain development.

What’s magnificent is the benefit to the caregiver is as great or greater in research studies than to the child.  So, you actually create the bonds of attachment simply through healthy touch which is absolute optimal way that we connect with our kids to start with.

Dennis:  We adopted a little girl at birth and it was really interesting to watch my wife’s mothering instinct kick in instantly.  This was back in the days when we really didn’t have a waiting period.  We told a friend we wanted to adopt and we didn’t know that friend was connected to a doctor who had a young lady who wanted to place the baby in a Christian family.  So, we were at a conference in New York City speaking at one of our Weekend to Remember Marriage Conferences, and we got a phone call and went home with our family expanding from four to five and it was the easiest birth that we ever had.

But, I watched Barbara try to breast feed that little baby and she wasn’t able to get her body in a way to kick in the breast milk but she worked and worked.  So, what you’re saying is that touch and that effort of attempting to breast feed that baby – that’s some of the most important things she could have done for our daughter.

Dr. Purvis:  Absolutely it is.  If you think about the system as God designed it.  A baby is born, every two hours you nurse, or for some of us every 15 minutes we nurse so a baby’s held a lot.  A baby is touched a lot and we know that creates optimal brain development and brain chemistry. Your baby’s range of vision at birth is from the crook of your elbow when you are holding them to your face – from their little face to your face that’s all they see. 

So, the legacy of a child who’s adored from the second they lay in your arms is wow did God ever do anything so amazing as you.  They have that deep sense and impression of us from the moment they’re born.

Bob:  We have some listeners though who either brought home an older child or they didn’t do the $15 DVD and the massage when they brought home their child but now their son or daughter is six or seven or nine or ten, and they’re thinking so I messed up is there still any hope?

Dr. Purvis:  There’s always hope.  There’s always hope!  Let me just stop and say, “I have served children that were newborns that were drug positive.  I’ve served children of all ages.  I’ve served a 16 year old who tried to cut her mother’s throat with a butcher knife.  I’ve served a schizophrenic boy standing on a rooftop in a foster home in Romania.  I’ve served children in Ethiopia, and in Rwandan orphanages. 

I’ve never seen a child who can’t come to profound levels of healing – never!  There’s no timeline on healing.  It’s easiest when they’re little; it’s easiest before the history of failures.  So, if you can be proactive and be pre-trained that’s the desire. 

Dennis:  Yes, and when you say to a profound level of healing you may not be saying that they’ll be a 100% normal like we had hoped they would be – talk about that.

Dr. Purvis:  No, so I work with kids that are brain damaged from drugs, alcohol, starvation, malnutrition in utero, head beatings and so forth – right?  I work with kids who’ve come from really hard places.  They have no reason to ever trust in a lifetime. 

I’ve worked with six year olds who’ve been harmed more in their six years than I’ve been in my sixty.  A lot of kids come with great pain and great fear but if I can teach a child who they are, that they’re precious.  If they know at a deep level I am precious.  I am unique.  I am loved.  I know how to get my needs met from safe people, and I understand what I need, feel, and want, and what’s more I understand what you need, feel, and want that can be a successful kid.

If they have a 70 IQ, maybe they’ll be a burger boy.  Maybe they’ll be a bag boy, maybe they’ll be a little daycare aid, but that can be a successful, happy kid. 

We call our book The Connected Child because a child who is hurt disconnects.  They don’t know what they feel.  What they need.  What they want and how to get their needs met appropriately, who’s safe.  They’re disconnected and they don’t know how to connect to us.  They don’t know how to tell us appropriately, and they’re disconnected in dynamic ways.

If we can begin to give a child a voice then we can begin to bring them to healing.  We know from research back in the 50’s from two Yale Pediatricians that if babies aren’t attended to in the first 30 days of their life they stop crying.  Those who’ve been in international orphanages like myself will go into a room full of babies and not a whimper.  They already know don’t cry no one will come – see they’ve lost their voice. 

Dennis:  You know Karyn if Barbara was here she would echo your words of hope.  One of her favorite passages is in the first couple of chapters of Matthew.  After Mary had been promised the Messiah, and she responded with God all things are possible. 

Now, what you’ve done and what I appreciate about you is you’ve placed hope where it respectfully needs to go which is in God but then you’ve said that healing may not look like what we had dreamed of:  What we had hoped it would look like.  Your book is subtitled:  For Parents Who Have Welcomed Children From Other Countries and Cultures, From Troubled Backgrounds, With Special Behavioral or Emotional Needs.

In some ways I think every child comes with emotional needs that God has hand selected us as parents to trust Him with, and to lean into Him, and not always upon our own understanding but ask Him for wisdom to know how to love, lead, guide, protect, nourish, and cherish that child.

I think the challenge for all of us Bob as parents is to cheer one another on to be the kind of nurturing caregiver that children need today because this is an evil world and children need that nourishment, and they need that protection.

Bob:  When I go back to where you started things today you talked about the need to count the cost, and how Jesus warns us, reminds us that no one would build a tower without first counting the cost.  At the same time any parent is counting the cost about a decision to adopt or bring in a foster child, or minister to a hurt child you also need to look around at the cost in our culture of more than a 140,000,000 orphans – we have an issue.

Well, we have to count the personal cost; we also have to be aware of what God has called us to – to be the ones who reach out to the widows, and to the orphans.

Dennis:  We’re not only helping those who are adopting children by offering a broadcast like this, but we’re also calling laymen and women to step up in their local church and start an orphan care, foster care, and adoption ministry.  As Karyn said, “Give a voice to those who have no voice” and step up and talk about what your church can do because there are a lot of other things individuals and churches can do besides adoption.

Bob:  In fact if you go to our website you’ll find a link there to information about an event that’s taking place April 29th and 30th in Minneapolis.  It’s the sixth Orphan Summit – the Christian Alliance for Orphans Summit Six being held in Minneapolis.  John Piper is going to speak.  Mary Beth Chapman is speaking, Steven Curtis Chapman providing music for the event.  Al Mohler is going to speak along with a number of others.

This is a gathering place for those who are involved in orphan care ministry, for those who are involved in adoption ministry both in a local church environment and just for people who have a heart for the orphan, and the hurting child all around the world.  Again you can get information about The Christian Alliance for Orphans Summit Six taking place in Minneapolis April 29th through the 30th when you go to 

There’s also information there about Dr. Russell Moore’s very helpful book called Adopted for Life.  If you care about the orphan and you’ve not read this book yet get a copy from us and I think you will find it as powerful and it is profound. 

Go to for more information about the summit, or about Dr. Moore’s book or call toll-free 1-800-FLTODAY – 1-800-358-6329 – that’s 1-800 F as in “family” L as in “life” and then the word TODAY, and we can get you whatever information you need.

You know we are especially grateful her at FamilyLife for the folks who help support this program and keep it on the air in this particular city.  Without listeners like you who from time to time go to and make a donation or call 1-800-FLTODAY and make a donation this program could not continue to be heard in this local community.

This month as a way of saying thank you for your financial support we would like to make available a copy of the new DVD called Magdalena. It tells the story of the life of Jesus through the eyes of Mary Magdalene, and it is our thank you gift to you this month when you make a donation of any amount to help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today.

One of the things I like most about this DVD is that it comes with separate audio tracks so that the film can be viewed with over dubbing in Spanish or French or Mandarin, Korean, Arabic, Russian, Portuguese.  It gives you the opportunity to pass this DVD along to someone who is not a native English speaker and they can hear the story of Jesus presented in their native tongue – very powerful!

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We want to invite you back tomorrow.  We’re going to continue to talk with Dr. Karyn Purvis about what adopted parents, and foster parents can do to help children who have come from hard places.  That’s coming up tomorrow – hope you can be with us for that!

I want to thank our engineer today Keith Lynch and our entire broadcast production team on behalf of our host Dennis Rainey I’m Bob Lepine.  We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.

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