FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Parenting At-Risk Children

with Karyn Purvis | March 24, 2010
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You can’t impart what you don’t possess. Today leading expert in developmental psychology, Karyn Purvis, talks to parents about parenting their adopted children. Karyn exhorts parents to heal their personal wounds and losses before adopting and not to expect their children to fill those gaps for them. Parents, Purvis says, have to come to their children as a blank slate, realizing that all they’ve previously known about parenting may not apply to these special children.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • You can’t impart what you don’t possess. Today leading expert in developmental psychology, Karyn Purvis, talks to parents about parenting their adopted children. Karyn exhorts parents to heal their personal wounds and losses before adopting and not to expect their children to fill those gaps for them. Parents, Purvis says, have to come to their children as a blank slate, realizing that all they’ve previously known about parenting may not apply to these special children.

  • 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 exhorts parents to heal their personal wounds and losses before adopting and not to expect their children to fill those gaps for them.

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Parenting At-Risk Children

With Karyn Purvis
March 24, 2010
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Dr. Purvis:  I ask parents up-front to remember this, scared kids look crazy and sad kids look angry.  Stand before your child with an open heart because this child has come from incredibly hard places. 

Bob:  This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, March 24th.  Our host is the President of FamilyLife Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine.  We are going to talk today about how you can keep structure and discipline intact as you raise children who have come from hard places.

Welcome to FamilyLife Today.  Thanks for joining us on the Wednesday edition.  We are spending time this week talking about how we parent children—adoptive children, foster children—if they have hurt in their background.

Dennis:  They have come from hard places.

Bob:  That is right.  These are typically kids who are adopted or in a foster relationship with parents.  I don’t think this is commonly the case; but I do think, Dennis, sometimes what you see happening when a mom or a dad bring home an adoptive child or a foster child, sometimes the mom or the dad is hoping that that child is going to help them fix something in their own heart.  Do you know what I am saying?

Dennis:  I do, Bob.  I think sometimes as human beings we may have made a mistake or we have a loss in our lives; and we think by doing something noble, like adopting, that we are going to make up for something that maybe we lost or maybe something we did wrong in the past.  We have a guest with us who has done a lot of work with children who come from difficult places.  Dr. Karyn Purvis joins us again on FamilyLife Today.  Karen, welcome back.

Dr. Purvis:  Thank you.  Good to be with you.

Dennis:  Karyn has written a book called The Connected Child.  It is for parents who have welcomed children from other countries and cultures—from troubled backgrounds or those children who have come with special behavioral or emotional needs. 

Karyn, when I was a seminary student, Dr. Howard Hendricks who taught at Dallas Theological Seminary, used to have a statement he would make to us as students; he was exhorting us as parents.  He would say this, “You cannot impart what you do not possess.” 

In other words, “If you do not have the real disease, you can’t be infectious to your children.”  Really, that summarizes a lot of parenting.  As parents, we have to have the real disease before we can pass it on to our children.

Bob:  That ties back to what I was just talking about.  You cannot pass along a legacy of emotional health and spiritual health to your child unless you are emotionally healthy and spiritually healthy yourself, can you?

Dr. Purvis:  No.  This is so true.  Here is an interesting thing.  If we have a family that has a foundation that is designed for a one-story house and you build a one-story house on it, that foundation will hold up really well.  That is the case with most biological children who are low risk.  There is a one-story foundation and a one-story house. 

Now you have a one-story foundation, and you’ve built a high-rise on it with the stressors that this child brings from abominable things that happened before you could protect them.  Now, that same foundation, under the weight of a high-rise, every fracture in the foundation is going to open.  We have families who are falling apart under the weight of the high-rise—not the child being the high-rise—but their history. 

We say to families, “Your most courageous move is to give fierce, honest reflection to your own life.”  If you have some aching loneliness and you think a child will fill it, then heal that aching loneliness; and then go back to the Lord and say, “Is it time?”  If you lost a child or can’t carry a child to term, grieve your loss so that when you hold your child you are present for their loss. 

In one set of families that we did some research with, we did an interview called the Adult Attachment Interview.  Out of the low-risk population, only 1 percent should be unresolved with regard to loss.  In our research, in each of those sets, up to 25, 30, even 50 percent have an unresolved loss. 

So now a child stands in front of me:  they have lost a land; they have lost familiar surroundings; they have lost the only world they know.  “They need to process their loss, but I don’t know how to get there because I can’t do my own.”  So I need to be aware, if I bring a child from a hard place, I am going to build a high-rise on my foundation.  “Are there fractures in my foundation that need mending?”

Dennis:  What I hear you saying there is, “If we have had a loss that we haven’t admitted and haven’t processed spiritually and relationally with God and with our spouse, we are bringing that loss into the relationship with a child.  The very thing that we want to provide that child—some help, some hope, and healing—we may not be able to provide because we are in need of that same healing ourselves.”

Dr. Purvis:  Exactly.  If you can catch it before you bring that child home, the better.  Find a safe place; find a safe church; find a ministry of grace; find a ministry of love; find a church where it is really the church—where the church is doing this stuff, right?  If you have already brought that child home, hey, go through that process with the child. 

For example, out of that same group of parents, two had a sibling that died in childhood.  One had a two-year-old baby sister who died in her mother’s arms.  She adopted a little girl from Russia at two.  Another had an eight-year-old brother who drowned in a river when they were swimming.  He was powerless to save him; and he adopted an eight-year-old domestically. 

Now those two children stand before those parents with loss.  Maybe the parent can become aware, “Maybe I have something that I didn’t resolve; and I can say to the child, ‘You know what, I don’t exactly know how to talk to you about what you asked me about your mother, but let’s do this journey together.’”

Dennis:  I have to say at this point something that Barbara and I are doing because we lost a granddaughter who died after seven days almost two years ago.  We are doing something very practical about that loss.  We are sitting down with Dr. Jerry Sittser’s book, A Grace Disguised, and I am reading that book aloud to Barbara.

Bob:  Now you have both spent some time in this book before this.

Dennis:  Yes.  In fact, it was Barbara who recommended the book to me.  We ultimately had Jerry here on the broadcast.  First of all, it is magnificently written as a text; but to read it out loud so that two people can process together and talk about it a chapter at a time. 

It is going to take me 15 minutes to read a chapter aloud to Barbara or her to me.  We are going to work our way through the book and talk about what he says about loss because I do think all of us as human beings do suffer loss.  The person who says, “I haven’t had any losses,” really isn’t coming to grips with what God is doing in their lives and wants to do.  He wants us to process the loss and ultimately admit we are grieving that loss and we miss something.

Dr. Purvis:  Exactly.  It is telling ourselves the truth, and telling God the truth, and telling another important person the truth.  We all have losses by the fact of living in a human body and in a human world.  We all have losses.

Bob:  Let me ask you about those parents who aren’t still contemplating bringing a child home; but they have brought a child home and now this child is starting to act out—they are starting to misbehave.  These parents are thinking, “Well, we’ll just do what we have done with all our other kids; but it is not working with this child.”  What do they do?

Dr. Purvis:  What we find repeated with these parents, “I don’t understand.  I have raised four great kids.  I don’t understand what is going on now.”  What we try to tell parents is, “Your child has profound changes that your biological children you were able to protect from.  This child who is in your home, you couldn’t protect from the harm that happened.”  I tell parents up-front to remember this:  Scared kids look crazy, and sad kids look angry.  Stand before your child with an open heart. 

Bob:  Let me turn that around because I think that is important.  What you are saying, “When a kid looks crazy, he is scared.” 

Dr. Purvis:  Yes.

Bob:  When a kid looks angry, he is sad.”

Dr. Purvis:  Yes, sir.  So many of our kids have been scared so long they have forgot they are scared or what they are scared about.  They live in a state memory, which is the first-year of life’s brain development—state memory.

Dennis:  As parents, we tend to just view what we are looking at as the core issue.  You are saying, “That is not.” 

Dr. Purvis:  Here is what we have discovered in our work.  We have worked almost exclusively with high-risk children for the last decade.  We have worked with kids through the courts, from families in protective custody; we’ve worked in orphanages all around the world.  We are convinced that if you understand four things, you can help virtually any child heal. 

First, you have to understand how attachment forms in the child and how to help that child heal by understanding attachment.  The other half of that part is you have to understand your own attachment, your own history, your own expectation.  It is a dance. 

Dennis:  Putting it in other terms, we have to understand that God made us as human beings to relate to one another…

Dr. Purvis:  We are designed.

Dennis:  Although scientists may take a word like attachment, you are really talking about, “How do we love one another?” 

Dr. Purvis:  Exactly.

Dennis:  So, if we haven’t been loved, we may lack a few bricks on the foundation you are talking about.

Dr. Purvis:  Exactly right.  That is why our book is called The Connected Child.  The goal is to connect.  We are made in the image of a connecting God.

Bob:  Most kids who come in to a family through adoption or through foster care are coming with some sense of dis-attachment rather than attachment.

Dr. Purvis:  Yes.  Many of those kids are grieving the loss of an abusive parent, which is hard for us to understand.  If we don’t understand our part of the dance, it will be hard to respond appropriately.

Bob:  They are grieving the loss of an abusive parent?

Dr. Purvis:  Absolutely.  It is the only parent they had.  Do we have time for a quick story?

Bob:  Yes.

Dr. Purvis:  Okay.  I was with a child a short time ago.  He came into foster care at three.  He was harmed really badly.  Dad is a very creative man—the foster dad.  The little boy said, “You know, I am going to have to run away after kindergarten because I have to find my biological mother.”  Now this is the woman who harmed him, right? 

The dad is a very creative man; he doesn’t just want to say, “You can’t run away,” because you can’t always have eyes on a child.  So he says to this little boy, “Well, okay, I’ll see you after school; and we’ll talk about it then.”  The little guy comes home from school.  This very creative father has taken a roll of paper towels, eight paper towels, and he has drawn a map on the first two.  He says, “Son, this is as far as I know to get you out of town; but I don’t know how you are going to find your mother.  These other six paper towels—you are going to have to make your own map on; but this is as far as I know.”  This little four-year-old said, “Okay, Daddy.” 

Seeing he wasn’t discouraged, this dad went on to say, “You know, there are rattlesnakes in this field you are going to have to go by because they have had the warnings about the rattlesnakes.  I don’t really want you to get bit by rattlesnakes so I am going to give you the Christmas boots I was going to give you for Christmas to protect you from the rattlesnake bites.  You won’t get hurt so bad.”  This little four-year-old says, “Okay, Dad.” 

The dad says, “You know, I know you are going to be hungry, so I am going to give you some food out of the pantry.  He goes to the pantry and starts putting in the backpack canned spinach.  The little guy says, “Daddy, I don’t like spinach.”  He says, “I know, son; but it is all I have to give you.”  The four-year-old says, “Okay Daddy.” 

Then he says, “Son, you know what, you are not going to find a safe place to go to the bathroom, so we better send you some pull-ups so you can just poop in your pants.  Then when you get to a safe place, you can change them.”  This little four-year-old says, “Okay, Daddy.” 

This baby boy goes through the house and puts his arms around his foster mother’s neck and weeps.  He puts his arms around his little brother’s neck and weeps.  He puts his arms around his dad’s neck and weeps.  Then he starts out the door to find the woman who couldn’t care for him.  That is how deep the sadness; that is how deep is the loss for these children. 

The dad was able to say to him, “Son, do you think you could just wait and run away another day?”  He said, “Okay, Daddy.” 

Dennis:  Wow.  You know, as you are talking about that story, I am thinking about the music video of Lindsay Lohan.  Even though her parents were terribly dysfunctional, here is a young lady in her 20’s singing a song called Confessions of a Broken Heart.  What she is wanting is the postman to bring her a letter from her Daddy.  Our hearts long for relationship. 

Dr. Purvis:  They do.

Dennis:  What is the second of the four factors you talked about?

Dr. Purvis:  You have to understand brain development because the brain changes if we don’t get good care.  Matter of fact, Hubel and Wiesel are two research scientists who won the Nobel Prize in 1981 when they took newborn kittens and sutured their eyes closed.  They didn’t let them open at ten days but rather opened them late, several weeks late.  What they proved was that a kitten that didn’t get visual experience in the environment was blind when they opened the eyes.  We have to understand if our child didn’t get safe touch, safe love, safe care, they are going to have sensory issues and changes in their brain.   Those are two; so, changes in their brain. 

Dennis:  They have some deficits.

Dr. Purvis:  Profound deficits. 

Bob:  I’m just a parent.  How do I understand brain development and brain changes?  What do I do with that?  How do I handle that practically with the little baby who may not have had these things?

Dr. Purvis:  Here is what I would do.  I would assume that my child has had changes in their brain if they have come from a hard place; or if I had a biological child who had a hard pregnancy or a hard place, I would do the same thing.  I would make that assumption. 

The first thing when that child comes home, I am going to start with safe touch.  I am also going to simplify the environment because I know there are changes in attachment, brain chemistry, brain development, and sensory processing, right?  So, I am just going to make that assumption about my child.  I am going to be right 95 percent of the time—at least some of those deficits. 

I am going to find ways to make my environment calm, quiet, and simple.  If I am a working mom and I can take a leave of absence for three months, six months, or longer, I am going to do it.  I am not going to go to church to celebrate the adoption the first week or month.  I am going to let my child figure out what a mommy is, what a daddy is.  I am going to make my world calm.  It is not too late to do it, even if the child has been home for a while. 

I tell you one other thing you have to factor in.  One researcher named Arthur Becker-Weidman recently released an article just published.  He took 57 children who are fostered or adopted.  Their chronological age in this comprehensive assessment was on average nine years, nine months; but their developmental age on average was four years, four months.

Bob:  Oh, my.

Dennis:  Wow. 

Dr. Purvis:  So don’t assume your child is the age that they appear to be.

Bob:  Let me take you all the way out to the end.  The parent who says, “We’ve done everything we know how to do, and we’re starting to see the other kids in the family—stuff is not going well with them.  We don’t know what else to do.  We are wondering if we have to send our adopted child away somewhere, some kind of a boarding school, or program, or something.”  You’ve seen parents reach that conclusion.  How do you know if you are there, and what do you do when you get there?

Dr. Purvis:  First, I would ask those parents to be kind to themselves because we are pretty brutal on ourselves when we can’t make everything right for our kids.  We want to.

Dennis:  That’s right. 

Dr. Purvis:  We are pretty brutal on ourselves when we can’t.  There may be a time—you have a child who is a danger to himself or a danger to other children.  There may be a time when there is predation by an older child.  You can’t let the little kids be hurt.  There is simply maybe a time you are beyond your ability, not because you failed, but because this child has come from incredibly hard places.  If you find yourself there, I would say, “Look for a safe, supportive group.  Be loving and forgiving with yourself and your spouse.  Grieve your losses.” 

Dennis:  At what point do you take the step to protect your marriage and your family?

Dr. Purvis:  That is a big question, Dennis; a big question.

Dennis:  I mean, when the child is so redefining the family that he is ruining the marriage.

Dr. Purvis:  I would say, “Look with all diligence for answers.  When it is clear that there are none, you may have to look for there may be a time that child has to be at an out-of-home placement.  It is the hardest thing families do.

Dennis:  I cannot imagine.

Dr. Purvis:  It is the hardest thing families do.


Dennis:  I cannot imagine because you are basically---it is almost the reverse of an adoption.

Dr. Purvis:  Oh, it is.

Dennis:  The feelings of guilt and shame as a parent.  You mentioned several times, “Give yourself grace; give yourself the freedom to know you have done everything you can do.”  The nature of parent is to not give up. 

Dr. Purvis:  That is exactly right.  That is exactly right.

Dennis:  You know, Karyn, I really appreciate what you have shared here.  You did exactly what I hoped you would do—which is take some tough circumstances that parents of all kinds face, but especially those who adopt children who come from hard places.  They need help; they need hope; and they need a realistic approach.  I feel you have provided all three of those things. 

The thing that is a tragedy is our spiritual adoption—that God went to the trouble to secure by sending His Son to die on a cross for our sins and adopt us into His family.  Tragically, it is not perfect either.  As we get born again into God’s family, I wish I could say I was a perfect follower; but I am not.  That adoption has not gone as perfectly as I am sure my heavenly Father wished it had gone, but I think what you have talked about here gives parents grace to do all that they can do and also paints a realistic picture for those who have not adopted yet.  It helps them count the cost before they become a parent of an adoptive child.

Bob:  I think there are going to be a lot of parents who are going to get a copy of your book; and they are going to say, “This is what we have needed.  This is what we have been waiting for.”  It is called The Connected Child:  Bring Hope and Healing to Your Adoptive Family. 


We have it in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center.  Go online to, and there is information about how you can get a copy of the book available there.  Again, it is called The Connected Child.  Our website is 

There is also a link on our website at for information about the Christian Alliance for Orphans Summit VI which is taking place in Minneapolis April 29 and 30.  If you are involved in a local church ministry that is caring for the needs of orphans, helping families adopt, if you want to network with other churches and find out what they are doing, or if you’d like to meet with national organizations that are involved with orphan care and with adoption, this event is the premier event each year for those who are involved in orphan care and adoption. 

Go to; click on the link that will take you to the Christian Alliance for Orphans Summit VI webpage.  John Piper is going to be speaking at the event; Mary Beth Chapman will speak; Dr. Al Mohler will be speaking; and Steven Curtis Chapman is providing music.  You can register online now.  Go to and click the link that will take you to the Christian Alliance for Orphans website.  You can register that way.  If you have any questions about the even or about Dr. Purvis’s book, just call 1-800-FLTODAY; and somebody on our team will be happy to answer any questions they can for you. 

I was just recently with some FamilyLife Today listeners on the east coast.  It was a great encouragement for me to hear from them about how God has used this program in their marriage, in their family as they have raised their children, and just to hear as one person has said, “You have been a discipler to me in helping me understand how I integrate my faith with my family.” 

Of course, that is what we are all about here at FamilyLife.  We want to see every home become a godly home.  We could not do that; in fact, we could not continue this daily radio program if it weren’t for folks like you who help support the ministry with a donation from time to time. 

In fact, this month, if you are able to help with a donation of any amount to support the ministry of FamilyLife Today, we would like to say, “Thank you,” by sending you a new movie that is out on DVD.  It is called Magdalena.  It tells the story of the life of Jesus through the eyes of Mary Magdalene.  One of the great things about the DVD is that you can select a different audio track and listen to the film in Spanish, or in French, or in Mandarin, or in Korean, or Arabic, or Russian, or Portuguese.  So, if you know someone who is from Korea or someone who speaks Arabic as their first language, you can give them a copy of this movie on DVD and they can be introduced to Jesus in their native tongue.

You can receive the DVD as a thank-you gift when you make a donation of any amount this month to support the ministry of FamilyLife Today.  If you make that donation online at, type “MAGDVD” in the key code box on the online donation form; or simply call 1-800-FLTODAY.  Make a donation over the phone and just ask for the Magdalena DVD.  Again, we are happy to send it out to you; and we very much appreciate your support of this ministry and your partnership with us here on FamilyLife Today

Tomorrow we want to encourage you to be back with us.  We are going to hear the first part of a message from Dr. Al Mohler—a message on why it is so essential that we stand strong in our support of a biblical definition for marriage in our culture.  That comes up tomorrow.  Hope you can be back with us.

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 next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

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

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