17 year old adopted son from foster care–managing my thoughts/his behaviors/boundaries


My son was adopted at the age of 3 after coming to live with us as a foster child when he was 17 months old. He’s 17 years now. He was born addicted to heroine and methadone and severely neglected (failure to thrive, at least 2 emergency room visits where he was unresponsive, no record or evidence of infant immunizations, court documented episodes of malnourishment and periods of time where his basic needs weren’t being met). Over the years we have worked with a variety of therapists. He’s been diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder, ADHD, and Opposition Defiance Disorder. He struggles in school and currently has failing grades. He lies often about small things and big things. He sneaks and hoards food. He manipulates situations and people to get what he wants–impulsive to obtain instant gratification of an outcome–usually insignificant but it degrades relationships with others over time.

I left my full time teaching career 2 years ago to be more present as he entered high school (he’s currently in 11th grade). There has been noticed improvement–he’s more emotionally vulnerable, willing to take more pre-planned steps to set himself up for success when suggestions are offered, meeting with a trauma therapist and talking with her on a bi-weekly basis. Allows us to hug him on a regular basis (in the early years, we couldn’t physically touch him without an adverse reaction–diapering, administering medication, caring for him when he was sick was extremely difficult). Most therapists throughout the years have told us things like “there’s greater than an 85% chance that he will be an addict or have a cycle with criminal activity”; “he will leave you and your home before you leave him”; “he is not able to form a bond with others”; “he will likely develop a personality disorder/ conduct disorder”

He has cycles of self-sabotage and they usually increase around holidays and times of stress or when he feels others around him stressed. He’s hypervigilant of his surroundings and very intune to other’s body language. He does not take any medication. He is very charismatic and charming and most strangers immediately like him. However, he has very few friends and most of them do not invite him to go places. He has a girlfriend who has a similar background as his. When given a choice of social events, he will usually choose a family centered activity…..in the past, he would be very difficult to be around but lately he is more enjoyable to be around.

My question is: when working my models about my thoughts/feelings about him or a circumstance surrounding him, I get tripped up on knowing the difference between establishing my personal boundaries and allowing him to feel the consequences of his actions/in-actions. Thoughts about unconditional love and support conflict with thoughts about establishing boundaries. There’s also conflicts about how much do we (my husband and I) control his daily life and how much do we allow him to feel the consequences of his actions/inactions? He will be a legal adult next year (August). My fear is that if he doesn’t learn to self regulate and take responsibility for his actions, then he will become an addict, in jail, or in an abusive relationship. My thoughts are that his brain and body were permanently damaged by his early years of addiction and neglect as an infant/toddler. That he doesn’t have the ability or capacity to self-regulate, trust others, and that he has a lot of self-loathing. My other thoughts are that neuroscience is showing the opposite of these thoughts—neuroplasticity and therapies associated with traumatized people can change the brain. We have certainly observed his trust of us and others grow over the years but there are still red flags and concerns.