I am always thinking of ways “out of the box” and “practical tools” to help families understand the “inner world” of foster and adopted children. Because this inner world is aninvisible woundthat is hard to put into words for any child, due to the implicit pre-verbal experience of loss and separation. Children don’t have the developmental capacity to express the feelings, thoughts, and sensations. So, I have gone to great lengths via trainings, private psychotherapy, support groups every month, one on one coaching, and showing films to help families so they “get it.”
In 2014, Celia Center spnosored a training for foster and adoptive families in Los Angeles, from a child’s point of view in the first person, Truly, Madly Deeply Understanding Your Foster and Adopted Child. I tapped into my own inner child, as a foster youth and adoptee with the inspiration to help parents “truly, madly, deeply” feel their child’s inner life. Watch a clip HERE.
In this article, I want to share 8 pieces of parenting that I have mended, nurtured, and savored in my practice working with families today that are helpful for parenting a child with attachment trauma where the repair needs to be focused on building relationship and trust.
#1- I need you to maintain a positive affective tone that influences me, rather than letting my negative tone influence you. If you react to my “big hurt feelings”, then I will feel more powerful and want to be in control. By remaining calm… time, time, and time again, I will eventually see you as strong enough to deal with me, and my pain and I will stop testing you. Trust me!
How do you develop a positive affective tone? Rather than asking a question and expecting an answer, have an attitude of curiosity? Your tone of voice, will be higher, lighter, and calm and inviting. I will feel better and I will do better! #askanadoptee#askafosteryouth
#2- Try getting below eye level, in a relaxed posture, have empathy and tell me “I’m right here with you.” The science behind brain and behavior, says this activates an adaptive neural network and builds the executive function of the brain! -Tina Payne Bryson talks about this, she’s the Author ofThe Whole Brain Child.
#3- Please be aware of your non-verbal cues and how you “look to me” – eye contact, posture, tone of voice, and your timing/intensity of response. And pay attention to mine, because all my behaviors are ways of communicating unmet needs. Even if I am manipulating? That means, I don’t know how to get my needs met in a healthy way. Please show me how, rather than making me feel ashamed about this.
What’s hysterical, is historical!
#4- When you see me “act out” step back (literally take a step back!), assess- look at me and ask yourself “What is he/she trying to tell me?”, then go inside and ask yourself the following acronym, P.A.C.E. first to yourself, and then guide me with them. You do not have to do it this order, they are interchangeable ;0)
An attachment based acronym of “attitudes” “ways of being with” your child when they have big feelings!
P3– 1. BePlayfulwith U & Me- Humor is very important to create a quality of lightness an openness. Laughter builds memories of unconditional acceptance of US.
2. BePresentwith U & Me. Go inside and see how you are feeling, then see if you can feel what I am feeling and ask me “I’m sensing you are feeling _________. Is that correct?” “How can I help you feel better?”
3. BePatientwith U & Me. This was not meant to be easy, my feelings are messy and the clean up isn’t always neat. It will feel bumpy, at times and then the road will feel smoother. Do this intervention to learn how toHold Onto My Feelings
A– Have anAcceptanceof U & Me, and an understanding of my behavior. My behavior represents my best effort at that time. “I am doing the best that I can.” Please accept, if you don’t this will cause you more suffering. I still need limits for unsafe situations, and direct my behavior by focusing the “teaching on the behavior,” not on me or I’ll develop shame, which won’t help either of us get along better. Trust me.
C –BE Curious. Have a nonjudgmental, “not knowing” stance to inquire about my inner life that led to my behaviors so I feel safe, that my inner life will not be criticized. If I sense your judgment, I will go hide my motives and not be able to modify my behavior. So ask me with open ended questions like …“What do you think about that?” “ “Tell me about that?” “That looks, seems difficult, tell me how does that feel for you?”
E –HAVE Empathy. Empathy must be conveyed both verbally and non verbally.95% of communication IS NON-VERBAL.I’ve been through a lot, I know! but you don’t have to rescue me from the event or solve the problem for me. Say, “That must be SO hard for you!” “It is really hard, and you’re doing it and struggling with it.” “I’m so sorry you feel so sorry about _________.” And let me cry, I sometimes have a lot to cry about.
Adapted From the Daniel Hughe’s book, Attachment Focused Parenting
#5- I need your connection, not correction. Lectures are not effective with me because they are actually educating me to comply with “big people” rather than to develop my own meaning about a something.
“It’s like giving a prosecuting attorney more information to work with!!!”Please do “storytelling” with me which conveys an “attitude of acceptance of the listener”, rather than evaluation/criticism & encourages a non-reactive response in me. Trust me, I know.”
#6- I need to know the truth of my story….even if it is hard for you, it will be healing for me… trust me. I need to know you are strong enough to be WITH me in my pain, and still be loved.
#7- Please set expectations, chores, to-do’s based on my developmental emotional age, not chronological age, I will do better and feel better! I heard that children with attachment trauma have at least 2 years delay? So minus 2 years from my age!
#8- I need you to accept responsibility for initiating repair with me when I have my “big feelings”. If you insist I “apologize”, you are communicating that I’m responsible for the continuity of the relationship. I will then think “the relationship is not important to you and it will be highly unlikely that I will have the confidence to take the first step which will lead to a downward spiral of negative distancing and possibly ‘Take FOREVER” or…
…if I do initiate repair, I’m going to experience resentment that I had to be “a good foster kid or good adoptee” and be “sorry first”beforemy parent would welcome me back again into their mind and heart. This will effect my ability to be receptive to love. I need to be taught how to love and forgive.
When I feel love, I learn to feel my loss. When I feel forgiveness, I learn to feel empathy.
#9- I will say “I can’t” alot sometimes for my performance in school, my behaviors, or sports. This can stem from fear, worry, shame or from not knowing how to do it so I may avoid.Please reframe this “I can’t” as “I haven’t learned how yet” or “I haven’t done it yet” or “A part of me is afraid right now, in time I will grow a new part that will learn how to.”The word “scared” is vulnerable” for me, use the word “WORRIED.” “I see you are worried about this…”
#10- Please don’t withhold the following activities for discipline – Family Time, Sports, Hobbies & One-on-One time with Parents…these activities help me feel good about myself, accomplished, successful, and get me out of the “black hole of the primal wound.”
One last thing, I know “MY HURT PART” in my heart is a a part of me that is overdoing its job of protecting me from trusting a new relationship… “it keeps love away from me…”
Please accept and be curious of all of my parts so I can help organize who I am…Provide permission for emoting and externalizing. “Did you want to have your fit now about going to bed to get it out of the way?” Have me punch a pillow, rip up paper, pop bubble wrap.”
More interventions for emoting my big feelingsHERE.
Thank you for being there for me. I need you more than you know!
“Here is something I have believed about myself and my adoption since I was a child, since before I knew I was an alcoholic: My birth mother took one look at me and knew that I was worthless and unlovable and unredeemable. She didn’t want to keep me because she knew something was wrong with me.”
(I know that this absolutely isn’t true and that my birth mother loved me very much and made a very difficult choice. But this is what I have told myself.)
For me, as an alcoholic and an adoptee, the feelings of loss, uncertainty, and identity that come from being given away by my birthmother can be as cunning, baffling and powerful as alcohol. And as I’ve been trudging our road of happy destiny, I’ve met a lot of other adoptees with similarly persistent feelings.
It’s why I started AAA. It’s a new group focused on AA & Adoption. It’s at the intersection of 2 triangles – the AA triangle – unity, service, recovery – and the adoption triad – birthparents, adoptive parents and adoptees.
For adoptees in recovery, our root causes and conditions stem literally from our origin, from our birth and the circumstances around it. There’s often an unexplainable feeling of loss that haunts us and a fear of abandonment that persists throughout our lives.
From some estimates, adoptees are 5 times more likely to become alcoholics than the average person, 10 times more likely to be in therapy, and 10 times more likely to be in prison.
Suffice it to say, we have problems.
It’s said in the rooms that there’s a God-shaped hole that we as alcoholics try and fill with booze – and drugs, sex, shopping, eating, gambling, etc. For me, as an adoptee, that hole has always been shaped by that initial separation from my birth mother. You could say that the God-shaped hole inside me was also a mom-shaped hole.
Adopted or not – many alcoholics say we feel like we never fit in. For adoptees, we often felt like that from the beginning, from the families that raised us. We looked different – height, weight, hair color, skin tone – and often grew up alongside biological children of our parents. We feel like we had to be grateful for this new home we were given – and that at any moment we might be relinquished back if we didn’t behave.
Yes, adoption gave me a home with two loving parents who did their best. They did enough wrong that I need therapy but not enough for a best-selling memoir. And today as a sober man I will tell you they’re my mom and my dad and I love them very much for who they are and how they raised me.
But adoptive parents – no matter how great – can’t heal that initial break from our birthmothers. I’ve probably read as much adoption literature as I have recovery literature. I strongly identify with both. There’s a book called The Primal Wound about that break in which I recognize more of myself than in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The Primal Wound – AA, Trauma and Adoption
I don’t think the 12 steps are particularly great at treating trauma on their own. They absolutely give you the chance to stop all of the addictive behavior you’ve piled on top of the trauma and to establish a connection with a higher power. I don’t think there’s any hope of getting better without getting sober. It gives you a chance to heal. But then there’s still more work to be done.
And being separated at birth from your mother is certainly a trauma. For many adoptees, we were then shuttled off to an orphanage while waiting weeks and months for our adoptive families to get us. While there, we weren’t held as often as is necessary for the health of an infant. There have even been studies that show a baby will die if it is not touched or held. (Which is an insane study if you stop to think about it.)
So how do I heal that hole in my heart? How do I start feeling lovable and worthwhile?
For me, it started as I was detoxing from alcohol at a psych ward. I don’t know why I did it but I tried to connect with each individual in that facility as a human being experiencing pain and to show them compassion and care. Like Bill W. relating to Dr. Bob, one sufferer relating to another. I saw each fellow patient as a real human, as someone worth loving, as someone who had something good in them. I wasn’t going to throw them away or relinquish them, even if they’d ended up in this psych ward.
It’s what I desperately wanted for myself but never did or could never take in. It’s when the healing for me began.
As I entered the rooms and began sharing my story, I found that whenever I spoke at a meeting, invariably there would be at least one adoptee that would come up to speak with me afterward. And as I began collecting their numbers and seeing them around campus, it became clear that we could really help each other.
I’ve found healing through compassion and projection and from telling my story as an adoptee and an alcoholic. When my friend Darrylynn – an adoptive mom of an alcoholic – heard me speak, she understood that not everything her daughter was suffering through was her fault as a mom.
And when I’ve heard from AA birthmothers who gave away a child, I got to hear about how they never forgot a birthday, never went a day without thinking of that son or daughter and how much love and heartache they felt for that relinquished child.
Out of that, and some sober experience working through some of my issues, we started AA&A at the beginning of this year. We meet on the first Sunday of every month (on the weekend, so anyone in LA can get to the meeting without fighting traffic.)
As I’ve been going to different groups and announcing the AA&A meeting, on more than one occasion, an adoptee would come up to me after the meeting and say, “I’ll take your flyer, but I’m not coming to your meeting.”
Which I get. We adoptees don’t like joining things – because we fear that group will eventually reject and abandon us. It’s also a very emotionally fraught subject to deal with – like opening up a page of your 5th step that you’ll deal with but never truly eliminate.
So it’s a big deal to go to a meeting like ours.
The spiritual, maternal hole
Adoption didn’t give me the physical allergy to alcohol. (Though indirectly, it did through biology– my birth dad is likely on the streets and an addict if he’s still alive.) And I probably would have been an alcoholic even if my birth mom had raised me.
But it definitely helped with that mental defect. Emotionally, I tried to fill that mom-shaped hole inside of me with whatever I could. The grief of never knowing her felt like it would never end and was a raw open wound that would never heal. For example, any time I watched a movie where a mother would protect her son from danger, I’d end up sobbing – why didn’t my mother have the courage to raise me, to protect me from the dangers of the world with her love?
And feeling worthless and unlovable, believing that anyone who would see the real me would see that defection and then bounce, that contributed to a giant case of the fuckits.
To me, one of the greatest things about AA is that it’s a program that’s based on the concept of one sufferer relating to another fellow sufferer. Bill and Dr. Bob shared their common problems related to alcohol in that way. There’s a common bond in that, and it’s my belief that there’s a spiritual connectedness that happens when we share our vulnerabilities, our strengths, and our weaknesses and our shame that allows for something divine to move in us.
With AA&A, we can do that on 2 levels. As alcoholics, and as adoptees.
The AA&A Meeting
When we have our meetings, we do a short ‘moment to remember why we’re there’, and then we dive right into sharing. In some ways, it’s more like a support group than a typical AA meeting. Questions are welcome, and we definitely cross-talk in the sense of acknowledging when we relate to how someone feels or clarifying some family history. We have so many similarities – struggles forming and keeping relationships, feelings of not belonging that have stayed with us into our adulthood. Oh, and the abandonment issues. All the abandonment issues.
Some of us have met our birth families. It rarely meets the fantasy we had of that family as kids, and it doesn’t make everything suddenly better. Sometimes it’s complicated, and sometimes it’s worse than that.
We’ve had families of our own, and had the chance to see another living relative for the first time. We have our regular alcoholic problems of wanting to drink or numb out or isolate, too.
As Dave R. said, “I have about 100 issues around adoption, and I’ve dealt with about 40 of them.”
But every month, we leave feeling better and feeling understood. We’ve found a place where we are a part of, not apart from. For someone who was taken away from the first family they were supposed to know, that’s immensely powerful to feel a sense of belonging.
The Future of AA&A
“No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.”
I want our meeting to be there when someone comes into Alcoholics Anonymous when that primal wound from adoption is no longer being numbed from alcohol and drugs, but bleeding and aching and raw and horrible, I want to be there for them. Because life does get better. The feelings around adoption can be cunning, baffling and powerful. They may never fully go away, but I want to show that you can be sober, full of life, and still have that peculiar pain and struggle that we adoptees face. But you can manage them and find peace.
It’s my hope that we can grow our meeting and that word gets out enough that when a newcomer says that they are dealing with feelings around their adoption that enough people in the rooms of AA can send them our way.
If that sounds like you or someone you know, please have them contact us. We’d be thrilled to carry the message to another alcoholic adoptee.
Celia Center Support Group for Adoptees on 4th Saturday of every month at 2pm at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Studio City MORE INFO HERE
Adopt Salon was developed and is supported by the CELIA CENTER, a non-profit Adoption, and Foster Care Support organization.
An open support group for all members of the Adoption Constellation: First-Birth Mothers/Fathers, Adoptees, Former Foster Youth, Foster Parents, Kinship Caregivers, Siblings, Significant Others, Legal Guardians, & Adoptive Parents. $20 Suggested Donation
A place for the Adoption & Foster Care community to come together to share stories, thoughts, feelings, ideas, receive psycho-education, process grief/loss, learn about search and reunion, and build strong bonds/connections.
This group will be facilitated by Adoption Psychotherapist, Adult Adoptee Jeanette Yoffe, MFT. and Anne Bonura, Adult Adoptee, and First Mother
Participants: Members of the Foster and/or Adoption Constellation are allowed ONLY.
First mothers, First fathers, (pre & post-adoption)
How to Cope with the Ups and Downs of Being a Foster Parent by Dr. John DeGarmo
As a foster parent, you NEED to take care of yourself. You NEED to ensure that you are watching out after yourself, finding the time you need for you, and the help you need to care for not only the children in your home but for yourself and your family. If you do not, all that you do will suffer.
Remember to “Be in the Moment”
It is important to stay in the moment, so to speak, to focus on the here and now, instead of what might happen, of what could be. When we worry about what might happen in the future, we lose the chance and the opportunity to embrace and enjoy what is happening in the present time. When we allow our worries and concerns to overwhelm us about future events, we do not allow ourselves to be helpful to those around us in the present moment. As foster parents, we can’t care for, help, teach and love the children living with our family, children that need us to be with them right now, at the moment, if we are overwhelmed with things we have no control of tomorrow, next week, or next year.
Let your heartbreak
We do love them as our own, and we experience feelings of grief and loss when a child leaves our home and our family. Yet, it is healthy for us to become emotionally invested, and to become attached to the children in our home. If we do not become attached, and hold ourselves at arm’s distance, so to speak, and try to protect ourselves, we will not be able to help the ones we are trying to care for.
Patience is a Virtue
If you are struggling with maintaining your own patience, go ahead and call your own time out. Don’t be afraid or let your ego object to asking your spouse or partner to step in and take over a situation if you are becoming too frustrated, or feel you are losing control of your own emotions. Tell the child that you will talk about it at a later time, allowing both you and the child to cool off. Step outside or into another room, and give yourself time to count to ten. Any of these are positive ways to de-escalate a situation.
Don’t Take it Personally
As foster parents, we need to keep in mind that it isn’t really about us. The child has been abused, neglected, abandoned. There is a reason why the child living in your home has been placed in foster care. He is hurting. It’s not about us. It’s about the child and his pain. Even when he is yelling at you, “I hate you!” and slamming the door. His anger and emotion may be directed at you, but it’s not true about you. Instead, his anger and pain come from someplace else.
When your buttons are being pushed, it is important to remember that you are the mature one, you are the adult, you are the parental figure. Resist yelling back, don’t give in to the temptation to respond in anger, no name-calling from you. Try to not respond emotionally. Instead, focus on the child’s behavior and not his emotion. Respond to why he is feeling this way, not to the words he may be yelling at you.
Your Own Support Group
I have said it over and over again; no one truly understands a foster parent like another foster parent. That’s why it is important to surround yourself with a support group of fellow foster parents, especially when you are feeling burned out. There are a number of foster parent support groups and associations across the nation. A few of these organizations may be national ones, while many others are, comprised of foster parents, like you. Either way, you will benefit by being in a support organization, as they will provide you with not only support, but information, fellowship, and important insight that will help you be a better foster parent.
Dr. John DeGarmo is an international expert in parenting and foster care and is a TEDx Talk presenter. Dr. John is the founder and director of The Foster Care Institute. He has been a foster parent for 17 years, and he and his wife have had over 60 children come through their home. He is an international consultant to schools, legal firms, and foster care agencies, as well as an empowerment and transformational speaker and trainer for schools, child welfare, businesses, and non-profit organizations. He is the author of several books, includingThe Foster Care Survival Guide and writes for several publications. Dr. John has appeared on CNN HLN, Good Morning, America, and NBC, FOX, CBS, and PBS stations across the nation. He and his wife have received many awards, including the Good Morning America Ultimate Hero Award. He can be contacted at drjohndegarmo@gmail, through his Facebook page, Dr. John DeGarmo, or at The Foster Care Institute.
Why do you have two mommies and two daddies? Can I have two mommies and two daddies? No, but you have 6 grandparents. I have an idea. If you and daddy weren’t together, then got together with another mommy and another daddy, I could have two daddies and two mommies. Yes, that’s true, but …
Naturally, after the above conversation, my son carefully mulled over what I had said and the implications it has on him and what that means for his family. It’s difficult to explain the complexities of having an adoptive family and a biological family to an adult, let alone to my 5-year-old. Sometimes he’ll ask if Abuelo and Grandma are my “real” parents or if Oma and Opa are my “real” parents. Using that word “real” is arduous for me. It is a word that I have flirted with my whole life, a word that asks for an answer when all I have is a weak notion of what it could possibly mean.
His confusion reminds me of my own, which I thought I had cleared up 15 years ago when I “found” my biological family. The reunion was all very enchanting, almost a fairytale: my biological parents married 2 years after I was born. I had two fully biological younger brothers. In fact, I had a whole family that I was not a part of. The irony.
Abuelo and Grandma were young and in love in 1977. But, I’m told, the relationship was a bit “rocky.” I imagine if I were that young and pregnant, I would myself be a bit “rocky” in addition to the relationship. Due to the relationship I now have with my biological parents, I know that the scenario was nuanced with shame and obligations. Because I have trekked through and tried on notions of identity and sense of belonging so thoroughly since I first reunited with my natural parents, I recognize the agony and guilt with which the decisions were made. I was born to the Cerón-Janquart family in February of 1978 and was adopted into the Rademacher family in May of that same year. My body felt the loss, but as I grew, it disappeared from my consciousness. My brain kept the secrets of lost connections and cached it. As I matured, the unfilled feelings grew with me.
Once I turned 18, I chose to do something that I had always dreamt about: finding my birth parents. Alas, when I called the organization through which I was adopted, they informed me that the law had changed. An adopted person was required to be 21 before they could access identifying information about their biological parents. Devastated, I weathered the emotional upheaval. I moved on, agonizing and struggling. Finally in January of 2004, at the urging of a friend, I contacted the adoption organization again. This time at 26, there was no obstruction. I filed the paperwork, and I waited. I imagined it would be years, as such I put it out of my mind as much as I could. But lo and behold, 2 months later, the morning before I was meant to install my thesis art exhibition, I received a call from a social worker. My world collapsed.
It was through a haze and stupor that I completed my undergraduate tenure; real, emotional life took over. I had no more notions of things I wasn’t because for the first time in my whole life, I had a piece of paper–chicken scratch from my phone conversation with the social worker–with decisive information of who exactly I was, who I am. Trembling, I would finger what I had so nervously written on an extra piece of paper from the printer. I walked outside, and paced, as one does in the movies. I walked back inside and sat at a desk in the hallway at school. I was at my student work-study job at the school computer lab. I looked out at all of my classmates desperately trying to finish a design or a paper or a video, engulfed at the end of the semester. While I, less concerned about my final exhibition, I began to undertake the sincere journey of my identity.
When my 5-year-old asks about my mommies and my daddies, I tell him with such ease who they are to me, for him to discover who they are to him. I don’t imagine that the questions around my double parents will stop until he is much older and can more fully grasp the concepts involved in an adopted person’s life and in the life of their offspring. And maybe those questions won’t ever stop, but instead, they will turn into conversations and dialogues about identity and belonging, about secrets and revealing, about truths and frailties.
Complex trauma is, well, complex and also trans-generational. I felt agony while I was pregnant with my son, simply imagining my first mother being pregnant with me, her knowing full well that she would relinquish me to another family. I cannot fathom the anguish and pain. Knowing that I too felt that burden while growing in my mother’s womb and understanding the missed attachments that I experienced over and over before I was placed…strangely it gives me peace: I have a better understanding of why I am who I am. I have come to terms with the complexities that inform my self and my identity.