Fostering Imagination Executive Director/Founder Ilia Jauregui, Advisory Board Member and Psychotherapist Jeanette Yoffe, and two of FI’s fabulous youth Loretta Jordan and Martha Guzman join DJ Boy Toy Jesse on KIIS FM for an interview, bringing awareness to foster care issues and the programs
Fostering Imagination offers to foster youth and emancipated youth throughout Los Angeles.
“There is a great mystery behind every one of our lives, the great human mystery of why are we here sharing this miraculous planet? Where did we come from? For the adopted child the mystery is even greater because they have two active mysteries. The existential one all humans share about our cosmic origins and purpose and then the very real, very literal mystery of where did I come from? And why did my birth parents give me away? These mysteries inspire many powerful feelings but for the adopted child, the pre-eminent feeling is often grief.
As an Adoption professional and former foster-adopt child, I want to inspire parents to understand how important “the act of joining with their child’s grief” is. As scary as it seems, it will be very liberating. This liberation will not only bring joy to the parents but joy for the child as well. And it is through joy, that the hormone for bonding, oxytocin, is released into the cells of the body which will restructure the brain and increase the desire for attachment. The parent must first “feel” the child’s grief and the child will “feel felt” at this cellular level for bonding to occur. Children feel good about themselves when their experiences are validated, supported, and reassuring.
Annette Baran, the author of the groundbreaking book, The Adoption Triangle, says that “Adoptive parents must weep with their child: ’We’re sorry, too, that you didn’t grow in Mommy’s tummy.’”
“I think parents don’t realize they’re allowed to show these feelings,” says Baran. “They think they have to present an unflagging cheerfulness about adoption, in order that the children will feel positive, too. This is a mistaken notion.”
“Parents whose children express sadness usually feel that they need to reassure them, rather than feel the sadness along with them. But having lost an original set of parents is something to feel sad about, and the best any parent can do for a child is to allow them to share those feelings of loss with them,” explains Baran.
So how does a parent do this?
I have an intervention that I have recommended to parents, which is usually done in a therapy setting, however, it can also be done at home. This intervention has brought emotional closeness as well as emotional intelligence between parent and child. And has helped parents feel their child’s grief in a non-threatening way.
This intervention was derived from another intervention I had created called The Anger Bag, which is composed of 16 coping skills for children to use and assist in expressing, releasing, and projecting their anger outward. I called the exercise the “Paper to Rip” intervention which has now expanded itself from “Paper to Rip” to “Hold On To My Feelings.”
This intervention has been successful with children between the ages of 4-17. Materials needed are an old phone book, an unused pillowcase feasible for drawing and/or writing on which will serve as a bag, and some permanent markers. I recommend providing a setting that is a comfortable space, okay for the paper to be scattered around i.e. family room, bedroom. The parent or parents, (it is strongly suggested that both parents be present) are instructed to have an attitude of playfulness, total acceptance, and curiosity, as well as empathy. These attitudes create a model of parenting which meets the needs of their child, by providing a container for their feelings and produce a therapeutic environment of emotional safety so the child feels “felt, heard and seen.”
To begin, the intervention can be introduced as “We have noticed you have been holding onto a lot of “feelings” and wanted to give you a way to release these feelings by letting you rip up this old phone book. And guess who is going to clean up and hold onto all of the feelings??? Not you, we are.” The parent entices the child through playfulness by demonstrating the task first i.e. opening the phone book, ripping out a few pages at a time, ripping or smashing the paper apart or together, stating with words an example of what they are feeling such as “I’m mad because I can’t drink soda for breakfast!!” and/or by showing their frustration/anger/pain without words via their facial cues by throwing the pages up in the air and watching them fall down. This is the critical element that gets children to begin the process of releasing pent of feelings. It is strongly suggested that parents encourage their children to say words associated with their feelings to help them build emotional intelligence by teaching “I messages.” “I feel ______ because __________.” But do not force the child if they are non-verbal, their resistance may be an explanation that they are not ready emotionally or are not feeling safe enough to verbalize at this time. To note: as a parent provides the opportunity for this intervention on a regular basis the child will begin to build trust, feel safer and be eager to express. An environment of safety must be established for the child to express whatever he/she pleases without criticism, rejection, anger, or dismissal by the parent(s). It is also important to note, as a parent how one’s own non-verbal facial expressions read to others. It is suggested to keep an open face, be overly curious (raised forehead), and breathe deeply during the exercise to help calm down and regulate any arousal states the child brings out emotionally within the parent in order to stay connected. If as a parent, you are becoming dysregulated and overwhelmed this is a signal the child is triggering emotional memories within your past which needs to be addressed and acknowledged for healing and understanding i.e. therapist, journaling, etc. as not to get in the way of building a trusting relationship with your child.
Parents are encouraged to enjoy the child’s process by “oohing” and “aaahhing” with amazement as the child rips up the paper. This is a necessary part of the intervention as the parents are able to stay connected, focused, and excited by their child’s expression this will increase the levels of the oxytocin hormone, essential for bonding.
If the parent has witnessed the child utter words of frustration, anger, or sadness in protest I encourage the parent to ask the child, “Would you be willing to let mommy or daddy speak a feeling you have said before so we can feel it together?” i.e. “I’m mad because I don’t see my birth mother!” “I’m sad because we don’t look alike.” “I’m sad because I didn’t grow in your tummy!” “I’m sad because you are not my real mother.” “I mad because I have so many feelings and I feel so overwhelmed!”
After the phone book is completely obliterated in the living room the child is instructed by the parent to take a comfy seat somewhere in the room and “supervise” as the parent(s) “picks up all the feelings.” Be careful not to say “time to pick up the garbage.” And take a moment and breathe… to take in visually the scattered papers around the room and see them as your child’s “emotional life.” I usually make a statement such as, “Wow look at all these feelings!!! They sure can get messy. Are feelings messy sometimes? Thank you for letting me know about all these. Now, I am going to give them all the love and care that they need.” The parent (s) then picks up the pillow case, begins picking up each feeling, either in piles or single pieces and talks to them with great empathy, “I’m sorry too that you do not see your birthmother.“ “I’m sorry too that we do not look alike.” “I’m sorry too that your birth mommy could not be your everyday mommy.” “This feeling I am going to hold on to and give lots of love.” It is strongly suggested that parents do what they feel is authentic in their hearts at this moment. I have witnessed parents kiss each paper and not say much at all, hug piles of feelings and convey to the child through facial expressions “how much this means to them”, and have witnessed many parents have many tears upon truly understanding, seeing and feeling their child’s grief realizing it is their responsibility to feel it too with their child. I have seen children’s faces light up and be amazed at their parents capacity to be so reflective, open and honest about the reality of their adoption and how they became a family together. This intervention, I can proudly say has been a bridge towards healing and attachment for many of the families I have worked with and continue to work with.
At the end, when all “feelings” have been identified and placed in the pillowcase bag. Ask the child, “Are there any feelings I have missed?” The child scans the room and points them out so all have been acknowledged. Parents then are instructed to ask the child what they want to name these feelings today and have the child write the name, if they can, on the bag. Then the parents write a closing response on the bag such as “I understand.” “I love all of your feelings.” “I am here to listen.” “I want to help hold on to your sadness, so you don’t have to hold on all by yourself.” The parent then reads the response out loud to the child and lets the child know, “I(we) am going to hold on to these feelings until you tell me to let go of them. I will keep them close to my (our) bed and keep them safe.” This act of merely holding onto the feelings bag conveys to the child their feelings can be secured and their parents can handle them and will not be overwhelmed by them. Whether your child was in foster care, moved from place to place, or your child was adopted in infancy, there can be many different ranges of overwhelming feelings of grief connected to the separation from their birth families and the knowledge that they don’t have to be in this overwhelm alone anymore lifts a great weight off emotionally.
In closing, for an adoptee/foster child, this sense of security, and the need to feel heard and seen is imperative for building trust. If an adoptee/foster child feels their needs are not being met early in life, they will “numb” themselves emotionally or “shut off” their feelings. By enacting this “Hold On To My Feelings” repeatedly with your adopted or foster child, your child will develop a sense of belonging and this intervention will help them make sense of their early life and repair what has been emotionally “lost” and now “found” by you, the parent.
I hope you find this intervention as cathartic as I have had in developing as well as facilitating for families touched by adoption and foster care. With a warm heart, I encourage you to join with your child’s grief and feel liberated.
Jeanette Yoffe, MFT is a Psychotherapist Specializing in Adoption and Foster Care. She has a private practice in West Los Angeles. Other interventions can be found in her treatment manual, “Groundbreaking Interventions: Working with Traumatized Children & Families in Foster Care and Adoption” at www.JeanetteYoffe.com
For more information on adoption visit KidsInTheHouse.com
Intervention to Help Children Process Grief and Loss
PROJECT: MY SAD BAG
AGE RANGE: 3-12 suggested
GOAL: To get child to utilize coping skills when he/she feels sad emotionally suffering from grief and loss in order to learn how to problem solve and regulate themselves on their own.
THERAPEUTIC for: Child and Family.
SYMPTOM REDUCTION: Feeling sad, depressed, or hopeless.
SYMPTOM INCREASE: Self-awareness, self-esteem, self-regulation, and self-control.
1 Bag with Handles (Link to order your own Canvas Bags)
Magical Wish Journal
Paper to draw with crayons
Small Photo Album
1 pack of Guatemalan Worry Dolls or Popsicle Sticks & Yarn
8 Index Cards for Sad Busters
Introduce the task by explaining to the child that he/she is going to help child manage their “sad” feelings with the use of a special bag they will explore and create together. Continue to explain that within the bag there will be special skills for him/her to do when they have these feelings and don’t know how to express them. Order is not important.
Tear Pillow: Provide child with a blank pillow case and permanent markers, supervised of course. Explain that the tear pillow is used to help a child express their sadness verbally and to be used for self comfort and care. The child can write on the pillow “My Sad Pillow” and draw whatever they need to. Some children have made “a big cloud with a rainbow, with tear drops in it” and the child can rests their head on the cloud to “help hold their tears.” The parent/therapist/social worker can demonstrate first by placing their face in the middle of the pillow and start by making sounds of sadness i.e. sighing, boo-hoo-ing, modeling crying, all the while encouraging the child to express their feelings. Then as the child begins to feel more comfortable he/she can say words such as “I am sad” or “It’s not fair” or “I am hurt” or “I feel sad.” Child can keep the pillow on their bed to comfort them.
Magical Wish Journal: Provide child with a journal or note pad. The journal is used as a diary to express sad feelings. The child is told that the Magical journal can bring magic into their life when they write down their wishes. Whenever they write their wishes into their journal amazing things will happen, the angels will hear them and angels can only listen to Magic Wish journals. Sometimes so many angels hear them and their wishes come true. If the child wishes for a loved one to return, reassure the child “the angels will let them know how much they love them and miss them. And they will ask the angels to watch over them to keep them safe.”
Paper to Draw: Provide child with a drawing pad and crayons. Write on the front of the book PAPER TO DRAW MY SAD FEELINGS. The child is told the “Paper to Draw” is used to draw pictures about their sad feelings. The child can draw pictures of the person and event and/or write words which express his/her grief, loss and pain.
Small Photo Album: Provide child with a small photo album and photos or clippings of beautiful/soothing photos i.e. beautiful flowers, animals, children hugging, smiling faces etc. The photo album is used for the child to put pictures of people and/or things that make him/her happy. This can be “real” pictures of loved ones in their life or pictures of persons/places/things from magazines i.e. cartoon characters, flowers, funny pictures. The child can title the album i.e. “Things that make me smile” “The people who love me in my life.” “I am always loved.” “I can be happy.”
1 pack of Guatemalan Worry Dolls or make your own with Popsicle Sticks and Yarn: Provide child with worry dolls or popsicle sticks that they can draw faces on and wrap yarn around. Explain to that these “worry dolls” can be used to express their concerns, worries and fears. I like to introduce the dolls as “powerful Friends,” who can help us with our feelings but we have to tell them what we are upset about one by one so that they can discuss it that evening. The “powerful friends” must be placed under their pillow while they are sleeping and if they listen really hard they can hear them talking their sadness away and when they wake up in the morning they will feel better.
Bubbles Blow-away-disappear technique: Provide child with the bubbles. Explain that the bubbles are used for blowing their feelings “out of their body that they have been holding onto.” The child is instructed to sit down in a chair while performing this task. He/she is going to imagine seeing the stressful/sad feelings enter the bubble and then disappear when it pops. Encourage the child to focus, feel the lightness of the bubble gliding within their control. Each bubble he/she blows they watch until it pops, so that the child begins to regain focus and internalize a sense of calm and peace.
Sad Busters: Provide child with 10 index cards. Explain to the child that with the help of their parent/therapist/social worker they will create 3-8 “sad busters” which will help them manage their sad feelings. They will write or draw a picture of a “sad buster” on each card. These are stored in the bag and the child is told he/she can reach in the bag and pick one out at anytime and they will tell him/her what to do with their feelings.
Examples of Sad Busters are:
1. CROSS my ARMS around my body and give myself a big, BIG HUG!!!
2. SAY the TONGUE twister: “Silly sally, sang dilly dallies sitting on a swing.” OUT LOUD 10 times!!!
3. CRY on my Tear Pillow and let the RAINBOW catch my TEARS for me!!!
4. TAKE 5 deep breathes SLOWLY.
5. DRAW or WRITE my SAD feelings in my JOURNAL.
6. ASK my parent for a HUG!!!
7. GO to MY mirror and make a funny face REALLY BIG!!!
8. GO get my BUBBLES and BLOW 3 wishes into the air!!!
At the end all of the items are placed back in the bag and the child or parent/therapist/social worker writes on the outside of the bag “Things to do when I feel sad to make my broken heart feel glad!” The child keeps the bag within reach hanging on a door knob or hook in his/her room.
Jeanette Yoffe became the Executive Director of the Celia Center, Inc.
Founded July 16, 2011.
With the vision to create as many of these services as possible for the Los Angeles Community.
Celia Center GRAPH Mission 2013
Jeanette’s desire to become a child therapist with a special focus on adopted and foster care issues derived from her own experience of being adopted and moving through the foster care system in New York City. Her personal experience has informed her education and provided insight into the unique stresses involved with these issues. Because of Jeanette’s life experience she can more easily connect and relate to the children and teens she works with. She is an exceptional child-care worker who is dedicated to helping each of her clients reach their full potential through mental health therapy and make the difficult journey from despair towards resiliency and hope.
Listen to her One Woman Play, “What’s Your Name, Who’s Your Daddy?” written in 1999,
which inspired her to leave theater and become a professional in the field: