Affirming the Adoptee’s Reality: A Way to Intimacy by Marcy Axness, Ph.D., Adoptee
The young child knows when the truth is being told and when it isn’t. It’s just amazing how much little children know of you, within and without.—Patricia McNulty, adoptee and Waldorf kindergarten teacher
The road leading up to adoption is invariably a painful one for parents, marked by many losses: the children they might have had, but for infertility; the child or children they lost through miscarriage, stillbirth, or death; and sometimes even pieces of themselves feel chipped away – their feelings of competence, wholeness, worthiness, and so many other essential components of self.
By the time their long-awaited adopted child is placed in their arms, parents usually – and understandably – just want to put all the heartache behind them and move on into the joyful realms of mothering and fathering. But the very real feelings of loss that attend adoption need to have a place in the story of the adoptive family, or they can cast ever-lengthening shadows on the relationship between parents and child.
Adopted kids often grow up with the mantra “being adopted is just another way to become a family.” This is a dismissive characterization of a profound experience that has involved not only the parents’ deep losses but the child’s loss of the parents who couldn’t keep him. With the best of intentions, adoptive parents often convey half-truths about the implications of adoption to shield their child from the pain of loss that is inherent in the experience.
Understanding The First Reality
“I lost my mother soon after I was born.” If I were to say this to a stranger, the response would surely be shock and sympathy for my loss: “I’m so sorry for you.” But if I tell that stranger, “I was adopted,” the response is usually, “Really, that’s wonderful, how nice for you.”
If we are to affirm an adoptee’s reality, we need to remember that she did, in fact, lose her mother soon after birth (in the case of an infant adoption). And while she may have been blessed with wonderful, loving, adoptive parents, this blessing was preceded by a profound loss. For a newborn to be separated from her biological mother is a trauma, both psychological and physiological, that is felt and processed and manifested in the lives of adoptees according to their individual temperaments, personalities, and physical, emotional, and spiritual constitutions.
There are two realities that a parent needs to accept in order to have an authentic relationship with an adopted child:
My child has two mothers and two fathers.
My child came to me not as a blank slate, but with a history of connection and of loss.
Adoptees – like all other people – have their roads to travel. Our “life journeys” come with certain burdens and lessons which help make us who we are. I believe that I am living exactly the life I was supposed to, and I have no regrets. But whether it was God’s plan or simply my destiny that I came into this earthly life as an adoptee, I still needed and craved compassion and acknowledgment for my losses, and for my reality, before I could truly move on to the business of living my life. The goal as I see it isn’t to try to fix things so that adoptees no longer have a burden, but rather to do whatever we can to help them remain connected with their inner truth instead of alienated from it. We can do this by affirming the adoptee’s reality.
The Heart of Open Adoption
Whether one has an “open adoption”, a “semi-open adoption”, an “international adoption”, or a “closed adoption”, these terms refer to the mechanics of the adoption, not to the way it feels. To have an “open-of-heart” adoption is to have the ability to affirm the adoptee’s reality, without flinching: “It was sad that you had to leave your other mother. I bet you miss her. Yes, you really do have two mothers.” Reality. Affirmed. Ahhh… that makes sense, my feelings make sense, everything makes sense now. I know what’s real.
The Gift of “What is So”
If you go to any park on any day in any city, you will see a child fall and start to cry – and then you will see his mother swoop him up and begin to chant incessantly to him, “You’re okay, you’re okay, no blood, you’re okay!” Meanwhile, the child continues to wail. Only very occasionally will a parent tell a child, “Yes, I saw that you tripped over that bucket and fell down. And that hurt, didn’t it?” Or maybe, “That was pretty scary, huh?” She reflects her child simply what is so – not what she wishes were so, or what she might prefer to be so. Her child’s crying ebbs and he is soon ready to get back to his business of playing. He has been heard.
Sadly, when we respond to our children like the first woman in the park, when we try to impose our preferred reality, our myth, upon them, we insidiously lure them – day by day – away from their own inner knowing, their inner truth. And that is when they become infinitely vulnerable in the world, for then they have lost their intuitive compass.
The other devastating consequence is that we erode our child’s trust when we don’t reflect the truth back to him. When we tell a child, “There’s nothing sad about adoption, it’s just another way to become a family,” he begins to lose his compass, and the ability to distinguish whether or not there are feelings of loss or hurt inside him. He will also lose any sense of trust for – and connection to – the parent who repeatedly discounts his experience and his reality. What incredible blessings come when we are able to affirm our child’s reality, because doing so builds trust, and trust leads to intimacy.
Studies show that this kind of intimate connection between parents and children is the most effective protection for them in a world of peer pressure, drugs, sex, and other high-risk circumstances.
Adoptive Parents Need to Affirm Their Own Reality
Why would we tell a child, “You’re okay!” with such frantic conviction when he has clearly just suffered a hurt? Perhaps it is because we need so desperately to remind ourselves (or convince ourselves) that we’re okay. We have to keep tamped down all of our own hurts and fears and losses that have never been acknowledged, our own reality that has gone unaffirmed. This is the generational legacy of denial.
Jung said, “The most damaging thing to a child is the unlived lives of his parents.” I take this to mean the parts of the parent that have been unacknowledged, unexpressed, and ungrieved: the shadow. For adoptive parents, a critical piece in affirming their adopted child’s reality is affirming their own reality.
“Other mommies and daddies had to take what they got, but we got to choose you,” is another of the well-intentioned but ultimately destructive lies that some adoptive parents tell in an attempt to bolster their child’s positive sense of self. Perhaps these parents are attempting to “polish” the status of being adopted, and compensate for any undercurrents of social stigma to which the child might later be exposed. While it may not be appropriate to discuss every painful detail of their pre-adoptive situation, it is crucial for parents to share the essence of the truth with their adopted children, the feelings that hover beneath the facts.
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 who demonstrate emotional openness send a healthy message to their child that he or she is allowed to express a full range of feelings, not just the “positive” ones.
“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.
Saying It Out Loud: “Adoption Was Our Second Choice”
We as a society are two-faced about adoption—publicly we laud it as a wonderful thing, while in our hearts we often scorn it. It’s second-choice. And in the secret minds of many, second-best as well. If we didn’t find adoption so contemptible, so laced with shame, why would our laws be so vehemently constructed to protect everyone from the shame returning to their doorsteps? So…why should adoptive parents feel any differently than others in society? Discovering that you can’t bear children and deciding to adopt doesn’t necessarily obliterate a lifetime of subliminal cultural attitudes about adoption. It may just mean you desperately want a baby in your arms.
Very few people in our society grow up dreaming that they’ll fall in love, get married, and adopt a child, or that they will have a child and give it to others to raise.
Adoptive parents need to address their own ambivalence about the very desirability of adoption if they are to avoid the kind of inauthentic, happy-face approach embodied in dismissive slogans like “adoption is just another way to become a family.”
Another challenge for adoptive parents is the nagging legacy of infertility and society’s ongoing lack of recognition of this as a profound loss. Parents need to be guided and supported in finding ways to do their mourning, so that the adoptive mother can say very sincerely and authentically to her child – not just mechanically following a script – “I’m sorry, too, that you didn’t grow in my tummy. It was sad for me that I couldn’t grow a baby, and it was sad for you and your other mother that you couldn’t stay together. But I am happy that you and I ended up together.” What an amazing, powerful connection can be forged here, on this common ground of loss. Affirming the adoptee’s reality is a key element in the secure, continuing relationship between parents and children.
How Do Parents Affirm Their Adopted Child’s Reality?
1. Affirm the Newborn’s Experience
In my article, “A Therapist Counsels Parents of Babies Separated From Mothers At Birth, “1 a perinatal therapist offers specific things parents can say – out loud – to a baby who has been separated from his mother. Infants who have recently experienced separation from their mothers will show signs of trauma – prolonged crying or almost no crying, flaccid body tone or extreme rigidity, tremendous startle responses, and/or an unwillingness to make eye contact or to be held or comforted. Instead of feeling that the child is rejecting them, parents can say to this baby, “You miss your other mother. You miss your connection. You’ve lost something very important, and I understand, and I’m going to be here for you. It’s all right to be sad.” They can hold the baby, and let the baby mourn because this is what the baby needs to do.
The time to begin affirming an adoptee’s reality is at the very beginning; this lays a foundation of openness and honesty. Using the words, out loud, before the child even has language, it is our energetic message that is conveyed to her, telling her that we are connecting with the knowledge of loss that is in her bones, beyond words.
2. Tell Him the Story of His Birth
Children love to hear about the time in their mother’s womb, the day they were born, and the day they came home. It helps to lay a foundation for them of connectedness to their family and to this earth. It grounds them. Typically, it isn’t a story that adoptees get to hear. We grow up with the vague sense that we were hatched from a very special, top-secret file. This is one of the beauties of open adoption, in which it is possible to create a child’s “life book”, containing the birth parents’ pictures and information. This can lead to natural conversations about the birth parents: what color eyes the birth father has, what his hobbies are, the birth mother’s favorite song, whether she rides horses or likes to rollerblade, what she liked to do during her pregnancy. All such conversations are opportunities to affirm the adoptee’s reality.
3. Offer Her Stories, Songs, and Images that might Resonate with her Experience
As with all children, parenting an adopted child is not an exact science, but an intuitive one. It asks that you look deeply into your unique child and find what will resonate with her. Trial and error is often the path to gold in this realm. There are many great stories of separation, self-discovery, loss, and redemption. There are many great stories about children without their biological parents—Moses, Pinocchio, Merlin, and Arthur all were fostered away from home toward great destinies. These kinds of more symbolic, literary, artistic representations are wonderful to use. It invites the child’s imagination in. For me, Thumbelina, the story of a perfect little girl who was delivered from a flower, provided me with a powerful connection that — at age four or five — I didn’t begin to understand cognitively, which was its beauty. Thumbelina gave me a symbolic context for the primal feelings that lay at my core. That story, in some way, gave me a home for my soul.
Stories, drawings, and other types of creative expression can inspire the child’s imagination, and that is critical in supporting the development of a child’s healthy will forces. These approaches offer the child as many different colors and brushes and textures as possible with which to envision his own life, his experience, and himself. (Be careful not to undermine the value of this approach by “narrating” or over-commenting on the child’s expressions. more »
4. Take A Spiritual Approach
Holding an awareness of a child’s experience, without even saying a word, can be tremendously healing for the child and for the entire family. There is a growing body of evidence for the healing power of prayer, or of simply holding a vision of the person as a whole, healthy, completely loved, and at peace.
Another way to work on this level is to sit by the child’s bed while he sleeps, and “talk” to his unconscious, either silently or aloud. “I am safe in my world. It is safe for me to trust and to give and accept love. My mother and father will always be here for me. It is alright for me to feel sad or angry and to talk to my parents about it… they will affirm my true experience and my feelings.” This is a simple but incredibly powerful way to affirm a child’s reality.
Reality is A Personal Affair
In a sense, we cannot know exactly what any particular adoptee’s reality is, since an individual’s reality is a product of many subjective perceptions, filtered through her unique emotional, psychological, and spiritual lenses. But if we affirm an adoptee’s honest experience – what it is that really happened to her – and offer her a palette of contexts through which to own that experience, we will weave a vital connection with that child. Our gift in return will be her sense of trust and her resulting willingness to share with us her reality, and her life. And that is called intimacy.
We Come From A Place Not So Safe
by Paula Free, Adoptee
The Darkness Inside Me
There is a quiet rage burning through my soul. It’s lived inside me for years. Buried. Deep beneath the layers of abandonment, rejection, worthlessness, self-pity, and self-hate. I’m trying to get to the good part inside me, but all I feel is bad. It stretches through my heart and burns its way into my mind. I feel like I want to tear out my hair or scratch off my skin. This ache is so intense I could vomit. But instead, I sit in it and let it burn through me. Circling inside my belly. I can feel it intensify and grow more unbearable to handle. It has a hold on my soul and doesn’t want to let me go. I can’t move. I can’t speak and I can barely breathe. But I sit here. I am waiting to find a release. It keeps changing from one emotion to the next. All equally as evil and dominating. It’s as if they feel they have a right to live inside me, and now I belong to them. They own my soul and they have no intention of letting me go. I have slipped away under their power where I am lost and wandering, and alone, having settled into a life as a slave to the force of darkness that has replaced Me. She has established her domain. And I have submitted to her power. Not knowing where she came from or how to get rid of her, she is now me and I slowly lose the awareness of the good that I once knew existed inside me. She’s not so obvious to the world. I have been trained to put a smile on my face to mask the darkness covering my soul.
I feel only the abyss of pain deep inside and it consumes me. It is big and it is heavy and it feels like I am dying under the weight of it. I try to fight my way out but become exhausted and buried deeper still. I give in and stop and for a while walking around like this, feeling totally helpless to find the way out. What I have tried hasn’t worked. And then, I will read something, or hear something and I will feel it penetrate the negative weight around me, and for a moment I can remember how it feels to be safe, secure, and loved and I don’t want it to end. The feeling starts to fade and I try to keep it, hold onto it and make it mine. I want to stay here forever. I want to believe it is my right to belong here. And I can, for a while. I get comfortable here. Thinking it is my place; my home. I’ve fooled myself somehow finding a way to convince myself this is mine. Warmth grows in my heart. A smile grows on my lips and I am alive again. It’s love. I forget that I don’t own this place. I am only a visitor. I don’t know how long it will last or when it will be stolen away. For now, I live like it’s mine determined to hold on to this place I can’t seem to find, on my own.
I Need to Find You
To know where I belong. It has to be here somewhere. Who will accept me and keep me strong? If you, give me the strength, I don’t know for how long. I don’t know who I am or where to be so I look around for you to remind me. It’s still always temporary, and I am getting tired of the up and down is steadily getting tossed around. I feel at your mercy. I’m only OK when you like me. Because who will bring me to that place if it isn’t in your face. If I disappoint you I get cut off, and I am beginning to not know how to fit in. I need to know where you are. I think when I find you I will now be complete and get from you the entire suit. The pieces I can’t find inside I will get them from you and begin to rise. Now I know I must find you and I begin to look at everyone I see. Perhaps YOU will notice me. Then I will be found and the story will be that YOU in searching, found, and restored me. Time passes and nothing happens and I am certain I will never know how to become safe and whole. I look harder and become more aware that I will need to pay money to finish this stare. I know it is a big commitment to make the find move. I begin to panic and get stung by fear. What if you’re not available to give me your ear? I do it anyway. What have I got to lose? It must be done before I become a permanent member of the blues. I get the call you are willing to talk to and meet me to see what I have become. You happen to have been waiting for me all these years hoping I would find you to quell your tears. Tears you’ve cried for me since I’ve been gone. Not realizing the pain would always belong.
I am never more unsure and certain at the same time. This meeting was meant to be for us to climb out of the emptiness created after we separated. You cried when you saw me. We talked. and you tried to fill in the blanks of how there came this big divide. I listened and waited and thought it would be a magical moment of you and me; together again, bonded and strong reunited to sing our old song. It wasn’t the same. How could this be? I thought you were the answer to me. I didn’t really know you, but I was glad to see, there was some resemblance looking back at me. I wanted so much more but what I got would do. I had made some progress in finding you. I left not sure of what to feel. My completeness not seeming anymore real. I didn’t know how to fit you into my life. I definitely didn’t need another mom in my life. I came to you. I thought it would be the replaceable part that went missing from me. I realized there was nothing you could say to give me back what I felt stolen away. So, I stick to what I know works, keeping others happy to get the praise I’m worth.
Lost in Pleasing
It doesn’t take long before I’m exhausted and you seem to have found the pleasure in manipulating me to get your way. It’s so easy. I’m so needy. You see the power you have over me and begin to withhold the praise you see I need, watching, waiting to see if I bleed. I get weaker than I’ve ever been. Addicted to praise I work to please, every move draining me, I fall to my knees. Begging. Pleading. Desperate for you to see me, praise me, love me. Is this all I am? All that’s left? A life of deprivation I’m forced to accept. The more I need you the worse it gets. You strengthen as I weaken. You grow as I die. You no longer care as you watch me cry. I am lost more than I’ve ever been to. What I once held onto holds onto me. I am trapped in a space; falling, falling away from the first place. The pain has compounded; your rejection upon my lack of affection. Death to my soul; deeper than the deepest hole. I am now completely out of control. How do I fight the desperation I feel. I struggle. I’m trying to become more real than this pain inside getting harder to hide.
It has grown and has a life force of its own. I am fighting you. I am fighting me. I can’t find a place to let me just be. Chaos in my soul. I have no idea where to go. I am afraid. I am alone. I feel my heart will never find its home. I need someone to love me; feed my exhausted soul. I can’t go on like this. I’m not made for this abyss. I collapse. I am sobbing. I cry out in pain “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” over and over again. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry why did you have to go? I feel so unloved and unloveable.’ Was I too bad to kiss? Why wasn’t I worth the risk? “Please come back, come back, I need you in my life. You need to come back and make it right.” Oh God! Oh God! What am I going to do? I am alone and nobody can help me through. Nobody can help me through. NOBODY can help me through. I don’t know if I can make it like this anymore. It has to be me that gets up off this floor. I am now lying there, still. Waiting to receive the invincible pill. I roll to my side and curl up like a ball. Holding myself tight, I wait for the call. I am waiting for something inside me to change. Please help me, I need you… I need you…please help me find my way.
I open my eyes and jump up off the floor. I’m not giving up. I’m trying some more. I set out to see what has become of me. I can do this. I can do this. I have to believe. Things will be different just wait and you’ll see, a certain strength has come over me. I am determined to figure this struggle out. I know one thing is perfectly clear; this is about me and my enormous fear. The fear that has controlled me since my birth. Thinking I will never be loved for my true worth. I hear…and I’ve been told… I am worth more than gold – simply because I’m made from a one and only mold! Can it be; who I am, has nothing to do with how YOU feel about me? I’m getting excited and jittery. This thought alone is setting me free and releasing power from deep down within. This might be the first time I feel, I will win this race, and not forever be a victim to the constant chase. I have a sense that I’m on top, giving myself permission; it’s time to stop- hurting myself by not being clear; there is a reason I was sent here. No one can take my life away. It’s mine to choose what to do, what to believe, and what to say. I close my eyes. I go back inside to figure out my soul’s divide. Could it be I’m OK? You didn’t leave with my heart that day? I still have all my pieces intact? I have my heart. I have my worth. They belonged to me from before my birth.
I am Priceless
Complete by Design
Given to the world,
with you in mind.
My destiny is
Did you know that there are over 500,000 kids in the Foster Care system across the country???
Through the amazing collaborative efforts of Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind and Fire and his Music is Unity Foundation and Korean Adoptee, Founder and President, Holly Choon Hyang Bachman ofMixed Roots Foundationalong with our valued Sponsors, Donors, Partners and benefiting Community Partners, we will officially kick off on May 1st as well as join the #GivingTuesdayNow global campaign on May 5th where we will invite all of you to Take the #FosterChallenge that will take place throughout the month of May to help raise awareness and funds for and during #NationalFosterCareMonth.
With the recent global pandemic of the #Coronavirus (#COVID19) that has forced the closing of many colleges, universities, and schools across the country, many foster youths may not have homes or families to go to or have enough food to eat.
“With the Los Angeles County having the largest population of foster youth in the country, The Los Angeles County Department of Child and Family Services (LADCFS) ensures the safety of more than two million children across our diverse county. Currently, our department provides services to 34,000 children and youth, half of whom are in foster care. Through the works of Philip Bailey of Earth Wind and Fire and his Music is Unity Foundation and the Mixed Roots Foundation, They have always given generously and have demonstrated such passion for providing foster youth memorable experiences,” Ginger Pryor, Chief Deputy Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, said. “And even in these changing times, when everyone is sheltering at home and schools are closed, the special collaboration of these wonderful organizations continues to invest in our youth and bring attention to the needs of children in foster care.”
Please consider Taking the #FosterChallenge by Bidding, Donating, and Sharing our newly established #FosterChallenge Emergency Fund that will provide critical funding that will cover costs for meals/food, housing, computer/technological support, transportation, childcare, healthcare/medical, and educational needs.
Our goal is to raise $1,000,000 and will be distributed across the country to Foster Youth in need and our Communtiy Partners that serve them – All who have been hit the hardest by this devastating virus. Funds will be distributed in the first week of June 2020.
Thank you for all of your support and participation – #We CanDoThis!!
To learn more or Become a Donor, Sponsor or Partner by offering a silent auction item or experience or assist with media coverage, please email email@example.com
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)
Jeanette Yoffe explains foster care to adoption from the child’s point of view.
The transition from foster care to adoption can be very difficult for a child and there are many challenges to take into consideration. The challenges center around separation and loss, trust, rejection, guilt and shame, identity, intimacy, loyalty, and mastery or power and control. I will primarily be dealing with children between the ages of six and twelve and their developmental stages. Followed by ways in which parents and therapists can understand how to help a foster or adopted child cope with these psychological complexities so the transition can be smoother for all involved.
I chose this topic because I was a foster child until the age of seven and was “finally” adopted. And having lived the experience, I know how helpless a child can feel and how helpless I have felt. Separation and loss from a family are very difficult emotionally for a child especially when they have formed an attachment. The pain, loss, and memories will remain with them for the rest of their lives. Since the age of 8, I have been in psychotherapy. Therapy has allowed me to take a deeper look at my own life and share it with others. Writing also helps me come to a deeper understanding and forgiveness for all of my families. And with that deep understanding, I hope to educate others of a child’s needs in foster care and adoption so that the pain will be eased that much more for generations to come.
First, I would like to define the difference between foster care and adoption:
Foster care provides temporary relief care for children. Children generally are placed in foster care by child welfare agencies. But, some of these children are voluntarily placed in foster care when circumstances, such as illness, death or adolescent pregnancy prevent their parents from caring for them. In cases of child abuse or neglect, social service agencies may remove children involuntarily and place them with foster parents. Most foster placements are made with the intention of reuniting the biological family at a later time although the percentages are low. Agencies also place children in foster care while searching for adoptive parents.
Adoption is a procedure by which people legally assume the role of “parents” for a person who is not their biological child. Adopted children become full members of their adopted family and have the same status as biological children. The majority of people who adopt are married couples, of all ethnic, racial, religious backgrounds, same-sex couples, as well as single-household families.
Children in foster care are forced to deal with many emotions starting with the aftermath of abandonment. They often feel unwanted and unloved because they “psychologically feel” a physical and emotional abandonment from their birth parents. Some children have been moved from place to place so often, (statistical average is 3-4 placements) they believe it is because of something they must have done to cause this and as a result begin to internalize their pain and blame themselves causing intense shame. They suffer from separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is defined as a grief reaction to unresolved loss. (Lifton, 1994) This separation is associated with the visceral feeling of loss from the time of that first separation from the birth mother. (Lifton, 1994) It is very traumatic for the child and difficult to grieve.
Most children try to repress their feelings because they become too difficult to handle. Even the mere thought of saying “goodbye” to a friend, can be very traumatic, for fear they may never see that person again. Some children develop chronic illnesses as a result of their constant anxiety such as stomach aches, headaches, allergies, asthma chronic fatigue or stuttering as a result of separation from their mother. There is a close association between gastrointestinal functioning and emotional states. The ‘not being able to stomach” their pain is closely related to the unconscious fear of another abandonment or the deprivation of food or further nurturing. (Nancy Newton Verrier, 1993)
They can feel easily frightened and scared. They can understand cognitively the situation they are in is only temporary and that they can be moved at any time. However to psychologically survive the experience some children will develop a rich fantasy life, which allows them to escape from painful memories. This escaping is a coping mechanism that is learned early on. Children can seem like they are in a trance by their emotional detachment or passivity in normal activities. Also called dissociation. Any type of mental activity seems difficult because it involves the memory – something foster children are trying to keep at bay. (Verrier, 1993) It is common for many foster children to be diagnosed with A.D.D or A.D.H.D.
In middle childhood, children are beginning to understand the meanings and implications of events but this can be very difficult for them. They can’t fully comprehend what is happening to them, so some children choose another coping mechanism; “the fight or flight mode.” The flight mode develops a fantasy world that takes them away from their present situation to the extent of believing their biological mother will come back and rescue them. While the latter develops deep anger and will act out or fight feeling anything. Their fear is risking further rejection. They will hide their feelings and emotions in fear of getting hurt again. Some children will mask their pain and hide behind a “false self” which they subconsciously create for themselves as a coping mechanism. But by masking their pain and denying their painful feelings will only get worse and lead to depression. The immense pain can lead to anger which can become internalized and lead to suicide or self-mutilation, another way of trying to unleash their painful depression.
When a child is moved from foster care to adoption there are many things to take into consideration how a child understands this transition. The child now has a permanent place to call home. Even though it is now “official” he/she may still not believe that they will not be abandoned again. Not only has the child left his/her biological family but has now left a second family and is moving onto the third if they were not in more than one foster home before. The child now experiences another loss to suffer, loss of the foster family.
With the loss of the foster family, they are now told who the “real” Mommy and Daddy are. The feelings are bittersweet on the one hand it is all very exciting but on the other, there is a lot of unresolved loss and confusion. There is an intense love and intense sadness dynamic which occurs.
Foster children are often ashamed of their past and unsure of the present. Some children are so used to the experience they are ready at any moment to pack up and leave. I remember as a child being very neat and knowing where all of my few belongings were “just in case” I needed to leave again, I was ready.
When a child is finally adopted and no longer in foster care, there are new beginnings but much is left be said of their pasts. Most adoptive parents don’t want to relive what their child has experienced but they will ultimately have to join, understand, grieve with and help make sense of their child’s past with them. These are things that become issues for newly adoptive families.
Birthdays are critical times. This day brings them back to their birth and their birthmother and questions about family or origin. It can bring up issues of loss or anger and empty feelings. They feel disconnected from their past. The British researcher H.J. Sants coined the term “genealogical bewilderment” in 1964 to describe this sense of disconnectedness. (Brodzinsky, Schechter, Marantz, 1992)
There will be an ethnic and racial awareness of their new family. Do they look like them? What are our similarities? Physical characteristics help children define themselves and make connections with others. Feelings of belonging and security are nurtured by looking like the people around you and when they are absent children become confused. (Brodzinsky, Schechter, Marantz, 1992) Additional issues arise when adopted children come from a different culture than their adoptive parents. Adoptions in which the adoptive parents and their adopted child are of different races, known as transracial adoptions, pose special difficulties. When children belong to a different race than either of their parents, others in the community very quickly become aware that the children are adopted. Transracial adoptive families often face everything from innocent curiosity to outright hostility and prejudice. Many adoptive parents educate themselves about their child’s birth culture so that they can offer their child support and help build self-esteem.
Separation anxiety can occur. For example staying over a friend’s house, going to school or to camp. Adoptees have trouble leaving home or going to college. While other teenagers are separating from their parents and turning to people outside the family circle, many adoptees fear to venture far from the only place that stands between them and the void. (Lifton, 1994)
There may be a testing-out period. The child may try to provoke the very rejection he/she fears most. They will reject the parents before the parents can reject them. It is as if the child cannot trust that he/she will not again be abandoned. (Verrier, 1993)
On the other hand, some children will have the burning desire to excel in school, in sports, in their careers and rearing a family. They may become very successful at everything they do in order to please others and be accepted by others. One adoptee puts in clearly “… when they said, “Jump!” I asked, “How high!”
Many adoptees will say they feel as if a “part of them is missing”, they have difficulty with their identity and what they are supposed to be? They are longing to find that part of themselves that has been lost.
As an adoptee develops, he/she will struggle with feelings of duality or duplicity. In dual identity, there is a false self as an adoptee and a real self in relation to the biological family. (Brodzinsky, Schechter, Marantz, 1992) What this means is the initial self that was exposed and rejected is now hidden behind another self in order to protect the real self from being hurt again. So, it’s like they are living in two worlds.
As therapists and prospective adoptive parents, how can we help these children?
Adoptees have, by the very act of adoption, go through a lot. By the time adoptees are adults, they have survived separation from their birth parents, have acclimated to a new family, have dealt with fantasy and fears, have confronted identity issues, and have navigated relationships. The awareness of having survived such stages and transitions can give the adoptee’s strength and determination in various areas of their lives. The downside of this feeling of survival is that some adoptees find it difficult to depend on others and instead are very independent. It is important for adoptees to realize that healthy relationships involve interdependence- depending on one’s self and depending on others. (Russell, 1996)
Understand the difference between attachment and bonding, two terms often used interchangeably. It is safe to say that most adopted children form attachments to their adoptive parents. This is a kind of emotional dependence, which may seem crucial to their survival. Bonding, on the other band, may not be so easily achieved. It implies a profound connection, which is experienced at all levels of human awareness. As an infant, bonding instills a child with a sense of well-being and wholeness necessary for healthy emotional development. (Verrier, 1993) When the bond is interrupted the child does not develop a bond with the birth mother and his/her needs have not been met.
Nancy Verrier, a clinical psychologist and adoptive mother said ‘The severing of that connection between adopted child and his birthmother causes a primal or narcissistic wound, which affects the adoptee’s sense of self and manifests in a sense of loss, basic mistrust, anxiety and depression, emotional or behavioral problems, and difficulties in relationships with significant others. And that abandoned baby lives inside each and every adoptee all his or her life.”
Parents need to understand that the foster child or adopted child they are getting comes with a past, which they may never be able to fully comprehend. Parents need to try not to mold their child into their fantasy of what they want him or her to be for them. The child is who they already are especially if the child is coming to them at an older age.
In order to understand an adoptee’s past parents and therapists need to listen and be there for them because they will have a lot of pain. Difficult as it is for parents to watch their adopted children try to deal with the pain of adoption or foster related loss, they can do nothing to spare them. They can, however, help ease the process by providing a supportive, nurturing environment in which the emotional storms of grieving can be weathered. Be available and listen, help them clarify their emotions, and accept whatever” feelings they are expressing and accept them as valid. (Verrier, 1993)
The following is the Adoptee ‘s Bill of Rights written by Sherrie Eldridge, a psychologist, who was also adopted:
I have the right to feel confused.
After all, I have had two sets of parents, one of which was shrouded in secrecy.
I have the right to fear abandonment and rejection.
After all, 1 was abandoned by the one I was most intimate -with.
I have the right to acknowledge the pain.
After all, I lost my closest relative at the youngest age possible.
I have the right to grieve.
After all, everyone else in society acknowledges strong emotions.
I have a right to express my emotions.
After all, they have been shut down ever since adoption day.
By parent’s nonjudgmental responses, parents can show their children that these ups and downs are normal, real, acceptable—and temporary. (Brodzinsky, Schechter, Marantz, 1992)
Remind adoptees of their strengths, competence, and worth as people. This helps them gain some esteem over the deep sense of helplessness. Look for the opportunities and help express them. Foster and adopted children will gain a greater sense of self and pride … that which is mostly absent.
Expose adoptee’s to other adoptee’s so they can receive validation by hearing another person’s story. This will create bonding which is something that was lost for the adoptee. It will give them the freedom to be themselves with those like themselves. Learn more about the support I began in Los Angeles, The Adopt Salon.
Coming from experience, adoption is not an easy task for all involved. One adoptee put it well, “It’s like getting to the end of the book and you have two more pages left and you lose the book.” Adoption, I feel, like life is a process. It is an issue, which needs to be dealt with properly, so the experience can be beautiful for all. Each person from child to parent is ultimately giving each other what they were searching for in the first place: love and a family. It is a beautiful dichotomy that unfortunately is taken for granted every day.
Brodzinsky, David M., Schechter, Marshall and Henig Marantz, Robin. (1992).
Being Adopted-The Lifelong Search for Self. New York, NY: Doubleday.
Eldridge, Sherrie. (1999). Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew. New York, NY: Dell Publishing.
Lifton, Betty Jean. (1994). Journey of the Adopted Self. New York, NY: BasicBooks.
Miller, Alice. (1997). The Drama of the Gifted Child. New York, NY: BasicBooks.
Russell, Marlou. (1996). Adoption Wisdom. Santa Monica, CA: Broken Branch Productions.
Verrier, Nancy Newton. (1993). The Primal Wound. Baltimore, MD: Gateway Press