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 an invisible wound that 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 of The 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. Be Playful with U & Me- Humor is very important to create a quality of lightness an openness. Laughter builds memories of unconditional acceptance of US.
2. Be Present with 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. Be Patient with 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 to Hold Onto My Feelings
A – Have an Acceptance of 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 feelings HERE.
Thank you for being there for me. I need you more than you know!
“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