Life-affirming people make us feel better after being with them. The way they speak and interact resonates, refreshes & supports us. Through their words and demeanor, we feel heard, seen and, validated. They listen attentively and respectfully. We feel the difference. They believe in us and thus remind us to believe in ourselves. They roll up their shirtsleeves and then dig in and help. We blossom within this type of rare and blessed relationship.
As adoptive parents, we have the opportunity—the obligation—to create this level of communication within our families. Since adoption is the most significant factors that make our families unique, the way we communicate around adoption occupies center stage in our family dynamics and family cohesion. Our silences have as much if not more, impact than our words.
It is a truism that adoption brings together disparate individuals and grafts them into a family. Unlike a cake mix where simple stirring blends the ingredients sufficiently, adoption requires a unique, life-long commitment to understanding how to best fulfill the needs of adoptees. It also mandates that we maintain an understanding about how our own grief and loss issues contribute to the complexity. We cannot afford to deny that these raw spots exist. To do so would require that we build a false façade that dooms the entire family to role-playing instead of genuinely connecting.
Both parents and children have emotional hot spots—triggers—which can be easily detonated and lead to hurt feelings and damaged relationships. This blog will focus on only one of the many contributing elements: the role language plays in shaping family relationships. We cannot afford to be cavalier or haphazard with our words, nor can we default to cultural phrases and assumptions about adoption. We must dig deeper, be intentional, and use language in a positive, almost therapeutic way. We must maintain a scrupulous awareness of how we use language.
The push/pull between the influences of nature and nurture is undeniable in adoptive families. Both forces operate in a constantly changing balance. The differences that exist between ourselves and our children contribute as much as our commonalities to shape who we are as individuals and as a family.
All families have differences. We are, after all, not clones but individuals. Adoptive families are even more likely to have areas where preferences and inclinations don’t quite synchronize. The way we talk about—or ignore this challenge—impacts our relationships and the attachment-building process.
Most of the time we appreciate the zest and spice that our children’s differences add to our families. Sometimes, however, their aptitudes and inclinations challenge us. A family of sports nuts, for example, may be utterly confounded by their child’s total disinterest in things athletic. Or, a family whose generations have been steeped in the arts, music, and dance may be frustrated with their child’s refusal to engage while they prefer to focus their complete attention on sports.
As Intentional Parents, we strive to respect the entire spectrum of the family’s aptitudes, successes, and struggles with mutual respect. We choose to consciously honor, nurture and encourage their unique—and different—interests and abilities. We scrupulously avoid sending a message that we wish they were different—code for “more like us.” It is essential to release our children from the straitjacket of expectations limited to historical family patterns. Language counts in this regard. So does silence.
Once we adopted, we entered a new world, one that includes substantial differences. We must embrace this infusion of difference and never convey disappointment or resentment or imply that who their DNA has designed them to be is not quite good enough. Most especially, we must not imply that our children should stifle their natural talents and subjugate them to our family’s “traditional” patterns as the unspoken cost for acceptance into our families.
Our children struggle with the weight and challenge of the inevitable differences they feel as they walk through life and accomplish the task of becoming themselves within the context of our families. This is not an easy job. They must in essence, “build the bridge as they are walking across it,” and figure out how to straddle their dual identity of biology and biography.* They need our guidance and encouragement and the words we use to express our support matters.
When our child pursues an activity which we find dull, uninteresting, or not “worthwhile,” the judgmental part of our consciousness may undermine our best intentions to convery neutrality and acceptance. For example, a sports nut mom may find it excruciating to listen to her child drone in minute detail about a piece of music or favorite film. She might make an auto-pilot comment like, “That’s interesting.” That phrase commonly operates as code for BORING. At best it damns with “faint praise.”
Often our body language conveys our authentic feelings in direct contradiction to our spoken words: eyes roll or avoid contact, mouth gapes open or we remain focused on our own task rather than fully engage with our child.
(The message is clear whether vocalized or not.) Although the adage says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” we all know the truth that contradicts this old saw. Some words cut to the core, flay the spirit, and destroy self-esteem.
Once spoken and heard, such toxic words cannot be taken back, “unheard” or forgotten. Forgiveness may follow, but the memory of such verbal poison and the emotional message they convey will linger. The scar will remain as a memory of a painful experience and a permanent part of their inner audiotape.
The quicksand of harsh words can damage our children. Adoption has its roots in loss–for parent and child–and this reality can leave us vulnerable to feelings of shame, self-doubt and, inadequacy. As the saying goes, “Hurt people hurt people.” In other words, when people feel hurt, they tend to lash out in response. It is helpful to remind ourselves of this when our kids dish out hurtful or rejecting comments. The heat of the moment is not the time for a rational discussion.
Prepare for these conversations ahead of time and remember though the words are directed at us–and may be intentionally hurtful–they’re usually our child’s effort to unload pain and to offload it to parents. The reality is that their words can land on very raw and tender emotional hot spots within us. (We're human after all.) At some unconscious level, most adoptive parents wrestle with fears that their children might never fully bond with them. Many adoptive parents unconsciously fear that their children might prefer their biological parents. Others worry that their children might not have enough room for both their adoptive parents and their biological parents. (Kids fear the corollary.) These That’s a lot of fear on both sides of the equation.
Regardless of the buttons kids may push, or the emotional hand grenades they lobby parents must remain solid in their commitment to respectful, compassionate language. There is NEVER justification for the use of such “Black Box” phrases as:
“I wish we’d never adopted you.”
“You’re just like your mother (or father) [An insult is clearly implied]
“My biological children would never be like you.”
“Adopting you was a big mistake”
“You should be grateful we adopted you.”
“Maybe I’m not your real mom/dad but you’re not my real kid either.”
“You’re so puny, or such a big Amazon, or ____ (insert a phrase that attacks your child’s being.”
“You’re stuck with us; your parents didn’t want you.”
The preceding words do irreparable harm to the fragile bonds of attachment which require so much effort, time and intention to foster and strengthen and are, unfortunately, so easy to undermine an damage.
Here a few questions to consider.
What other toxic talk might be fatal to your relationships as a family?
When your kids say deeply hurtful things to you, how do you remain calm and “adult” and resist the urge to retaliate?
How might you model ways of “off-loading” pain in a way that does not hurt others?
Take the time to develop an arsenal of responses that support your child and your child who is experiencing an "emotional hijacking." (This is when they are so inflamed with emotion, their thinking brain is shut down. They're not thinking; they are downing in a tsunami of overwhelming and frightening emotions. Logic is useless. Reasoning and logic are futile. The time for discussion, problem-solving and consequences will come later, after the firestorm subsides.)
Here are some ways to respond.
It must be scary to feel angry enough to hate me. It sounds like "x" is really important to you.
I bet that feeling like I'm not your "real" mom (dad) must leave you feeling alone and unprotected.
I've never had to wonder who my real parents are; I think it must be both scary and painful.
Don't expect miracles. Notice that these responses focus on meeting the child where he is, not in yelling at them to calm down, not in screaming back a laundry list of escalating consequences and not in trying to impose parental control. They focus on conveying empathy, not winning the argument. This response is about salvaging the relationship and reminding them that it is something valuable. Bridge cross the crisis to connect and nurture the seeds of attachment. Remember when our kids are behaving in their must "unloveable" and unpleasant ways, it is usually when they need our love and reassurance the most.