How do cultural misperceptions and adoption stereotypes affect our children, ourselves as parents, and our family dynamics? When movies or books paint adoptees as a "bad seed" or unwanted inconvenience, how does it impact us emotionally and shape our relationships within our own families and beyond our inner circle out in our communities? When thoughtless folks ask demeaning questions it both shocks and offends us.
Let me set the stage. Like most adoptive families, we discussed adoption with our kids from an early age. They knew they'd been adopted. With the naive innocence of little ones, they'd absorbed the story with little appreciation of the complex realities of adoption that would evolve as they matured. They felt no need to hide their adoption. Their circle of friends and classmates all knew this fact about them.
I recall when my now-adult son reported being teased by his first-grade peers because he had a small birthmark on his face. His intense distress felt significant. I sensed this was a Big Deal Moment, not routine. When I pressed for more details, I learned his classmates asserted his birthmark resulted from his being abandoned by his birth mother (untrue) and left out on the street (untrue) where he became so dirty he could never become completely clean. Let me repeat that.
He. Could. Never. Become. Clean.
The inference he drew left him feeling, dirty, inferior, rejected. In addition to any personal adoption-connected loss and grief issues the friends whom he had trusted with his story betrayed him in a way that cut deeply. He absorbed their words on several levels. Felt judged. Ugly. Rejected. Hurt. Othered.
For years we dealt with the fallout from this--and unfortunately many similar incidents. Like all bullying and mean-spirited words, they could not be "unheard" and remained deep within his memory. Part of him feared this hateful message might be true.
Where had his "friends" picked up this message about adoption? At home? Through the media (TV, film, books)? By absorbing cultural myths about adoption? Regardless of the source, we had to deal with the fallout.
Parents currently raising adopted children, what do your children's friends and classmates believe and "know" about adoption? Their attitudes will determine how they will treat your kids. (Also, be aware of the attitudes and biases of extended family and friends. Unless you've educated them in adoption-attuned awareness, they will rely on what they subconsciously "know" from cultural messages and biases. Consider sharing Patricia Irwin Johnston's book, Adoption Is A Family Affair.)
This raises another important caveat. How to teach adopted children how to respond to these kinds of conversations. Parents must be pro-active and must not wait until a child has been blindsided by adoption-ignorant. bullying talk.
Explain that many people do not understand adoption and might question the real-ness of their family or might imply that adoption was their fault. (Unfortunately, kids are pre-disposed to believe this already. They assume something must be wrong with them because they can imagine no adequate reason for their birth mother to have opted not to raise them.)
Teach kids the distinction between private and secret when it comes to their adoption. Remind them not to share the specific details of their history. Instead help them internalize a generalized response. Distinguish between private which is a boundary issue versus secret which implies shame.
Arm them with responses that enable them to feel strong, worthy and assertive. Practice so they can stand in a position of strength not vulnerability. For example,
Birth moms have adult problems that prevent them from raising any baby, etc.
My parents worked very hard to bring me home.
No, Miss Hannigan did not run my orphanage....
If your adopted child has been affected by a classmate’s or friend’s comment, or even something on the news or TV, make sure you stay attune to his feeling and needs when you discuss this issue with him/her. Let him/her express what they feel without adding your own feelings or outrage. Validate their reactions. Avoid minimizing or intensifying them. Once they have completely expressed themselves, share your own reasons for your thoughts or positions without trying to persuade them. Simply offer your side of things with an eye to show as we discussed last week that multiple points of view can co-exist, be contradictory and be simultaneously true.
In summary, parents must be mindful of the media messages that your children encounter regarding adoption. Vet films and books ahead of time so you can identify potential triggers. Talk, talk, talk about adoption when everyone is relaxed; don't wait until it's a "situation."
Writing to Connect reviews books through adoption-attuned lenses. Most of the titles are not directly about adoption. The intent for these reviews is to identify talking points from every day literature which naturally evolve into important adoption-related conversations. Find suggestions for books that contain a theme that might help you address specific issues with your adopted children.
Consult resources like Adoption at the Movies for tips on films that contain adoption themes or triggers.
Family building via adoption requires effort, commitment, education, intentionality and a willingness to take a risk--by both parent and child. Each must muster the courage to open emotionally and be vulnerable to the other. When we dare to love, we also understand that the risk of being hurt exists. We accept that risk because we believe the opportunity to love and be in relationship far outweighs any emotional pain.
When we adopt children who have spent years in orphanages, we realize that the risks and challenges increase. The strategies on which children in orphanages depend for survival, don't magically fall away once these children are adopted. Experience taught them that relying on others is dangerous, that the only one on whom it is safe to depend is themselves, that caring about or for others only leads to heartbreak. This "successful" skill set kept them safe under adverse experiences. They believe in their methods. They have real-life data to prove the value of this self-isolating approach.
Seen in this light, it is no surprise that it takes tremendous courage, effort and a great deal of time before a child dares to risk trust and attachment. Often described as RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder; it is also known as Reactive Attachment Syndrome.) I would argue it is less a "disorder" and more a strategy that has outlived its effectiveness. Their strategy becomes counter-productive and causes kids to deny themselves the love and security they crave and which adoptive parents are eager to share with them. While it is not easy to break through the prison of RAD, it is possible. Michele Weidenbenner has written a fictionalized story which begins in a Russian orphanage. Convinced by her experiences, Oksana believes that trust as an unafforable luxury. "Scattered Links"chronicles her family's triumph over RAD. Read my detailed book review here. Her story offers hope to those coping with attachment challenges.
When we interviewed Michele for this post we focused on this book but she has written many others as well.
I wanted to show the frustration that a parent might have who wants to bond with a child who can’t trust, who struggles with knowing how to love someone. I also wanted to show the child’s side of the story, so adopted parents and foster parents would see a different perspective, so parents might better understand why a child who’s suffered a difficult beginning might not be capable of loving or trusting someone.
Here is how one reader summed it up, which thrilled me:
“A thoughtful story about the complexities of the well-intentioned who set out to "rescue" orphans from horrible conditions, and the attachment difficulties that arise from adopting a child who has lived a lifetime of abuse and/or neglect. The book was realistic. The characters were well developed and real. It would have been so easy to have written this as a "Hooray for the good Christian couple who rescues poor orphans from a horrible existence." Instead the book looks honestly at the motivations of all involved, and calls into serious question the "happily ever after" ending that one assumes happens when older children are adopted. A serious but up-beat book. The ending is honest but hopeful without being overly cheesy.”
Before we adopted our daughter from Russia, we had been foster parents, too, so I read a lot of parenting books. However, it was the psychologist who did our home study who really pushed us to see that sometimes love is NOT enough.
I didn’t want to believe her though. I thought she was rude and a bit extreme, but she was trying to give us a more realistic viewpoint of what adopting a post-institutionalized child might be like. She didn’t sugar coat anything. I was naïve because I wanted to believe that she was wrong, that my child would bond with us because we would provide the right environment.
I had faith that God would give us the child He intended for us to raise, that He would help us through the ups and downs.
I didn’t adopt to ‘rescue’ a child, I knew it was going to be a challenge. I adopted a child because I never felt that our family was complete. I felt that I was being called to adopt, and that God had His own agenda. He was using me to facilitate His work. (We have two biological children, but I couldn’t conceive again.)
Great questions. There are a few typos that I’d love to go in and fix, but it’s not that easy. I had hired at least three or four editors and an oops editor before this book was published, and yet there are still a few missing letters and typos. I despise that, but reformatting everything and reloading the book at all the sites is really complicated, expensive, and timely.
As far as changing the plot—I don’t think there is anything I would change. There comes a time when you write a novel that you need to say, “It’s finished.” The Doubt Devil will often squeeze into a writer’s thoughts that will make us think it’s not good enough. We have to constantly fight him.
Perhaps I would handle the “Gotcha Day” day part differently. We celebrate the day that our daughter “got” us and we “got” her, but after you mentioned how this could be perceived, I might arrange that part differently.
I remember the day she texted me from school—she was a junior at the time—and she said how much she loved the book. She rarely read or asked me about my work, so I was thrilled.
I asked her your question today (she’s 20 years old now) and she shrugged. She said she couldn’t remember much about the book. She never thought the story was about her, and it wasn’t. Her story is different. However, I gave a character in the book her Russia name, Ruzina. She loved that.
Just like so many other families, we waited a long time for Olivia. We were paper ready to go to China (in 1997), but they closed their doors and said since we had two children they were not going to allow us to adopt from their country. I know, it doesn’t make sense, but they were making the rules. I was sad.
We were nervous about adopting a child from Russia because of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and all the horror stories we heard about families who adopted a child from Russia with this disorder.
The process was long and uncertain, but what I learned along the way was to have faith. My faith grew. Adoption made our family closer.
I think I’ve always been hyper-focused on this. I didn’t know what it was called, but having a strong healthy relationship with our daughter mattered to me from the very first moment we met her, and it’s still a top priority.
At our first meeting with Olivia, I was looking for signs of attachment issues—did she look away when I made eye contact? Did she have sensory issues? Yes and yes.
She was 25 months old and weighed 16.5 pounds. (But today she’s only 4’11” and 100 pounds, so she’s a peanut.) She was developmentally delayed and walked with tight fists. She didn’t even know how to smile. But within days she learned to smile, grew stronger and met our gazes.
When we returned to America, we worked with an occupational therapist on sensory-integrated training, and enrolled her in First Steps—a program for children with developmental delays. She learned sign language and was given the opportunity to work through her. It didn’t take long before she began to grow and thrive. Watching this progression was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had—seeing through the eyes of a two-year-old “new born.” Everything was a new experience for her.
Adoption is a huge commitment and a life-long endeavor. The responsibility is great, but so is the reward if you don’t expect your child to thank you. Your child might, but don’t expect it. Don’t adopt for that reason.
Post-institutionalized children are special needs children regardless of their situation. Each child suffered abandonment. We don’t know how a child will be affected by that, but it can dampen their self-esteem and make life difficult.
Adopt for the right reasons –not because you want to do a good deed. Do it because you are committed to helping that child become an independent adult who contributes to society.
Be open to getting outside help to strengthen the relationship with your child.
Olivia will be 21 in a few weeks and still lives with us. We’re encouraging her on her college journey. She wants to be an environmental scientist, but also has a huge interest in teaching others about God, which is difficult for her because she’s an introvert.
I also love to coach Mom’s who are considering adoption. People reach out to me often. I don’t sugar coat it. I tell it like it is.
I write what’s on my heart. Most of the stories are about social issues, but I have a huge heart for children. Adoption is just one issue.
Cache a Predator, my thriller, is about a father’s quest to get custody of his five-year-old daughter.
My children’s book series, Éclair, is about a seven-year-old girl who has to live with her grandma because her mother is ill and her father goes to work. It’s a modern-day Junie B. Jones story. So many children are growing up in extended families—grandfamilies—that I wanted to write a series about that kind of family situation. However, there is humor in this story.
Fractured Not Broken, is a true story of a woman who’s rendered a quadriplegic at the hands of a drunk driver. However, there is an adoption piece to this story, too.
I have a YA series that hasn’t been published yet. It’s about a girl who has special healing abilities. However, she’s an adopted child, too, but that’s just a subplot to the story.
I also have a mid-grade novel that hasn’t been published yet, but there’s nothing in that story about adoption. However, there’s a centaur, a talking dog, and a frog in the story.
Award-Winning and Bestselling Author
John Maxwell Team Speaker, Coach and Trainer
Blog: Teaching Kids To Lead By Equipping Moms and Dads Twitter: @MWeidenbenner1
Americans value success. We believe our land of opportunity rewards hard work and determination. Last week we discussed Dr. Michele Borba's excellent book, Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. Dr. Borba asked us to consider that we can focus on traditional success-producing skills and even increase the likelihood of success if we place equal emphasis on empathy. This allows us to raise children who shine both as human beings and as high achieving go-getters.
As Intentional Parents, how does fostering empathy influence our parenting priorities, practices and choices? What will we change, eliminate. add, or emphasize? How will it alter our expectations of our own behavior as well as our children's?
Psychologist Dr. Daniel Goleman coined the concept of Emotional Intelligence and defined it in terms of five elements. Empathy is one of those foundational ingredients. When we parent with an awareness of the role emotions and emotional intelligence play, we can work with our children to nurture them to maturity as well-rounded individuals who succeed in all aspects of their being.
We cannot intimidate our children into behaving. Yelling will not elicit their cooperation. We must carefully nurture their internalization of family values and their decision to live by them. We do not want to be their wardens; we want to be their role models.
How does this look in action within our Intentional families? Imagine a moment of disagreement between you and your child ... You're frustrated, maybe even angry and worried. You are determined to hold strong and deny what your child has requested.
Now imagine their response... Most likely your decision evoked their anger as well as disappointment. This mutual anger feeds off itself and each of you digs in, amplifies your certainty about the rightness of your stance.
How might an Intentional Parent handle this scenario differently? Remember the recent topics of Deep Listening and Empathy. How might it look when Adoption-attuned parents embrace those two principles?
Here's a sample dialog.
First acknowledge the obvious: "Wow, you really feel angry and disappointed." Expect them to double-down on this position and their anger. LISTEN. Do not debate our attempt to change their mind. At this point, do not reiterate your position or impose consequences for their behavior. They will probably keep blowing up, expecting push back from you. Your lack of resistance confounds them, alters their expectations, and, interrupts the pattern of arguing.
Second, deliver a second unexpected response: validate their emotions. Genuinely empathize with them. "I get angry too when things don't go my way." Anticipate an emotion-charged reply. And again, listen... Allow them to unload until their fury dissipates, the "emotional hijacking" ends and, they are capable of listening.
Third, maintain a neutral stance and repeat their position, enumerating their reasons and desired goal. Seek affirmation that you've expressed their position to their satisfaction. The goal here is not to create a winner and a loser. It is to sustain a relationship, model respect and to inculcate our Values. (Later when everyone is calm, address the issue of disagreeing with respect. Practice it; do overs are much more effective than shouting matches. Remember both parties benefit from this practice.)
Finally, restate your parental position. Include any adjustments only if you are now willing to consider them. Choose your language precisely. avoid the word "but." It is a relationship killer. For example. if Trevor cannot attend his friend's party, reiterate their request, then express your stance like this: You had your heart set on going. Many of your friends will be there AND we stand by our decision that you cannot join them."
At this point do NOT expect that they'll slap on a happy face and enthusiastically accept your decision. Do expect them to abide by it. Allow them the time and space to be disappointed and vent their anger--in their room. Choosing empathy and Deep Listening does not mean parents stand there like a punching bag. Walk away and do not reignite the discussion. If necessary, reply once, "Asked and answered," then disengage with calm and respect.
Recall a recent argument between yourself and your child (or spouse.) How might have this empathy based approach improved the interaction?
Authentic listening is one of the most essential communication skills and one of the hardest to master. Often, we listen with an ear to refute or rebut what the speaker says. This is especially common when we listen to our kids. We seek ways to convince them of the rightness of our own position, and/or the unreasonableness of theirs. We focus on getting our point across instead of listening to their point of view.
Imagine what might happen if we chose to turn off the Gotcha! mentality and decided to listen deeply, to attend to each point the child is making. Without interrupting them. Without predetermining our response. Without telegraphing judgment, doubt or other negative response in either word or body language.
Imagine asking for clarity until we truly "get" their point and can respectfully repeat their points precisely. How many of us have ever delivered that level of deep listening? Whaaat? You might be thinking, "I'm not letting the kiddos run the show.. I'm not giving in to their whining, etc." That is not what we propose.
Here's the pivotal distinction: listening for authentic understanding does not promise agreement; it promises a respectful, open heart and mind. Once we genuinely hear each of the speaker's points, we can see both the position and their intended goal.
From this point, we can seek to build agreement, compromise of even disagreement. People will be more inclined to accept your response if they feel fully heard. Of course, there is no guarantee they'll be happy but they will have had an experience rooted in respect. That interaction builds connection, teaches them good communication skills and affirms the Family Value of respect. Have you ever been the recipient of this kind of listening? Recall how affirming that felt. Now imagine choosing to be that kind of listener. Imagine the potential impact on your family...
From the vantage point of Intentional Parenting, we strive to engage in ways that build attachment, embody our Family Values, and successfully communicate our points of view. Stack the odds for a successful conversation by following these steps to mastering Deep Listening.
Consider timing: Deep Listening requires that both listener and speaker be fully engaged. Choose the time for your conversations; the immediate moment might not be your best option. For example, the middle of a play-off game, during one's favorite TV show, etc, probably won't attract the most attentive or cooperative response.
Rephrase their points in your own words Then ask for affirmation that you have stated their point of view correctly. Repeat this sequence until they confirm that you've "gotten" their position.
State your response with empathy and respect. Monitor your tone and body language. Resist the temptation to be dismissive, irritated or, patronizing; these will undermine the entire process. Attitude will directly affect your effort to communicate respectfully.
Be aware of the distinction between what you intend to say, what you actually say and what the listener thinks you said. An entire universe of misunderstanding can take place in those spaces. Note the graphic on the left for some examples of how conversations can be misunderstood or misinterpreted.
Both parties have interior conversations with themselves about what is spoken, what was intended and what they inferred was being said. Often the "history" between the two colors the interaction more than what is actually said. Both parent and child need to periodically update their inner transcript to reflect and acknowledge changes in behavior. In the absence of this updating, any efforts to change go unnoticed and former, less healthy patterns will most likely reestablish themselves.
Track your progress. Observe how this level of authentic listening impacts your family dynamics. Acknowledge the small improvements. Every step is valuable. Notice the changes in your feelings, family morale and the effectiveness of your conversations. How has this positive focus spilled over into other areas of family dynamics?
Review any less-than-successful interactions to identify the points at which your Intention fell apart or fell short of your goal. Make those leverage points your focus as you recommit to improving family communication.
It takes courage to be a beginner. None of us like to look or feel inadequate. But it is worth the struggle! Acknowledge that it is not easy to master new skills. It will take many times at bat before consistent improve occurs. Allow yourself--and the rest of the family--time and practice to accomplish this goal. Remain steadfast in the face of any failures and turn those shortfalls into stepping stones to success.
When will you take on this mindful communication practice?
As a parent, mistakes, miscalls, misunderstandings, and miscalculations are inevitable. We all know that intellectually but still we beat ourselves up. Often we forget to respond with intention. (Remember the distinction between responding and reacting. The first is calculated and considered, the second is impulsive and emotion-fueled.)
The typical conversation regarding mistakes focuses on how to learn from them as in "failing forward, using our failures as stepping-stones to choose better, be less reactionary and avoid repeating mistakes. All worthy goals. But let's take a slightly different tack.
Consider how to use the way we handle our own mistakes as templates for our kids. Imagine we are showing them what to do after they've made a mistake. Because that is in fact the reality of parenting: we are perpetually performing the next installment of "Raising healthy, happy, successful children. Without an instruction manual. Without a course syllabus. Without a road map. We're on our own.
We've had to discard the parenting model of our family of origin; it doesn't fit the circumstance. So every member of the family is striving to understand how adoption uniquely shapes experience. And for most of us this is our first time traversing this world.
We struggle. We try. We fail. And we try again. We get discouraged. As Intentional Parents we expect and accept the struggle; we recommit.
Until. We. Succeed: we find a pattern that works for us.
Until. It. Doesn't.
Take on a Practice For two weeks, whenever you are wrestling to accomplish a challenge, learn a new skill or, deal with a difficult co-worker, fight the urge to procrastinate, try this. Like a young child, vocalize your inner dialog. Allow your kids to overhear your inner process, that conversation inside your head that wrestles with overwhelm, frustration and doubt to remind you of your goals and responsibilities and which helps you to resist temptation. Reveal the struggle and the various strategies you use to meet and defeat challenges.
In the absence of evidence to the contrary, kids assume this type of "adult" behavior comes easy for us. They assume that we learn without effort, enjoy doing chores, that our jobs are free of the relationship tensions that plague them on the schoolyard. To their eyes, it appears that we speed down the highway of life with few obstacles, road blocks, pot holes, and disappointments.
This practice of letting them experience our inner world accomplished two things. First, it defeats their assumption that we face no problems, Second, it models persistence through the use of many strategies, of digging deep into our "tool box" until we find the one that fits the particular circumstance.
If your children are young, consider reading Todd Parr's It's Okay to Make Mistakes
Admittedly, we don't generally wear our shorts on our heads or our socks on our ears like Parr's characters, but we do take many "opportunities" to mess up. Every failure or misstep gives us an equal number of chances to practice getting it right.
How might this simple practice or processing things out loud benefit you and your family?
A noteworthy comment, we are always parents no matter what the age of our “children”. Letting our adult children make mistakes is not always easy to observe, and yet, it is vital to their growth and development. As parents, it is beneficial for us to remember that it is important to continue to enter their world and understand them as human beings. Intentional parenting continues throughout their life as well as ours.
Next week we'll explore ways of "making it right." Repairing damaged relationships is a vital skill which we all need to master.