Anyone connected with adoption knows that transitions tend to unsettle adoptees. Some posit that it echoes the primal loss of their being separated from their birth families. Regardless of how they connect to this profound loss, transitions do operate as trigger points for many (most) adoptees. Transitions tend to trigger uncertainty which in turn connects to fear, insecurity and, a sense of amorphic threat or danger. As Intentional parents, we work to be mindful of this hot-button and we use strategies to help our kiddos cope. Let's face it, nobody enjoys a meltdown—not even the kids. These emotional events leave everyone shaken by the intensity and depth of the feelings which undergird them.
They also tend to trigger visceral responses within us. A combination of irritation, frustration, overwhelm, helplessness, impotence, confusion and, even fear all vibrate—in a symphony of dissonance that leaves all feeling spent. What are some steps that help families to move forward? Attunement offers one excellent path.
Acknowledge: Keep it neutral! Resist the temptation to match their drama with our own responses. Stay factual. I can see you've got big feelings about this.
Witness: Move beyond the act of observing and choose to give witness. Just like in a courtroom, our words offer a perspective—ours—which informs how others understand the situation. Our testimony gives kids the language to express, describe and, capture their experience. Once kids have words to express their feelings and needs, they can begin to step off the hamster wheel of what Daniel Goleman calls an "emotional hijacking."
Language helps them label their thoughts, feelings and, needs. Words offer us a way to express their inner turmoil. This provides us some sense of being able to manage the "overwhelm". What happens when there are no words?
Think about it. When adopted as infants and toddlers, children have not yet mastered language. This means the trauma which adoptees experienced by being separated from their birth mothers is held as pre-verbal memory. This means it is not encoded in words. They experience the memory as a feeling without a script. Although "non-verbal," the memory holds a deeply entrenched, consuming sense of danger, fear and, abandonment on a sensate, cellular level. Without words to recapture and revisit the memory, it is experienced as unbounded, ongoing and unending. And, because it lacks a perceived beginning or end, these undefined, unlimited feelings are easily triggered throughout life.
They need us to provide tools to cope. A broad "emotional vocabulary" empowers them to transform the misperception that stressors are infinite, unlimited and permanent. Language imposes some boundaries. It provides them a way to package it so they can examine, assess and manage it.
Affirm: Adult adoptees frequently report that some of their most painful memories center around feeling invalidated and invisible. This happens when their feelings and concerns are dismissed, trivialized or ignored. Many report that they received powerful messages—either overtly or subtly—that adoption conversation could include only positives; that they were expected to choose undivided loyalty to the adoptive family and never refer to, or seek information about their birth families; that they needed to sublimate their natural talents and inclinations and follow the traditional patterns of the adoptive family; that discussing adoption distressed their parents. They chose to sacrifice themselves and learned to ignore their need for support in order to protect their adoptive parents.
Intentional parents have the opportunity to choose a healthier and more honest approach.
Affirm the realities of adoption. Welcome discussions—even painful ones—especially the painful ones. The absence of an open forum forces children to wrestle with these issues alone and without the support they need to process them. Embrace a Both/And paradigm that makes space for adoptive and birth family; Don't make them choose one over the other. They need both.
Set boundaries: One thing parents fear is that if they try to "connect before correct" kids will grab the upper hand and the family will devolve into chaos. In reality, if we try to yell, persuade or punish a child who is in the stranglehold of an emotional hijacking, we engage in a lose/lose situation.
Overwhelming emotions blunt the brain's ability to think, limit the body's ability to regain control and, completely focuses on a fear/flight/freeze response. Until those emotions subside, until the child feels safe, they are unable to think logically and rein in their behavior.
So yes, connect. Connect so you can correct but delay the educating part of correcting until calm has been restored. Then correct. Reiterate the boundaries. Rehearse the better choices.
Clarify that it is the behavior that falls short, not the child. Nurture a sense of hope, capability, possibility and, love for your child.
For more on the concept of Emotional Intelligence and emotional hijackings read Daniel Goleman's seminal work, Emotional Intelligence. At GIFT, we move beyond the common idea that intelligence equates with Intellectual capability as measured by a high IQ and consider the concept of multiple intelligences. In addition to Intellectual Intelligence (IQ), we embrace Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence, (EQ,) and it led us to develop the idea of Adoption-attunement™--our theory of Adoption Intelligence (AQ.)