It's conference time and GIFT coaches Sally Ankerfelt and Gayle Swift have traveled to Atlanta to attend NACAC's Annual conference. They will be presenting a workshop: Faith Communities as a Source of Healing and Connection.
While there, they've been burning the midnight oil collaborating on their book on the topic. Any adult adoptees wishing to share their thoughts and experiences regarding how faith communities served or failed them can complete this on-line survey. ALL perspectives are welcome! (Responses can remain anonymous.)
GIFT coaches partner with adoptive families to provide support before, during and after adoption. Regardless of where your family is on your adoption journey, we stand ready to help. In addition to being certified coaches, we are all also adoptive parents. We understand the complexities of adoption.
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Subscribers to this blog know that I recently became a grandmother. My husband and I are fortunate to spend time with PJ while his parents work. This has provided many opportunities to connect with him, to be intentional about how we spend time together, and to make memories and create relationship. This has been especially poignant for my husband who is terminally ill and currently under Hospice care. This sad reality has enhanced our appreciation for the fragility of life and has spotlighted the difference between what is and is not important.
An idea struck me the other day as I watched one of my hubby's nurse's aides cheerfully play with the baby. I thought about the disparity between PJ's start in life and that of adopted children whose lives began in chaos, trauma, neglect, fragmented families and orphanages.
Our grandson has accumulated evidence that adults consistently care, represent safety, security and encouragement. By contrast "tough start" children amass evidence that is the polar opposite; they've learned adults are frightening, dangerous, unreliable, and inconsistent. (Of course some orphanages do have caregivers who strive to deliver good, loving care but due to the numbers of children for whom they are responsible, their efforts fall short. Under these circumstances, kids learn to expect little, trust only themselves, and freeze out any budding attachments because caregivers "leave.")
Is it any wonder that these kids struggle to fit into families, have difficulty trusting adults, and struggle in school because they're enmeshed in hyper-vigilant monitoring and are convinced that the only person on whom they can rely is themselves?
By contrast, from the day PJ arrived on this earth, his life has overflowed with people who are thrilled he's here. In addition to his mom and dad, he's been blessed with a steady flow of people who convey affection, respond promptly to his needs, engage in attuned interplay, encourage his learning and celebrate each milestone he masters. This has provided PJ with a consistent experience of being seen and heard. Not only have his basic needs been met, but they've also been fulfilled with affection and joy. He's been encouraged, soothed and cuddled. He's been fed, clothed and cleaned, etc., and these interactions have been performed with kindness not resentment, anger or detached disinterest. His world is safe, secure and stable. He has learned that his "voice" counts and that it is worth making the effort to involve himself with people. He wants to connect because it brings him pleasure, satisfaction and security.
The reality of life is that some children do not get this kind of warm, fuzzy start. They must play catch up on their ability and desire to connect and attach with family, peers and the world at large. They must rewire their neurological architecture. As adoptive parents, many of us have committed to parenting these children with tough starts. This road can prove arduous and very, very long. How can we best sustain ourselves and our children as we journey together for a lifetime?
Effective communication is one critical element. Our kids need lots of empathy and understanding; they also need a lot of "do overs." Skill sets and social patterns that have been easily acquired in infancy or early childhood by most kids (those whose lives have been free of trauma,) may take years for our kids to master. First they must "unlearn" their old patterns and templates and then write over these failed strategies with new ones. Before they can risk changing--and more importantly, trusting us to keep them safe--they must feel confident enough that the benefit will outweigh the risk. Talk about a monumental task!
This process can feel as slow as the power of water to erode mountains. But it is well worth the effort, the agony and the hope.
Please take the time to watch these two startling videos which demonstrate both the importance and positive effect of attuned communication and the negative effect of mis-attuned interactions. Two minutes that will break your heart and galvanize your commitment to being intentional about your communication with your children.
Most of us adoptive parents spent many childless years pursuing the holy grail of parenthood. During the waiting process, we promised ourselves and our partners, that we would do "anything" if only we could become parents. (And we meant it!) We envisioned ourselves as loving parents with happy kids who would prove our parental competence. Once children arrive, however, it didn't take long for reality to rewrite this fairy tale. The idyllic happily-ever-after-ending proved elusive. Instead, the story we lived was full of twists, turns, highs, lows, potholes and mountain tops.
Parenting is hard and adoptive parenting, most of us discovered, is even
harder! more complicated. Parenting strategies that worked for friends and relatives didn't seem to work for us regardless of how much they insisted their tried-and-true methods were superior while adoption-attuned, therapeutic parenting methods were indulgent and lacking in sufficient discipline.
In fact, traditional hard-line parenting often created more problems than they solved. Often, we felt like complete failures with our burdens becoming heavier as our kids floundered, challenged or resisted parental efforts to educate, discipline and connect. Fantasies of being great parents slipped from our grasp, replaced self-doubt. We were families in stress. A huge disconnect divided the parents we-wanted-to-be from the parents-we-actually were; neither one embodied the parents our kids needed.
When we can't rely on traditional parenting templates, on the strategies that we experienced in our own childhoods, what choices remained for us? That's when we realized the pivotal need for considering, understanding, and recognizing adoption loss, its accompanying trauma and how these factors required a redesign of parenting strategies. It also demanded that we look within ourselves to identify our own triggers, handle our own emotional baggage and brave the challenges of conquering the obstacle-filled landscape of life as an adoptive family. We were ready to become adoption-attuned parents.
As coaches, we ask clients to assess current circumstances and implement fresh strategies to interrupt auto-pilot patterns in order to generate change. Sometimes this mandates a shift in perspective: Instead of viewing a behavior as manipulative, irritating or intentional, view it as communication. What happens when we remove the emotional baggage that attaches to behavior formerly labeled as malicious, lazy or defiant? How does this shift our emotional response? How does this shift in feelings, influence our thoughts? How does it open up new possibilities for connection and communication?
Rubber Meets the Road Challenge: Let's try an "experiment" for one week. What one behavior are you willing to add/eliminate/enhance/reduce that might have the largest impact on your relationship with your child? Think carefully here. Some examples:
Here's an activity you can do as a family. Create a flip book. Send to birth parents, distant family or even exchange it within the family.
Parenting can be very rewarding; it can also bring us to our knees, leaving us overwhelmed, frightened and desperate. Kids with tough starts, trauma histories and strong wills can prove difficult to manage. What parent has not had the frustrating experience of recognizing they cannot compel an uncooperative or unwilling child to do something? Consequences, incentives, threats, pleading…nothing works. Such power struggles leave parent and child exhausted, stressed and unhappy. Family life becomes mired in confrontation, exasperation and conflict.
So what recourse do parents have? Coaching uses some fundamental presuppositions to develop effective strategies that move families forward through difficulty, for example, accountability and working/not-working. Accountability examines how one’s own behavior—to whatever slight degree-- contributed to an outcome. This is very removed from either fault-finding or assuming responsibility that rightfully belongs to others.
Accountability helps identify leverage points for future change because our own behavior is the only thing over which we have total control. By backtracking through the decision tree that led to a given outcome, choice points can be identified that might have altered the result. The purpose is to identify an exit ramp from the chaos. Note that this removes the need to assign blame. Fault is irrelevant. Remember, the blame-game takes us out of the game instead of keeping us in it. When we are in the habit of telling our children what they did wrong, we end up alienating them instead of bringing them closer to us. Instead concentrate on making different choices and identifying which ones move the family closer to a mutual goal. This strengthens the relationship. It also reduces anger, shame and resistance, models respect and nurtures capability.
Another important coaching presupposition is working/not-working (as distinguished from the proverbial right/wrong viewpoint.) Right/wrong insists there is only one approach, method or strategy. It crushes creativity, initiative and self-designed problem solving and leaves little room to accommodate individual approaches, patterns and personalities. Right/wrong is more about compliance than competency or cooperation. Focusing on working/not-working allows parents to look at strategies and behaviors with neutrality. It keeps the focus on the goal. Success is determined by effectiveness. Was the goal achieved? If not, what can be tweaked? Added? Subtracted? No energy is wasted on insisting that one approach—MINE--is the correct way while yours is incorrect.
For example, imagine a parent requests a child take the trash to the curb and clarifies the time by when the task is to be completed. He gives the child room to shape the task to his liking, perhaps adding an element of fun. Pull it on his skateboard? Drag it his wagon? Run a timer to see if they can "Beat the Clock?" You get the idea. This allows both parents and children to focus on goals, on learning from mistakes and using such experiences as stepping stones to effective solutions and independence. The parents are not dictators giving orders; they are leaders who model respect and raise children who are thoughtful, capable and willing contributors.
Relationship offers the most reliable path to attachment, cooperation and strong family connection. When kids care about their parents, they also care about parental priorities, values and standards. One excellent parenting book is The Newbie’s Guide to Positive Parenting, second edition by Rebecca Eanes. Although not specifically directed at adoptive families, it definitely concentrates on sustaining connection, on parenting via modeling the attitudes and behaviors parents want their children to learn. Rebecca asserts an important distinction: "leading and controlling are very different." One invites cooperation; the other invites rebellion. One is respect-based; the other is fear-based.
An important mantra guides adoptive parents: "connect before correct." Positive Parenting includes a commitment to restoration, to repair and reconnect after breakdown occurs in family relationship. Parents must never withhold their love because of a child's inappropriate choices. Unconditional love is the lifeblood of the family relationship.
Here are a few memorable quotes from the book:
“Positive discipline isn’t about making a child pay for his mistake but rather learn from it”
“It’s about teaching them to do what is right instead of punishing them for doing what is wrong.”
“There is no such thing as an unimportant day when you are shaping a child’s life…Be intentional about what it is you are writing.”
The Newbie’s Guide to Positive Parenting is an excellent book. that will inspire you. Check it out.
During the last month or so, our family has celebrated several family milestones. My son turned thirty. My husband turned sixty-seven. We observed our forty-fourth (!) wedding anniversary. With great hoopla (and decked out in costumes,) we gathered for a baby shower in honor of our first grandchild. In a few days our daughter will marry the love of her life on the Mendinhall Glacier in Alaska. Four days after that, she will celebrate her twenty-eighth birthday. Phew, that’s a lot of benchmarks. All these were special yet pretty ordinary for a typical family.
This got me thinking about two additional—and extraordinary—events we will honor in June and July respectively: the Homecoming of each of our children. Adopted as infants and now well into their adulthood, both our son and our daughter still mention and look forward to their Homecoming Day. This is our family's commemoration of their arrival into our family. When they were younger, I suspect they enjoyed the observance as much for the presents and being the center of attention as for the marking of this life-changing event. Now that they are adults, they recognize the importance of this event in their lives. They understand why adoption occurred for them and have come to peace with that fact.
For our two children Homecoming Day was/is a happy event. As kids, they liked the idea of honoring this day and appeared unencumbered with sadness or grief. I think it helped that it is distinct from the day they left their birth families. Although their adoptions were closed, they each reconnected with their birth mothers years ago. (We encouraged, supported and assisted them in this reunion process. Reconnection blessed the entire family)
But many adoptees do experience a profound and painful sense of loss connected to their birthdays and adoption days. So celebrating the event becomes complicated, perhaps even untenable. Be aware of and respect the jumbled feelings that may burden them. Loss is the underlying constant in adoption and it coexists with the gains and joys that adoption can bring. The positives do not erase the reality of adoption loss, pain and grief. Parents can best help their child deal with this complex ambivalence by allowing him to freely express all of his feelings.
Deliver an unequivocal message that recognizes adoption as a both/and relationship. Reassure him that it is possible and acceptable to have a range of feelings some of which might be dark and heavy,(sadness, longing, anger, grief, etc.) And that it is appropriate to have an interest and respect for his birth family. His need to know, understand and connect with his roots is an integral part of the process of becoming a healthy adult. As an adoptee, he has an additional thread to weave into his identity. Both birth and adoptive factors count. Without the benefit of both parts of himself, something foundational will be missing. He might then feel incomplete, off-balance and out-of-control.
Before celebrating the day he became part of the family, clear it with him. If the associated memories are too painful perhaps a “celebration” is not appropriate. Check in with him. Open an honest dialog so you learn his authentic feelings and not what he thinks you want to hear.
As parents, we enjoy reconnecting to that amazing moment when we became family. Truly it was a highlight of our lives. For many kids, it is like a second birthday—the one where they were “born” into their adopted family—and a day they enjoy celebrating. This is not the case for all kids. For those who experience overwhelming sadness associated with this day, parents will respect their emotions and limit any “celebration” to an internal event. None of us want to extract our enjoyment at our child’s expense. Do offer your child a chance to talk about it so you can support him as he struggles with his turbulent feelings.
It is the parents’ job to provide kids the language with which they can express their complex adoption-related feelings. Think about this when determining the name you assign to this special day—Homecoming, Arrival Day, Family Day or “Susie’s” Day. Just remember to focus on the child’s experience. (This is why I am NOT a fan of “Gotcha Day.” In my personal opinion, it is parent-centric and conveys the idea that a child was acquired, like a pet or a treasured prize. ) So will your family choose to celebrate this special day? If so, what will you call the day? What traditions will you include each year?
Sally: 612-203-6530 | Susan: 541-788-8001 | Joann: 312-576-5755 | Gayle: 772-285-9607