Crustaceans and reptiles shed their outer covering when they have outgrown their limitations. Their discarded husks tangibly announce that they have expanded in some way, become different from whom they previously were. They have broken free of the constraints imposed by their former exteriors. In a small way, this gives them an advantage over people.
Personal growth in human beings, however, is less publicly obvious. Before they can be visibly observed, changes must be on a scale large enough and distinct enough from old habits. Yet even then, behavioral changes frequently go unnoticed, unacknowledged and unprocessed. People tend not to update their “relationship software” and instead tend to rely on the presumption that old patterns will continue to play out, unchanged and as immutable as if carved in stone. Parents, as well as kids, tend to default to assume that people will do and be as they have “always” done and been.
Change never happens easily and often unfolds in small increments, not in dramatic transformations. Yet these tiny steps can add up to significant differences. Every step is important, and almost inevitably requires a measure of awareness, calm, courage, intention, and commitment for even the smallest improvement to occur.
It takes time for these changes to become engrained. The pressure to return to old habits is strong, especially in moments of high emotion and/or conflict. Parents and children can find themselves caught in a maelstrom that causes them to behave in accordance to their old patterns. This “boxes” all parties into repeating a well-rehearsed “dance,” one which they all would benefit from altering.
On the other hand, if all parties take the time to notice, encourage and. “accept” the personal growth changes of others, their relationships dance will change. Even if it is not necessarily significantly better, at the very least, it will be different.
During this summer break from school, most families find themselves spending more time together. How can you enhance these moments? Why not set an intention to update the mental templates you hold for each of your children? Make the time to really listen to them.
Pause to observe them as they are and not simply as you think they are.
Encourage the positive changes. (I noticed that you helped Jim complete his chores; that was really kind.)
Recognize these behavioral shifts as steps in their progress to adulthood.
Value each tiny step forward; change is a fragile thing that needs nurturing and encouragement.
Update your mental image to incorporate their efforts.
Take time to consider what personal changes you wish to effect within yourself. As you act on those intentions, not your own small personal steps to progress. Help your kids to see both your effort and your results. But don’t trust in their ability to mind read or to attend to your efforts. Discuss your intentions.
(I’m working on listening better before I say “No.”
“I find it hard to be patient in the morning when I’m trying to get out to work; I hope you can feel the difference.”
This strategy accomplishes several things. First, it alerts them to your intentions. Second, it places your actions within their field of vision. Third, it puts pressure on you to follow through because your goal has been publicly declared. Fourth, it sets a model which they can follow.
Use your own struggles to attune you to your children’s challenges in creating change within themselves. (It’s never as easy as it looks to an observer.) Help your kids to see that they are changing, that you are noticing their changes, and that you are updating your mental image of them. ( I see you are really working hard to ____. It’s nice to see you find something worth investing so much of yourself in.)
Learn how the coaches at GIFT Family Services can help you and your family navigate your adoption journey. We've faced our share of family challenges and crises, ridden the metaphorical rollercoaster, and our families have not only survived; they have thrived. We offer experience, neutrality, and understanding.
Listen to our podcasts on Adoption-attuned Parenting.
Read these Adoption-attuned book reviews by GIFT coach, Gayle H. Swift.
My GIFT colleagues and I have just returned from our annual retreat. Because we live in different states, we believe it is important to get together and reconnect. It’s one of the ways in which we invest in our relationship both as colleagues and as friends. It’s also a clear example of our practicing what we preach: important relationships need nurturing and attention. If we allow ourselves to take them for granted, even the most significant relationship will show signs of strain and unless behavior changes to reflect the importance of the relationship with congruent action, time and commitment. Without such changes eventually, even the most treasured relationship will collapse. And so, we spend our time, money and energy to gather, nurture, and enjoy our mutual relationship.
We had fun, managed some business details, handled some sticky relationship issues that cropped up, and charted the next year’s course for our business. One “detail” we addressed during our time together was a photo session so we could update our website. When we got the proofs back, each of us reviewed them and we tried to find one in which we all looked “good.” Group photos are always a challenge, right? As the number of people increases, the likelihood that someone has her eyes closed, is looking away from the camera or has an odd expression also increases. This triggered some thoughts on family photos…
Digital photography makes it easy for us to snap dozens—if not hundreds of pictures of our kids documenting almost every moment and milestone of their lives. As toddlers, they learn to pose for the cameras on mom or dad’s phones. Then eagerly and often, they repeatedly ask to see these photos. They look at the pictures delighted at their own images. Self-consciousness does not constrain them. They don’t care if their faces—or clothes—are smudged with dirt or if the camera caught them at a good angle. They do not ask us to delete the picture because it doesn’t look flattering enough. And so the entire family gets to enjoy the photographic documentation of a family’s life together. Except…
Too often moms avoid being in the pictures because they look disheveled, tired, or not quite up to par. And the photos reveal a mother’s absence, not a presence. Perhaps the dad is the family photographer and it is he who is an infrequent face in the family photo album. The result is the same. He’s missing from the picture. Whether it is one or both parents whose face seldom appears in the family photo album, whatever the reason, it is a huge loss and significant missed opportunity. A picture is worth 1000 words they say.
As a person who has lost loved ones too soon, I can attest that it precisely the silly, less-than-perfect pictures of my husband, sister, mother… It is these photos that conjure the best memories, the most resonant emotions, and the deepest appreciation for having shared lives together. The fancy studio photos, edited and polished are fun for a Christmas card but they like the vitality and genuineness of the candid photos. Someday all that remains will be the pictures. Make sure you are part of them, being yourself and looking like yourself. That disheveled, imperfect, loving, "present" soul is the person your family knows and loves.
My husband had the admirable ability to remain calm in the face of upheaval and chaos. As a person strongly influenced by emotions and with a deep need for “safety”, his equanimity was like my life raft in a storm. Ironically, this same “unflappableness” occasionally also drove me crazy.
But sometimes when I felt like our world was on fire, his equanimity felt like blindness—or idiocy—like an utter denial of the flames that were about to consume our lives. Instead of comfort, I felt that my perspective of what was happening was being ignored, dismissed, minimized, and denied. Although I craved his reassurance, in these moments, I needed to know that he saw what I saw, felt what I felt, and recognized its scale and power. Until I had that reassurance, his composure felt foolhardy. I felt angry and even more afraid. First, I wanted--needed--validation of my fears then I could trust in his ability to support, partner, and protect us.
I wonder if our children sometimes experience a similar emotional paradox around the grief, loss and identity issues that undergird adoption. Yes, they truly need our love, and they want to reciprocate, to belong and yet … There is a genuine flip side. They also wrestle with all the messiness that comes with the fracture from their first family. Regardless of any benefits which accrue to them, their losses co-exist. Too often blinded by our own perspective we need to ensure that everything within our families is all right. The world, even we parents become inured to this pain.
Do our kids share the invalidated, unsettled feelings I described when my husband’s calm seemed dissonant to our circumstances?
I suspect so.
My own experience tells me that until we acknowledge that we see the “flames,” any comfort we offer will come across as tone deaf, inappropriate, absurd, dangerous, and stupid. Firefighters know that a hot spot ignored quickly become a conflagration. Denial endangers us. It is not our friend. Action is. We can become the shield which keeps them safe. We accomplish this by facing what is at hand and acknowledging adoption complexity. We must talk about it. Validate it. Mitigate it. In that context of truth, we can connect with our children’s reality with grace, love, and empathy and it will be grounded in reality.
Such authenticity may be difficult—even painful—but it is essential. Otherwise, our relationships devolve into role play with each of us acting our character’s assigned part. Our kids deserve so much more. We have the power to create relationships built on truth, respect, and compassion. Our children will benefit immensely from this choice. In fact, our entire families will.
Deal with the proverbial elephant in the room before everything spontaneously combusts.
Check out these additional Adoption-attuned resources!
Listen to our podcasts on Adoption-attuned Parenting.
Read these book reviews by GIFT coach, Gayle H. Swift. They are written with an Adoption-attuned perspective
Last weekend I went camping with my son and his family. Something magical happens when we gather around a campfire, toast marshmallows, snack on S'mores and notice the star-studded sky arching overhead. Good times! It's a total break from the routine of our ordinary, very busy lives. We relax. Talk. And when silence falls, it feels welcome and comforting which is good for the spirit, good for the body and good for the mind too. We notice the sounds and smells and appreciate the beauty of our environment with a fresh intensity.
Of course, living in VERY tight quarters also challenges one's relationship skills. Everybody must choose to reset their needs for personal space and be intentional about finding ways to be helpful or at the very least, to stay out of other people's way. When it comes to food, what we brought is what you can have. Makes no sense to fuss for what's at home & not in the camper!
One maxim that serves well is, "Value the relationship more than being right." It's human nature to incline to a stance of personal "rightness." This often gets in the way of getting along, of operating from a "we" perspective instead of insisting on imposing an "I" perspective. Another Intentional relationship strategy is to focus on deliberately building memories, ones that last a lifetime and become stories that get repeated through the passing years: "Remember that time when PJ spotted the mermaids in the river?" (true!--only in Florida, LOL!) and "Remember when Nana's tube became untied and she started to float away down the river and she couldn't swim fast enough to get back?" (That really happened; fortunately, my son quickly retrieved me!)
During this upcoming Labor Day weekend, why not plan some family memory-making activity? Can't get away? Why not build a campfire in the backyard? Or, have a "camp out" in the house complete with a picnic meal and "tent." (Fitted sheets draped over the backs of chairs make an easy, temporary tent.) Use your imagination. Go on a night hike. Play flashlight tag. Notice the stars while simply enjoying being together. Be intentional about creating a memorable chapter in your family's history.
Share your ideas and let us know what you created as a family.
Create family memories this weekend. Can't get away? Build a campfire in the backyard. Or, "camp out" in the house. Go on a night hike. Play flashlight tag...
Readers of this blog know that I care for my three-year-old grandson's three days a week. This is both a privilege and a joy. Trained as a teacher and honed by adoptive parenthood, I am also fascinated at the difference between parenting children with trauma histories and parenting this little cherub who has known only consistency, stability and love from all the adults in his life. His sense of trust has never been broken and he, therefore, views life through a lens of secure trust. He believes the world is safe and welcoming. He knows that adults are safe, reliable, supportive, encouraging, and loving. Attunement has repeatedly provided him successful "serve and return" relationship reciprocity that nurtures secure attachment.
I observe a palpable difference between his life experience and that of my own children and others who had experienced trauma, had authentic reason to be vigilant and sceptical about the world. They knew from direct experience that it could be upended suddenly, that everyone and everything familiar can disappear in a flash. They wanted to inhabit a world that was steady, safe, reliable, consistent, secure, and managed by trustworthy adults.
Trauma histories have an impact on children's worldview and influence their mental and physical health. This does not mean that children with trauma histories are doomed; They simply need parents and caretakers who understand the need for attunement, patience, presence, empathy, consistency, and therapeutic parenting. Remember, their life experience created a "blueprint that was imprinted by terror." From the very understandable logic built on their personal history, learning to trust, DARING to trust is an act of incredible bravery.
A foundational principle of GIFT Family Services' approach to parenting is Adoption-attunement. AQ incorporates a level of intentionality and understanding that significantly benefits adopted children and their families. It is a concept about which we have written frequently. Our choice of "Attunement"--with a capital "A"--reflects a deep awareness of the powerful way attunement operates in human beings. Famed neurobiologist, Dr. Dan Siegel asserts that “Attunement is not a luxury; it is a requirement of the individual to survive and thrive.” 
Dr. Steven Porges further clarifies that attunement builds a context of safety that frees people to “love without fear.” As Intentional parents we most certainly want our children to feel safe and secure enough to "love without fear",  to feel safe enough to open themselves to the joy and vulnerability of connection. My grandson demonstrates this ease in his habit of occasionally pausing in the middle of his play to spontaneously plop himself in my lap and announce, "I need a hug."
Cue the moist eyes. Obviously, I melt and hug him with joy and deep love. Every time he does this I think, Wouldn't it be wonderful if we felt confident and secure enough in all our relationships to let people know we need a moment of connection and affection? This only occurs in a context of profound trust because it exposes both one's own raw need, it makes one vulnerable to rejection and to the other person's taking advantage of their invitation to respond to our expressed need. Those who know us best, who know our trigger points and sore points, who know our fears and worries have the potential to use them against us. That is why the degree of trust for this level of intimacy is huge and rare.
How many times have you experienced the need for a hug or an empathic ear? How often did you feel secure enough to act on that need and request connection with another persona? What enabled you to muster the courage?
On the other hand, if you stifled the need, and stoically stuffed your emotional needs, what prevented you? How did this emotional shutdown feel?
How might your life change if you WERE able to reshape your relationships so attunement COULD happen? What would be the first step and how soon will you take it?
How are we building this level of trust within our families? With our partners? How are we modeling the willingness to be vulnerable as well as the careful way we respond to such overtures to connection as the sacred trust they actually represent? Trust, connection and attunement are fragile and take time to build. They are also easily damaged, so we must marshal great vigilance and commitment to attunement--especially that specialized level of adoption-attunement which understands the complexity of factors that adoption imposes on families built by adoption.
Sally: 612-203-6530 | Susan: 541-788-8001 | Joann: 312-576-5755 | Gayle: 772-285-9607