Unless adoptive parents are also adoptees, we can only approximate in our minds and hearts what it must be like for our children. Adoption was the answer to our prayer; but for our children, it is far more complicated. The benefits they gained via adoption coexist with significant loss and trauma. Adoption is not an exclusively happy experience for our children. We cannot know the silent, inner conversations they have within themselves as they strive to piece together a sense of healthy wholeness from the disparate threads of their biology and their biography.The only way to know what they are thinking is share conversations that touch on these difficult subjects. We must love them enough to hold these hard conversations.
It isn’t easy for them or us kids to talk about such heavy topics.
Our earnest hope that all is okay with our kids may willingly believe that it is so. When we ask kids if they’re doing all right and they quickly assure that it is, we heave a sigh of relief. But, can we actually accept their reassurances on face value?
What do we know, within ourselves, about assurances too quickly offered, of hot topics we gladly shove under the rug? Plenty.
How many times have we told spouses, partners, friends, or colleagues that “nothing is wrong” when in fact, it was obvious that we were hurting so much? But, we were afraid to articulate it, as if speaking it aloud made it real. Denying it offered us the temporary shelter of pretending we were fine. Besides, the truth was too scary to admit even to ourselves. We’d rather be stuck than to expose our vulnerability. Being stuck was less painful than facing the issues and doing the hard work of creating any necessary changes.
How many other times have we held back because we expected our loved ones to know without our telling them what was bothering us? Mindreading never works. It’s a dangerous and false assumption to think that because people care about us they automatically know what is going on inside our heads. Nothing could be farther from the truth. To rely on mindreading is to sabotage the relationship.
Communication is a two-way street. We have to engage in conversations that safely and respectfully talk about “stuff.” For families like ours, this means we must have the hard conversations about adoption and the very complicated reality it brings for our children.
Even as we admit it is hard for us as adults to tackle the hard conversations, it is even more difficult for our kids. They depend on us for virtually all their security—emotional and physical. The possibility that they might place that security in jeopardy is very scary. At some level, they know they need us, that they can’t afford to lose us. From this vantage point, consider how scary it is for them, therefore to share thins which they think might offend, alienate or disappoint us. They may even falsely believe that we do not want to hear their thoughts and feelings. They may worry that we cannot handle the awkward, negative conversations that may echo inside them. Inner demons may tell them we are open only to happy conversations that prove the benefits of adoption.
What strategies help us initiate conversations of this topic which is vital yet so scary for all of us? Here are a few ideas:
When the news mentions family separations, comment. Mention how hard that must be for parent and child. Wait to see if your child says anything. Say that it makes you think about his being separated from his first family. If he responds to this conversation starter, great! If not, reassure him that you would want to hear about his feelings when he is ready so you could help him work through it.
Have a well-stocked family library on books that explore adoption.
Read books from your child’s school list or from their own recreational list. Look for events in the book that might serve as conversation starters.
Similarly, listen to the lyrics of his favorite songs. Talk about why they resonate with him. This does not have to be about adoption. The purpose is to establish a pattern of authentic sharing.
See the films he enjoys. Watch them together, if he’s willing. If not, watch them by yourself and then look for an opportunity to chat about it together.
Share some of your moments of struggle--being mindful of holding appropriate boundaries. Articulate how a circumstance or relationship challenges you and mention some of the specific strategies you employed. These will then serve as models for some options which they might use in the future. Sharing your experiences relieves them of the false belief that parents never have struggles, feel inadequate, or have conflicting feelings within important relationships.
Good communication depends on respect and non-judgmental listening. Start with “safe” subjects and build a pattern of loving listening. This lays down the habit of talking together. The more routine it becomes, the more likely they will talk when it topics are more difficult.
What one thing can you do to start building a habit of talking to one another?
These terms originated in Lori Holden’s masterful book, The Open-hearted Way to Open Adoption. This book belongs in every adoptive family's library.
Last week during a discussion around the dinner table, my daughter’s step-daughter posed a question: As a parent, what do you think is the most important thing you can teach your children?
That’s a powerful and provocative question, especially from a high school freshman. I reflected for a few minutes and then responded. I believe that kindness serves as the anchoring root of all of my values. All my other deeply held values build upon this foundation. Why kindness?
Like many profound influences, kindness is simple. And, like most profound beliefs, it is not easy. Kindness operates on many levels. It begins with kindness toward self. Ironically, we often treat ourselves more harshly than anyone else. Consider the inner dialogue that plays within our brains. Too often, the things we say to ourselves are harsh, critical, judgmental, unforgiving and lacking compassion.
We would not talk to friends and colleagues that way. If we did, they probably wouldn’t remain our friends for long. Yet we routinely subject ourselves to this negativity. It is essential for us to remember that we are all works in progress! Life is a Learning Conversation.
When we place ourselves in that context we begin to remember that everyone else is also a work in progress. Each of us is facing challenges, shouldering burdens, searching for resources, seeking new skills, and coping as well as we can. None of us is perfect. Perfection is a myth; it is also a cruel taskmaster holding us to an impossible goal and then deriding us for falling short.
As Intentional Parents we strive to think about our actions and beliefs consciously to ensure that they reflect our best intentions and authentically support our goals for self, for family and, for community. I believe one of the most powerful steps we can take on this journey of Intentional parenting is to be kind to ourselves. As this frame of mind takes root and governs our thoughts, behaviors and decisions, it influences our relationship with our children. We will strive to interact, educate, and discipline our children with kindness and love instead of impatience, harshness or cruelty. Our behavior becomes their model. Our voice becomes a through line in their inner soundtrack. We benefit from kindness to self and our families. Like the proverbial stone dropped into water, kindness ripples outward. Kindness begets kindness.
Let’s return to the previously mentioned dinner table conversation. I admit that I was pleased when my daughter affirmed to her step-daughter that she too, believed kindness was the keystone. (Just as certainly meanness, hatred and violence beget more meanness, hatred, and violence—within ourselves our families, and our communities.)
Readers of my book review blog know that I search for and promote books that highlight the importance of kindness. I highly recommend one memorable book, Each Kindness by Jaqueline Woodson. Although it is a picture book continues to resonate in my thoughts. Its provocative message will touch the hearts of all readers regardless of age.
Each Kindness a Jane Addams Award Book by Jacqueline Woodson, also was named a 2013 Coretta Scott King Honor Book. This is truly an exceptional book. As I read it goose bumps shivered my arms. E.B. Lewis captured the deep emotion of the story in dreamy water colors. The illustrations juxtapose both beauty and heartache because they reveal the children’s lack of kindness, their unwelcoming cold shoulder and judgmental rejection of the new girl.
One might assume this story replays the classic storyline of the challenge that every “new” kid faces.
But it exceeds that think-how-the-shunned-kid-feels meme as the children rebuff her repeated efforts to break into their circle. Instead, it goes beyond empathy and asks the reader to imagine being the child who chose unkindness, who joined the taunting, who derided and jeered.
After the teacher uses a pebble-dropped-in-water to demonstrate how one act ripples in an ever-widening circle, Chloe undergoes a change of heart. She wants to include the outcast girl. She anticipates making amends, only to discover, it is too late. The girl has moved away… Chloe has lost the chance to repair the damage done.
The book ends with the words, Chloe “watched the water ripple as the sun set through the maples and the chance of a kindness with Maya became more and more forever gone.” The final illustration shows Chloe in a lush, lovely pond side spot. The beauty contrasts with Chloe’s uncomfortable realization that it is too late to make amends for her ugly treatment of Maya. The reader feels the weight of that understanding. There is no and-she became-Maya’s-best-friend easy answer.
The message is clear. Sometimes, do-overs are not possible. We—adults and children—must choose to be kind today, not tomorrow, now not later.
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.
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?
Sally: 612-203-6530 | Susan: 541-788-8001 | Joann: 312-576-5755 | Gayle: 772-285-9607