Mother’s Day sits in our rearview mirror with all of the complicated emotional baggage that adheres to it for us, our children, and their birth mothers. Hand in hand with great joy, we all grapple with elements of grief and loss. Unsurprisingly, this affects the already complicated dynamics of being family because we must deal with the additional complications of being an adoptive family. We experience moments of resonant emotional attunement, feel mutually attached, and secure. But in spite of our good intentions and our best efforts, we also share incidents of painful and frustrating disconnect, anger, and rejection that leave us feeling discouraged, frustrated, exhausted, and unsupported.
As Intentional Parents, we understand that perfection is both unachievable and unrealistic. We know that intellectually, but our hearts operate on an entirely different plane. We yearn for that intimacy, joy, and reciprocity of mutual attachment between ourselves and our loved ones. A conflict-heavy relationship feels like the antithesis of that dream.
It’s essential to remember that all relationships experience conflict. Healthy relationships are characterized not by the absence of conflict but by the effort expended in addressing conflict, repairing emotional injuries, rebuilding broken trust, and cultivating an ongoing commitment to one another.
Pasting a happy face over unresolved conflict allows emotional wounds to fester and ultimately destroys both connection and trust. Equally damaging, are expectations that rely on the other person’s ability to read our minds, to intuitively know what we need and want. It takes courage to speak up and say, “You hurt me,” especially if we make this admission not in the passion of anger but rather, with a clear head and a willingness to expose our vulnerability. "You hurt me,” especially if we admit this not in the passion of anger but rather, with a clear head and a willingness to expose our vulnerability. Sharing this message requires courage and reveals an emotional investment in the relationship. Sharing the truth and hearing the truth requires both persons to be emotionally vulnerable. This is intimacy and connection in action.
How does this distinction look in action? Let’s assume we all have a very clear picture of how hurt feelings generate angry, aggressive, and hurtful responses. (Often we say things which we regret and wish we could take them back. But words, once spoken, can never be unheard. Profound damage to the relationship occurs. Hence the need for repair.)
A less familiar response is an intentional confrontation whose sole purpose is the repair and healing of the relationship. This outreach is made after emotions have cooled. It arises from the person’s higher commitment to the relationship than to being right in the specific event. When a person declares that a breakdown occurred in a relationship, when they share that they felt hurt, a simple “I’m sorry” is not enough and a cavalier “If I hurt you…” not only is insufficient, it often deepens the damage to the relationship. Once someone told us they felt hurt, whether or not we intentionally inflicted that hurt does not erase their hurt. This pain cannot be soothed with the assertion that I didn’t mean to hurt you. Hopefully, none of us intentionally hurt those with whom we share an intimate connection.
Imagining the event as having resulted in a physical injury, helps us better appreciate how our loved one feels. For example, if we opened the kitchen cabinet door and it slammed into their face, we would feel compelled to apologize and would certainly not say, “If your broken nose hurts, I am sorry.” because the injury is so physically obvious. It would feel ridiculous—as well as counterproductive to the relationship—to suggest that the injury did not occur. Yet too often, when a loved one asks us to apologize, we invalidate that apology by questioning the existence of the injury for which we are being asked to make amends: “If I hurt your feelings, I’m sorry. I never meant to do it.”
The lack of intentionality about the offense does not make the injury less painful. A more genuine apology might sound like this, “I am so sorry that I hurt you. I value our relationship. How can I make things right between us?” This statement does not dispute that the injury took place. It accepts the fact accountably. No effort is made to evade responsibility for the miscommunication under the escape hatch of I-did-not-mean-to-hurt-you.
An often overlooked perspective of the dynamics of unintended injury--within the context of a significant relationship-- is specifically the lack of intention. It suggests disinterest, dismissal, and lack of valuation of the relationship on the offender's part. The injured party can feel as if their significant other no longer holds the relationship as an important priority or has begun to take it for granted, not worth the time and attention which it requires so it can continue to flourish and remain mutually vital. Indifference, not hate is the opposite of love. When one no longer feels they are being held as an important priority by their partner (close friend, family member, etc.) they feel discarded, insignificant, hurt, unheard and invisible. Consider the words of David Augsberger: "Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are indistinguishable." No relationship can survive in the vacuum of inattention and indifference.
How are you nurturing your relationships? In which ones are you currently investing the most time and energy? How well does the current reality reflect your intended priorities versus your actual priorities? Who needs to know that you do hear and see them? What actions will you take to ensure that happens? What apologies and relationship repair work will you choose to handle? Carefully think through what you want to say. Remember to avoid verbal potholes—any effort to wriggle out of responsibility or soften accountability—that might invalidate apologies. Conclude with a question: Are we okay? Is there anything else you need from me? How can we move forward together?
GIFT coachees stand ready to help you handle similar difficult conversations. Imagine how it will benefit you and your family.
Listen to our podcasts on Adoption-attuned Parenting.
Read adoption-attuned book reviews by GIFT coach, Gayle H. Swift. They are written with an Adoption-attuned perspective
Last week’s blog explored how values influence our parenting. We focused specifically on kindness and the importance of teaching our children how to be kind to themselves and others.
During a follow-up conversation with my daughter—who also happens to be a teacher in addition to being a step-mom—she made an important point: it’s not enough to tell our children we value kindness, we must show them with our actions. Even more importantly, our examples must include a soundtrack—an obvious and pointed voiceover that explains exactly what and why we are doing something.
For example, on Halloween when we went trick-or-treating at her house, beside the bowl of candy, she also had a blue pumpkin that held “alternative” treats for kids who can’t eat candy. As an adult, I recognized this gesture as an act of kindness, an effort to be aware of and accommodate the differences between children. But my three-year-old grandson (and any other children who visited her house that night) might not necessarily notice or recognize the significance of this gesture.
For my grandson (AKA Santa) to benefit from this positive example, he first needed to notice it. He did and was delighted to find some temporary tattoos for him to snag. In that moment, the blue pumpkin merely held another choice of treat. For him to learn from this act of kindness, we had to explain what it represented:
Some children can’t eat candy so Aki included treats they could enjoy. It is one way that she chooses to be kind. Our family values kindness.
My grandson nodded. Point made. No need to belabor it.
We left it at that and continued to enjoy Halloween festivities. The next day when we bicycled past my daughter’s house my grandson mentioned the blue pumpkin and how he’d never seen one before. Clearly, it had made an impression even in the midst of a hyper-exciting night. I had a chance to repeat an explanation of its significance and we continued on our way. Example set, observed and integrated.
It is a truism that kids watch what we do and learn more from our actions than our words. But we can't always count on their noticing. They may also misconstrue what occurred. Too often we assume kids infer the accurate lesson from our examples. But life resembles a three-ring circus more than center stage. They may focus their attention elsewhere. Lost in their own world, they may be oblivious to our good example. Don’t leave it to chance. Clarify the intent behind your actions and choices. Help your children understand your thought processes and your goals. Talk about these moments so you can learn from them what they are “seeing” and what inferences they are drawing from their observations.
You will gain a clearer sense of how their minds think and they will get a more accurate sense of your actions and intentions. It will also train children to notice context and behavior and to ponder what people’s motivations and purposes might be. This helps them develop a habit of awareness, and nurtures a stronger understanding of how your family puts their values into action as well as how others reveal and live theirs.
In the process of teaching our kids the value of kindness, we remind ourselves that kindness is a conscious choice. We have to look for opportunities to be kind, make the decision to be kind and then follow through on our decision.
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.
Adoption deeply influences a family. IT MATTERS! Families must talk about it. If we resist or avoid conversations about adoption, our children will falsely infer that their adoption is a shameful secret.
If parents--consciously or unconsciously--telegraph to their kids that talking about adoption distresses parents, kids will stuff their fears and worries and will then struggle to handle adoption complexity on their own and without the "guardrail" of parental support. Intentional parents know their children need parental support to figure out how to braid together a healthy, cohesive identity that respects all of their parts. Books serve as an immensely valuable tool for helping families address adoption complexity. A loving parent's lap offers the perfect, safe place to share a book that helps them talk about this significant part of their family. They benefit both parent and child in powerful ways. Here are the top six ways:
1. Because you built your family through adoption, you have some additional adoption-connected parenting tasks. When you adopted, you obligated yourself to become the best parent possible. This means you must educate yourself on how adoption adds additional layers or responsibility and challenge to your parental role, to family dynamics, and to be envoys for your children. To fulfill those tasks, you need help identifying and performing them well. Books provide insight, strategies, and encouragement. They introduce new ideas which parents can consider and they can reveal issues which parents may not even realize exist or need to be handled.
2. Your children also have "inherited" adoption-related tasks which they must handle to ensure they grow into their best version of themselves. Books offer a safe chance to explore the topic. They create a chance to ask questions that reveal a child's beliefs and fears about adoption. Parents can then address them and allay their children's fears.
3. It is not easy to find the "right" time to talk about the challenges, questions, and conflicts that adoption creates. Books create non-threatening ways of asking questions, exploring solutions, and describing complex emotions. They offer models of possibilities and a chance to imagine how potential tactics might work. Families can discuss the strategies and decisions which the characters chose, how effectively they worked, and the likelihood that it might work for other families (including one's own.)
4. An accessible, well-stocked adoption bookshelf sends a message: that adoption is a safe and welcome topic. It telegraphs to children that parents are comfortable discussing adoption, that they can handle the conversation, and that they believe it is something they want to discuss as a family.
5. Children can pick a book off the shelf when they feel the urge or need to talk about adoption. It's easier for them to hand a book to a parent that to open a conversation with a "Mom, we need to talk..."
6. Books help parents and children feel less isolated, less different. They help families feel like part of a tribe of other families facing the same situations. This helps reduce the feeling of being different and encourages a sense of shared community.
For specific book suggestions, check out our list here. Be sure to consult, GIFT coach, Gayle Swift's blog, "Writing to Connect" which reviews "general" books that are not intended to be about adoption. She evaluates them through an adoption-attuned lens that identifies ways of raising important adoption conversations in a natural, relaxed way.
Next week we will explore: Five Reasons Your Family Adoption Library Can't Handle Everything.
Sally: 612-203-6530 | Susan: 541-788-8001 | Joann: 312-576-5755 | Gayle: 772-285-9607