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Angry Adoptees

angry adopteesI know many adoptees, and although this is not true across the board adoptees will never be pigeonholed, i’ve found that more often than not, when you look beyond the surface, the adoptees whom a casual observer may most likely label as an “angry adoptee” or see as being the most critical of different aspects of adoption, are often the very ones who have the closest and healthiest relationships with their adoptive parents. It seems counter-intuitive, but I see it over and over again.

When an adoptee makes a critical statement about adoption or adoption practices it doesn’t automatically mean that they are “angry” or have a bad relationship with their parents. Often, the opposite is true, and all it really means is that they’ve been paying attention.

via blog.adoptionmosaic.org » Angry in a Whole New Light.

There’s a myth that goes around adoptive parent circles, which says that if you are a good adoptive parent your child will never grieve, never be angry about his/her adoption and never “need” to meet their birth family. Many of us know that it’s a myth and yet it persists. And it presupposes that adopted people should not be angry or that we should not want to raise children who have their own opinions, thoughts and feelings about their experiences.

You can’t look at any child who isn’t expressing negative emotion and assume that means the child isn’t feeling negative emotion, not when it comes to big ticket items like adoption or divorce or moving or deployed parents, etc. It may be that child is very private. It may be that child doesn’t want to disrupt things for other family members (issues of loyalty, guilt or responsibility can make talking about our feelings that much more difficult). It may be that the complexity of those big ticket items make it too hard to talk about.

In other words, giving your child safe space to say, “I miss my birth mom” does not MAKE her miss her birth mom; it lets her know that you are strong enough to be there for her while she struggles with any and all of her feelings.

This isn’t to say that “angry adoptees” are modeling the only way or the most healthy way for an adopted person to feel. Adopted people are not a monolithic population and so there are adopted people who are happy about adoption and adopted people w ho are angry about adoption and adopted people who are grieving their adoption and very often those people are many of those things all at the same time or they will change their feelings as their experiences change. Just like those of us who are not adopted, we all have a right to make meaning of our experiences with room for ambivalence and room for growth and room for change.

We adoptive parents, we do not get to define the adoption experience for our children and we do not get to take their emotions and decide it says something about us (making their feelings all about us).

Being critical of adoption — being critical of our participation as adoptive parents — is the right of any adopted person. We get to have our experience of adoption; they get to have theirs.

When they are very young children and then bigger children and then teens, our job is to help them make sense of their stories and give them room to eventually tell their own narrative. Our job is not to control that narrative and it is not to limit their authorship of their own story because, as I said, giving your child space to be critical does not create the criticism.

Empathetic parenthood

"We have all been children and have hadWhen I was teaching parenting classes in Portland nearly two decades ago I had one parent in the class who was there because she’d been mandated by child protective services. I don’t know the whole story but I knew that she didn’t want to be there. She made it clear that she resented having to sit there listening to a youngster many years her junior (me) who didn’t even have any kids yet.

I can’t say that I blamed her.

Fortunately the other parents in the class were there to help her process the information in a loving, respectful way that she could hear.

At one point we were talking about how children have their own experiences in the day beyond what we might witness. I don’t know how she got the message — I think another parent was telling a story about her child in school — but she burst into tears and said, “I had no idea, I had no idea. I never thought that maybe she could have her own bad day or be in her own bad mood.”

It was such a powerful moment.

From that point of the class on she was able to talk about her children’s experiences with compassion and empathy. The class was not easy for her — she was away from her kids and she was confronting a lot of things she wished she’d done differently — but I hope that what she learned there she was able to bring back to her relationships with her children.

It can be difficult to remember what it’s like to be small or even smallish. It’s especially hard to do if we weren’t allowed the full scope of our feelings. If we were treated harshly, we may have stuffed some feelings down so deep that we don’t know how to remember what it’s like to be scared or sad or to feel hopelessly overwhelmed by the big wide world and our small place in it. If we have that extra challenge then we can practice imagining. We can picture what it must be like to worry that we will suffocate if we fall asleep with a stuffy nose. Or to not have the experience to know that one lost book report won’t derail our scholastic dreams.

When we remember or can imagine what it feels like to be a child, it’s easier to know how to react with the firm and loving support that our children need.

Will my child’s counselor judge my parenting?

cute daughter and dadI know that for lots of people it’s scary to bring your child to a counselor. You’re already worried about your son or daughter and then you have to bring them to a stranger in the hopes they can help. It’s never fun coming to experts and saying, “Hey, I’m stuck and I’m scared and I need help.” But it’s even harder when we’re looking for support over something as emotionally fraught as parenting. Especially since most of us already get criticism from friends or family or teachers or some know-it-all magazine or Dr. Phil.

Ugh.

I want to reassure you that I don’t look at parents with an eye to catch them out doing something wrong (and none of the child therapists I run around with do this either). I mean, I’m a parent, too, and I know how judgment feels (lousy and unhelpful) so why would I want to visit that on my clients?

Besides even if I know exactly the right way (mostly) to raise my kids that doesn’t translate to knowing exactly the right way for you to raise yours. No, I meet with parents to better understand their goals, their hopes, their values and then I mix that all up in the things I’ve learned about kids in general and their kids in particular and what the research says and some practical tips I’ve learned along the way so that together — together, mind you — we can help you build something better.

There is no one-size-fits-all for parenting. What works great for one family would never fly in another because we’re totally different people raising totally different kids in totally different circumstances.

Does that mean I won’t have opinions? Of course not. I love to have opinions and I’ll share those opinions with you but I’ll do in the context of my understanding of your unique experiences. So if I think your discipline techniques are causing you problems, I’ll tell you that but I won’t try to get you to become a totally different kind of parent. I’ll try to help you figure out ways to do things differently to help you discover your best parenting self.

I won’t judge you. I won’t sit around trying to figure out how wrong you are. (In fact, one of the most important thing I do with parents is find out what they’re doing absolutely right so they can do more of it!) I certainly won’t blame you for all of your child’s problems even though you might be blaming yourself.

I know that parents aren’t always at their best. I know that they make mistakes. I know this because I’m a parent and I make mistakes (ask my kids, I’m sure they have a list running). But I don’t believe in perfect parenting anyway; I believe in pretty darn good parenting and I believe that is plenty. I believe in celebrating your strengths and forgiving yourself your weaknesses even as you work to shore them up. I believe that chasing down perfection makes it harder for us to be pretty darn good. I will not judge you. I will be honest and encouraging and I’ll give you lots of tips. And I’ll listen a lot because I know that you are the expert even if you’re not quite sure about that just yet. I’ll help you get there.

“I choose to believe everything is a miracle”

pastelleaves-insideI heard this story on NPR on the drive home from work on Friday. It’s the story of a mom and her son who lost a child, Jesse, in the Sandy Hook shooting. I was particularly struck by the story told by JT, Jesse’s now 13-year old brother. He found healing by connecting to child survivors of the Rwandan genocide via Skype. Meeting them, hearing their stories and being witness to their own healing inspired him to work towards forgiveness of Adam Lanza.

“It wasn’t hard to forgive when I was never really mad,” he says. “I was just sad.”

It was a reminder to me of how important it is to find other people who will grieve with us and who understand our experiences. Grief can be so isolating and so lonely. Connecting with others who will listen and love us through it is the most healing thing we can do.

You can listen to the whole story (and read the transcript) by clicking here.

When they seem fine

blue-insideI’ve got a picture of my then 4-year old peeking out of the window of a tree house at a friendly BBQ that I used to think was just adorable. All you can see is his serious little face and his big blue eyes.

“Look it this,” I said when I showed my now 16-year old the picture last week. “Do you remember this? Wasn’t that tree house great?”

“Yeah, I remember it,” he said. “[Name of Kid] cornered me in the tree house and told me I had to stay there. He said he’d kill me if I tried to come down. I was terrified.”

Yikes. How nice that we have the Kodak memories to commemorate his horror, eh?

I’m sharing this story to illustrate how sometimes we loving mothers and fathers don’t always know what’s actually going on with our kids. My son and I talk a lot now and we talked a lot then but that was something he didn’t tell me until we got the photo books out. I’m not sure why he didn’t tell me at the time (he said he was too scared to) or later (we didn’t see those people very often so it likely just didn’t come up) but that was a pretty big experience for a very little kid to carry around all by himself for many years.

Kids do that. They keep things to themselves, which is why we can’t always believe them when they say things are fine.

Now I’m not saying we need to constantly interrogate them about their inner lives and experiences because they have a right to privacy but at the very least we can assume we don’t know everything and act accordingly. Like if I’d seen the big kid threatening my little kid, I wouldn’t have to hear it from my son’s own mouth to know that’s a big bad scary thing, right? I could surmise that having a bully threaten to push you out of a high up tree house would be awful even if my kid said, hey, no, I’m fine. I’d intervene even if my preschooler said I didn’t need to.

Likewise there are certain events that are hard on kids even when very loving, very careful parents take special care. Things like moves, divorce, changing schools, and the arrival of new siblings are big adjustments and they’re hard adjustments. Our children don’t need to be constantly crying or acting out for us to know that these are difficult things to live through.

Kids may seem “fine” but that doesn’t mean they’re not scared or worried. It’s safe to assume that they have questions they don’t know how to ask and fears they don’t know how to articulate. Just ask yourself how you feel — are you exhausted by the new baby’s schedule? Worried about your kid making friends at school? — likely your child is, too. And you have the advantage of life experience to know that all things shall pass; your child doesn’t know that. When change happens, your child may not realize that transitions are, well, transitory. They may think this uneasy, chaotic feeling is their new normal and that can feel overwhelming.

It’s the same way with other big ticket life circumstances like adoption or chronic health issues (their own or a family member’s). As our children get older, their understanding changes. The stories we have told them for so long no longer suffice and we need to step up our game even if they seem fine.

Talking about things doesn’t create problems if we approach the discussion calmly and with curiosity. There’s a difference between saying, with tears in your eyes, “Oh honey, it must feel like you will never make new friends at school!” and casually saying, “It’s not always easy to make friends at a new school. How are things going for you?”

You don’t need to push. You don’t need to quiz them. But you can make statements, you can ask questions and you can let them know, hey, if you need anything, I’m here and I will listen and I will understand.

I know there are some things that scare you. What if they really really miss their birth mom? What if they wish you never got divorced? What if they hate the new house and miss the old one like crazy? What if you bring it up and it unleashes a hurricane of emotion?

Well, here’s the thing about hurricanes of emotion — you can’t unleash what isn’t there.

Finally I want to challenge the idea of “fine.” Fine doesn’t mean that we go our merry way without care or concern. Fine means that we handle our cares and concerns appropriately. A child who cries about his new school is fine because change is scary and sometimes scary makes us cry and crying is OK. Crying is an appropriate way to handle scary. We don’t need to hush the crying; we need to help with the scary.

As my son’s story illustrates, there are a whole lot of times when we won’t know what’s going on so we’re fortunate when we can make a pretty good guess and act accordingly.

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