“Just love the baby and everything will be fine.” Isn’t that what most of you heard when being handed your new little baby? No one told you that you were assuming responsibility for a traumatized child. No one told you that your child may be afraid to truly connect to you because of the trauma of being separated from the first mother.
No one told you that parenting an adopted child means parenting plus…
Because no one told the birth mother, either, that relinquishing her baby meant a trauma for her child (and for her), when she is reunited with that child, she may blame you for the wounds that the child seems to have suffered. Although the adoptee may have had a good life, there is an aura of sadness, which cannot be explained except by understanding that the substitution of mothers is not accomplished without loss.
You have two strikes against you: You have the deficit of genetic markers and you have a traumatized child, who will be reacting to her trauma with you and in all meaningful relationships. You and your child have been doing a dance: the dance of learning how to be with one another. Other parents, including the birth parents, may not understand or even acknowledge this.
On the other hand, you do have an opportunity to have a really positive effect on your child. You can give unconditional love to a child who has been severely wounded, at the same time that you create the safety of limits and boundaries. You can encourage her special talents and aptitudes, even when they are different from yours. In fact, differences can bring new opportunities into your own life. You will find yourselves experiencing feelings that you didn’t know existed, some of them resulting in frustration and confusion, but others offering new levels of understanding and compassion.
And you also need understanding and compassion. For although your child yearns to get close to you, he may be afraid to allow himself to do so for fear of another abandonment. When a trauma occurs early in a child’s life, fear often wins over yearning. No one but another adoptive parent can understand the pain of almost but not quite connecting as profoundly as one might want. Adolescence is when even compliant children begin to act out the differences they feel with their adoptive parents. It can be very painful for all concerned. It is helpful to form support groups, so that this phenomenon can be kept in perspective and not personalized.
All adopted children have two sets of parents. If you understand the differences between biological and adoptive families, if you understand the loss your child has experienced, you can have a wonderfully positive impact on his or her life.
WHAT ADOPTIVE PARENTS CAN DO
- Deal with the reality of the adoptive situation: different from biological family; it’s parenting plus!
- Mother can be alert to and empathic to signs of loss and grieving.
- Realize that it will be more difficult for her to know what to do for this particular child without genetic markers… be especially aware.
- If possible, stay home with child; he doesn’t need one more disappearing mother.
- Understand child’s coping mechanisms: acting out or compliant. Compliant doesn’t mean untroubled. Acting out child will demonstrate “wrong mother” idea by making adoptive mom wrong about many things. This interfaces with his need for control.
- Try to understand the difficulty in growing up without seeing oneself reflected anywhere. Verbalize.
- Celebrate birthday before the actual day. (Birthday may be separation day… child sad or angry.)
- Don’t be late picking up child from school, activities, etc. (triggers abandonment).
- Fear often keeps child from letting in love. Be patient; try not to feel rejected. (It’s not personal.)
- Tell child about adoption before she knows what it means.
- As she gets older, answer her questions honestly. (Questions may be acted out, rather than verbalized)
- Don’t speak for anyone else (i.e., birthmother). Never say: (1) “Your birthmother loved you so much she wanted you to have a good home.” Even if true, this makes absolutely no sense to a child. One doesn’t give away what one loves.
- If you can, stay in touch with birth family. Child needs mirroring and genetic markers. Honor promises. This also goes for birth parents. (Step families can do it; so can you!)
- Learn to understand the differences between behavior (acting out or compliant) and the child’s true
personality. Behavior will often be different outside family. Easier for others to discern personality.
- Acknowledge, respect, and value the differences between adoptee and other members of the family.
- Encourage child’s talents and interests, even if they are different from yours.
- Because the child will not be able to verbalize his pain, look for other forms of communication: art, poetry, play, and projective identification (i.e., He will communicate his feelings by behavior that will make you feel them: angry, enraged, sad, inadequate, unworthy, confused, chaotic, fearful, rejected…
- Behavior often metaphor for beliefs: feels stolen, may steal; living a lie, may lie; people disappear, may hoard food, etc. Verbalize this for him, so that he will know you understand: “I wonder if…”
- Recognize the core issues: abandonment, loss, rejection, trust, intimacy, guilt and shame, mastery and control, and identity.
- Learn to understand child’s anger as a cover for pain: Empathize with the pain.
- Never threaten abandonment, no matter how provocative the child becomes.
- Acknowledge the child’s feelings. Never say, “You shouldn’t feel that way. Feelings come from the unconscious and are valid. Teach child to find appropriate ways to express those feelings.
- Allow the child to be herself. Withdraw expectations which do not fit her personality or abilities.
- Do not try to take the place of the birthmother. Even if he doesn’t talk about her, she is real to him. You are a different person and very important in his life.
- Don’t try to take away your child’s pain. Acknowledge it, try to understand it, validate it, help her put it into words, and give her ways to work it through.
- Adoptees are often diagnosed with ADD. This may be a result of the trauma and hypervigilence. It has nothing to do with intelligence. Parents and teachers will need understanding and patience.
- Prepare child for changes in routine. Fears surprises (like disappearance of mother).
- Because of interruption of natural order, child may have difficulty with cause and effect or consequences.
This is especially difficult during adolescence. Needs to be reinforced early.
- Child needs strong boundaries and limits, even though may fight against them. Needs to feel safe, contained, and cared for. Very important to be fair and consistent.
- Father will not be having same experience as mother. Needs to empathize and support mother.
- Both need support group to compare notes with other adoptive parents and to avoid isolation.