As vigilant, thoughtful parents, we attempt to understand our children by carefully observing their behavior and listening to what they say. Can you identify with any or all of the feelings and concerns expressed by the adoptive parents quoted below?
"Why is Mark having trouble focusing in school? Is he just 'being a boy,' looking out the window of his classroom and dreaming about baseball practice?"
"Marsha can't even be happy at Baskin Robbins. It doesn't seem to matter if she talks me into a double scoop, waffle cone with three toppings-it's just never good enough. After waiting so long for a child, have we overindulged her and created a spoiled brat, or does she feel empty inside due to the losses she has experienced?"
"When Alice gets over-tired and is frustrated by her homework, or a chore, or any number of other little challenges, she is quickly overwhelmed and begins to shout that this is not her real family and that she wants to go home. Do these outbursts represent longings for her birthmother or a mechanism which pushes our buttons?"
"Michael can't fall asleep at night unless someone lays down with him. Does being adopted make him especially vulnerable?"
"Carl has so many fears . . . going in a plane, on a boat, there's even a room in our house that he is afraid to be in. Are other kids, kids that aren't adopted, afraid of so many things?"
"What does it mean?" "What should we do?" You may ask yourself. Like so many other adoptive parents, you may be wondering if this is an adoption issue, or not? The simple answer is: Maybe.
Certainly adopted children and their families are especially sensitive to some issues and may struggle more when faced with certain situations. On the other hand, who among us doesn't have special sensitivities? Each of us has certain sensitivities, areas in our lives that cause us to worry and wonder, and situations in which we feel less comfortable or successful. I guess the bottom line is that each one of us is just plain-human. Recognizing our humanness helps us calm down and provides a warm, accepting model for our children. Yes, you may conclude that certain behaviors (need for extra assurance for example) are primarily orphanage-related, but it may not be necessary to over-worry minor personality or behavioral traits.
Theories of child development are another tool parents and professionals use to under-stand the child. With a basic understanding of how the typical child grows and develops, parents are better able to recognize when the child may be a little off course, and therefore can be available to provide what the child needs. Often children simply need acceptance, consistant redirection, or well set boundries.
Armed with this information, parents can not only prepare themselves for what is ahead at the next developmental level, but also make some sense of the behaviors the child is presently displaying. We can calm ourselves when our seven-year-old continues to be afraid of monsters in the closet or recognize when our family might need a little extra help from a professional. Knowing the course, while understanding individual differences, helps everyone.
During middle-childhood, adoptees often express feelings of not being "like" their adoptive parents. To understand the basis for these very real and sometimes over-whelming feelings we must recognize the manner in which young children classify objects. At this age, children use physical characteristics and appearance to classify who and/or what fits together and what does not. In other words, having blond hair and blue eyes in a family in which everyone else has black hair and brown eyes may diminish a child's sense of belonging.
You can help your child by pointing out the many ways members of your family ARE alike. One technique, called claiming, can be especially helpful.
All of us use claiming behaviors, perhaps intentionally, perhaps without intent. Claiming statements point to similarities and differences between objects or people. You can use claiming statements and behaviors to help your child feel "like you." Review the statements below and before reading further, take a few moments, grab a piece of paper and write down claiming statements that "fit" for your family.
- "Joey, you tie your shoes by making bunny ears! That's how I did it too when I was your age."
- "We are a family of readers, that's for sure."
- "Marcie is good at taking things apart and putting them back together. My brother was always doing that when we were kids."
- "When I was a little girl, maccaroni and cheese was my favorite, too!"
- "Your grandma always loved to paint. What a wonderfully creative family we have."
Using claiming statements helps children feel connected to you by highlighting behavioral or personality characteristics, likes and dislikes, facial expressions, even fears and pleasures that are shared. While this likeness is not due to any genetic connection, it does enhance the child's sense of belonging, as the emphasis is on how people in your family are similar.
Children between the ages of six and eleven spend a lot of time comparing themselves to their peers; who is smarter, more athletic, prettier, richer, the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, what they are trying to figure out is who is better and who is worse
According to Holly van Gulden, through this appraisal process of self and peers, the differences in the ways in which adoptive families and genetically related families are formed becomes apparent to the adopted child. If adopted children believe that these differences mean their family and they themselves are inferior, they are less likely to try as hard to achieve in other areas.
One way to help is to give your child opportunities to feel like other kids. Be sure that your circle of family friends includes as many other adoptive families as possible. Work to identify other adoptees in your child's class, gymnastics program, or soccer team. And don't forget adults. It's very possible that you have friends who are adopted. Your child needs to see examples of adult adoptees who are living active, healthy lives. Having others in our lives that are like us helps everyone feel normal.
As the child's cognitive ability grows, he begins to understand adoption in a very different way. Now the child comes to see the other side of the chosen baby story: that in order to have been chosen, "I had to first be given away." While some children breeze through this time, others begin to wonder what that means about themselves.
- Is there something wrong with me?
- Was there something wrong with my birth mother?
- Was I a bad baby?
- Maybe she just lost me and is searching for me now.
- At the same time that the child is struggling with these difficult emotional issues, peers may be voicing innocent questions, based on their inexperience with adoptees, such as "Why didn't your real mother keep you?"
Even though it is extremely difficult to hear the pain, the very best gift you can offer your child is the opportunity to talk about his feelings and to be heard. Prepare yourself, through education and getting a firm grasp on the notion that your child's feelings may be directed at you (of course the birth parents aren't available) but ARE NOT ABOUT YOU. You are the safe one; you can hear the feelings and not turn away. Listen to your child with empathic understanding. Don't try to fix the feeling or take it away. Just listen.