The number-one myth about adoption is that adoption is a wonderful, incredible, admirable, unbelievably magical experience. Certainly I have had moments of that magic in my life as an adoptive mother. But I also know that in order for adoption to become a win/win relationship for birthparents as well as adoptive parents, we need to know more about the issues of loss so our adoption can be more real, normal and less idealized. Adoption can become more normalized when we, as adoptive parents, accept that there are predictable issues and developmental bumps in the road for our children because they are adopted. Adopting children is different from creating a family by birth.
Anger So what are the issues? One of the most common issues I deal with in my therapy practice is adopted children who are angry. Proactive parents need to know that adopted children naturally get angry about adoption. We don' t often acknowledge that although adoption can be a wonderful way to build families, kids don't always like it. Since they want to be like all the other kids, and most children in our communities are not adopted, they can be angry that adoption happened to them. They can get angry that their birth families felt unable to parent them and can fear they are to blame for that decision. We're raising children who, from time to time, really wish their lives had turned out differently. Reactive parents panic with angry children and struggle to "fix" that anger. Proactive parents tell their children that these feelings are okay and that anger is a normal developmental issue in adoption. But how do you know when anger has become a problem, rather than a normal phase, for your child? If anger is affecting your child's emotional growth, or if it's preventing him or her from building and maintaining relationships with family and friends, it may be time to be more proactive and find an adoption therapist for your family. My clients often hear, "Oh, you're in counseling, I'm sorry to hear that." Reactive parents feel judged and guilty, but proactive adoptive parents respond, "No, we're in counseling because that's a normal support resource for many families, including adoptive families." Find an adoption therapist who will focus your child's treatment on new ways to express adoption anger in positive and appropriate ways.
Attachment Another important adoption issue for proactive parents is attachment. Today's popular attachment theories view children as either instantly attached or completely unattached, and adoptive parents as attached and unwavering.
We need to consider our own attachment to our children as well as their attachment to us. I believe adoptive relationships are ambivalent relationships-- normally ambivalent, because they are created out of loss. If we can let our children express some of their ambivalence about growing up adopted, if we can share with them some of our own mixed feelings about parenting or about other issues in our lives, we can strengthen the attachments between us. Maybe I can say to my son, "You know what, it's taking me time to fall in love with you, too." He might then believe that his own struggle to accept and embrace his new parents is okay, that love and trust between us (or anyone) doesn't have to be instant, according to any timetable, or "all or nothing," Neither of us is bad or weird for having questions or wanting to step back from time to time. In short, if you and your child are sometimes ambivalent about your relationship, you're normal.
But what about when attachment really isn't growing between parent and child and may be causing delays in emotional development, negative relationships and trouble with self-esteem? What symptoms will proactive parents see? You will experience a pattern of rejecting behavior from your child. The closer you try to move in, the more rejecting the behavior becomes: Lying, stealing, hoarding, gorging food. aggressions poor eye contact, indiscriminate affection with strangers. Attachment therapy must focus on the family and on the reciprocal nature of healthy attachment, not just on the adopted child. A good adoption therapist can help families strengthen attachments with behavior modification, negotiating and coping skills and family support.
Depression and Anxiety Depression and anxiety are other normal issues for adopted children. Just as anger is an appropriate response to an adopted child's grief, we can also anticipate that our children will experience depression as an appropriate response at one or more points in their development. Through their behavior, our children will show us that they're depressed. We're going to see children having temper tantrums, eating and sleeping problems, unusual hyperactivity, disobedience, delinquency, running away, substance abuse and academic underachievement. Anxiety may be a response to the powerlessness and helplessness that children experience as the unwitting victims of adoption plans. Anxious children can show you how worried and unsafe they feel through clinging and demanding behaviors, by being difficult to comfort or satisfy, and by showing tremendous anxiety about, and difficulty with, transitions. When depression and anxiety don' t seem to improve, therapy and medication can be very helpful.
What should you look for in an adoption therapist? You need a therapist who is knowledgeable and experienced in working with the adoption circle--birth parents, adoptive parents and adopted children --and who plans treatments that include all circle members, in spirit if not in person. Effective therapists acknowledge the impact of adoption on families while honoring the reality that we can't focus on adoption as the only defining aspect of our family. Effective therapists help us to normalize the adoption issues we face as adoptive parents and support our need for alternative approaches to improving attachment and enhancing our children's development. Parents striving to be proactive seek to create new norms of healthy, adoptive family life and will need therapists who are well trained to support and promote these norms. Most importantly, adoption therapy must address the on-going issues of grief and loss in adoptive families over the life span. Adoptive family therapy often works best when the family and the therapist create a relationship that can be picked up and put down when adoption needs arise and as the family experiences both the calm times and the crisis times of everyday life.