Having Faith September 2019
This month in my Having Faith Column, I want to refer readers to a book that is hot off the press, called, The Seven Core Issues in Adoption and Permanency, written by Sharon Kaplan Roszia and Allison Davis Maxon. Sharon Roszia was a trainer of mine in 1998 that ultimately led to the beginning of Kids & Families Together. Reading this book and understanding the core issues in depth is highly recommended by me if your life has been touched by adoption. As an adopted person myself, who was placed as an infant in a loving adoptive home, I can attest to Sharon’s understanding of the seven core issues, regardless of the joy that can also be experienced within an adoptive home. I believe that joy can be increased in an adoptive family if we identify these core issues and help children to integrate them as they grow. Reflecting on these issues validates an adoptees experiences, decreasing feelings of being different and isolated. These seven core issues are experienced by foster parents, adoptive parents, and birth parents, as well as the adoptee. This book also addresses these issues more specifically, through the eyes of kinship families, Latino families, multi-racial families, LGBTQ families, and the list goes on. I am going to be writing this column through my eyes of growing up in the fifties and sixties in a Caucasian family, as well as my experience of working with adoptive families at K&FT.
- Loss – Loss, the first issue, is like a hub of a large wheel. Without loss there would be no adoption. Every adopted person has experienced at least one major, life-altering loss before becoming involved in adoption. In adoption, to gain anything, one must first lose the family of origin. Even in the most open of adoptions this is still true. Children who have had multiple placements, have come from other cultures and countries and have had a series of transplantations, have compounded losses. Each loss rests on top of the others, sometimes piling up very high. For adopted persons, loss in adoption is not a single event, but rather a series of ongoing losses. Birthdays, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day can be experienced as both a reminder of the original loss and the ongoing nature of that loss. There is no end to the losses, no closure. For example, losses in adoption can include: loss of culture, religion, ethnic and racial connections, medical information, siblings, birth order, etc. Adopted children frequently remember best the so-called little losses, like the smell of sheets or the way Grandma smiled. Because loss is always a part of adopted children’s’ lives, it is crucial to support their expression of these losses in order to begin the healing process. For young children, it might be through art, puppets, or play. Older children and adults might benefit from being encouraged to write down all the losses, from the big ones to the little ones. Making the losses concrete allows the grief work to begin. Whenever possible, families must work to minimize the losses for their children by keeping their connections to important people, places, and events.
- Rejection – Rejection is the second core issue which adopted persons must wrestle with in their lives. Feelings of loss are heightened by feelings of rejection. Individuals, adopted or not, may seek to cope with a loss by personalizing it. This is the, “why me?” question. Adopted persons attempt to decipher what they did or did not do that led to the losses. Young children, due to egocentric thinking (I did it), take responsibility for the things that happen to them, including the negatives, like abandonment, abuse, or neglect. Adopted persons, then, may become sensitive to the slightest hint of rejection, disapproval, or dismissal, causing them to either avoid situations where they might be rejected or even to provoke rejection in order to prove their own self perceptions. Adopted persons are seldom able to view their placement into adoption as anything other than total rejection. “Why did she leave me?” is a frequent question, verbalized or kept deep within their psyches. They feel they were unlovable, unwanted, unworthy, or defective. One way to help adopted children deal with feelings of rejection is to help them sort out the facts about their adoption. Parents need to be open and honest in giving age-appropriate information and to avoid taking children’s comments or questions personally, as if the child were rejecting them. This stance gives parents an ability to better support the child’s emotional work. I understand that this is easier said than done and is why adoptive parents also need ongoing support as they grapple with feelings of rejection from their adopted child.
- Guilt and Shame may come out of an adopted person’s belief that they deserve the loss and rejection that they are feeling within themselves. They may believe that there is something intrinsically wrong with them or that their actions caused the losses to occur. Guilt, the feeling of having committed an offense, refers to actions or behaviors; whereas shame is a painful emotion resulting from an awareness of personal inadequacy or deficit. Adopted persons feel guilty for what they did or didn’t do that caused the adoption. For example, children placed as infants might feel they kicked too much in utero or cried too much in the nursery. Children adopted at an older age feel it was their behaviors or misbehaviors that caused the previous disruptions and familial loss. They sometimes report that they caused the beatings or sexual abuse. It is often difficult to dissuade them from their beliefs in part because of their egocentric thinking and, in part, because of the message they may have been given by abusive or drug-involved birth parents. Adoptive families need to be sensitive to their children’s feelings of guilt and shame. Children need to understand that adults are responsible for what happens and not children. Adoptive families must find information or individuals that can portray the birth family as real people – a mixture of good qualities and bad qualities. Children need a full picture of their family of origin, so that they can identify with more positives than negatives. This is where extended birth family members can prove to be an invaluable resource.
- Grief – Every loss must be grieved, and adoption-related losses are no different. The losses in adoption are often difficult to mourn in a society where adoption is seen as a problem-solving event filled with joy. There are few rites to mark the loss of hopes and dreams or unknown family members. Grief washes over adopted persons in stages or waves, particularly at times of other loss or developmental transitions. It is important that adopted persons understand that feelings always change. They fear that they will always feel sad or mad. Adoptees in their youth find it difficult to grieve their losses although they are, in many instances, aware of them, even as very young children. Children may not visibly demonstrate their feelings; instead, they may numb out, have physical symptoms such as headaches, regressive behavior, or acting out behaviors. Children removed from abusive homes may be expected to feel only relief and gratitude, not grief. Children living in survival mode are not at a place to work through these losses. Often, adopted children do not fully appreciate the total impact of their losses until they become old enough to understand what really happened to them.
- Identity – Adoptees, born into one family, lose an identity and then borrow one from the adopting family. Adoptees sometimes wonder who they really are and where they belong. They grapple with what they inherited and what they have acquired. Identity is more complicated with missing information about the original family. This is especially true for adoptees that lack medical and historical information. The task for adoptive parents is to support their children’s developing sense of where they come from and who they are by providing accurate and positive information about birth family history. Children need to understand the role of inheritance in the formation of the self, as well as the role of nurturing and learning. For example, if you are a musical family and adopt a child strong in athletics and not interested in music, this child should be encouraged to follow her strengths and pursue athletics.
- Intimacy and Relationships – The multiple ongoing losses in adoption, coupled with feelings of rejection, shame, and grief as well as confusion around identity, may affect the development of interpersonal relationships. Adoptive parents need to be committed to creating a secure attachment with their adoptive child, especially when the child is actively rejecting them. Issues of intimacy may have to be re-worked again and again as a child grows and changes and struggles to incorporate their adoptive experience into who they are and who they will be.
- Control Issues – Adoptees must come to terms with issues of mastery and control and own the gains they have made through adoption. Adoption alters the course of an adopted person’s life. This shift presents additional hurdles in development and may impede emotional growth, feelings of responsibility, and a sense of self-control. Adopted persons are keenly aware that they had no voice in the decisions that led to adoption, no control over the loss of their birth family, or even the choice of adoptive family. For many, adoption is a second choice. The adoption plan proceeded with adults making life-altering choices for them. Some adopted persons may view themselves as the victim in the adoption process and may perpetuate the role of victim without support to make sense of the past and move forward in a healthy way. Adoptive parents can help their adoptive child by giving age-appropriate choices and responsibilities throughout their development, while avoiding power struggles and control battles. It is also important to acknowledge children’s feelings about their lack of control while helping them to take control over their lives today.
Although the experience of adoption is connected to these seven core issues, understanding them and being allowed to work through them in the context of a loving family leads to the joy in adoption. There are many gains to be won as adopted persons work their way through these seven core issues. People who have faced and struggled with difficult issues often develop inner resources and become deeper human beings. Generally, adoptees become more resilient as they see their ability to address losses in their lives authentically.