Don’t Tell Anybody My Secret….I Was Adopted

“Was I a bad baby, Mom?” young Stephen asked after his parents told him about his adoption.
“Was there something wrong with me?…Is that why they didn’t want me?…Was I a bad baby?”
His parents, startled by Stephen’s poignant questions, gathered their composure and reassured their son that the “giving up” didn’t have anything to do with him. Yet when they explained that his birth mother was only thirteen years old when he was born and not ready to parent, he still silently wondered if there was something wrong with him.
As a teenager, he was filled with guilt and shame over what he imagined his birth mother had gone through because of him. He said, ” I was convinced that my birth mother must have been raped and therefore I was the result of some horrific event–an event that may very well have destroyed the life of a young girl. I felt that I was not worthy of happiness if my pain had caused severe pain for my young mother.”
Later in life when he was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect, he was convinced that his belief about himself was true after all: he was defective, a mistake.
What Stephen was dealing with was shame. Toxic shame. Shame that shouts deep into the soul, “There is something wrong with you!”
Many adoptees struggle with shame. Without intervention they will likely believe the reason for their adoption was because they were a bad baby/child.
“I hope my child isn’t silently struggling with shame,” I can hear you say. “If he is, how can I intervene and help him resolve it?”
In order to accomplish that task, it is important to understand exactly what shame is, where it originates, how the adoptee’s beliefs are affected by it, how they cope with it, and what can be done about it.

What Is Toxic Shame?

The dictionary defines shame as:
• the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, or ridiculous
• disgrace
• humiliation
• the mortification of being singled out for rebuke
• mortification of being humbled in the sight of others
• devaluation

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If your child was relinquished for adoption as an infant, then one of her first experiences in life was being separated from everything safe and familiar: the presence of her mother. An infant cannot process the complex reasons behind this separation, of course, and interprets it as primal abandonment. At a core level, this perceived or actual rejection produces shame.
If your child was removed from her birth family at an older age, she may have put on a brave front and acted as if she could take anything. Her “I can handle it” demeanor, however, may only be a ruse to hide a deep sense of failure: They took me away from my mommy because I was bad. I should have been better. This belief is often tragically true even for children who were clearly victimized by their parents’ physical or sexual abuse and were removed for their own protection.
Because of their deep-seated fear of rejection, many adoptees try to manage that pain through people-pleasing or rebellion. If I do everything right, then they’ll love me and keep me. If I refuse to need their approval, then they can’t hurt me when they reject me.
How about your adopted child? Do you notice her being overly compliant, eager to please? Or does she tend to act out, setting herself up for the rejection she believes she deserves? Perhaps she is a combination of both, like the person who is “sitting down on the outside, but standing up on the inside.”

Warning Signs for Shame
Warning Signs for Shame

If your child is compliant or rebellious, or flips back and forth between the two, consider what she might be trying to tell you in the only way she knows how:

• “I feel overwhelmed.”
• “My cup of fear is brimming over.”
• “I am trying to manage my fear of rejection.”
• “I must prevent further hurt, no matter what it costs me.”
• “I am convinced that it is only a matter of time until you discover there is something wrong with me.”
• “I am afraid there has been something wrong with me all along.”

In other words, the thoughts that motivate your child’s behavior may be shame-based. Unless you can uncover her illegitimate shame and replace it with the truth, she may suffer great psychic pain, live in fear, or create constant chaos in the family. Not all adoptees experience shame to such a degree, of course, but if your child seems more compliant or rebellious than the norm, then you’ll want to consider what may be driving her.

Exposing Toxic Shame

Many adult adoptees I’ve spoken with now realize that they were saying to themselves as children: “My birth mother gave me up because I was a bad baby, so I must do whatever I can to be good. If I don’t, my adoptive parents will reject me too.”
Their belief manifested in these “pleasing” behaviors:

• “I didn’t want anyone to be disappointed in me. I worked overtime at being the model child.”
• “I felt compelled to pay back kindness when others gave to me.”
• “I acted shy.”
• “I was ultra-sensitive to other people’s feelings.”
• “I was afraid of being seen as bad or selfish.”
• “I tried to be perfect.”
• “I let others push me around.”
• “I made it a point to find out what others expected and then to adjust my behavior accordingly. When they said ‘jump,’ I asked ‘how high?’”
• “I beat myself up constantly.”
The compliant aspect of the adoptee’s behavior is often difficult for parents to discern, for it can seem like everything is fine outwardly, when in reality there is emotional turmoil inside. As mentioned in a previous chapter, you must discern whether your child’s “strength” is coming from a place of health or hurt.

Why is she stealing from the neighbor's house? We've given her everything.
Why is she stealing from the neighbor’s house? We’ve given her everything.

In contrast, adult adoptees looking back on their rebellion said they once reasoned: “My birth mother gave me up because I was a bad baby, therefore, I will act like the loser I really am.”
Behaviors that indicate these beliefs are:

• stealing
• wanting to run away, or actually doing it
• rage
• setting fires
• physically attacking adoptive parents
• promiscuity
• becoming pregnant out of wedlock
• rejecting others (“I won’t be the one rejected first.”)
• hurting others (“I’ll hurt you before you can hurt me.”)
• acting tough (“I can take anything life dishes out.”)
• eating disorders
• suicide. (Contact abcofohio.org for clinical help)

If your child displays both compliance and rebellion, then she may be popular at school, voted prom queen by her peers, but come home with the statement every parent dreads: “Mom, Dad…I’m pregnant.” Or she may be winsome and charming with others while impossible to live with at home.

What Parents Can Do

Learning about your child’s toxic shame might feel overwhelming and unconquerable, but that is not the case. Here are some things you can do to bring your child’s illegitimate beliefs about himself out into the light of day and then help him dump his toxic shame where it belongs: in the garbage, far, far away from his precious soul.

Teach Him How to Detect Shameful Thoughts

When your child is young, you can challenge declarations of toxic shame on your child’s behalf.
“Me bad baby, Mom? Is that why they gave me away?”
“No, sweetheart, they gave you away because they weren’t able to be parents. It’s hard to understand, isn’t it?”
As your child grows older, it’s not enough for you to know the symptoms of toxic shame; you must teach your child how to identify them as well. Thus, when you hear a shameful thought, challenge it.
“Mom, I am such a loser.”
“I detect shame in that view of yourself, do you? Remember what shame is? It is believing there is something bad about you as a person. Those are the kind of thoughts you must challenge within yourself. I hope when these kinds of thoughts come to mind, you will say to yourself, ‘That thought is not true. I am an incredible person.'”

Write a Welcome Letter

Another way you can help heal your child’s toxic shame is to write her a letter, affirming her “welcomeness” into the world and into your family. Your child needs to hear again and again “You are/were welcome. Even though we weren’t there on the day you were born, our hearts were saying, ‘Welcome to the world, little one.’ We longed to have you as our child long before you were born. You are a gift to us.”
You could make this letter the first entry in your child’s life book, reminding her whenever her birth or adoption story is told of her place in the world and specifically in your family.

Affirm Your Child’s Value

I remember one time in the midst of my counseling process, when my counselor put an arm around me as I was walking out after a session and said, “You really are wonderful, you know.” Her declaration took me by surprise. I had never heard those specific words directly applied to me.
Your child needs to hear your specific affirmations of his value. “You are an awesome guy.” “You are wonderful!”
If you are a person of faith, you will also want to teach your child that she is part of God’s creation and that God doesn’t make mistakes. “God created you and loves you just as you are. So do we.”

Laugh at Yourself
Renowned author and speaker John Bradshaw says in Homecoming: “Toxic shame forces us to be more than human (perfect) or less than human (a slob). Healthy shame allows you us to make mistakes, which are an integral part of being human.”
The best way you as an adoptive parent can help free your child from toxic shame is to learn to laugh at your own foibles and mistakes. Because your child may believe she is a mistake, she needs you to model for her that being human is okay. Show her your humanity. Tell her when you blow it. Help her see that people don’t deserve to be rejected just because they’re alive. Teach her the joy of forgiving, being forgiven, and forgiving herself. Before you know it, she will be following suit.

Copyright,1999, Sherrie Eldridge, Chapter 11 Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew.

Adoptees Ready to Launch?

Sometimes It's Hard for Adoptees to Say Goodbye
Sometimes It's Hard for Adoptees to Say Goodbye
Eaglet–“I don’t like this nest anymore. I wanna be me. I know I can fly.”

Children want and need to become their own persons. Adopted kids seek autonomy, too, while at the same time needing a safe place to verbalize the conflicting emotions that being adopted often evokes.
The task of individuating for the adopted child is unique as well as complex, for it involves the dual-identity once again. With each step the adoptee takes toward independence, she becomes more conscious of her pre-adoption past. For her to “separate” from you might feel more traumatic because she has already been separated against her will from her birth parents and they never came back (unless is was an open adoption, of course). That initial shock predisposed her to struggle with healthy separation more than the non-adopted child does.

The Struggle Toward Autonomy

There are various signs along the way that will alert you to the fact that your child is trying to take another step toward becoming his own person, different from you. He may make challenging statements like, “My real mother would let me do this.” He may begin to think more about his birth family: “I wonder if they are still alive.” “I wonder if they would like me.” “I am interested in finding out more about them.” “I wish I could meet them.”
Fundamental questions about his identity may surface. “Who am I?” “Who am I in relation to adoption?” “Is there a purpose to my life? If so, what is it?” Emotions may surge. Robin, sixteen, said, “When I became a teenager, my need for independence arrived overnight and I withdrew from my family and became promiscuous. I was irate at the curfews my parents set.” Teens may launch out and try different friendships (other than the kind you would desire), in search of the kind of relationships they really want.

Is it scary out in the big world?
Is it scary out in the big world?

Prepare yourself for other comments that indicate your child’s movement toward autonomy:
• “Why is my skin different than yours?”
• “People in a real family match.”
• “You are not my real family.”
• “You are just my adoptive mother.”
• “You are sort of my daddy.”
• “I wonder what my real parents look like.”
• “Real families are defined by blood ties.”
• “I’m pregnant.”
Sometimes statements like these are hurled in anger because anger is usually part of an adopted child’s process of facing the parts of her life and herself that she has lost. If your child becomes hostile at times, you may be tempted to doubt yourself and your parenting capabilities, but resist the temptation! Remember that the upheaval has nothing to do with you or your parenting, but everything to do with your child coming to know herself more completely.

What the Adoptee Is Trying to Communicate

Realize that beneath surging emotions, startling statements, and identity issues are questions related to your child’s pre-adoption past. He is trying to integrate it with his present-day life. He has a multifaceted identity to weave, and he oftentimes has trouble communicating that.
Here are a few examples of what your child might be trying to communicate when he makes comments like the ones above:

• Families are defined by blood ties./Where do I belong?
• You are just my adoptive mother./Who is my birth mother?
• You are not my real family./ I am realizing I have a dual heritage.
• I wonder what my birth family looks like./ Do I look like anybody?
• My real mother would let me do that./I have a fantasy mother.
• My birth mommy gave me up because she loved me./ Will you give me up too? Is it really good to be loved?
• My other mommy gave me away because I was a bad baby./ Did my birth mother love me?
• You are sort of my daddy./I am realizing I have two daddies.
• I don’t want to tell my adoption story at school this year./I want to be “normal”–not adopted. I feel sad.
• I’m pregnant./I am trying to connect with my birth mother in the only way I know how./I have unresolved feelings of loss.

If only parents could be so confident in their parenting that they could let these statements roll like water off a duck’s back. But the truth is that these bold declarations often hit them in their most vulnerable spot. Fisher and Watkins, in Talking with Young Children About Adoption, describe this vulnerability: “For many adoptive parents this vulnerable spot is the fear that, lacking the tie of blood, the child will not merely differentiate from the parents but will leave them in some final way. The parents fear being orphaned by the child.”
Could this fear somehow describe you? If you did some honest soul searching, would you have to admit that you are scared to death of losing your beloved child?
Let me assure you that your fear is normal. Understanding this about yourself is vital if you are to be that emotional haven for your child and encourage his healthy and necessary movement toward individuation.

What Parents Can Do

Reassure Your Child

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Because the normal childhood process of individuating might be rocky for your child at times, she needs added reassurance from you that you will be there for her if she feels overwhelmed. Just a few words that will acknowledge her emotional reality will comfort her: “We know new situations are often difficult for you. We just want to remind you that you can call us whenever you feel overwhelmed or lonely. We will be there for you.”
Reassuring words can be communicated in less direct ways as well. When our daughters were growing up, our family used to leave notes on one another’s pillows when there was a special message to be communicated.
Touch can be another way of demonstrating your understanding. An arm around her waist, a touch on his shoulder, a wink of the eye will communicate what words sometimes cannot.

Remain Calm

When surging emotions and startling stat are hurled, try to keep your cool. This will communicate unspoken strength to your child and will help him gravitate toward wholeness instead of rage. If he can draw you into the cyclone of emotions, the chaos has won.
I am reminded of the illustration of one person trying to help another that is in a deep pit. The helper doesn’t get down in the pit. Instead he holds onto something strong, reaches down to the one in the pit, and gradually helps him out. “I realize you are having a difficult time right now. If you ever want to talk, I’m here for you.” “How might I help you? Remember, I’m on your team.”

(Adapted from Chapter 7: Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew

Yikes…Tell the WHOLE Truth?

My mama and daddy tell me the truth. I am so glad.
My mama and daddy tell me the truth. I am so glad.
Many parents who adopt are terrified that their children will someday learn about the negative aspects of their child’s birth family history. “What if my son finds out that his birth father is in prison? What if he discovers that his birth mother is a prostitute, or drug addict? What if my daughter learns that she was conceived in rape? Won’t it irreparably wound my child to discover such things?”
This core question is more common than one might expect among adoptive parents and it certainly deserves a solid answer. I, in no way, presume to tell you a simple, clear-cut answer. However, I’ll do my best to shed some insights for you to consider.

Deal with Fear

Your child needs to know the truth, at the appropriate age, but first as parents, you need to deal with your own fears first. Dr. Randolph W. Severson addresses parental fear in To Bless Him Unaware: The Adopted Child Conceived by Rape: “Fear and anxiety about what openness will ultimately mean in adoption is often like a young child’s anxiety about the water being cold. There really will be no getting over it until he takes a breath and steels himself and dives. And while the water will be cold at first, the momentary shock will soon seem worth it as the body adapts and the afternoon warms while the cool blue waters bear up the swimmer into a serene and tranquil bliss.”
Moms, on behalf of adoptees, I plead with you to deal with your own fears and then trust us to have the strength to grow from the pain. We adoptees aren’t whimps! We know how to survive and thrive through pain. Give us a chance! We want truth and this will help us learn to trust you more.

Believe that Good Can Come From Evil

At mid-age, when I was reunited with my birth mother via phone, she announced to me the negative circumstances of my conception. I vividly remember my emotional reaction—it was as if I had fallen on the ice and had the wind knocked out of me. I was speechless. It never entered my head that such a thing could be the reason for relinquishment.
For some reason, I felt compelled to repeat these words in my reunion story: “I was conceived in horrible circumstances.” Every time I spewed out the words, it was as if a black cloud enveloped me. A couple of years later, this thought came to mind: “It was your mother that had the experience—not you. You are not responsible and you are carrying her pain and shame. That’s why you feel so terrible whenever you share it with others.”
From that point forward, I simply would say, “My mother had a bad experience at my conception.” I take no ownership of it and carry the pain and shame no more.
Since my adoptive grandmother was the county worker on my case and worked with my birthmother prior to my adoption, I have no doubt that my adoptive parents knew the truth. As was typical in the closed adoption era, not much was shared about adoption, let alone negative birth family information.
The upshot for me from the ordeal of hearing the truth is that my love for my birth mother deepened. As I studied about maternity homes and the horrible shame that was cast on her, I have come to see the true gift she gave me in continuing the pregnancy and providing me with the gift of birth nine months later.
The truth DID set me free from misplaced pain and shame so that I could love and appreciate my birth mother on a deeper level.

Determine the Appropriate Time

If I had a child whose life leapt into being through negative circumstances, I would be very careful about the timing of disclosing such information. Dr. Severson says, “As soon as your child asks or becomes aware—and only your love and instinct will hint at it’s emergence—that it ‘takes two’ to make a baby, he or she should be told that his birth mother and birth father were not in love and perhaps did not know each other well, and that they did not ‘make love’ but rather ‘had sex’ even though the birth mother didn’t want to.” He believes the correct age is approximately 10 or 11 years old.
You know your child better than anyone, so I encourage parents to pray to know the right timing. I am reminded of a story about Corrie Ten Boon, a survivor of the Nazi Prisoner Camps. When she was a young girl, she was on the bus with her father and she asked him what the word “sex” meant. Mr. Ten Boon rose from his seat, pulled down a heavy suitcase, and placed it in front of Corrie. “Try to lift it,” he said. She tried, to no avail. He said, “Corrie, just like this suitcase is too heavy for you to carry right now, so is the subject of sex too difficult for you to understand. I will carry it for you until the time is right.” The Center for Adoption Support and Education has a great developmental chart. Here’s the link: http://tinyurl.com/l7qmfwy.
Moms, you can do the same with painful birth history. If your child asks before you believe she is ready to receive, use the story of Corrie’s dad and carry the information until the time is right.