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.
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
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.
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