“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
• the mortification of being singled out for rebuke
• mortification of being humbled in the sight of others
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.”
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.
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:
• wanting to run away, or actually doing it
• setting fires
• physically attacking adoptive parents
• 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.