Imagine yourself seated in a grandstand on a sunny August afternoon, waiting for a race to begin. The hot dog vendor walks up and down the aisles selling his wares as the runners prepare for the race on the track below. The smell of chalk dust fills the air.
The runners take their positions and the official steps forward. “On your marks, get set, go!” he shouts, firing the pistol into the air.
The runners take off in a pack. One or two take the lead. Others follow close behind. The crowd goes wild.
Near the back of the pack you notice a runner who is slower than the others. She seems to be running with a limp. As she comes closer, you notice that she is wearing a prosthesis from the knee down. Your mind starts racing. I wonder what happened to her. Did she have cancer? Was she born that way? Without a doubt you know that somewhere in her past she experienced a physical trauma—not a trauma that resulted in the loss of life, but one that had permanent repercussions nonetheless.
As the runners cross the finish line, the runner with the prosthesis is still running her heart out. What courage! What conviction! you say to yourself. I wonder where she found such a unique prosthesis that she is able to compete in races. How many hours must it have taken her to learn to not only walk, but run, on such a device?
Booming from behind you is the voice of an elderly gentleman, “Come on, honey, you can do it! Keep up the pace!” When she completes the race, the man shouts his delight. “All right! I knew you could do it!” The runner’s eyes scan the stands until she catches his eye. She grins from ear to ear.
Many adults who were adopted identify with the metaphor of a one-legged runner. Even though their early trauma didn’t result in a loss of life, the emotional and relational repercussions that arise from adoption loss are very real.
The Problem of Ignorance
Just think for a moment about the metaphor of the runner. What would have happened to her if she didn’t know about her special need for support? What if she didn’t know that there were such things as prostheses? And what if she tried to run the race or function daily without one?
Needless to say, she would have trouble reaching her potential in life. She wouldn’t arrive at a place of acknowledgment, acceptance, and rising above her special needs. Instead she would become exhausted by what seems to us to be a simple task–walking.
Now apply this to your adopted child. What if the premise is true that she does have special needs that are unrecognized? Would you want her to go through life without a prosthesis? Would you want her to struggle needlessly instead of actively participating and learning the thrill of overcoming?
I know your answer is no to all of the above. Of course you want your child to have the very best life has to offer. But you are not sure of this concept of special needs. You fear it makes your child sound inferior.
Let me assure you, nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, the concept of special adoption needs is the key to unlocking your child’s sense of feeling understood. Deep inside, your child knows she has special needs. Oh, she wouldn’t say it in so many words, but she would probably admit that she sometimes feels different from all the other kids.
What your child needs is someone who can help her identify her special needs and get her fitted for a prosthesis–that is, the emotional and relational support system (family, friends, physician, counselor) who know her special needs and will be like the elderly gentleman in the stands cheering her on, loving her unconditionally. The more open your adoption is, the larger the base of support will be for your child.
I know it is your heart’s desire to be the key player in that support system. This chapter is designed to help you be just that, so keep reading!
The Concept of Special Needs
I will never forget the place in my own process when I began to discover my special needs. Making the discovery was like letting a bird out of a cage or freeing a prisoner from a dark cell. It was the key that unlocked self-acceptance and released me from crippling shame.
Fearful that I was out on a limb psychologically and that perhaps I was the only one who felt this way, I searched adoption literature for confirmation of my belief that adoptees have special needs. Much to my dismay, there was no literature specifically on the topic.
The only support I could find was from therapists Holly Van Gulden and Lisa M. Bartels-Rabb, who wrote in Real Parents, Real Children: Parenting the Adopted Child: “Though the term ‘special needs children’ is used in a very specific way in adoption, we believe that all adopted children have special needs–needs that children raised by their birth parents do not face.”
A few weeks later, I shared my personal belief and the list of special needs I believe adopted individuals have with a support group of adoptees, ranging in age from sixteen to sixty. As I read, heads nodded affirmatively and eyes welled with tears. Members verbalized the emotions of not feeling understood. A point of need had been touched.
One twenty year-old woman said, “I’ve been in therapy all my life and no one knew what to do with me.” A sixty-year-old gentleman said, “In counseling, we went through every issue in my life and I was still miserable. It was then that we began to look at adoption as a salient issue.”
The next step in developing my belief system about special needs was to formulate a definition of special needs as it related to adoption. Again, no definition was to be found in existing adoption literature.
In the midst of my search, a book entitled The Misunderstood Child, by Dr. Larry B. Silver, caught my attention. After all, I as an adoptee felt misunderstood in the past, and my fellow adoptees in our group had expressed the same emotions. Perhaps Silver had a chapter on adoption.
As I thumbed through it, I found a definition the author used for learning disabled children. It said, “The youngster with learning disabilities has areas of strength and average ability like everyone else. This child, however, has larger areas, or different areas, of learning weakness than most people do.”
Surely the adopted child has areas of strength and average ability like everyone else, I thought to myself. That part of the definition applied. And surely the adopted child has larger areas, or different areas, of emotional weakness than most people do. That part applied too, for who has two sets of parents and a dual identity to resolve? Who is more vulnerable to the fear of future loss than an adoptee who has already experienced an unfathomable loss?
This definition gave me a handle, something to begin my understanding of my own special needs and how they had shaped my life over the past fifty years.
Do All Adoptees Have Special Needs?
At this point in the discussion, you may be feeling protective of your child. My child doesn’t have any of the feelings you are discussing. Won’t my child feel labeled and judged if I tell her that she has special needs arising from adoption loss? It seems rather cruel and defeating.
Let me assure you that just the opposite is true. It is a paradox, for the concept of special needs brings with it comfort and a feeling of being understood. It is like salve on a wound. Many adoptees try to convince themselves and others that they have no special needs. They are masters at keeping that vulnerable place within themselves concealed. However, beneath the surface there is often depression. Rage. Bewilderment. Confusion about identity. Fear of loss. Shame. Lack of direction. Lack of emotional stamina. Low stress tolerance. Floating anxiety.
Dr. Foster Cline, renowned psychiatrist and author, said in an article in Jewel Among Jewels Adoption News, that all adoptees have special needs (a certain emotional vulnerability). He says, “Nowadays I believe most adopted children have vulnerability. This was not true in the past. But many American children free for adoption were formed in an alcohol or drug pool, with moms under stress. And the politically correct thing to say is that their genetics may be ‘fragile.’ All this has been proven to effect the developing neurons. Stress, and substance abuse in pregnancy does not just cause psychological problems. They cause wiring or neurological problems. Those who adopt kids from overseas often end up with children who have suffered early neglect. That too, causes neurologic damage.”
How different life could be for adoptees, whether children or adults, if the special needs arising from adoption loss could be recognized and talked about!
What are the special needs of adopted children? The following is a list, drawn from my own experience, research, and stories from adult adoptees as they’ve reflected on what it was like for them to grow up adopted.
The Special Needs of Adopted Children
Please keep in mind as you read my list that it is merely a springboard for you to begin making your own, for each adoptee is unique. Study your child, enter into play with her, observe her interacting with others. All these activities will enable you to compile a list of your particular child’s special needs.
- I need help in recognizing my adoption loss and grieving it.
- I need to be assured that my birth parents’ decision not to parent me had nothing to do with anything defective in me.
- I need help in learning to deal with my fears of rejection–to learn that absence doesn’t mean abandonment, nor a closed door that I have done something wrong.
- I need permission to express all my adoption feelings and fantasies.
- I need to be taught that adoption is both wonderful and painful, presenting lifelong challenges for everyone involved.
- I need to know my adoption story first, then my birth story and birth family.
- I need to be taught healthy ways for getting my special needs met.
- I need to be prepared for hurtful things others may say about adoption and about me as an adoptee
- I need validation of my dual-heritage (biological and adoptive).
- I need to be assured often that I am welcome and worthy.
- I need to be reminded often by my adoptive parents that they delight in my biological differences and appreciate my birth family’s unique contribution to our family through me.
- I need parents who are skillful at meeting their own emotional needs so that I can grow up with healthy role models and be free to focus on my development, rather than taking care of them.
- I need parents who are willing to put aside pre-conceived notions about adoption and be educated about the realities of adoption and the special needs adoptive families face.
- I need to hear my parents openly express feelings about infertility and adoption, thus producing a bond of intimacy between us.
- I need my adoptive and birth parents to have a non-competitive attitude. Without this, I will struggle with loyalty issues.
- Relational Needs:
- I need friendships with other adoptees.
- I need to taught that there is a time to consider searching for my birth family, and a time to give up searching.
- I need to be reminded that if I am rejected by my birth family, the rejection is symptomatic of their dysfunction, not mine.
- I need to be taught that my life narrative began before I was born and that my life is not a mistake.
- I need to be taught in this broken, hurting world, loving families are formed through adoption as well as birth.
- I need to be taught that I have intrinsic, immutable value as a human being.
- I need to accept the fact that some of my adoption questions will never be answered in this life.
Your greatest challenge as a parent is to first identify the special need that has arisen and then to help your child verbalize it. This gives him some sense of mastery and control over something that feels out of his control. Helping your child heal is largely centered on honest, productive dialogue between you and your child.
Once you as a parent gain such a depth of understanding of your child’s special needs, you will be able to give him the support he needs not only now but throughout all of life. His special needs, in turn, will become deep wells of personal strength and empathy within him as he grows older.
What Parents Can Do
- Seek out, or begin, an adoptive parent support group in your area.
- Read Talking With Young Children About Adoption by Susan Fisher, M.D. and Mary Watkins, Ph.D. (Yale University Press, 1993).
- Read your child books about adoption. The following books are for young children:
Mario’s Big Question…Where Do I Belong? by Carolyn Nystrom (Lyon Publishing)
The Mulberry Bird, Story of an Adoption by Dr. Anne Brodzinsky (Perspectives Press)
Two Orphan Cubs by Barbara Brenner and May Garelick (Walker Publishing Company)
Brian Was Adopted by Doris Sanford (Multnomah Publishing).
- Check out books from the library on art therapy and do art therapy with your young child. Here are some suggested books:
The Healing Power of Play by Glian Gil (Guilford Press)
Inscapes of the Child’s World by John Allan (Spring Publications)
The Secret World of Drawing by Greg M. Furth (Sigo Press)
- Dr. Foster Cline suggests obtaining butcher block paper, trace your child’s body, and then have him draw a large hole in his body. The hole represents the empty feeling inside that he may sometimes feel. This may open some meaningful discussion between you and your child.
With your teen:
- Listen to a tape entitled “Success Stories…Parents and Children Share Their Trials, Tribulations, and Their Successes.” Order from Resourceful Recordings, (203) 235- 2230.
- Watch a video entitled “Joni,” the story of a young woman who became a quadriplegic and rose above it to become an author, artist, singer, speaker, and advocate for the disabled. Information about how to obtain this tape is found in the Appendix.
Never forget how important your role is in cheering your child on in the race of life. You are his prosthesis…his special support. You may be one of few that truly understand his unique weaknesses and strengths. I can just see you in the grandstands shouting, “Keep going! I know you can do it!”
(This is chapter 4 from TWENTY THINGS ADOPTED KIDS WISH THEIR ADOPTIVE PARENTS KNEW). Use as needed.