What Not To Say to Adopted and Foster Kids

Please Don't Say These Hurtful Things, Adoptive and Foster Parents

Have you ever run your fingernails over a blackboard? I have, and my gut reaction is to cringe, curl up my fingers, and wince until the physical and aural discomfort I’ve just experienced has passed.

Did you know that there is a similar finger-over-the-blackboard psychological sensation that occurs when incoming information doesn’t line up with our built-in belief systems? Clinicians call it “cognitive dissonance,” but lay people like us simply call it “mixed feelings.” It’s important that we understand this psychological phenomenon because it has a strong impact on our lives…most of us, anyway.

Where Do Painful Feelings Originate?

Every baby born into this world innately expects that his or her mother will provide connection, nurture, and love. That’s the way we’re wired in the womb, adopted or not. However, that privilege of being cared for by the one who gave us birth didn’t occur for many of us who were adopted. It might have occurred for a short time before we were relinquished, but eventually the painful separation came.

We expected and needed to drink from her breasts, lie on her warm body, and hear the sound of her familiar voice. But instead we were placed into the arms of strangers. Loving strangers, in most cases; nevertheless, they were strangers to us at the time.

This experience frequently produces mixed, sensory feelings. Incoming information —“I am being held by someone that doesn’t sound, smell, or look like my mommy”— doesn’t line up with “I love the feel, sound, and smell of my mommy. In her arms I feel so safe.”

Our basic belief system is being violated. Maybe that’s why many of us often feel an unexplainable sense of chaos and like something inside just isn’t right.

Cheri Freeman knows that adoption brings joy to many people, and even her. Yet she has a deep sadness that she is trying to overcome, stemming from the fact that a mother who gives you life is supposed to love you and keep you, not discard you.

Adoptive parents often say about adoption day: “It was the happiest day of our lives!” While most adoptees are happy to be adopted, our memories tell us that adoption day was the most painful day of our lives, for the person with whom we shared deep intimacy suddenly disappeared from our world.”

Ron Hilliard says that almost everyone showered him with the positive aspects of being adopted. “You are loved,” they would say. Yet in his heart he didn’t experience being loved. “I felt unloved, given away, and unwanted,” he says.

Frieda Moore says she “felt like an intruder —unloved, unwanted, and not worth loving,” even though her parents lavished her with unconditional love.

I am confident that Moses, an adoptee who lived in biblical times, experienced similar mixed feelings. He was born to an Israelite family, who along with the rest of the Israelite nation, was in slavery under the wicked Pharaoh of Egypt. God had called the Israelites to multiply and be fruitful, and even though they were suffering in abject slavery, they flourished. This disturbed Pharaoh, for he worried they might rise up and take over his kingdom. The more God’s people multiplied, the meaner Pharaoh got.

Finally he sent an edict throughout the Israelite huts that all male babies must be killed at birth by the midwives. Just imagine how Jochebed and Amram, Moses’ parents, felt when Jochebed was pregnant during this time. This probably affected their other two children, Aaron and Miriam, also.

Of course you couldn’t learn the sex of a baby during those times, but I can just see Jochebed fearing the worst when she heard Pharaoh’s soldiers riding through the village, shouting the edict.

Jochebed did have a boy, but the midwives valued life and didn’t kill him or other male babies at their births. This sent Pharaoh into a rage and he gave a second edict: All male babies must be drowned in the Nile River at birth.

Jochebed probably kept the curtains on her windows shut so that the soldiers riding by couldn’t see her baby. I can imagine her holding Moses close in fear that a loud cry would bring a fast death. They didn’t have pacifiers then, but if he didn’t need nursing, perhaps she put the tip of her little finger in his mouth for him to suck on. Anything to keep him quiet.

One day when Jochebed was nursing, an idea came. She would make a watertight basket coated with tar and pitch that was just big enough to hold her son. There would be a lid that would cover him and protect him from the sun and insects.

She knew that Pharaoh’s daughter Hatesphut came to the Nile to bathe daily. Jochebed believed that Hatesphut would hear Moses’ cry or see him in the basket and have pity on him and let him live.

Jochebed rehearsed this plan to her daughter, Miriam, for she was going to be a key player in the plan to save the baby. “You hide behind a tree, and when Pharaoh’s daughter discovers and opens the basket, she will look for a wet nurse. That’s when you are to approach her and say that you know of someone who would be willing.”

What an incredible faith Jochebed had in an impossible situation! She believed firmly that God would take care of this little life that he had given her. Jochebed was able to keep the baby’s cries muffled for a few weeks.

But when the cries got louder, she knew it was time to implement her plan. As she carried her beloved son down to the Nile, hot tears streamed down her cheeks as she softly sang him his last lullaby.

When she let go of the basket, she quickly hid behind some brush. The baby sent out heart-wrenching wails and every scream felt like a knife to the heart.

Every time she heard a cry, her breasts engorged with milk, which reminded her in a vivid way of the separation from her baby. She buried her face in her hands, sobbing.

I have often wondered how Moses reacted emotionally to being in a dark, stuffy basket. A totally foreign place.  A place where all human connections were broken. The record simply says, “He was crying.”1 The root of that word means “to weep, bewail, mourn, sob, weep continually, weep longer, wept bitterly.”2

Jochebed’s plan for her baby was carried out to the last detail. She was asked to be the wet nurse for Hatesphut until the time of weaning, which during those times was about four years of age. Thus, in an incredible turn of events, Jochebed once again held the child she cherished. It seemed overwhelming to grasp the fact that the daughter of  the one who wanted her baby annihilated was the one who snatched him from the jaws of death. I can imagine Moses’ mother recounting how he was miraculously saved and returned, but don’t you wonder if every time he heard the story, he may have experienced unexplainable anxiety?

The years flew by quickly until it was time for Moses to be weaned. Before they knew it, the dreaded day had arrived. Can’t you imagine Jochebed and Amram on the evening before the adoption? She may have gathered his favorite toys and clothes and put them in a knapsack while Amram may have been in the other room silently rehearsing a child-friendly explanation of the upcoming adoption. All the while he was praying. Where should I begin? How can a four-year-old child possibly understand that we are going to stop being his parents and give him to someone else?

When the grieving family walked together to Pharaoh’s palace, Hatesphut, the adoptive mother, was eagerly awaiting their arrival. Moses clung to Jochebed as they approached the palace. A servant dressed in Egyptian finery opened the huge brass doors and ushered them in. What a contrast the shiny marble floors, tall pillars, and statues of Egyptian gods were to Moses’ simple family abode.

In flowing silk robes and a high hat covered with jewels, Hatesphut greeted them with outstretched arms. “I am so glad to see you, son! I thought this day would never arrive.”

After a few minutes of awkward pleasantries, Amram, Jochebed, Miriam, and Aaron said, “We have to go now, Moses. You will be staying here from now on. We love you and will never forget you.”

As Jochebed handed her son over to Hatsephut, he screamed, “Mama, Papa, don’t go!” They gave him one last emotional embrace, turned their backs, and walked out. His body stiffened as he pushed Hatsephut away.

Even though Jochebed and Amram’s hearts were breaking, they  sacrificially let go of their son, knowing that there was a higher purpose for him. A specific role in human history.

And, that turned out to be true.

But Moses was in a place of raw loss. All that was familiar was suddenly gone.  Can’t you imagine his adoptive mother reminding him as he grew up of the joyous day he walked through the palace doors? I don’t know about you, but I think Moses would have had mixed feelings, big time.

How to Recognize Painful Adoption-Related Feelings

Attachment and bonding specialist, the late Gregory C. Keck, Ph.D., says, “The concept of cognitive dissonance is a tough one even for adult adoptees to understand, and even if they understand it, I don’t think that the understanding mitigates the feelings of abandonment. Actually, I’m not sure there is any explanation or reason that adoptees can embrace to resolve their loss. That’s not to say that people don’t get through it. Obviously, they do.”3

Dr. Keck makes it clear that cognitive dissonance is one of the highest hurdles adoptees must jump.

Therefore, our first order of business will be to identify two common markers that may indicate mixed feelings—something that produces a finger-over-the-blackboard sensation psychologically. One of those is hypervigilance.

HYPERVIGILANCE

The Synonym Finder says this about vigilance: “watchfulness, guardedness, wariness, caution, forethought, keenness, sleeplessness.”4

Magnify those words by 100 percent and we have hypervigilance!

Sometimes hypervigilance comes in handy if a car is crossing the median and heading directly toward us. Or, when a toddler has fallen into the deep end of a pool. We can be “Johnny on the spot,” which can be good. But at other times, it’s distressing. Our systems are constantly working overtime to sort out dissonant beliefs and emotions.

Therapist and best-selling author and speaker Nancy Verrier says, “Although the adoptee might not be consciously aware of the fear of abandonment, which is then felt as free-floating anxiety, there is an attitude which can be readily discerned. It is a kind of watchfulness or cautious testing of the environment, which is called hyper vigilance.”5

Lois Rabey, an author and speaker who was adopted at nine days of age, says that one of the ways hypervigilance manifests itself in her life is through the physical reaction of an extremely sensitive “startle reflex.” For example, when she’s in a room and doesn’t know someone has come in, she has an exaggerated reaction. Her family knows not to come up behind her and say “boo!”

Lois, a late-discovery adoptee, believes the major reason for the hypervigilance she experiences in adulthood was a contentious relationship with her adoptive father. “He wanted me to be his biological child,” she explains. “So even though I didn’t know that, there was a tension and a pressure to try to please him. I just didn’t succeed because I couldn’t. I was always afraid and said to myself, ‘Is he going to be mad? What can I do?’”

Lois’s innate belief system told her that dads are supposed to love their daughters. When she found in her dad only disappointment that she wasn’t his biological child, fingernails scraped over the blackboard of her tender adopted soul.

Authors John and Paula Sanford say, “In the womb, every adopted child has in his spirit experienced rejection from his natural parents.  He may have been reacting in his spirit with resentment, tightening up in defensiveness. Certainly rest and trust are not formed in him”6

Another indication that we are experiencing mixed feelings is an undercurrent of anxiety.

ANXIETY

I resonate with what author Selma Fraiberg says about adoptee anxiety. She says, “Can a baby under one ‘remember’ this traumatic separation from his original parents? No, he probably will not remember the events as a series of pictures that can be recalled. What is remembered, or preserved, is anxiety, a primitive kind of terror, which returns in waves in later life.”7

Many of us experience anxiety but may never associate it with adoption loss. “Oh, I’m just a nervous-type person,” we may say to ourselves.

Sue Coons, adopted at nine months and found by her birth mother fifteen years ago at age forty-three, says that she developed a panic disorder when she was eight years old and never really understood it or had treatment until the last decade. It was very difficult for her to deal with and created troublesome limitations in both her personal and professional life. She couldn’t travel at all.

Lois Rabey links her hypervigilance with anxiety. She says that on an emotional level she has worried excessively about what might happen in the future to those she loves, from the present to years and years out. She tried everything to rid herself of the worry. Prayer. Meditation. Counseling. All to no avail.

When she became a grandmother she grew more and more exhausted with worry about her grandchildren and other family members. Overwhelmed with anxiety, she made a choice and said to God that she was going to commit all that she was worrying about to him and intentionally let go of it every time it came up again. That decision has eased her hypervigilance and anxiety over time.

Words and Statements That May Produce Painful Feelings

Cognitive dissonance occurs automatically and involuntarily for many adoptees, but adoptive parents and other people in an adopted child’s life can inadvertently trigger mixed feelings.

I believe that, for the most part, the following types of statements are well intentioned and born out of ignorance; nevertheless, they can have negative repercussions in an adoptee’s mind and heart.

“YOUR BIRTH MOTHER LOVED YOU SO MUCH THAT SHE GAVE YOU TO US.”

Trying to equate love and abandonment just doesn’t work!

I am reminded of the song that says, “Love and marriage, love and marriage…go together like a horse and carriage.” What if we changed the phrase “love and marriage” to “love and abandonment”? Sing with me now: “Love and abandonment, love and abandonment, go together like a horse and carriage . . .”

Rather ridiculous, isn’t it? Is it any wonder that being told that love is what led to our relinquishment produces mixed feelings? Yes, there may have been a loving adoption plan, but to most of us, separation from our birth mothers translates as rejection and abandonment, pure and simple.

Connie Dawson says it translates like this: “I love you/go away.  Your birth mother loved you so much; she made a loving plan . . . blah, blah, blah.” Or, “Your needs are important/don’t search for your birth parents or you’ll hurt me.”

Dr. Keck says, “I think it just confuses kids when people tell them that their birth mothers didn’t keep them because they loved them. I think it makes the kids feel even more responsible for inconveniencing their mothers by being born. Also, I think they must feel bad (guilty) about feeling bad, sad, lonely, or abandoned. After all, if someone did this because they loved them, what gives them the right to feel whatever they feel? Also, I think it makes ‘loving’ someone difficult since love is what ‘got rid’ of them. If their mothers loved them so much, should they have any negative feelings? Should they love her that much? I do wonder if anything helps kids feel better. Is it better or worse to be ‘dumped’ by a loving mother than by a hating, abusive, or terrible one?”8

“YOU WERE CHOSEN!”

Adoption experts Drs. David Brodzinsky and Marshall Schechter say, “It has long been popular in adoption circles to emphasize that the adopted child is a wanted child or, as in the title of Wasson’s 1939 classic children’s book on adoption, THE CHOSEN BABY.

This emphasis is a fairly straightforward piece of denial: Usually a child is available for adoption only because he was unwanted. It is no accident that Wasson’s story neglects to mention the existence of biological parents. It is not an easy task to change an unwanted child into a wanted child. This challenge is, however, exactly the task faced by adoptive parents. They must convey to their adopted child that, although he was born to other parents who didn’t want him, he is now their beloved child and shall always remain so.”9

Lori says that she just couldn’t believe the line, “You were a chosen child; nobody could love a kid more.” She knew that her parents had adopted her in a last-ditch attempt to save their ailing marriage.

A poem by Mi Ok Song Bruining sums up the chosen-child dilemma:

THEY SAID

They said

smile for the camera

Open your eyes, they are squinting.

They said

Stop crying, stop feeling bad.

Those kids who call you “Chink”

And “Flat Face”

Don’t know anything

Besides, you probably provoked them.

They said

Feel lucky

You were “chosen”

Really meaning

I was also given up.

They said

We are offended,

You have everything, so be happy.

Be appreciative, and

Never let the tears show.

They said

You don’t belong here.

Where do you come from?

Do you speak English?

Do you like America?

As if I just landed

From a distant galaxy.

They said

Everything I hoped and dreamed

And prayed they wouldn’t.

They still do.10

“ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE!”

Another statement that sometimes causes mixed feelings is “Accentuate the positive.” You know—count your blessings, count them one by one.

As I’ve spoken with hundreds of adoptees all over the country, I’ve discovered that this message is particularly common in religious families.

A well-meaning parent, church or synagogue member, or member of the clergy can unintentionally inflict harm by focusing exclusively on the many positive aspects of adoption while denying the negative and/or mixed feelings many adoptees have.

In the past, places of worship weren’t adoption-sensitive. Adoption wasn’t mentioned.  People didn’t recognize that adoption is a mixed blessing, filled with pleasure as well as pain. Instead, they looked at adoption through rose-colored glasses, trying to make it a win/win situation for unplanned pregnancies and infertility, never giving a thought about what effect adoption has on the child.

Currently, there are wonderful changes afoot, beginning in the United States with church-based adoption support programs and trainings. Dr. Karyn Purvis and Dr. David Cross at TCU Institute of Child Development have developed and emerging intervention model. Online growth groups abound.  A huge evangelical movement in America, the Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO) hosts yearly summits with internationally-known adoption speakers and experts. Hospital-based, “adoption sensitive” training programs have begun under the tutelage of Rebecca Swan Vahle, restoring honor to every member of the adoption triad.

At last…at last… the tide is turning positively!

However, it is my belief that the adoptee’s voice is still not publicly featured. At the  time of this writing, we are still somewhat of a novelty.

Reflecting back, however, amongst those raised in the closed adoption era, eerie echoes of “accentuate the positive keep adoptees in bondage to the  chaos inside. Ron Hilliard says that when others would try to affirm the positive but he wasn’t feeling positive in his own heart, he felt guilty and ashamed. It was confusing to him why his heart would not be in agreement with those who tried to accentuate how fortunate he was. Like the good adoptee, Ron never verbalized the negative — he just smiled and nodded at how “lucky” he was to have such wonderful adoptive parents who rescued him from abandonment.

Scott D. Stephens, L.I.S.W., a post-adoption social worker from Cincinnati, knew something wasn’t quite right in terms of what he was feeling, but he didn’t have words to describe his mixed emotions. The message was somehow communicated that being adopted was a positive blessing and that positive feelings were expected in response. His parents would say things like, “Isn’t it wonderful that you were loved so much that your parents chose you?” or “How fortunate you are to have been adopted!”

While all this was true, Ron’s heart never quite believed it. All the emphasis on the positive never allowed room for the painful. As a result, the pain was never validated.

“YOU ARE SPECIAL.”

Another finger-over-the-blackboard statement claims that we are “special.” I believe many adoptive parents intuitively know, even though most of them are not informed, that we are grieving. In perhaps an unconscious attempt to comfort us they may use this phrase. Others who are not educated about how an adoptee thinks and feels may do the same.

Some of us receive the statement with pride and gain a sense of self-worth. However, to many it means:

• Others have high expectations of us.

•We must prove our worth by excelling.

•We’re not like everyone else in the family… we’re different.

•Perform!

• Be perfect.

• Conform! Conform! Conform!

• It’s not okay to just be ourselves.

Paula Oliver says that she can remember raising her hand in elementary school and telling everyone that she was adopted. Later on the playground the kids made fun of her by saying stuff like, “Your mom didn’t want you so she threw you away.” Paula says, “I ran into the school crying and was found by a teacher who told me that being adopted made me special because my parents chose me, while most parents are stuck with their kids! That was little comfort — it was more like a burden because I didn’t feel special.”

Whenever I teach this point during trainings, many parents get upset. “Can’t I tell my child she is special?”

My answer is always, “Of course, but not in regard to adoption.”

“WE LOVE YOU JUST LIKE OUR OWN.”

Adoptive parents think they are giving us a great compliment with these words, but more than often, they wound. When well-meaning parents say, “We love you just like you’re our own,” their child may naturally wonder or hopefully ask, “Well, if I’m not your own, then whose am I? Where is my real family? Where do I belong? The parents’ statements often translate as “You’re really not our own. Almost, but not completely.”

Says one adoptee, “I can’t stand it when people differentiate between biological and adopted kids. ‘Oh, we have three of our own and then one adopted daughter.’”

What are healing words instead? “We have six children.”

No singling out of the adopted child. We hate that and it hurts.

“YOU BELONG.”

Another statement concerns our sense of belonging. Try this simple exercise. Fold your hands together as quickly as you can. Then look. Which thumb is on the top of the fold? Is it your right or left? Let’s say, for example, it’s your right thumb. Now do exactly the same exercise, at the same speed, but aim at getting your opposite thumb on the top of your fingers. Not as easy as the first time, is it?

The awkwardness in this simple exercise could be likened to many adoptee’s feelings of not belonging. I can’t tell you how many adoptees say in support groups, “I feel like an alien, like I wasn’t born, like I was just dropped down to earth by a stork or something.”

Connie Dawson has awareness of feelings like of not belonging. “I guess I’m a partial belonger,” she says. “I was a good ‘fitter in-ner’ in my adoptive family, in which it was never a topic for discussion. Although I have been warmly received by my birth aunt, I don’t really belong there either—at least not the way I imagine other people belong. When I’m visiting her, I feel accepted, but I notice she doesn’t throw a family dinner when I visit. One of her nephews (my cousin) will call on the phone and I’m jealous of the endearing and warm teasing they do with one another. I have this persistent feeling of not being entitled to really belong, to really take a seat at the table, to really be heard in a group, to really trust myself, to really trust others. You probably would be surprised to know this if you observed me in action, but I know I could be so much more.”

Richard Curtis says that since he was a total surprise at his reunion, birth relatives gave various degrees of welcoming. He says he deluged them with questions about his birth parents, hungry to learn the details of his heritage. And then he thought to himself, Now, where does Richard fit into the lives of these people? On the fringe. “I have this deep need to bond with real blood relatives,” he explains, “but I feel like I’m not really a part of either of my families.”

Author Corrine Chilstrom, after learning that her eighteen-year-old adopted son committed suicide after leaving home for college, pounded her fist on the kitchen table shouting, “Adoption! These kids never feel like they really belong in this world. Who will ever understand?”11

For many, the preceding statements and words simply don’t line up with what we believe in our heart of hearts is true. Like teenage kids at our first dance, we try so hard to have “good rhythm” with our dancing partners, but instead we seem to step all over their toes. But we can put an end to the awkwardness by making a better choice regarding our mixed feelings.

How can one help an adoptee feel like she belongs?

  • Tell us we’re easy to love.
  • When talking adoption, tell us that the yuckiness of feeling different and that we don’t belong won’t last forever. There will be times when we will revel in being different.

I can tell you, though, that it’s taken a lifetime for me to get to that place.

OUR CHOICE

To claim both positive and painful emotions as valid and verbalize them.

Ron Hilliard describes our choice beautifully when he says, “As I have learned to accept both the positive as well as the negative, I now have opportunities to articulate both and can claim my mixed feelings as valid.”

HOW TO BEGIN

If we still deny that our adoption experience produces mixed feelings, the healing won’t begin. Here are some suggestions:

  • Record your current circumstances in a journal.
  • Draw a self-portrait. How about getting a huge piece of paper?  Then, have someone trace your whole body. When the drawing is complete and you are alone, write down the conflicting feelings coming out of your head and heart. Draw the people and messages that are prompting them, and then label the physical effects on every part of your body.

When you are done, title your portrait in big letters “ALL OF MY FEELINGS ARE REAL AND OKAY!”

  • Create a collage out of old magazines and newspapers depicting your mixed feelings. I remember cutting out a photo from a newspaper of a man who was weeping. He was a survivor of the Holocaust. I didn’t know why I cut out the image, but looking back, I can now see that it was because it was how I was feeling inside. It would be thirty years later that I would learn that I am of Jewish descent! Our roots run wondrously deep.
  • Try to identify and then name the conflicting feelings, record them, and then say aloud, “I am having mixed feelings, and that is perfectly normal andacceptable.”

Now that we’ve learned about these finger-over-the-blackboard reactions, it is important that we educate ourselves about the dynamics within our adoptive families. We’ll talk about that at some length in the next chapter.

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(Excerpt from 20 LIFE-TRANSFORMING CHOICES ADOPTEES NEED TO MAKE (Available at “store” link on this site.)