Imagine yourself in sunny Florida boarding a ghost mobile for a ride through Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. Adults and children clutch the safety bars of their vehicles as they twist their way through the darkened house. Screams of horror break the silence as ghosts adorned in elaborate finery waltz methodically to Bach.
About halfway through the ride, you hear a child in the ghost mobile ahead of you start to cry. His wails pierce the blackness and your heart. When the ride is over, you can’t help but tune into the family dialogue.
“What was it that upset you, Johnny?” the mother gently prods. “It’s okay to feel scared. Just remember I’m here with you. You are safe.”
What child doesn’t want to hear these words and know these truths throughout the journey of life? For the adopted child, the need to know, “I’m here…You’re safe… I won’t leave you,” is one that eclipses all others. You see, one of the deepest of issues for an adoptee is the fear of abandonment by you, his parents.
Abandonment by me?! you are probably thinking. That is the last thing I would ever do to my child. I love her dearly!
For most adult adoptees I know, however, the fear of abandonment has been an emotional battle all their lives.
“I have had issues of abandonment for as long as I can remember,” one man said. “Fear of rejection is always there.”
Another said, “I assumed when I found my birth family that the fear of rejection would stop. But it didn’t.”
Where does this fear come from and how does it manifest? I imagine you asking. And what can we as parents do to help our child navigate the ominous waters of fear of abandonment and come out healthy on the other side?
Entering Your Child’s Haunted House
The dictionary defines fear as “a distressing emotion caused by impending pain, danger, evil, or by the illusion of such.” Listen to the word pictures adult adoptees use to describe the abandonment they felt as children:
• being left behind at the side of a road
• a baby in a basket out in a field alone
• a birthing room with no one there but me
• a child looking into a window on a cold winter’s night at a happy family
• on the outside looking in
• being left behind while others go on with life
• an infant crying for her mother.
Fear and abandonment are inextricably woven together and tied into one big knot in the psyche and spirit of the adopted child.
Think for a moment about the normal childhood fear of abandonment needing to be conquered by all of us. It is an illusion and not based on truth. However, for the adoptee, there is an added twist to the fear which makes it extremely difficult to overcome. The fear is not an illusion–it is a reality based on relinquishment from the birth mother. In addition, the birth mother herself is real (because she exists), yet an illusion (because the adoptee can’t see her). When you ponder these paradoxes, is it any wonder that adoptees struggle with fear?
One adoptee said, “I need tangible evidence that someone is there for me. I always assumed what I couldn’t see (e.g., the birth family; people who had moved away) didn’t exist. It makes me feel so stupid. I should have learned this when I was two years old.”
Another woman said, “When people are gone, I think they are gone permanently.”
Thus, one of your challenges as an adoptive parent is to convince your child that you will always be there for her even when she can’t see you. You will need to learn creative ways to do this that are unique to your child’s temperament and situation.
One adoptive mother recently shared how she taught this concept to her daughter. At bedtime, she would say goodnight, but then after the door was closed, she would carry on a short conversation with her until she settled down for sleep. This way the child learned that even though she couldn’t see Mommy, she was still there.
The Need for a Journey Mate
When Johnny’s mom reassured him after his scary ride through the haunted mansion, she was being for him what Drs. Paul Warren and Frank Minirth, a pediatrician and psychiatrist, refer to as a journey mate. In their book, Things That Go Bump in the Night, they address every child’s basic fears and teach parents how to calm them at each developmental phase.
Every kid needs a journey mate–someone stronger and wiser to help her learn how to conquer the fears of childhood and move on toward maturity. Someone who knows when to validate an emotion and when to respond lightheartedly. Someone who oozes with empathy and encourages her to aim high. Someone who is there for her, no matter what.
Ideally, the journey mate is a healthy parent–one who has worked through her own issues of abandonment and therefore does not project her unresolved pain onto her children. When you are able to be emotionally present for your child, you can become his journey mate and teach him how to board up his internal haunted mansions of primal fear.
What Parents Can Do
An effective journey mate needs the ability to empathize with her child’s feelings. To empathize means to intellectually identify with or vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another person.
Now, in order to empathize, use your imagination. Whenever the opportunity presents itself, demonstrate to your child that you are making every effort to comprehend, both intellectually and emotionally, what it is like to be adopted.
- “I can’t imagine how confusing it must be to have two sets of parents… a biological and an adoptive (empathy). I would be confused too (identification).”
- “You must feel mixed up on birthdays when you remember your adoption and birth mother (understanding). Many adoptees feel this way (sympathize).”
- “It must be scary to say good-bye to us (empathy).”
- “Is it embarrassing at physical exams when you have to say you don’t know your medical history because you were adopted (to tune into)?”
- “Being adopted really hurts at times, doesn’t it (empathy)?”
- “I would imagine that you must have many questions about why your birth mother placed you for adoption (put self into child’s shoes).”
Empathy will be your key into your child’s fears of abandonment. Don’t be afraid to specifically verbalize your thought-provoking statments as I have done in the above examples. It will connect you and your child in a deeper way. Just as the frightened child in the ghost mobile felt free to talk about his fears to his parents, your child will learn to verbalize hers and come to you for comfort and reassurance. When she does, her fear of abandonment will be revealed for what it is: merely a scary ghost in the dark recesses of her past.
EMPOWER YOUR CHILD
Another tool a journey mate needs is the ability to help her child correct her misconceptions about the trauma of adoption. (We will discuss this tool in detail in chapter 14.) The goal is to reengage her hopes that her own efforts will make a difference in the story of her life so she can transcend her feelings of victimization and stop feeling like a “sitting duck” for further traumas, like abandonment.
Each adoptee’s life is a story being written. Early on, trauma entered the story threatening to foreclose the sense of her own story with expectations of danger and bad endings. She needs to learn that she can, as Hemingway once said, “be strong at the broken places.”
You may want to have her draw a picture of her life based on this metaphor by Maxine Harris in The Loss that Is Forever:
When a tree is struck by lightning,
if it survives,
its growth is altered.
A knot may form where the lightening hit.
The growth on one side of the tree may be more vigorous
than on another side,
The shape of the tree may change.
An interesting twist or curious split has replaced what might
have otherwise been a straight line.
The tree flourishes;
it bears fruit,
becomes a home to birds and squirrels.
It is not the same tree it would have been had there not
been a lightening storm,
but some say it is more interesting this way.
Few can even remember the event
that changed its shape forever.
Because of your empathy as a journey mate, you have entered a ghost mobile with your child and are riding through the scary corridor of abandonment. Keep in mind the end result, for there may be many unexpected curves yet ahead. But when you and your child come out on the other end of the ride to the wonderful light of day, he will look at you sitting next to him and realize that he wasn’t alone after all. You were with him through every twist and turn of the way.