How Adopted Kids Want Their Parents To Handle Their Pre-Adoption Loss

Why Do Adopted and Foster Kids Grieve Loss?

As an adoptive parent, you may feel uncomfortable, protective, or defensive about the reality of your child’s pre-adoption loss of the first family.  What is an adoptive or foster parent to do about it?

I know this is a difficult subject for many of you. You are not alone. Hopefully, you’ll gain some insights here about how you can help rather than hinder his/her grieving process.

Adoption professional and prolific author, Jayne Schooler, says, “The moment the subject of the adoptee’s woundedness and loss comes up, it’s like a shield goes up and they can’t hear a word you say.” 

Adoptive mother, Ellen Dunaway, says that hearing about adoptee loss just breaks her heart. She can’t bear to think about the fact that her child was and is hurting.

It’s painful to enter into your child’s suffering.  It’s so much easier to assume that all is well inside your child, especially if she hasn’t manifested any obvious problems.

I Am A Grieving Child

The first thing your child wants you to know is this: I am a grieving child.  I came to you because of loss—one that was not your fault and that you can’t erase.

When I was twelve years old, my best friend’s mother died of cancer. I can still remember watching her grieving family follow the casket up the aisle of the church. As the congregation stood, my body began to shake uncontrollably as unwelcome sobs burst forth like an erupting volcano. It was embarrassing, to say the least. After all, it wasn’t my mother who died . . . or was it?

My parents did the best they could to comfort me, but they had no knowledge of how present circumstances can trigger unresolved loss for an adopted child. More than likely they attributed my out-of-proportion sadness to emotionalism and adolescence. Little did they know that I was mourning the mother who carried me for nine months, whose face I never saw, and whose heartbeat was my original source of security.

Granted, my loss was different than that of my friend’s. There was no dead body, no funeral service, and no empty place at the dinner table.

But the loss was just as real nonetheless. 

I Hurt When You Romanticize or Deny My Loss

My parents’ response to my grief was to shield me in the future from anything that would prove upsetting. Therefore, when my grandmother died a few months later, they kept me home from the funeral while the rest of the family attended. I’m sure they believed they were doing the best thing, but just the opposite was true.

My adoption wounds were buried even further beneath a layer of overprotectiveness, which would make me even more determined than ever to keep the grieving part of myself hidden from others. 

My story is not unusual. Most adoptive parents, instead of helping their child to grieve the loss and find closure, deny his past losses and romanticize his adoption.

Instead of  bouquets of flowers and accolades of sympathy, there are romantic clichés that feel like salt in a gaping wound:

  • “You are a chosen child!” 
  • “Be thankful you were picked.
  • Think of all the others who weren’t.”

  What a shame, for denying loss and failing to grieve can keep parents and children at arms’ length instead of in a healthy, invested relationship.

Webster’s defines romanticism as “imbued with or dominated by idealism; fanciful; impractical; unrealistic; starry-eyed, dreamy; head-in-the-clouds; out of touch with reality.” 

Could it be that you have unknowingly been an adoption romanticist all these years? If so, it’s time to pull out the pruning shears and seek truth about adoption on every level. 

I Can Tell When You Are Emotionally Absent

Looking back, I believe my parents were frightened by my emotional vulnerability. Perhaps it triggered their own unresolved issues of grief and loss and feelings of extreme helplessness.

The best thing you can do to help your child is to grieve your own losses which may have occurred prior to adoption—losses such as infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, or death—and to let yourself feel sad for your child’s losses and your inability to protect him from whatever happened to him prior to joining your family. 

Only then can your adopted child’s losses be validated and then grieved together in an atmosphere of openness and honesty. 

You will be able to say, “We’re sorry too, that you didn’t grow in Mommy’s tummy.”  Or, “We feel sad that we couldn’t be with you in the past to make your world safe and secure.”

Grieving your own losses and facing your child’s opens the door for you to be emotionally in tune with your child, to know his unspoken needs, and to partner with him as he works through his own grief issues. It is the open door to parent-child intimacy.

Once you have successfully grieved the losses in your own life, you will be a “safe person” to your child—one to whom she is free to express any emotion without condemnation or judgment.  You will provide a place brimming with welcoming acceptance, one that encourages conversation about your child’s feelings surrounding adoption. It is within this seedbed of acceptance and grace where healing from unresolved adoption loss occurs and bonding begins. 

Adults adopted as children can find such a place through adoption support groups and trusted therapists.

Listen to the words of one adoptive mother in Naomi Ruth Lowinsky’s book, Stories from the Motherline: Reclaiming the Mother-Daughter Bond. The mother remembers how grieving losses together brought intimacy with her daughter:

  I ached for her, for my beautiful youngest who had never been inside me, never been nursed by me, whose face I did not see when she entered this world. I felt grief for the pregnancy I had not experienced with her, grief for her birth and early months. I felt grief for the empty place in her, left by the birth mother who could not keep her. I understood that my daughter and I needed to feel these things together.

During the next few years, I often spoke to her about these feelings of grief and loss. She would climb onto my lap and her wiry little body would relax in my arms. We spent many hours like this, mourning together, creating a bond out of our feelings of loss.

Without a doubt, this mother and daughter successfully bonded to one another. Their close relationship is similar to what happens when a graft takes hold.  When a graft succeeds in nature, it takes with a vengeance, producing a union at least as strong and often stronger than the rest of the tree.

I Need You To Validate My Pain and Purpose

I believe that one reason many parents don’t validate their adopted children’s pain is because of the pain-avoiding society we all live in.  Just the sound of the word “pain” activates our flight-or-flight response.  After all, doesn’t pain imply an injustice or a failure?  A barrier to our guaranteed right to happiness?

Dr. Paul Brand, a world-renowned surgeon and leprosy specialist, says in his book, The Gift Nobody Wants, that there needs to be education about the origins of pain and its purpose.  “In the modern view pain is the enemy, a sinister invader that must be expelled.  And if Product X removes the pain thirty seconds faster, all the better.  This approach has a crucial, dangerous flaw: once regarded as an enemy, not a warning signal, pain loses its power to instruct.  Silencing pain without considering its message is like disconnecting a ringing fire alarm to avoid receiving bad news.” 

What is needed is an honoring attitude toward pain—an attitude that sees pain as a beloved enemy that beautifies rather than destroys.  Just as an irritating grain of sand can be the catalyst for producing a beautiful pearl within an oyster, so the pain of adoption can become the catalyst for producing a pearl of intimacy between adoptive parents and children.  

Highly respected adoption educator, Marcy Wineman Axness quoted Annette Baran and Wendy McCord in her eloquent booklet, What Is Written On the Heart…Primal Issues in Adoption. “Parents whose children express sadness usually feel that they need to reassure them, rather than feel the sadness along with them.  But having lost an original set of parents is something to feel sad about, and the best any parent can do for a child is to allow them to share those feelings of loss with them. 

While it may seem easier—especially in the beginning—to avoid these uncomfortable feelings, glossing over them with cheerful slogans isn’t the loving choice, for ultimately it deprives both parents and children of genuine intimacy.” 

I Need You To Validate the Depth of My Wound

Keep in mind that my knowledge and research is based mainly on adult adoptees who were damaged by the closed adoption system. Nonetheless, I believe that their experiences teach us that what the majority of adopted children need is validation of their wounding loss. 

A parent might whisper to her adopted infant, “You must miss your birth mommy.  We are sad, too, that you had to lose her.”  “It really hurts, doesn’t it?” is a phrase that can be used by parents in every phase of the adoptee’s life, for it demonstrates empathy and compassion.

Adoptees need to learn to accept their wound as part of their life history—an  unchangeable fact over which they have no control, but which need not cripple them in the future. This is one of the challenges of being adopted which, if accepted, can bring tremendous growth and maturity. 

Dr. Connie Dawson, adoptee,  attachment therapist, and adoption educator says, “When someone told me that I have suffered an irreparable wound, a burden lifted from my shoulders. In all my therapy, no one had ever told me that I couldn’t wrap this one up neat and tidy…couldn’t fix it. Oh yes, I could lay gangplanks over the deepest parts so I wouldn’t be swallowed up in its recesses. I could cauterize the edges to heal the rawness. But I couldn’t fix it, if fixing means I take care of it and it goes away. It doesn’t go away, neither does it have to be the ball and chain around my ankle. It doesn’t have to make me feel I should apologize for who I am. It only means I’ll take care of my own. And I will accept that this wound will continue to instruct me the rest of my life.

I Hope You Put Away False Guilt

Another thing adoptees need is for their adoptive parents to put aside their own false guilt.  Parents who feel guilty are incapable of dropping their defenses and entering into their child’s unresolved pain around the losses that neither parent nor child could prevent. 

It is natural for adoptive parents to struggle with guilt when they hear about their child’s wounds.  Parents tend to search for the ways they could have prevented their child’s trauma, often using the phrase, “If only . . .”

  • If only I had been there at the birth of my child.
  • If only I had known the birth mother earlier and been able to nurture her.
  • If only I had known more about adoption issues and how to handle them.

Any explanation, even at the cost of suffering guilt, may help adoptive parents cope with the desperate sense of helplessness they feel over their child’s suffering.

Cynthia Mohanon, in Children and Trauma, says, “If a parent can find some way in which the trauma was her own fault, it becomes possible to believe that further trauma can be avoided. Guilt offers a kind of power, however illusory, over helplessness.”

Erroneous thinking like this is the seedbed of false guilt and will interfere with the parent/child bond if not recognized and dealt with. 

The most important thing adoptees need is the freedom to express their conflicting emotions without fear of judgment. This is the final step toward healing, the one that brings release and freedom. Psychologist and author Dr. Arthur Janov says in The New Primal Scream, “As children, we need to express our real feelings to our parents.  We hurt if our parents are indifferent.  If they force back our resentment and our rage, we hurt.  We can no longer be ourselves and be natural.  Our nature, therefore, is warped, and that causes pain.  If you don’t let an arm move naturally, if you bind it with tape, it is going to hurt.  If you don’t let emotions move naturally, you get the same result.  The need to express feelings is just as physiological as hunger.”

I Need to Feel Safe with You

Adoptees need a safe place to share their feelings about adoption, both positive and negative, and to feel protected and loved unconditionally regardless of what comes out of their mouths.  As a parent, you can learn how to create this safe environment within your home so that your child is free to express grief and conflicting emotions about being adopted.

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Copyright, 1999, Penguin Random House, Chapter 3: Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew, by Sherrie Eldridge

How To Advocate for Your Adopted Child Amidst Insensitive Remarks

How Can I Keep My Adopted Child Safe From Mean People?

The following chart may come in handy over the holidays, as you will be attending family and public gatherings, where well-intentioned individuals might know your child is adopted, but are nervous about what to say to connect with your family or child.

We all get nervous in different situations, but when nervousness concerns the topic of adoption and your child, hurtful remarks are often made, not necessarily out of a desire to hurt, but a desire to connect.

Sometimes, People Are Downright Mean

On the other hand, sometimes mean people intend to hurt. I’ve heard such comments to adoptees as:

  • Why don’t you go back to where they grow bananas?
  • Where are your real parents?
  • Your first mom didn’t love you.
  • Look at your chink eyes.
  • Why is your skin different than your parents?
  • You don’t really belong anywhere.
  • Bastard!
  • You’re an illegitimate child.

You can not only advocate for your child by giving adoption-sensitive answers after the comment is made, but you can also educate the uneducated.

Your child will not only love you for your advocacy, but will trust you increasingly in tough times.

Explanation of the Heart Language Chart

I’m sharing a list here of:

  • The core desire to connect with the child (why the person wants to connect)
  • The well-intentioned that often follows the desire
  • How many adopted and foster kids may translate the well-intentioned statement
  • What is the heart language of the adoptee (what really connects with him/her).

This chart is drawn from my book, 20 THINGS ADOPTIVE PARENTS NEED TO SUCCEED (Available on this site).

Remember that I’m speaking from my own adoptee voice, not for every adoptee or foster child.

THE HEART LANGUAGE OF ADOPTED AND FOSTER CHILDREN

Desire to Connect with Child Well-Intentioned But Insensitive Statement How Many Adopted & Foster Kids Might Translate HEART language–Words that Connect with Adoptee
Child will not feel rejected; cast good light on first mother. Your birth mother loved you SO much that she gave you to us! “Love is what got rid of me. Why would I want your love?” Your birth parents weren’t able/ready to parent ANY child at that time.
Create a sense of being wanted. You are a chosen child!

(Every other parent is stuck with kid…we picked you out.”)

I might have been chosen, but first I was given away.” You have 2 sets of parents, one who gave you birth and another that gave you home(s) and love.
Instill attitude  of thanksgiving for being adopted. Accentuate the Positive!(Count your blessings…. count them one by one…) “Only say nice things about adoption.” Everything in life is filled with pain and pleasure. That includes being adopted.
Describe parentage Illegitimate “I am a mistake.” You are God’s idea.
Create self-esteem You are special! “That makes me feel different in a yucky way.” You were born special—a unique weaving together of nature and nurture with incredible potential. PS…It is fine to tell child he/she is special…just not in the context of being adopted or fostered.
Foster sense of belonging We love you JUST LIKE our own! “If I’m not your own, then whose am I?” What would our family be without you?
Desire for child to not talk about first family. Dead silence! “Why don’t you ever talk about my birth parents? They must be really bad…and I must be, too, because I came from them.” We love your birth parents and are so grateful for their contribution to your life.
Religious lady’s discomfort with child’s adoption. Well, we’re ALL adopted.  “Why do you say everyone’s adopted? Everyone isn’t adopted.” I would love to hear your adoption story.

I highly recommend this workbook for training your children how to respond in a healthy way to unhealthy remarks by setting boundaries: W.I.S.E. Up Powerbook. Order here: .  Wise Up! Powerbook: Marilyn Schoettle: 9780971173200: Amazon.com: Books

There is also a book for children in foster care: Order here: https://adoptionsupport.org/store

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A Gift Only Adopted and Foster Kids Can Give

Adopted and Foster Kids Are A Gift to One Another

It’s a gift adoptive parents can’t give, birth parents can’t give, or adoption professionals can’t give. Only other adoptees can give it to one another.

I’ll never forget sitting next to an adoptive mom at an adoption carnival where I was speaking. At the end of the day the time came for the children and teens to come on stage and show the parents an adoption art project they had been working on.

When all the kids were in place one of the therapists yelled, “Who’s adopted here?” Everyone’s hands flew up and squeals of delight burst forth from the little ones.

“Me!” they yelled in unison.

The mom leaned over and said, “I’ve never seen that expression on my daughter’s face. Look at her! When she said ‘me,’ her face absolutely glowed!”

Something unique happened to her daughter that day. What was it? Was it the excitement of being with kids the same age? Was it a sense of pride about her artwork or love of the spotlight? I don’t believe so. I believe it was because she had been given a gift that was brand new to her—the gift of fellow adoptee friendships.

The psychological drive that makes this gift so special is that it involves our basic need for connection. Drs. Brodzinsky and Schechter, adoption specialists with 30 years of combined experience, say that connection to an adoptee is like food to a starving man.

For those adopted at infancy or a young age, any connection to our heritage helps satisfy that need. Ancestry.com has helped make those connections. Original birth certificates. A name or photo of our parents. An adoption story that included our birth parents. A reunion with our birth parents.

If we were foster kids and adopted at an older age because of troubled parents, that need for connection may manifest in an unexplainable loyalty based on vestiges of fantasy of what life might have been like had we had nurturing parents and remained in their home.

Many times this connection with our birth families is not an option. International adoptions often make it impossible. Sealed records keep vital information irretrievable.

Nonetheless, our friendships with one another are simply amazing!

 The Amazing Gift

By being in the presence of fellow adoptees, we discover:

  • We Are Like Family. Linda says that knowing adoptees has created a wonderful bond because there is a kind of “sisterhood” and “brotherhood” amongst us that has filled some of the void of not knowing her heritage.
  • We Are Drawn to One Another. Gary said that his young daughter seemed to gravitate to other adoptees in her preschool class. Of course she didn’t know they were adoptees, but there was that pull.
  • We Have a Unique Emotional Language. Sherry says that adoptees can “read” each other from just a few words or their body language, which she says makes adoptees feel like they belong to each other.
  • We are like Triple-Chocolate Cake. I never had an adoptee friend until I was forty-five. Her name is Jody Moreen. We spent hours in our favorite little tea room sipping spiced tea and “talking adoption.” Life doesn’t get much better than that!

Looking back, I can say that not having a fellow adoptee for a friend was like going through life and having missed triple-chocolate cake!

If your adopted child doesn’t have fellow adoptee friends, start searching!

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 Copyright Sherrie Eldridge, 2006. Based on Sherrie’s second book, Twenty Life-Transforming Choices Adoptees Need to Make (JKP, 2014).

The Special Needs of Adopted Children

What Are The Special Needs of Adopted Kids?

Adopted children have special needs that adoptive, first, and foster parents must learn  in order to become their child’s #1 cheerleader.

Use this list as needed and as age-appropriate for discussing special needs with your child. You might say, “An adopted person wrote a list of her special needs. Would you be interested in seeing it? I’m curious if you identify with any of the needs that are mentioned.”

Remember, with young children, keep it simple-rephrase into kid speak, and stick with the words: SAD, MAD, GLAD ANGRY.

Scripture verses are included for those who want them.

EMOTIONAL NEEDS:

  • I need help in recognizing my adoption loss and grieving it. (Ecclesiastes 1:18)
  • I need to be assured that my birth parents’ decision not to parent me had nothing to do with anything defective in me. (Proverbs 34:5)
  • 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. (Genesis 50:20)
  • I need permission to express all my adoption feelings and fantasies. (Psalm 62.8)

EDUCATIONAL NEEDS:

  • I need to be taught that adoption is both wonderful and painful, presenting lifelong challenges for everyone involved. (Ezekiel 17:10a, Romans 11:24)
  • I need to know my adoption story first, then my birth story and birth family. (Isaiah 43:26)
  • I need to be taught healthy ways for getting my special needs met. (Philippians 4:12)
  • I need to be prepared for hurtful things others may say about adoption and about me as an adoptee. (John 1:11)

VALIDATION NEEDS:

  • I need validation of my dual-heritage (biological and adoptive). (Psalm 139:16b)
  • I need to be assured often that I am welcome and worthy. (Isaiah 43:4, Zephaniah 3:17)
  • 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. (Proverbs 23:10)

PARENTAL NEEDS:

  • 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. (II Corinthians 12:15)
  • I need parents who are willing to put aside preconceived notions about adoption and be educated about the realities of adoption and the special needs adoptive families face. (Proverbs 23:12, Proverbs 3: 13-14, Proverbs 3:5-6)
  • I need my adoptive and birth parents to have a non-competitive attitude. Without this, I will struggle with loyalty issues. (Psalm 127:3)

RELATIONAL NEEDS:

  • I need friendships with other adoptees. (Ecclesiastes 4:12)
  • I need to taught that there is a time to consider searching for my birth family, and a time to give up searching. (Ecclesiastes 3:4)
  • I need to be reminded that if I am rejected by my birth family, the rejection is symptomatic of their dysfunction, not mine. (John 1:11)

SPIRITUAL NEEDS:

  • I need to be taught that my life narrative began before I was born and that my life is not a mistake. (Jeremiah 1:5a, Ephesians 1:11)
  • I need to be taught in this broken, hurting world, loving families are formed through adoption as well as birth. (Psalm 68:6)
  • I need to be taught that I have intrinsic, immutable value as a human being.
  • I need to be taught that any two people can make love but only God can create life. He created my life and I’m not a mistake.  (John 1:3)

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.

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This list may be reproduced, only when credit is given to the author and the book: Copyright, 1999, Sherrie Eldridge, Random House Publishers-TWENTY THINGS ADOPTED KIDS WISH THEIR ADOPTIVE PARENTS KNEW.

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