The Deadly Secret of Adoptive and Foster Moms

What Adoptive Moms Can Do Instead of Cracking UP

What do many adoptive and foster moms suffer intensely from that they keep secret? What causes them to push themselves to the hilt, unable to think of anything but caring for their child while never caring for themselves?

The answer is Compassion Fatigue, which is a state of extreme distress and preoccupation with the suffering of their adopted children. It is now being called a secondary trauma stress disorder.

This is no small thing. A friend once said that her physician warned that she’d die if she didn’t start taking care of herself.

The first thing that comes to mind when I read the words “Compassion Fatigue” is PTSD–the horrific psychological trauma soldiers experience during and after battle. Adoptive and foster moms aren’t on duty overseas, but they’re at home, battling for the welfare of their adopted and foster kids. They’d do anything for those kids, including being rejected repeatedly by them. They just want their children to thrive, discover, and enjoy the life purpose for which they were created.

Is it really any wonder that adoptive moms suffer from Compassion Fatigue? Research proves that adoptive parents invest more time and financial resources in their children compared to biological parents. The study, by sociologists at Indiana University Bloomington and the University of Connecticut, found that two-parent adoptive parents not only spend more money on their children, but they invest more time, such as reading to them, talking with their children about their problems or eating meals together.  Society often tells people that adoption isn’t normal,” said IUB Professor Brian Powell, who focuses on the sociology of the family. “When people make the decision that they want to have children and then use unusual means to have them, they compensate for the barriers.”   https://www.asanet.org/galleries/default-file/Feb07ASRAdoption.pdf.

With this is mind, with the raw reality being exposed, let’s take a close look at Compassion Fatigue, and then learn something new that may encourage beyond belief. You will also be able to take a test to see where you’re at in dealing with Compassion Fatigue.

What Really Causes Compassion Fatigue

What causes compassion fatigue is a boldfaced lie that the enemy of mom souls relentlessly whispers, “You are not enough. Not enough as a mom. Not enough to meet the needs of your adopted child.”

I know for a fact that my Mom (Retha) believed the lie. How could she not have upon learning that her daughter was a failure to thrive baby? How could she not have upon watching her best friend who was a nurse, bathe her baby? How many nights did she cry herself to sleep, wondering why she couldn’t me to eat formula? How many nights did she weep over my loose life style?

This is partly a spiritual battle, moms. If the enemy of your soul can keep you in fear that you’re not enough, discouragement is sure to follow.

Please read this illustration about discouragement: It was advertised that the devil was going to put up his tools for sale. On the day of the sale, the tools were placed for public inspection, each being marked with its sale price. They were a treacherous lot of implements–hatred, envy, jealousy, deceit, pride. Laying apart from the rest was a harmless looking tool, very well worn but priced extremely high. What is the name of this tool, asked one of the shoppers. Ah, said the devil, that is discouragement.

When asked why he priced it so high, he said, “Oh, because it’s more useful to me than all the others. I can pry open and get into a man’s heart with that, and when I’m inside, I can make him do whatever I choose. It’s badly worn because I use it on almost everyone, but few people know it belongs to me.

The devil’s price for discouragement was so high that it was never sold… and, discouragement is still his tool today.

Please note that I’m not saying you have a spiritual problem–I’m saying that lies are often aimed at the most vulnerable part of you–your mothering.

What Characterizes Compassion Fatigue

 When a mom is suffering compassion fatigue, she can’t stop trying to help her child. It’s like banging her head against a brick wall. It hurts, but she can’t stop. This is called repetition compulsion.

This mom may say, “If I try again, surely my child will respond.” And so, these moms operate out of fear. What if I can’t meet my child’s needs? Will he/she have to be sent away to residential care? What if my child keeps lying at school? Will she ever be able to graduate? What if my child is so miserable that he kills himself? What if my daughter won’t quit cutting?

My mom sat up til the wee hours of the night, waiting for me to return from “sketchy” dates. I can still see her slumping in the chair when I pushed the front door open, trying to hide wrinkled clothes. Perhaps she thought, “If I am here when she comes home one more time, maybe she’ll stop parking with her boyfriend and doing the unmentionable on county roads.”

In addition, moms may feel like a gerbil on a wheel, relentlessly spinning and going nowhere. Try, try, try, with no response. In fact, the child may regress. The baby keeps arching, the lying child delights in covering up and screams hateful words, and the sleeping-around teen now smokes marijuana. 

What Compounds Compassion Fatigue

What intensifies compassion fatigue is judgmental outsiders. They have not a clue of what moms is endure.

It’s the school counselor who declares the adopted child acts just fine at school. It’s the religious lady who gossips to other worshippers that the father has no problems parenting. It’s the goody-two-shoe fellow adoptive parent who says her kids never act like that.

It is shame that forces moms to not share their pain with anyone. There must be something wrong with me. I’m a mess of a mom.

And, with all this pressure, what is a mom to do?

The sad fact is that she isolates herself, usually with no support whatsoever.

This breaks my heart, moms. I have created a FB page just for you where you can encourage one another. @adoptedkidsrejectlove, or What Parents Can Do When Adopted Kids Reject Their Love.

What Calms Compassion Fatigue

  1. Learning About Your Child’s Longterm Memories

So, if a mom is being constantly rejected by her child, if all her efforts to help are like pouring into a bucket with a hole, she wonders if the foundation she’s trying to lay will ever set.

My backstory is that I had absolutely no warm memories of mom, nor of almost anything she did for me…until her dying day. Whenever I shared the process of how healing occurred for me, moms would ask, and rightly so, “What is it that made the change? How can I know that my son or daughter will have what you got?”

Even though mom didn’t understand what I’m about to share, she must have kept on. laying a foundation for me. What she didn’t know about, nor did I until recently, is that memories can be lost. Those are called long-term memories. They’re like a lost glove. You still own it, but you can’t use it.

Let’s get heady for a moment? Let’s discuss how long-term memories are made in your child’s brain. Longterm memories are like the hard drive on your computer. These memories have an actual physical presence in the brain–in the hippocampus. 

When a new long-term memory is being made, neurons make physical connections and synapses with each other, and encode information. For example, as a child, the smell of mom’s apple pie was encoded in my brain repeatedly, with each apple pie.

So, moms, take heart that your loving deeds are not lost. Your child’s brain makes them into memories and embeds them for further use. Is that not comforting?

Reflecting on my relationship with Mom, I can now smell her essence, like a fine, expensive perfume. Even though the bottle is empty, I can still distinguish the fine fragrance.

 If I would have been handed the full bottle of perfume as a kid or teen, I’d either grab it and throw it to the ground, stomp on it while screaming, or plug my nose and run in the opposite direction.

Was I just a character-flawed kid? Were the genes stacked against me? Was there no hope for me to someday be able to cherish the fragrance of the perfume?

Of course not. I was one kid whose brain was telling her to move and attack, to rage, and to shut the world out completely.

The second thing that will surely calm Compassion Fatigue is self-care–the thing you need the most, but usually ignore.

2. Practicing Self-Care (Honoring Yourself)

Moms, think years ahead to the day that your child will say goodbye and go off to college, marriage, or total independence.

Imagine him jumping into the car in trashy clothes, pulling out of the driveway, and non-chalantly waving goodbye. What words would you say? “Bye…take good care of yourself….I love you?”

How can you ever expect and hope that your child will take care of himself? Where is he going to master the skills of self-care? Are they even on his radar screen? And, what about the “love you” part? How can he love others when he can’t love you, when he absolutely rejects love?

It is entirely possible for self-care and love to be on his radar screen because self-care can be modeled by you in the midst of the chaos and brokenness. And, your loving mom actions will show him how to love others.

As important as it is to make sure you are learning about what your child will need from you, it is equally important to tune in to your own heart; learn to recognize your needs; take time to honor yourself.

 What Moms Can Do

  1. Rest! Can someone help you take a “mental health day?” A spouse or friend? I do this often and I stay in bed and watch something that I’ve loved, like Call the MidWife tv program.

2. Go on a Mom Retreat. What an incredible experience to be with those who parent in the trenches, like you, and with speakers that know where you’re at and what ministers most to you.

3. Asses the level of your compassion fatigue: Symptoms of Compassion fatigue are listed here by @stress.org (The American Institute of Stress):

– Affects many dimensions of your well-being

– Nervous system arousal (Sleep disturbance)

– Emotional intensity increases

– Cognitive ability decreases

– Behavior and judgment impaired

– Isolation and loss of morale

– Depression and PTSD (potentiate)

– Loss of self-worth and emotional modulation

– Identity, worldview, and spirituality impacted

– Beliefs and psychological needs-safety, trust, esteem, intimacy, and control

– Loss of hope and meaning=existential despair

– Anger toward perpetrators or causal even

4. Take a bubble bath.

5. Find an adoption-competent therapist. Check with Center for Adoption Support, or Heather Talbot Forbes.

6. Identify a sport that you really like and sign up for a class.

BTW–I can not only smell Mom’s best-in-town apple pie, but I can make a mean one myself.

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Why Some Adopted Kids See Their Adoptive Mom As An Enemy

What Adoptive Moms Can Do When Kids Reject

The mom I once hated, I now love. The mom I rejected, I now enjoy. The mom I thought was a loser is now my hero. 

Memories of her are like gentle ocean waves. I can smell her best-in-town apple pie, feel her hands rubbing oil on my asthmatic chest, and her tender care for my kitty named Dinny Dinwit.

This miracle is the result of a crisis of forgiveness that set me free from my painful past, including my contentious relationship with mom. The raucous anger that dwelt within me is tamed. 

Through gut-wrenching personal work, I’ve discovered the reason for our contentious relationship. 

The answer is complex, and I believe moms need to know what they can do when their adopted child rejects their love, and them. They also need to know that their adopted child can heal from pre-adoption trauma.

How I wish mom and I would have been exposed to these truths I’ve discovered lately. We would have been freed from the war between us and enjoyed an intimate parent/child relationship that only comes from tough self-examination.

I am fully aware that’s what moms of adopted kids want in the parent/child relationship and I long to share these truths with both adoptive moms and fellow adoptees so they can find healing…sooner, rather than later. Hopefully, after reading this post and those that will follow in the months to come:

  • You will understand why your child sees you as an enemy.
  • You will see that it is truly possible for your child to heal.
  • You will embrace the fact that you are enough as a mom.

Your Adopted Child Can’t See Your Face

When your child connects with you for the first time, he brings with him all the “faces” of other moms that were in your role prior to coming to you. So, if your child is a newborn, it is the first mom’s face. If a school-age child removed to foster care, the first mom’s face. If a teen coming from multiple failed placements, she sees all the mom faces before her.

Think about the popular ad on tv promoting adults getting vaccinated for whooping cough.  The setting shows devoted, loving grandparents holding a baby.  It all looks wonderful until  you see the startling  faces of the grandparents–they’re the faces of wolves.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not calling former moms “wolves.” Instead, maybe this is an example to remember when you try to understand your adopted child’s rejection of you. For many adoptees, we don’t see your loving face. We see a former mom saying “I don’t want you.”

This is called an unintentional relationship. In other words, things happen that you don’t want (child rejecting love and you) and over which you have no control. Your child sees you in a distorted way, reacting contrary to your heart’s desire to become a haven of love for the child whose safety has either disappeared or never existed.

The word non-intentional is defined by four words and I believe they may somewhat describe the true heart of your child:

  • Non-Intentional==”I never intended to reject your love.”
  • Unplanned==”I wasn’t planning on being hateful.”
  • Unpremeditated==”I can’t control my anger at you.”
  • Unconscious==”I have no idea the havoc I’m creating or how I’m hurting you.”

Yes, it is a bit scary to think about parenting a child in a non-intentional relationship, but you can do it.  You may have not signed up for a non-intentional relationship with your child, but you’re in it now and you can rise to the occasion. 

Try to identify the face/faces of former moms in your child’s behavior and help him learn to regulate–that was then…this is now. “Your first mother was mean to you, but that was then. I will always be here for you and keep you safe. This is now.”

Your Child Is Defending Himself Against More Abandonment

For years I’ve wondered why I perceived mom as my enemy. Why were we at cross purposes? Why did we have shouting matches before high school? Why did her words make me cringe, like long fingernails scraping a blackboard?

Just like a boxer in the ring, your child is defending himself. He’ll land you an upper cut with words like: 

  • “I hate you.”
  • “You’re not my mom…not my real mom.”
  • “I’m going to run away.”

But, don’t be intimidated, moms. Take a closer look at your child in the boxing ring. Your child’s invisible black eyes are pleading with you to hear his heart cries. For example, when my grandmother handed screaming, push-away newborn me to my mom, she probably translated my behavior as, “I don’t have what it takes to be a good mother to this child.”

And, I, in the only way my newborn self could communicate, I was saying, “I’m hurting so incredibly bad. Don’t touch me, or I’ll die. I can’t take any more pain. And, besides, you are a stranger to me. I want my first mom.”

  Your Child Is Not At Fault, Nor Are You

No one is at fault here. Not moms, nor kids.

However, the level of pain can seem unbearable. Focus on the Family’s counseling service says the receive panic calls from many desperate moms every day.

It’s tremendously easy for many adoptees to believe that they’re damaged goods and that’s why why they can’t have a healthy relationship with their moms. They’re always wondering in what ways we’ve been damaged.

  • “If I would have loved mom more, she wouldn’t have gotten hooked on drugs.”
  • “If I wouldn’t have cried so much, she wouldn’t have abused me.”
  • “Maybe I was too ugly.”

It’s important to remember that the world in which we live is broken and inhabited by broken people. We must cut each other slack and look with eyes of compassion whenever possible.

Forgive us moms, for we don’t know what we’re doing.  We are so messed up inside.

Some day, hopefully, your child will love you. Someday, she won’t see you as her enemy. Someday, she’ll say goodbye to her painful past.

FYI–I have a FB page devoted to parents whose kids can’t receive love. It is: What Parents Can Do When Adopted Kids Reject Their Love

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This Adoptee Is Worried About Randall on THIS IS US

Is RANDALL LOSING IT? OH, NO.

Seeing the return of THIS IS US was epic, but I’m worried about Randall.

In the last episode before the holidays, we were given a peek at Rebecca’s memory problems and it was confirmed in this new season that she indeed is suffering from dementia, possibly Alzheimers.

Randall, played by Sterling Brown, captures the essence of the adoptee personality.

Randall was the first to notice memory problems in Rebecca and you could tell before the holidays that he was deeply concerned about her. That is so typical of many adoptees–because of the trauma we’ve been through, we have an extremely tender heart for those that are hurting.

As the episode unfolded, not only did we see his tender heart but also the extremes he went to in order to gain entrance with a specialist. The doc said he texted her 48 times? And, when he returned home to his own family, the were totally relaxed, in fact sleeping, when he kissed them goodnight.

After kissing them goodnight, he went downstairs to get a drink of water. As he did, the scary figure appeared to him.

Was it a hallucination? We don’t know. All we know is that he commanded it to flee.

But the following scenes left me worried about Randall, as they showed earlier break downs that he had.

That’s the reality of being adoptee, at least from my perspective. I”ve been hospitalized for depression twice and even lost touch with reality once.

I fear Randall is going down that old painful past. What can we fellow adoptees do to help him?

How Adoptive Parents Can Foster Self-Acceptance In Their Kids

Addressing the Dilemma of Low Self Acceptance Amongst Adoptees and Foster Kids

Self–acceptance is seemingly unattainable  for many adoptees and foster kids and adoptive parents can’t understand what more they can do. There is something I’ve discovered  that may be valuable to parents in dealing with the dilemma of fostering self-worth and self acceptance in your adopted kiddos.

Of course, the following is my voice only. I’m not speaking for all adoptees. I do hope this is a help to you.

It’s important to state that many adopted/foster kids thrive and self-esteem and self-acceptance come easy. They excel and if you ask them about adoption, they’d probably say, “It’s no big deal to me.”

However, for many, including myself, find self-esteem and self-acceptance is a winding and treacherous path toward growth and maturity. How can we ever feel good about ourselves if we’ve suffered serious depression, multiple addictions, or unplanned pregnancies?

The majority of adoptees I’ve interviewed over the years have non-existent self worth. They’d never tell you, but they often believe, even subconsciously, that their lives are a mistake. This occurs with infant adoption and the challenge comes in learning that they are “the unplanned good” in the lives of the first and adoptive parents.

Foster care kids often believe there’s something inherently wrong with them. If not, why would their first home and parents be taken away? Why would they experience multiple placements if this were not true? Why would so many fostering families find them undesirable? The challenge for older children is self-acceptance–to learn that even though they are acting out their trauma pain in the family setting, it won’t always be that way.  It won’t always hurt this bad.

Here are some ideas for building self-acceptance and worth within your child:

  1. Teach the lifeline of an adoptee.

This is key for an adoptee’s identity. Many think their lives began by mistake but actually their lives began in the heart of God the Father. God is the only one that create life. He created everything we see-including you.

In addition, He created you in his image–body, soul, and spirit. Because he created you, he has a special plan for your life. He will help you..

Parents may want to have the child make this verse on a card or plaque:

My life bean not on adoption day, not on my birthday, not at conception. My life began in the very heart of God.

Here is a visual to teach this truth:

cropped-adoptee-lifeline-final3.jpg

2. Share the effects of trauma on their development.

Adopted children must understand that their struggles and sometimes slowness are because they are children of trauma.  Just because an adoptee doesn’t thrive and goes under once in awhile doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with him/her. That is where you can nip shame in the bud, parents.  Shame shouts, “There’s something wrong with y.o.u.” 

You may want to share this illustration of trauma with your child. Have him/her imagine what it’s like to hear the smoke alarm suddenly blare in the dead of night. What is the reaction? We throw off the covers, jump out of bed, run through the dark in search of the on/off button. When the alarm is turned off, life is peaceful again and you can go back to sleep.

When you suffer trauma as a baby/child/teen, the alarm is still going off in your brain. No one has shut it off, and so you have difficulties. We and your counselor will find effective ways to help you turn off the noise in your brain.

3.  Assure them that wasted years and brokenness can be redeemed.

It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to learn the different stages of child development. The theory is that none of us can move to the next step of development until the prior one is completed.

You will need help from an adoption-competent therapist to know your child’s “emotional age.” This is what must be identified. Then, you can identify the stage that hasn’t been completed and work on it with professional help.

Because of various factors in my adopted life, I didn’t move on the developmental chart. My parents must have looked for growth and development at different stages and ages, but often what they saw was the same thing–I was stuck in my development due to pre-and post-birth trauma, but also RAD.

It would be tempting to look back with regret and condemnation, chiding myself for not getting my act together before now.

But, far from being guilt-ridden, I can sense layer after layer of shame rolling off me, like waves.  I rest on the promise from the *Bible that says, “He makes up for the years the locusts have eaten.”

You may want to consider having your child make a drawing or collage of what “the locusts ate” in his life–the discouragement, the depressions, the temper tantrums, the running away.

Then, read what God does with those things. This may be a second drawing or collage. Gather old cards, newspaper clippings, buttons, photos, etc. White boards are a great idea also.

4.  Reveal the beauty of late bloomers through another adoptee’s life.

What To Do When Your Adopted Kid Doesn't Bloom
When adopted and foster kids act out pre-adoption trauma, it’s not only hard for parents to see their potential, but also difficult for the adoptees themselves. However, even though the growth process is slow, the potential is great. Sherrie shows at least four reasons that adoptive and foster parents can take hope.

You may want to share the following story about my late-blooming amaryllis.

Amaryllis plants are supposed to be incredibly beautiful, with showy blossoms that grow from a bulb that many people use for Christmas decorations.  Keep this in mind, for the bulb the hubs brought home hardly fit the ideal description.

Frankly, my first impression was doubt–would the poor thing would ever blossom?  Potted in a dark green plastic container, only its brownish bulb was visible. Oh, yes, it had soil around it, but it was bone dry.

After watering the poor thing, we watched for w.e.e.k.s.  Nothing!

Why didn’t it hurry up and blossom? We wanted to see it “do it’s thing” when our family gathered for Christmas. We wanted them to see its beauty but it just wasn’t happening. Thus, Christmas came and went.

As the stalk became awkward and leggier, we thought maybe we should change its position on the coffee table so that it pointed toward the sun. There were minor changes, but nothing significant. Were we doing something wrong? Did our amaryllis not like it here? 

One day, we saw signs of growth–the tips of the green stalk were turning pink and today, it is crimson red, with four blooms shaped like trumpets.

Include the thoughts of a fellow adoptee

Watching the development of the amaryllis reminds me of my development as an adopted person. When my adoptive grandmother brought 10-day old me through Mom and Dad’s front door, you certainly couldn’t see any blooms. After all, who can bloom after a traumatic loss? Who can sing when the heart is broken?

Parents, isn’t that how your adopted/foster children entered your family? They have lived in a proverbial dark green plastic pot that isn’t conducive to growth. In fact, the depth of their trauma renders them unlikely recipients of growth.

Perhaps, when they come through your doors with only a garbage bag to their possession or obvious black eyes from abuse, like the amaryllis, there isn’t much evident hope they’ll survive, yet alone thrive.

Sherrie’s letter to your child:

Please share this personal letter from me with your adopted child:

Dear fellow adoptee,

I love you and I haven’t even met you. It’s taken a lifetime for me to get through the trauma I endured when I lost my first family,

When I was growing up and even as an adult, there was little information for how to survive, and thrive, through the losses I’ve endured.

Things are different now, though, for you. Many parents are informed and there are many professionals to help you in developing into the person you were created to be.

Don’t worry that your development doesn’t line up with the non-adopted kids you know. They haven’t experienced the trauma you have. You have many hurdles to jump over that they never will.

And, yet as you jump, there is light and life ahead of you. Even if you turn out to be a late bloomer like me, it is simply okay.

I am cheering you on in your race of life. Be compassionate with yourself and trust that in due time, you will blossom as you never dreamed possible.,

Love to you,

Sherrie

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Why Adopted Kids Reject Their Mom’s Love

I Can't Stand My Adoptive Mom

Your child wants you to know is that if she doesn’t grieve the adoption loss, her ability to receive love or attach emotionally to you and others in meaningful relationships may be seriously hindered. 

Dr. Daniel N. Stern, professor of psychiatry at Cornell University, says in his book, The Interpersonal World of the Infant, that there are certain developmental tasks every child, adopted or not, must accomplish in order to grow into a healthy adult.  Stern says the first developmental stage (0-3 months) is homeostasis, which occurs when the baby is relaxed, alert and interested in the world.  Stage two ( 0-7 months) involves attachment. It is here that the baby becomes interested in the caregiver and is especially responsive to smiles and touch, responding with pleasure and interest.  In stage four (9-18 months), the baby shows a wide range of socially meaningful behaviors and is able to go from interaction to separation. 

If the child does not complete a task on a certain level, his adaptation is impaired when trying to complete tasks on a higher level. For example, if an infant never learns to relax in stage one, he will likely have difficulty progressing to the next stage (developing attachments). 

  Thinking back to my own beginnings, I believe I was stuck in the first stage (relaxing and responding), for even on the first day of my adoption I was exhibiting distinct symptoms of grief.  I remember my parents telling me when I was a child, “When we got you, you wouldn’t eat, so the doctor gave you medicine to stretch your stomach.” I believe that my refusal to eat was a grief reaction for the mother I lost at birth. I had given up hope that I would ever be close to her again.

It is interesting that animals as well as humans demonstrate this grief-like behavior.  Konrad Lorenz, in Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, described this in the separation of a grelag goose from its mate:

The first response to the disappearance of the partner consists in the anxious attempt to find him again. The goose moves about restlessly by day and night, flying great distances and visiting places where the partner might be found, uttering all the time the penetrating trisyllabic long-distance call… The searching expeditions are extended farther and farther and quite often the searcher itself gets lost, or succumbs to an accident… All the objective observable characteristics of the goose’s behavior on losing its mate are roughly identical with human grief. 

Attachment specialist, Dr.Connie Dawson, in a message to The American Adoption Congress, illustrated the grief reactions of newborns when she told of a woman who was a missionary in Southeast Asia shortly after the Korean police action. The missionary and her husband went back to New Zealand during this time for their first child to be born in order to be near families at the birth. At that time, there was so much crowding in the New Zealand hospital that an appointment needed to be secured for the due date so that the room could be guaranteed. 

The missionary went two weeks over her due date, so when she went into labor, the only place for her to deliver was a small hospital usually only for unwed mothers. About half of the babies there were going to be put up for adoption. The missionary told Connie, “My room was down the hall from the nursery and I shall never forget their cries.” 

When Connie asked for a description of those cries, the woman said, “Well, the cries of the little ones who were leaving were cries that broke my heart.” 

When asked what the difference was between the group being put up for adoption and the one going home with mother, the missionary said, “All I can think of is ‘p’ words: pleading, plaintive, like they had already given up.”

Such is the reality of grief after loss, and such is often the reality of adoption grief after relinquishment.

Mary Watkins and Susan Fisher, adoptive  mothers and adoption professionals, describe a toddler acting out her grief in Talking with Young Children About Adoption. “For several days in a row child entertains her day-care peers at nap time with her adoption story, saying ‘when I was a baby I took a long, long, long plane ride all the way from El Salvador, and Mom and Jenny and Mimi came to get me at the airport.’ The children ask, ‘Did you eat things on the plane?’ Child replies, ‘Chicken and rice, and I threw my bottle down the aisle.”

Older adoptees may manifest grief in other ways.  Marcy Axness, adoptee and adoption educator, says in What Is Written On the Heart: “I think of how, as a young person and to a lesser degree into adulthood, I was continuously losing or forgetting things, or, even more bizarre, throwing away my perfectly useful items just because I felt no immediate need for them. As a young teen, I also began to shoplift. I realize now that this was how I acted out my behavioral memories of feeling lost, forgotten, thrown away, stolen and stolen from.”

Some adoptees, unaware of adoption loss, repress the pain through achieving. Such was the case with former NFL football player Tim Green. In his excellent autobiography, A Man and His Mother, Green reveals the horrific dreams that plagued him from childhood into adulthood. He says, “I had no idea then that the uncertain circumstances of my birth and my driving need to avoid any recurrence of that painful rejection refueled these nightmares. I only hoped that they might magically go away.” It was a only as he faced the pain of unresolved loss that the nightmares subsided.

I include these examples not to frighten you, but to help you become aware of your child’s need from day one. I will keep reemphasizing both the loss and the practical ways of dealing with it in succeeding chapters so that you can balance it with wisdom, compassion, and understanding.

So, in light of this knowledge about adoptee grief, I imagine you saying, “What can adoptive parents  do? How can we help our infant mourn the loss at this particular stage and receive our love? How can we assist our toddler, school-aged child, or adolescent?”

We will talk more about that in the next chapter, but first let’s get a clear understanding of what grief really is. 

• sorrow

• lament

• ache

• sadness

• anguish

• despair

• yearn

I can’t bear the thought that my child has already experienced all of this, you may be thinking. It makes me feel so helpless as a parent. Let me assure you that you are not alone. Almost every adoptive parent I have talked to expresses the same sentiment when learning about the pain associated with adoption. 

Perhaps you are wondering, Is all this mourning stuff really necessary? Yes, it is, for one must enter into freedom through pain. The only way out is through. Once adoption loss is acknowledged, the prison gates of grief will swing open to a new world. How awesome it will be to see your child reframe his losses and discover that adoption was the very thing that taught him some of life’s most precious lessons.

Instead of depression and sadness, there will be joy.  Instead of wandering and aimlessness, there will be life with a purpose. Instead of feeling second class, he will know he is loved and accepted just as he is.

Grieving Brings Healing

Grieving is necessary, for grieving is a natural response to loss. It is the heart’s way of trying to heal itself. It is to the soul as a fever is to the body.

Psychiatrist George Engels, in an article for Psychosomatic Medicine, says that the loss of a loved one is psychologically traumatic to the same extent as being severely wounded or burned is physiologically traumatic. He argues that grief represents a departure from the state of health, and just as healing is needed in the physiological realm in order to bring the body back into balance, so a period is needed to bring the mourner back into a state of equilibrium. 

Because adoption is a lifelong journey and because sensory memories of the original loss will be triggered throughout life by subsequent losses, the adoptee will need to learn to be comfortable with her own feelings during various seasons of life. In times of sadness, she must let the tears flow. In times of abandonment/rejection/betrayal, she must verbalize her anger and grief. She must not hold back.

Dr. Arthur Janov, in The New Primal Scream, says that the need to express feelings is just as physiological as hunger.  If the pain is too much, the adoptee will go numb and feel nothing. Repression will take over.

If you can help your child grieve the original loss from day one, her ability to grieve future losses will be greatly enhanced. What a gift you can give her! In the next chapter, I will share practical ideas on how to help her grieve the losses. But first, let’s make sure we have a proper understanding of the process of mourning.

 The Process of Mourning

In researching this book, I could not find any information about grieving adoption loss. There are books that deal with special kinds of grief, like Sudden Infant Death (SIDS), miscarriage, abortion, stillbirth, and suicide, but nothing specifically about adoption. I believe adoption is a special kind of loss and that grief is a natural and necessary response. 

Grieving is a process and psychologists differ in their explanations, theories, and terms describing it. Renowned author Elisabeth Kübler-Ross described the mourning process in stages — denial, anger, bargaining, and acceptance. Others, like John Bowlby, a leading researcher and teacher in the field of personality development, defines it in phases. Although both of these approaches may be satisfactory for most forms of loss, there is another approach that seems to me better suited to adoption loss. 

J. William Worden,  professor of psychology at the Harvard Medical School, teaches the concept of tasks in regard to the grieving process. His approach implies that mourning can be influenced by intervention from the outside and that there is something the mourner can do.  In contrast, traditional theories of mourning imply a certain passivity on the mourner’s part.

Therapists Holly Van Gulden and Lisa M. Bartels-Rabb, in Real Parents Real Children, say that distancing is one form of passivity younger children display in response to unresolved grief.  “Distancing behaviors include poor personal appearance–clothes and hygiene–a child may ruin brand new clothes or just manage to stay perpetually dirty. He is subconsciously hoping that school bus drivers and teachers will think the adoptive family is poor or neglecting him.” 

One male adoptee illustrated his passivity when he said, “I have always believed that I don’t have a right to ask for things other people do. It makes me nervous to be the least bit assertive about even the smallest details of life, and whenever my wife is, I am completely embarrassed.”

A mid-life female adoptee said, “The orphaned child within me is comfortable being alone and unattached.”

Let me add at this point that not all adoptees have attachment problems. According to attachment and bonding specialist, Gregory C. Keck, Ph.D., in an article for Jewel Among Jewels Adoption News: “Attachment disorders and adoption don’t necessarily have a relationship. Most adoptees do not have attachment disorders. Many people who have attachment disorders, however, are adoptees. People often talk about adoption as if it’s a diagnosis, as opposed to a condition or status. That concerns me. Probably all of us have had attachment and separation issues in our lives.”

Dr. Worden’s task-oriented approach seems tailor-made for grieving adoption loss, for it engages parents in early conversations with the child which in turn facilitate mourning. It moves parents closer to the baby’s or child’s reality and minimizes the adoptee’s inclination toward passivity (tendency to give up).

Assuming that Worden’s approach to mourning is a good model for many adoptees, let’s take a closer look at the method.

The Four Tasks of Grieving

The first task Worden describes is acceptance of the reality of the loss,  part of which is to believe that a reunion with that person is impossible. In applying this task in the adoption arena, the first thing we must do is define the word “reunion.” Actually, there are three dimensions to the word reunion when it comes to adoption.  

The first would happen if the adoptee could return to the prenatal state. The second reunion would occur if the adoptee could return to the unadopted state, where the only parents are the biological parents. Both these reunions are impossible for the adopted child to accomplish. The adoptee will never know the birth mother in the intimate way she did inutero, nor will she know her biological parents as her only parents. 

What is interesting to note, however, is that there is another dimension to the word reunion for the adoptee. Lying dormant beneath that seemingly lost relationship is the flickering hope of a post-adoption reunion sometime in the future. Thus, the adoptee’s task is to accept the reality of the first two reunions while looking forward to the reunion that might be. It is a confusing task to say the least.

Confusing, but not impossible to achieve. Many adoptees have risen to the challenge and have learned to embrace the future while letting go of the past.

The best way young adoptees can accept the reality of the first two losses is through parental validation. Dr. Wendy McCord, a psychotherapist and past president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Association or Pre-and Perinatal Psychology and Health (APPAH), said in an interview with Marcy Wineman Axness, “All adopted babies, I think you can pretty much say, are in shock, which is the most severe level of trauma. They need to be held a lot, they need to be given true empathy, and what they do needs to be interpreted in terms of their loss. Parents who are in denial of this add another trauma to what the baby’s already suffered.” 

Dr. McCord went on to say that these facts about loss and grief need to be verbalized. “I’m not the mom you expected, I don’t smell like her, I don’t sound like her. I’m a different mom, and I love you and I’m not going to leave you.”

As the child grows older and considers a post-adoption reunion with the birth parents, perhaps the best adoptive parents can do to help facilitate proper passage through this first task is to openly and warmly acknowledge the birth parents’ existence and assure her that someday a reunion might be a possibility. Of course, this would not be necessary in an open adoption.  There would already be on-going contact with the birth family.

Task two is to work through the pain of grief. If it is not worked through, it may manifest in other symptoms like acting out, setting fires, cruelty to animals, eating disorders, aggression, depression, suicide, and criminal behaviors, to name a few. Nancy Verrier, author of the ground-breaking book, The Primal Wound, says, “According to 1985 statistics used by Parenting Resources of Santa Ana, California, although adoptees comprised 2-3 percent of the population of the country, they represented 30-40 percent of individuals found in residential treatment centers, juvenile hall, and special schools. 

Think for a moment again about pre-adoption loss. To the adoptee, his psychological life is split in two: before adoption and after adoption. In between is a deep chasm (of which he may or may not be conscious)–a place of helplessness, rejection, and loss of control. It is important for adoptive parents to remember that this is the very place where attachment with you as a parent will occur. As you go with your child to that place, an attachment will form in the midst of the loss and grief. Going with your child to this place will require courage as well as doing your own emotional work. We can’t take others where we haven’t first been ourselves; their pain will frighten us away.

Task number three of mourning requires adjustment to a new environment, and for the adoptee, new environments are often a challenge. Keep in mind the original adjustment the adoptee had to make to her adoptive home. All that was familiar was lost. Her emotional reality was the opposite of what was happening around her.

This vulnerability to change in environment also occurs with older kids who have been relinquished. The emotional issues, even though similar in nature to those of an infant, are compounded by the trauma of leaving what was familiar. 

Seven-year-old Amanda had to be removed from her home because of her mother’s debilitating mental illness. “Terror was what I felt…absolute terror and fear of the unknown. I feared that no one could be trusted.” On the ride to the new home, she grasped for the familiar–anything that would be a tie to her past and help her feel more relaxed. In her new home, she acted out her emotions by being very possessive of her toys and clothing. “No one will replace a member of my family,” was her predominant memory.

Watkins and Fisher, in Talking with Young Children About Adoption, describe a three-year-old child who had similar problems. They say, “Indian child is hesitant to enter church where a party of Indian adoptees and their parents is being held. After a forty-five-minute wait outside with her father, she asks him if a white woman in a sari is her mother. When he assures her that she is not, the child confides that she is confused about the differences between her mother, her tummy-mother from Indian, her godmother, also from India and expected at the party and her grandmother.”

Adult adoptees in support groups confirm that it is often difficult for them to enter new groups or take on new endeavors. One male adoptee who was out of work confessed, “Every time I went for a job interview, I felt like I was being looked at as a potential for adoption all over again.”

Task number four requires that the mourner relocate the lost person and move on with life. Put in adoption terms, relocating the lost person means allowing oneself to think about the birth family but then choosing to withdraw emotional energy from them and reinvest it in other relationships. In other words, the adoptee is no longer obsessed with the birth family; his thoughts about them wax and wane.

A literal relocation of the lost person may be impossible, aside from an open adoption or a reunion later in life. If the adoption is closed or semi-closed, this step will necessitate the adoptive parents giving new information about the birth mother or birth family to the adoptee at various stages of development. If they don’t have any information, such as is the case in many international adoptions, this too must be grieved as another loss.

One mother said, “When my daughter came to her thirteenth birthday, the whole adoption thing hit her like a ton of bricks. She wept and said, ‘If I could only know her name (the birth mother’s).'”

The mother, not knowing the birth mother’s name, wisely asked, “What would you like her name to be?”

When the girl selected a name, the mother said, “Then that’s what she’ll be.” That was enough to comfort the adoptee as well as help her relocate the lost mother within her consciousness.  Prior to that time, the girl may not have  considered it permissible to think about her birth mother. 

Other ways that an adoptee might emotionally locate the birth mother would be to begin asking questions about her,  locate where she went to high school and find a yearbook photo, or visit the hospital where the adoptee was born. Oftentimes a simple connection is all that is needed. 

This concludes the four tasks of grief the adoptee must navigate in order for attachment to occur. Now let’s talk about why adoptees sometimes fail to mourn.

Aborted Mourning

Attachment experts say that during the first two years of life, there is a cycle that happens thousands and thousands of times. First there is a need. The unmet need is then expressed in rage or anger, and the expectation is that the child will be satisfied. If satisfaction occurs, trust grows. Gratification includes food, touch, eye contact, movement, or any kind of stimulation by another. 

When the cycle is interrupted with something like adoption, some children learn not to trust others to meet their needs. Instead they trust only themselves. Others, on the other hand, are resilient and relax into attachment without problems. The birth mother’s self-care during pregnancy is a large determining factor here.

Marcy Wineman Axness, in her excellent booklet, What Is Written on the Heart: Primal Issues in Adoption, says, “To a fetus, its mother’s emotional state is the state of the universe. Chronic anxiety in a stressed mother communicates to the developing organism that it is going to be born into a dangerous environment, and its nervous system development adapts accordingly.”

How can parents know if the child has failed to grieve and is unable to attach? Dr. Greg Keck says, “Symptoms of lack of attachment will be evident early–sometimes in infancy with eating and feeding problems, babies arching their backs and being stiff, not wanting to be touched and lack of eye contact. Some of the most difficult kids have been those who were picked up at the hospital and had no contact with the birth mother. They cried all the way home from the hospital, and I’m sure that crying developed into rage, the rage developed into terrible behavior, and by the time they’re 15 and come to us, parents are saying ‘yes’, this started at the hospital and has never ended.”

The Attachment Center at Evergreen, Inc., summarizes specific symptoms of attachment difficulties:

Age Birth to One

• Failure to respond with recognition to face of primary caretaker in first six months

• Infrequent vocalizations–babbling, crying

• Resistant to physical contact or appears stressed by it–rigid and unyielding

• Excessive fussiness and irritability

• Passive or withdrawn

• Poor muscle tone–flaccid

Age One to Five

• Excessively clingy and whiny

• Persistent, frequent tantrums, sometimes escalating beyond the child’s control

• High threshold of discomfort–seemingly oblivious to temperature discomfort; picks sores and scabs until bloody without manifesting pain

• Unable to occupy self in a positive way without involving others

• Resistant to being held

• Demands affection in a controlling way on the child’s terms

• Intolerant of separation from primary caretakers except on child’s terms

• Indiscriminate display of affection, sometimes to strangers

• Problems of speech development

• Problems of motor coordination–considered accident prone

• Hyperactivity evident

• Feeding problems

• By five, may be manipulative, devious, destructive, hurtful to pets, frequently dishonest

Age Five to Fourteen

• Superficially engaging and “charming,” uses “cuteness” to get others to do what he or she wants

• Lack of eye contact on parental terms: difficulty making eye contact with others while talking with them

• Indiscriminate affection with strangers: goes up to strangers and becomes overly affectionate with them or asks to go home with them

• Not affectionate on parent’s terms (not cuddly): refuses affection and pushes parents away unless child is in control of how and when affection is received

• Destructive to self, others, and material things; accident prone: seems to enjoy hurting others and deliberately breaks or ruins things

• Cruelty to animals: may include incessant teasing, physical assault, torture, or ritualistic killing

• Stealing: steals from household, parents, and siblings, and in ways that almost guarantees getting caught

• Lying about the obvious: lies for no apparent reason when it would have been just as easy to tell the truth

• No impulse control (frequently acts hyperactive): extremely defiant and angry; needs to be in control of events in his or her life; tends to boss others; responds with prolonged arguing when asked to do something

• Learning lags: often underachieves in school

• Lack of cause and effect thinking: surprised when others are upset by his or her actions

• Hoarding or gorging food: has other unusual eating habits (eats paper, glue, paints, flour, garbage, etc.)

• Poor peer relationships: difficulty in making or keeping friends more than a week; bossy in his play with others

• Preoccupation with fire or gore: fascinated with or preoccupied by fire, blood, or morbid activities

• Persistent questions and chatter: asks repeated nonsensical questions or chatters non-stop

• Inappropriately demanding and clingy: tries to get attention by demanding things instead of asking for them; affectionate only when wanting something

• Abnormal speech patterns along with other more serious symptoms

• Sexual acting out: may act sexually provocative with peers or adults; masturbates in public

Why Adoptees Don’t Mourn

Often with any kind of  loss, but adoption loss especially, there is a subtle interplay between society and the mourner, where society gives the message, “You don’t need to grieve.” Such was the case with little Jessica DeBoer. 

The July 19, 1993 cover of Time pictured a bewildered Jessica, held between her adoptive parents, with the caption, “Whose Little Girl Is This?” Less than a year later, the March 21, 1994 issue featured a smiling Jessica with the caption, “She’s Not Baby Jessica Anymore.” All vestiges of her past had been removed…even her name. 

I, along with many adoptee friends, were enraged.  Society denied an innocent child the freedom to grieve.

Another reason the adoptee doesn’t mourn is that she feels no need to mourn. Adoption is just a fact about her life and nothing more. If you were to ask her if she would like to join a support group for adoptees, she would ask “why?” Because every human being responds and adapts to loss differently, some adoptees truly may not need to mourn. For the majority, however, healthy grieving will enable them to be more whole and more intimate with others.

The third reason adoptees don’t grieve and learn to connect is that parents are uneducated about adoption and the child’s unspoken needs. It will be impossible for you to know the core issues your child is trying to express to you and then to validate them unless you educate yourself well about the repercussions of adoption loss. There are many books on the market, but the essentials I suggest are listed in the appendix at the back of this book.

Now that we’ve looked at the nitty-gritty facts about grief, let’s get on to the blessings that follow on the heels of mourning.

The Blessings that Follow Mourning

Bereavement specialist and Founder of Connections: Spiritual Links, Reverend Richard Gilbert gives a clear picture of the blessings your child can experience once he has grieved his adoption losses successfully. Gilbert writes, 

I’m adopted! This is part of my story, my “claim to fame,” and it is only through the hard work and life struggle of mourning that it is something I can now claim with fame. Someone didn’t want me. That became my story, my scar, my struggle. When I learned of my adoption, compounded by dynamics in my family life and other struggles, I “heard” only that someone didn’t want me, that I was rejected somewhere, and that, somehow I am now different. All of this albeit based on questionable facts, became the energy force that kept me, and often controlled me (at least until recently), on this lifetime course of anger, debate, searching, and the stubborn determination to prove “they,” whoever were the natural parents, were wrong to give me up. Through faith, searching, a wonderful wife and family, supportive friends, my  own bereavement work and writing, therapy and determination to be “free,” I have recognized my right and need to affirm my goodness within myself. It became less (though it never entirely goes away) of, “someone didn’t want me,” to a whole lot of “look who I am and what my life has been.” So what does this mean? It means that I have learned to see adoption not as a mark or scar, but as a gift. It is a gift because I am a gift. 

Grief is the process that many adoptees must pass through in order for healing and freedom to occur. But be aware that growing over the wound of grief is a thick layer of anger. Watch out…you may become the target of it!

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COPYRIGHT, 1999, Random House Publishing. Chapter 5 of TWENTY THINGS ADOPTED KIDS WISH THEIR ADOPTIVE PARENTS KNEW.