In the midst of celebrating National Adoption Month, we need to also remember the heartbreaking journeys that brought our kids to this point. It is good to celebrate new beginnings, but we shouldn’t forget that our kids are available for adoption only because they have lost their birth families, either through death or the court system. As we move into the holiday season that celebrates family ties, understand how that loss may still affect them.
• Recognize Their Conflict
If your children are old enough to remember their parents, they won’t forget that family just because you have adopted them. They also may feel some level of responsibility for the situation, or believe that enjoying their new life would be disloyal. Whatever the conflict, don’t be surprised if they don’t jump wholeheartedly into new family traditions.
The problem can be exacerbated for children old enough to understand the termination of parent rights (TPR) process that preceded your adoption of them. Many TPR’d parents truly love their kids; they simply can’t get past the addiction or family violence or other problem that caused the court to opt for TPR. Many foster kids have been through the roller coaster of reunification before the courts gave up on their parents, and your kids had no control over what was happening to their family. For you, adoption is a happy ending, but for your kids it may just be another step in losing control over things that matter to them.
Whatever your kids’ conflict, give them love and room to work through it. Adjusting to their new reality will take time, and during the process they will need our love and support.
• Give Them Space for Their Memories
Give your kids space for their memories of their biological parents. Those memories are an essential part of their stories, and they have to figure out how to meld their old lives and their new realities. Above all, don’t view those memories as competition for your kids’ love. Memories are important, but they can’t provide the same love and nurture for the future that you can. Let your kids find a way to make room for both in their lives.
If your kids want to talk about their biological family, encourage them to tell you what they remember. If they have any photographs that they want to keep in their room, don’t put impediments in their way. Your kids may want to do research to find out more about their biological family and ancestors. Help them fill in those gaps in their knowledge. Knowing where they came from is an important part of knowing where they are and where they want to go.
Don’t be surprised if their memories of their biological family is unrealistically rosy. Memories often work that way. Just as we prefer to remember the good attributes of our deceased relatives, our kids will want to remember the good times with their biological families. And when their parents aren’t around to remind the kids of their anger, abuse, or other problems, those bad qualities recede. If that happens with your kids, don’t feel the need to correct them. It’s not our job to make them face everything about their past, and they won’t believe us anyway. Let them work it through in their own time.
One important exception to the principle of letting them work it out is that we need to do what we can to keep them from taking responsibility that’s not theirs. Abused children, for example, often hear from the perpetrators that if the kids were better kids, then the abuse wouldn’t happen. We need to work carefully to help our kids understand the limits of their responsibility for the TPR. Even then, we have to do it without trashing their biological parents. Most therapists I’ve worked with advise telling the kids that adults make adult decisions, no matter what anyone else does or says, and that kids are not responsible for the decisions of any of the adults in their lives. I’ve also found it helpful to say that I “disagree” with biological parents, even when what I’m actually thinking is absolute anger and condemnation. Whatever the formulation, be very careful not to trash your kids’ biological family while helping them work through their trauma.
Creating space for your kids’ memories is a complicated and often thankless task. But it is an essential part of building strong relationships with them. Adoption is wonderful in many ways, but it doesn’t erase our kids’ memories. The more we can help them integrate their memories into their new realities, the more progress they can make in overcoming their trauma.
• Don’t Downplay Their Loss
Our kids will need our reassurance that we will care for them, but we need to do it in a way that doesn’t ignore their loss. For example, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to convince them that they are better off now. That’s not the question. After all, which of us would trade in one of our children for a “better” child? We can’t expect our kids to be content with the same bargain.
Similarly, encouraging them to focus on the future can make them feel that we are ignoring their loss. Yes, they need to focus on the future and, yes, too much focus on their loss can be a problem. But we can’t set the pace for them. They have to find their own way through the memories.
We also have to be sensitive to them, even when they don’t express any opinions about their biological family. I tend to barrel through life, not noticing other people’s emotions until they overload. That trait does help me get things done, but it’s not good for helping kids cope with trauma. I learned that I had to slow down and affirmatively check in with my kids, and even then try to interpret what they were telling me.
Kids don’t always have the vocabulary to know what’s happening in their heads, and we sometimes have to provide those words for them. On the other hand, we don’t want to bring up issues that they aren’t experiencing. It’s a tough balancing act and there is no perfect solution. The important point is to pay attention to them, and know that they may be experiencing a sense of loss even in the midst of joyful times. Whether they verbalize it or not, we need to give their loss its proper place in their lives.
• Do Give Them Plenty of Love and Support
We do need to love and reassure our kids that we are here for them. If they talk about their biological family, we can tell them that we are sorry they lost their family. We can be genuinely sorry for their loss even while telling them that we are glad they are here now. We also can express plenty of care, love, and concern. All kids, whatever loss they are feeling, need to know that they are loved now and that they don’t have to fear the future. We need give them as stable a foundation as we can for their current and future lives.
Adoption is a wonderful process, and we rightly celebrate the new beginnings that it offers. In the process, however, we need to acknowledge and help our children process the losses and trauma that preceded it.