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Memories and Messages to Last a Lifetime - Part 1

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This is the first in a series of articles which will focus on the many ways messages are sent and received within all families, with special attention, when appropriate, to adoptive families. This month, I will discuss the many additional fears adoptive couples harbor concerning their parenting abilities. Next, I'll take a look at how the child who still, and will always live within you, can teach you how to recognize and meet your child's needs. In other words, how you can better understand your child, by getting in touch with the "child" within you. Next I'll focus on the messages that we send our children. Messages can be intentional or accidental, proactive or reactive, verbal or nonverbal. I'll give lots of examples and suggest specific activities you can use to send the kinds of messages you want your children to hear. Finally, the focus shifts to how we receive the messages our kids send, including how to be a better listener, and techniques, which promote positive communication between kids and their parents.

Most parents spend at least a couple of sleepless nights wondering and worrying about whether or not they are doing ok in the parenting department. Folks who grew up in families, which were more on the dysfunctional end of the continuum, worry that they will follow in their parent's footsteps, unable to do better by their children than their parents could offer to them. Adult who grew up in family that more closely resembled the TV Father Knows Best type, fear they may not be able to do as well as their parents.

And of course, adoptive parents have additional concerns in the "not being good enough" category, including not being good enough for the agency, not being good enough for the birth parents, you can fill in the blanks with your personal list of anxieties. To continue down the adoptive parents' special list, I would be remiss not to include the intense and often crazy, out of control feelings that accompany infertility. As a therapist, I have heard the pain of reasonable adults grasping to understand what, at the time appears to be impossible to comprehend---the fact of infertility. In their pain, adoptive couples all too often try to make sense of what is in front of them by believing that perhaps they were not meant to be parents.

Are these fears based on fact? My answer is a resounding, "NO". The facts are these:

1. We can be better parents than our parents, but it requires the ability to think about parenting in very different ways than it was experienced. In other words, what seems pretty normal to you, is probably what you experienced as a child. You can do better, by doing your homework and applying what you learn.
2. If your parents modeled well for you, you have those pictures in your head and in your heart. You have a clear picture of what was offered which felt healthy and growth producing. Still, you can fine-tune what you learned by being a child in your family, using new information that you learn as an adult.
3. While adoptive parents may fret more about their parenting competence, the research has found adoptive parents to be more mature, more stable in their marriage and more adept at coping with stress. In one such study, completed in 1982, Janet Hoopes of Bryn Mawr College, published her long-term research which compared the parenting styles and family dynamics of 54 families, adoptive and not.
She rated adoptive mothers higher than any other group of parents, higher than adoptive fathers, biological mothers, or biological fathers, on measures of parent-child relatedness, acceptance of the child, praising of the child, affection and warmth, and handling the child. Overall, the parents who seemed most competent in Hoope's investigation were the adoptive parents. As a group, she found them to be less intrusive, less controlling, and less authoritarian than non-adoptive parents.

David Kirk's classic book on adoption, Shared Fate, offers a point of view which can explain why the bond between adoptive child and adoptive parent can be so very strong. According to Kirk, they all have suffered a deep sense of loss, the parents through the loss of their ability to bear their own biological children, the children through the loss of their birth parents. When the adoptive parents understand the shared nature of their losses, says Kirk, they can be more empathetic toward the child and better able to raise him in a sensitive and understanding way.

I would concur with Kirk. In fact, a central focus of my work with parents and children, during the last ten years, has been to help parents better understand their children by studying the child who still, and will always live, inside themselves. Next month, I will discuss how parents can learn to recognize and truly understand their children's feelings if they have the capacity and motivation to try to remember their own childhood experiences.
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