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Memories and Messages to Last a Lifetime - Part 5

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This is the fifth in a series of articles focusing on the messages that are sent and received within families. This month I will discuss techniques that help young adoptees manage the difficult issues and feelings that may occur during middle childhood. While parents certainly cannot take the pain away, you can help by creating a supportive and empowering environment.

Young adoptees often struggle with issues of feeling different, or feeling "not-as-good-as" their peers, siblings, cousins, or the other kids in the neighborhood. Feelings of being different are often hard to talk about with parents. Some children don't want to worry or disappoint their parents; others, during middle-childhood, experience a more generalized anxiety and can't name what is troubling them.

Ask yourself if you can remember a time when you felt like you just didn't fit in. Perhaps others seemed smarter or prettier or just naturally better able to make friends or know how to behave in social situations. Some readers may know first-hand how it feels growing up adopted. It isn't important that you experienced the same feelings as your child, but rather that you can relate to how she may be feeling because you can remember that pervasive sense of somehow just not measuring up or fitting in. Validate your child's feelings. Share your memories when appropriate. Children are comforted when they learn that the adults who seem "so together" now actually struggled with similar issues when they were growing up.

Children between the ages of six and ten spend a significant amount of time comparing themselves to their peers; who is smarter, more athletic, prettier, richer, the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, what they are trying to figure out is who is better and who is worse.

According to Holly van Gulden, through this appraisal process of self and peers, the differences in the ways in which adoptive families and genetically related families are formed becomes apparent to the adopted child. If adopted children believe that these differences mean their family and they themselves are inferior, they are less likely to try as hard to achieve in other areas.

Middle childhood is often the time when adoption is first seen as a problem. As the child's cognitive ability grows, he begins to understand adoption in a very different way. Now the child comes to see the other side of the "chosen baby" story, that is, that in order to have been chosen, I first had to be given away.

While some children breeze through this time, many others begin to wonder what that means about who they really are. Is there something wrong with me? Was there something wrong with my birth mother? At the same time that the child is struggling with these difficult emotional issues, his peers may be taunting him with hurtful questions such as, "What's wrong with you, why didn't your real mother keep you?"

One way to help your child to be ready to manage the realities of a sometimes cruel schoolmate or neighbor is to provide an environment that not only offers love, but equally importantly, gives the message of respect. Children can feel showered by love, while still recognizing their parents' lack of respect. Do you get nervous when your child speaks to a neighbor, afraid that he will present himself as foolish or worse, somehow stupid? When your child goes to a friend's house do you lecture him or her about what is appropriate behavior? While well intended, our advice demoralizes our children, adding fuel to their own self-doubts. Be a proactive parent and think about the message you are sending.
To show respect, step back and demonstrate that you believe that your child will and can do it right. You can point out similar situations in which she used good judgment and things went well. Try to be low-keyed. When we are anxious, our children pick up our anxiety and only become more anxious.

Provide praise, not flattery, every chance you get. The expression "flattery will get you nowhere" certainly applies to children, for they seem to have an uncanny sense of what is real and valuable recognition and what is not.
Flattery is undeserved praise, and is usually general in nature. For example, when Grandma comes over and says, "Son, you are so handsome and smart, too," that is flattery. Praise, on the other hand, is specific and well-deserved positive reinforcement. "Mark, I really like the way you kept your room clean all day today." Respect and praise support children's growing sense of themselves and encourages positive behaviors.

During the middle childhood years, many young adoptees get in touch with what they have lost through adoption. Now the child is cognitively able to create an internal mental representation of his birth parents, of what he has lost. Once the child is able to invent these mental images and fantasies, the basis for grieving is in place. According to David Brodzinsky, "the conscious and unconscious grieving that goes along with that sense of loss accounts for many of the behavioral changes that are noted in elementary-school-age adoptees: increased anger, aggression, oppositional behavior, uncommunicativeness, depression, and self-image problems." (Being Adopted, p. 18)
Children at this age are often reluctant or afraid to let their parents know their feelings of sadness about being adopted. Parents also find it difficult to listen to their children's pain. We want to take the pain away, but we can't. We tell ourselves and our children, "Don't worry, don't think about it, everything is OK." Instead, the message that we need to give is that we understand their pain and can hear it. Let your children know, through your words and more importantly your actions, that you can help them manage their strong feelings.

Next month's column will focus on receiving information rather than sending it. Techniques that parents can use to be their child's best listener will be discussed.
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