Middle Years: Grieving Losses and Fitting In

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"It is important for parents to bear in mind that, first and foremost, their job is to be the parent and the adult. This means that regardless of how they may feel personally as their child grieves and wonders about his adoption, the parent's focus is to be on the child's feelings. A parent must turn to other adults---spouses, friends, and professionals---for guidance, support and comfort at this time. The child who is adopted is going through tremendous doubt and turmoil, and it is not the child's job to reassure the parents that they are loved. It is the parents' job, instead, to let the child know that he is loved and understood."

Even amid the hectic pace of school, homework, car pools, lessons, and sports, adoption issues abound. Parents can be most helpful to their children by gaining support for their own feelings so they can be accepting of their child's emotions

During the time a child is starting school, his world quickly grows. Friends and schoolmates are important influences in his life. Fitting in with peers and having a sense of belonging is crucial to the young school-age child.

Children between 6 and 12 fall into a characteristic developmental stage with vast differences around the issues of sexual, cognitive, and emotional development. For the adopted child, it is a time in which he may first experience cognitive dissonance and emotional pain around being adopted.

THE PARENTAL TASK

It is important for parents to bear in mind that, first and foremost, their job is to be the parent and the adult. This means that regardless of how they may feel personally as their child grieves and wonders about his adoption, the parent's focus is to be on the child's feelings. A parent must turn to other adults---spouses, friends, and professionals---for guidance, support and comfort at this time. The child who is adopted is going through tremendous doubt and turmoil, and it is not the child's job to reassure the parents that they are loved. It is the parents' job, instead, to let the child know that he is loved and understood.

I say this strongly because in my therapy practice, I have come across many well-intentioned parents who, because of their own doubt and frustration, want their child to comfort them. In adoptive families this can take the form of lashing out at the child: "We love you, isn't that enough?" or "Go ahead, find your birth-mother and tell her just how bad you are," or "If I had known how hard being adopted would be for you we would not have done it!" These angry words wound. From the adoptive parents' perspective, they doubt their own ability to parent well---a feeling often exacerbated by years of infertility, grief and childlessness.

When a child begins to experience trauma about being adopted, these feelings often come as a surprise to the parent. Many parents ask, "Why didn't anyone tell us this would happen?" or "He was such a happy-to-lucky toddler. Did we do anything wrong?" It is important for parents to recognize that most of these feelings are normal in the young adoptee.

It is during this period that children develop more sophisticated cognitive skills and begin to think more concretely and understand more complicated concepts. The idea of being adopted, once viewed as a delightful---and even a normal way of joining a family--now becomes emotionally laden with grief: if I joined this family, then there were other people with whom I once belonged. Joining a family implies leaving another. The feeling that accompanies this realization is often a deep, penetrating sense of loss and grief.

This new awakening has always existed; separation is emotionally wrenching. To be part of something, one with another, and then to lose that sense of oneness is a tremendous loss. Adoptees at this middle school age will experience this grief-awakening in a number of possible ways: anger, distractibility, social isolation, lashing out at parents, unexplainable sadness and tears, fear of being lost/left/abandoned, physical complaints such as headaches and intestinal problems, or acting-out behaviors designed to get attention such as cruelty to others/self/animals, for example.

GRIEF

Grief can take a number of forms, and for each individual it can be expressed uniquely. Adoptive parents need to be sensitive to grief issues as possibly being at the root of changes in their child's behavior. Grief is a kind messenger, reminding us that we have experienced a significant loss. When we heed its voice and listen to its message, grief feelings can be used to strengthen, heal, deepen present relationships, gain wisdom, and move forward. Grief is universal. Adopted children grieve and will often need our help. Left unacknowledged and unsupported, children can become overwhelmed by their own grief and end up labeled with negative terms such as "difficult", troublesome", "disturbed," and "hyperactive." Any of these labels can be the warning signs of a grief-oriented depression.

THE ROLE OF PARENTS

Parents must be especially sensitive to the possibility that their adopted child will be grieving at some level during this developmental level. They will wonder if there was something inherently defective or "bad" about them that caused them to be "given away." They may now view adoption as something different at a time when being different from peers means being not as good as them. They will grieve simply because they are now personally acquainted with the pain of impermanence and change and loss. The grief that is the outcome of new awareness is normal, and not usually a reflection of the love they feel for their adoptive parents. It is essential that adoptive parents---many of whom are confused or angered by the changes in their children---keep this in mind.

Parents can only be emotionally supportive to their child if their own emotional needs are being met. Successful and secure parents build their own support systems as they move through the tasks of parenting, and it is wise to include some people who are sensitive to adoption issues as part of a life-long journey for all involved. Those who make insensitive comments or flippant remarks about your child being "ungrateful" or "disrespectful" or a "bad seed" are not able to be lovingly supportive about adoptive parenting.

SUPPORTING YOUR CHILD MEANS FINDING SUPPORT FOR YOURSELF

How else can adoptive parents find sources of support for their family? Be resourceful! There are many books today---both for children and adults--- that are helpful in underscoring and skillfully discussing adoption dynamics. Adoption newsletters are also a good source of information and support. Increasingly, family therapists are becoming adoption-sensitive, and offer families insight, a new perspective, and practical skills, not to mention the healing power of having a safe place to vent.

These same therapists are available, too, to help adopted children. After several sessions during which we read stories, drew pictures, and talked generally about adoption, an eight-year-old confided to me, "I'm glad I talked to you about this adoption stuff. I was a-scared that if I told my parents I felt sad, they would be angry. Now I know I can talk to them, too." The relief of honestly talking about one's owns adoption is tremendous, and although it does not take away the loss, it does provide a child with a deeper sense of self-confidence and mastery of some very basic fears or concerns.

SOME FINAL WORDS

The adoption issues---both expressed and unexpressed---which characterize this developmental stage, are normal. Parents can be most helpful by gaining support for their own feelings so they can be, in turn, accepting of their child's emotions. Even amid the hectic pace of car pools, homework, sport practices, and lessons, children think about their birth families. As one seven-year-old told me recently, "I sure love my mom and dad, but I do wish I knew what she (birthmother) was like and why she did it."

Wouldn't we all, if we were in her shoes?

Karen J. Benjack, M.Div., L.C.S.W. is a psychotherapist with Quantum Behavioral Healthcare in Atlanta, GA. She specializes in working with persons impacted by adoption---adoptive parents, adoptees, and birth parents. Her work with all members of the triad empowers her to understand adoption issues from many perspectives. In addition to her psychotherapy practice, she facilitates workshops and serves as a consultant to agencies, schools, churches, and other organizations on a variety of adoption-related issues.

You may reach Karen with your questions at (404) 368-7138.

Credits: Karen J. Benjack, M.Div., L.C.S.W.

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