Parental Guidelines for Helping Children Cope with Loss

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In his book, The Psychology of Adoption (Oxford Press, 1990), Dr. David Brodzinsky asserts: "There is no way we can spare children from the emotional pain associated with adoption-related loss. Children must be allowed to experience the deep emotions associated with the loss in the context of a warm, loving, and supportive environment. They must be allowed to grieve the loss of birthparents; entering their family through the process of relinquishment; etc. Their feelings cannot be trivialized or discredited. By fully feeling the adoptee will resolve and integrate their loss."

To accomplish this goal, parents must:

1. Be emotionally available for their child.

2. Listen to their child, holding back from advice or rationalizations. Ask questions, "wonder" aloud for your child. "Gosh I wonder how that would feel to not know what your birthmother looked like?"

3. Help the child clarify his/her emotions. Use "active listening" techniques. Read How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk, by Faber and Mazlish. Strong sadness may be expressed as anger or non-compliance.

4. Be accepting of whatever feelings the child is expressing. If you can't tolerate his anger/grief/loss yourself it may be because you have not fully resolved your own. So get counseling yourself! Your child may not like the fact that he is adopted, he did not choose it. Ambivalence about being adopted is normal too.

5. Validate the child's feelings. That it is okay to feel angry/confused/ambivalent about adoption, to wonder from where he came from. That you, too, would have lots of feelings if you were adopted yourself. That it must be confusing to not know more about his birthfamily, etc.

6. Help adoptee to identify supportive figures in his life. People we can turn to with questions/concerns. Perhaps an older adoptee, an adopted adult, a favorite grandparent, counselor, etc.

7. Emphasize the temporary nature of the painful feelings. Help them gain perspective without rationalizing or trivializing their feelings. Be realistic (as with any loss), "You'll feel sad for a while, then less sad, and then sad only at certain times and it won't completely go away but it will be less intense. Gradually you will feel less and less angry/sad, etc."

8. Share with the adoptee your own experience with separation and loss (as long as you don't burden your child with extreme sadness - then they'll feel they'll have to parent you!). "I don't expect you to take care of my sadness. I have taken care of that. Let me tell you a story about when I was sad ..."

9. Set appropriate limits for the expression of grief. "It's okay to feel angry about that but you can't hurt me or others. Let's find an "okay" way to help you with these feelings. You can punch your bed, you can draw an angry/sad picture, etc."

10. Create an atmosphere conducive to dialogue between yourself and your child. Adoption is an on-going process/dialogue. Watch your reaction to their pain. Do you make pained expressions? Do you brush off, trivialize how they feel because you can not tolerate their loss (because you have not resolved yours?)? Do your children withdraw because they need to "protect" you from how they feel? Why is it they feel they need to "protect" you? Do you have an overly grateful adoptee who can't share his ambivalence with you because he feels guilty about his need to know, guilty, afraid he may hurt you with his concern? How is it that he feels he would hurt you with his questions? Do you feel betrayed, threatened, hurt, overly protective by their ambivalence, and need to know.

11. Maximize the amount of control they have (or think they have) in their life. This does not mean putting them in charge! Give them choices (about clothes, games, jobs, party plans, etc.). Get them involved in making family rules, planning events, outings, choosing menus, etc.

12. At the schools your child attends request that the topic of adoption be included in the Family Life curriculum. This helps build a positive image of family building through adoption. Be aware that in the third or fourth grade they have a family tree assignment. How do we deal with that?

13. Familiarize the school guidance counselors with common adoption issues, request that they include adopted children in discussion groups about loss, issues that usually are created for children surviving divorce.

14. Discuss use of positive adoption language with faculty, staff members at child's school. Be a guest speaker on adoption at PTA meetings, in child's class, etc.

15 . November is National Adoption Awareness month - - every year!

16. A fact to remember - 100% of all adopted children have the desire/need to know more about their birth families/origins. As parents you cannot protect your child from "bad" news or deny helping them get all the information they can. The unknown and fantasies are always worse than the truth.

17. Rituals: As an on-going adjustment to family building through adoption, Dr. David Brodzinsky suggests initializing some rituals about adoption. A ritual is an elaborate act that is embellished. "Something important and sad has occurred for your child (and you as an infertile couple) and we are going to talk and share about the meaning of what this means to him." Rituals help heal those that are left behind. There are no public rituals around adoption. Most people aren't aware of, nor acknowledge there is loss with family building through adoption. Some adoption rituals:

a) Membership rituals: initiation into the family. Naming ceremony (include birth family name or country of origin).

b) Family photos: cement sense of complete family in a concrete way. Have child in photo of entire family helps him feel included.

c) Identity rituals: new identity rituals. Incorporate new culture, rituals, holidays, foods, events into your lives (if child is from different culture). Celebrate difference in parents' background too, don't just focus on child's culture because he will feel more different. Accent that our world and many of our families are composed of lots of types of people. One big tossed salad (not a melting pot).

d) If the birthfamily information is not found until child is an adolescent, it's not too late to create a ritual around that. Perhaps a naming ceremony with the adoptee's birth family name incorporated into existing one. put the new name on a cake, a name bracelet, a new Social Security number, etc. Invite family/friends to honor it. If the new information does not include a specific family name and only a country of family origin have a " Scottish" party instead !

NOTE: With all rituals you must make it unfold from the child and his decisions about it. They make the choices and have some control about the ritual and how it is set up. Dr. David Brodzinsky shared an example of a "Birthmother Memory Spot" set up by a boy and his adoptive mother. She was so excited about the idea of flowers and overplanted the entire landscape. The child became resistant and upset. He wanted a tree all along? Don't you know that flowers die? So with some explanations and upset - the mother backed out and the boy spent two days digging a hole for a "birthmother memory tree spot."

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