Parenting an Adopted Child

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The thousands of letters I have received from around the world as a result of my book The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child have given me new insights into the experience of being adopted. Some of those insights can be very helpful for adoptive parents. One of the most important things I learned was that those adoptees who feel closest to their adoptive parents are those whose parents have an intuitive sense of their children's loss issues and are able to communicate that to their children.

As an adoptive mother, I had not a clue in the beginning that a tiny infant knows her own mother and may be experiencing loss of the original mother and chaos and confusion about someone else assuming that role. Had I known in the beginning what I finally intuited, there were so many things I would have done differently. This is a litany that I've heard over and over from adoptive parents of children in their teens and twenties. Why didn't I know this sooner? A question I always ask: Would you have believed it sooner? It is difficult to look into the face of a little baby and see anything more that an adorable little child whom we are primed to love and nurture. However, knowing what I know now, I would like to pass on some of what I have learned from my own experience, from the thousand of adoptees with whom I have communicated, and from new research in brain studies.

A child does know his own mother and instinctively wants to be with her. Anyone else is a stranger. The separation from that mother is a trauma which will impact all other relationships, beginning with that with the adoptive mother. The adoptive mother needs to be attuned to her child's emotional responses to loss and empathize with them. Attunement is very important in the development of the brain and in developing future relationships. It is essential in the child's learning to self-regulate. An infant can't self-regulate, and it is up to the mother to provide a template for her child to regulate his emotions. That means that the mother herself has to respond responsibly to her own emotions. This is not always easy.

Because of a lack of genetic markers (in facial features, gestures, body language, basic personality, interests, and talents) both mother and child will be doing the dance of learning how to be with one another. Adoptive parents must be aware of how difficult it is for adoptees to try to fit into the adoptive family when genetic traits are not mirrored or reflected back. There is a constant need to be hypervigilant in order to try to fit in.

A great deal of what is visible to parents is behavior. Behavior is not personality, but a form of communication. Rather than seeing a child as defiant or compliant, try to ascertain what the behavior is telling you. See the behavior as a metaphor for pain and beliefs: steals - feels stolen, living a lie - may lie, people disappear - may hoard food. Behavior/communication may also come in the form of projective identification in which the child acts in such a way as to get the parent to feel what she is feeling: rage, frustration, rejection, shame, inadequate, unimportant, etc. If the parent can put those feelings into words (rather than reacting to them) that can go a long way toward a real connection with the child: a connection based on understanding, acknowledgment, and compassion.

Knowing something about brain development is important for parents, because experience informs most of how our neurons connect after birth. During the first 18- 24 months of life, most of our memory is what is called implicit memory: memory which cannot be recalled. Behavior, emotional responses, sense of self and others, and the safety of the world may be a direct result of early experiences that we cannot remember. These experiences not only affect neural connections, but they help to inform the belief system that becomes imprinted in the brain's limbic system.

Early beliefs are most deeply imprinted when accompanied by trauma. Because trauma is seldom integrated as explicit memory, even if it takes place after the first couple of years, the beliefs formed during trauma are very difficult to change. Thus we have: "I must have been a bad baby or my mother would have kept me. I am unworthy, unlovable, undeserving." Although these beliefs may not make any sense to the adult neocortex, they are nevertheless indelibly imprinted into the limbic brain, which does not communicate well with the neo cortical brain. "I know this isn't true, but I feel as if it is." Because the limbic brain gets messages nanoseconds before the neo cortex, the feelings engendered by those beliefs often get acted upon before the neocortex can form a thought to modify the behavior.

Why is it important for adoptive parents to know this? Because if you know that loss and the fear of loss are driving the ways in which your child is integrating experience, you can be attuned to those feelings, empathize with them, help the child to regulate his responses to them, and give him a different experience. A baby cannot self-soothe. It takes thousands of interactions between her and her soothing mother for her to learn to self-soothe. If a mother is unaware of a child's fears, she cannot help soothe the child.

During the second year of life, explicit memory begins to form. Explicit memory has two parts: semantic (facts you learn) and episodic (a sense of self in time and space). Factual memory does not seem to be affected by trauma, except that trauma can impair stimulus discrimination, which affects concentration. Episodic memory is influenced by trauma in that the lens through which we each remember events in our lives is colored by previous experiences, including those during the first couple of years of life. Thus, a child who was separated from mother at birth is going to experience and remember a mother's being late picking him up from school differently from a child who was not separated. Memory also changes over time, so that it is seldom accurate.

Adolescence is often the most difficult time for adoptive parents and their children. It is identity time. Because they often have little in common, it is difficult for adoptees to identify with and thus separate from their adoptive parents. The differences between them and the adoptee's sense of not fitting in makes them spend a great deal of time away from the family. Adoptees' anger about those differences makes communication difficult. They can't talk to their parents, they don't feel heard or understood by them, and they just want to get away.

The early interruption in the natural order of things creates a void in the adoptee's understanding of cause and effect. (This really is more difficult for adoptees to grasp than for others.) Consequences for bad behavior need to be consistent and fair from an early age so that adolescence isn't a nightmare. This needs to be reinforced over and over, despite the turmoil it may create. Firm boundaries and limits need to be established for the child to feel safe.

Parents need to empathize with the difficulties their children are having and give voice to that understanding, rather than just being angry at their kids. Adolescence is the time when many parents decide to get therapy for their kids, but it is often too late. Teenagers resent being sent to therapy and are often too angry and out of control to take advantage of it. It is a good idea for parents to get their kids into therapy by age 10 or 11 for a therapeutic alliance to have been established between the therapist and the child before adolescence. This goes for the quiet adoptee as well as the acting-out adoptee.

There are many ways that parents can help their child deal with the sorrow, anger, anxiety and low self-esteem caused by separation trauma. Celebrate birthdays a week or so before the birthday (separation day...full of sadness and/or anger). Prepare the child for changes in routine. Allow the child to ask questions or make comments about being adopted without getting defensive. Listen more, talk less. Respond to painful feelings with validation, rather than discounting them with either defensiveness or reassurance. Acknowledge, respect, and value the differences between the child and other members of the family. Encourage the child's talents and interests, even if they are different from yours. Never threaten abandonment, no matter how provocative the child becomes. Never be late in picking up your child from school or other activities. What may elicit just an "Oh, well..." from other children may create a feeling of panic in an adoptee who has already had one mother disappear. Fathers need to empathize with mothers' experience, which will be different from theirs. Both need a support group to compare notes with other adoptive parents and to avoid isolation. No one else will understand exactly what you are going through.

Parenting an adopted child is parenting plus. But with intuition, information, understanding, and empathy, it can be a rewarding experience which can evolve into a loving, heartfelt connection between parents and child.

Nancy Verrier, M.A., the mother of two daughters - one who is adopted and one who is biological - is an advocate for children. She holds a master's degree in clinical psychology and is in private practice in Lafayette, California. In addition to her clinical practice, Ms. Verrier lectures internationally about the effects of early childhood trauma and deprivation caused by premature separation from the mother under various circumstances. She is the author of The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child and Coming Home to Self.
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