Category Archives: adoptee trauma

When You Need Me…an open letter to adoptive parents

Why Adopted Children Get Overswhelmed

This post is by guest blogger–Connie Dawson, Ph.D., LPC. Connie is an adopted person and is my hero in the field of adoption. She is the author of HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH? Raising Likable, Responsible Children–from Toddlers to Teens–In an Age of Overindulgence, and SHAME–Rewriting the Rules. This post is from an article in Jewel Among Jewels Adoption Network News, published from 1994-2000.

In the natural order of things, parents are supposed to take good enough care of their own needs so they can be fully available to pay good attention to what a child needs.

When you expect me to meet your needs because you are not willing to meet your own, I may decide to “handle” the painful reality that my needs are not as important as yours, I had best deny mine and pay attention to yours. Deny what I need in order to deserve to be cared for by you.

After all, when I come to you, I am already very afraid. To be taken from one’s mother, from familiar sounds, smells, and rhythms, is terrorizing. This is the most abject fear..,.and I am totally helpless to do anything about it. What will happen to me? Surely, I am going to die. This cannot be right.

Imagine if a stranger were to come to your house when you were two years old. The stranger picks you up and carries you away. No protest you can make will make them take you back. What are your feelings?

And, what can I decide about myself and about you, my new parents, whoever you are? In my determination to survive, I make a primitive decision.

When you need me
to make you whole
to give meaning to your life
to heal your pain…
I feel overwhelmed.

If I have a temperament which favors tranquility and security, I may decide to work as hard as I can to meet your needs. In doing so, I will withhold enough of myself from you to feel safe because I don’t trust you. I will look good but not believe I am good. I am your servant. I do not believe I deserve to succeed or be competent for myself. I don’t believe in my own ability to be competent because the competence that you reward is my competence to meet your needs. At that I can never succeed. Not truly succeed. I can’t do for you what you are not willing to do for yourself.

If my temperament rests on asserting my right to challenge my caregivers for seeing me and my world through their need, I might be so openly resent my actions in every way possible would say, “Go and get your own life. This one is mine.” I will unconsciously try my best to make sure you fail as a parent. Perhaps, in the hope that the world will notice that you are expecting too much of me.

I might also, at some time, feel so bereft of any hope that you will ever acknowledge me for who I am and not just for what I can do for you, I may “go passive” and withdraw from active involvement in my life, and in yours.

What is the best thing you can do for me? It’s challenging. Take care of your own unfinished business. Do your grieving. Get help to heal your wounds so they don’t become mine.

Learn what you need and get those needs met in ways that don’t hurt anyone.

Identify the helpful and unhelpful parenting YOU received and get help to change the unhelpful stuff so you don’t pass it on.

Be truthful with yourself and with others. Don’t lie about my birth family so you don’t have to face . up to your responsibilities. Don’t be sneaky and manipulative. Find your character and your integrity and use both to make decisions and take actions you will be proud of.

Perhaps most important of all, be a safe container for me. I have a primitive belief that if my birthmother sent me away, I must have been too much for her to handle. If you are frail or depressed or tentative, if I can push you around or if I think you don’t have a good sense of yourself, I won’t be able to trust you. I will still think I am too much to handle and I’ll have to shut myself down to match you or strike out recklessly in all directions.

And, when I am an adult, one of the ways you can deepen our relationship is to support my need to search out my genetic heritage. To do so is to send a powerful message to me that my needs are important and that you love me.

When you do these things, I am more inclined to trust and love you. If you need me too much, I will hold back, to my regret and yours.

 

Look Beneath Your Adopted & Foster Child’s Smile on the First Day of School

Scan0005Parents, when the first day of school comes and the big yellow bus pulls up, I bet you’ll have a huge lump in your throat.

Yes, summer was hectic, but in a good way. Am I not right? You’ve probably been busier than a one-armed paperhanger getting everything ready to send your child off, but it’s all good for that kid you adore.

Who was it that said, “Parenting is a lifetime of letting go?” In my seventh decade of life, I am still letting go as a mom and Mimi.

Hey, there’s something I’ve gotta share with you before that first day of school.

It’s something that most parents don’t know. It’s not talked about in your training by social workers, yet it is incredibly real for adopted and foster children when entering new situations.

I know…because I am an adopted person.

And, because I know, I want you to know. You and your children are my passion. I want you to be as connected and close as is humanly possible.

Decades ago, on my first day of second grade, we drove to the Kirvan’s house for an official photo of all us neighborhood kids.

I am the smiley one on the far right, with the front teeth missing.

A picture of confidence, right? It looks like I could hardly wait to meet my new teacher and classmates.

Looking Beneath the Smile

However, beneath the big smile is panic and fear of new places. New situations. New people.

The unknown!

Looking back, my thoughts would have been like this:

    • What will my teacher be like?
    • Will she know that I was adopted, or that I am a foster kid?
    • Where will I sit?
    • Will there be a place for me?
    • What will the kids be like?
    • Will my teacher find out I’m not very smart?
    • Will I be able to not get mad?
    • Will I be able to not have a meltdown?

Parents, going into a strange, new place is a huge trigger for your adopted or foster child. New places make our hearts beat fast and our mouths get dry, like cotton. Our bodies may tense as we go to our “happy place” (numbed out).

Personally, every new situation feels like I’ve been thrown in the deep end of the pool, with no swimming skills. My adoption, marriage, mothering, grand mothering, etc.

What Parents Can Do

So, what can a parent do? You probably feel helpless, but you’re not.

First, talk. Talk openly and directly to your child about possible fears. Use my list if you like, for a springboard. Your child wants you to ask. Be proactive!

Second, affirm, affirm, affirm any emotion or statement your child makes. Validate her emotional reality. “It’s alright that you feel so scared.”

Third, become your child’s number one cheerleader in life. Study him like a precious jewel so that you can storm heaven’s gates on his behalf. And, let him know you’re doing this for him.

And, forth…assure your child that God will turn that fear into faith. Teach her that those with the greatest fears have the deepest potential for faith.

I’ll be thinking of you in the days ahead, parents.

What Adoptees Can Do with Mixed Feelings

Regulating Mixed Feelings

Dear friends,

Yesterday, I posted statements that cause mixed feelings (painful feelings) in adoptees.

Today, let’s talk about concrete steps for dealing with the mixed up, finger-over-the-blackboard feelings:

Journal

Record your current circumstances in a journal. Maybe call it your “finger-over-the-blackboard” notebook?

Create Self-Portrait

Or how about getting a huge piece of paper? Then, have someone trace your whole body. When the drawing is complete and you are alone, write down the painful, conflicting feelings that are coming from your head and heart.

Identify the Trigger

Then, draw the people and messages that are prompting the mixed feelings and label the physical effects on your body…don’t forget…the beautiful brain is so important.

When completed, title your portrait in big letters:

ALL OF MY FEELINGS ARE REAL AND OKAY.

Regulate Emotions

Say to yourself, “I am remembering something painful. But that was then, and this is now.” (Isn’t there a song by that name?) This technique will reign in your emotions and mind so you don’t lose control with a meltdown or depression.

Choose

Now, my friends, look at this site’s menu above. Click “List of Adoptee Choices.”

Tell me which of the 20 choices you would choose, either for yourself, or your child.

Love to you all!

 

Do Adoptees Have A High Pain Tolerance?

Adoptees and High Pain Tolerance

“Ouch!” I almost screamed, as the chiropractor began deep muscle massage.

Now, I’m not one to scream…even when delivering babies.

In fact, I take pride in my high pain tolerance.

I think I’m tough and can handle almost anything.

Well, not today on the chiropractor’s bench.

A month ago, I had a horrific fall on our slippery front porch. I landed with my legs split and my head in the bushes.

Since then, I’ve had X-rays of knee and hip, gone to a knee replacement guy to make sure I didn’t dislodge replacements, and iced my knee when I think of it.

The real reason I went to the chiropractor was to find out if it was still okay to box. That’s it.  I thought I had already conquered the worst of the fall injuries.

However, when the massage therapist began deep muscle massage on the tendon and MLC, that was when I almost screamed.

As I left the therapy session, I thought about something I once learned: “Those with a high pain tolerance are in a lot of pain.”

Really? It doesn’t mean we’re tough as nails?

No, unfortunately. It means we are in denial, big time.

Then, I thought about this principle in regard to adoption.

I bet many adoptees think they are tough. After all, we had to be to survive traumatic loss. But we tackled all the issues and gone to a gazillion therapists.

How can we walk through this journey with unbelievable pain that we aren’t even aware of?

We forget that adoption is a lifelong journey and that we may run into unexpected trauma along the way. A birth mother rejects us, we feel we don’t belong in our adoptive family, we have non-existent self-esteem and worth. Trauma continues.

However, to deny the pain as I have with my porch injury is not smart.

But, where can we go?

Are there chiropractors for adoption?

Of course not.

But, we do have one another. And, I still believe that an hour with a fellow adoptee is worth more than months of therapy.

So, let’s not allow ourselves to get to the screaming point.

Let’s tell one another where we’re hurting and allow ourselves to be nurtured deep in our adoptee muscles.

#14: CHOICE:  To choose to accept our limits and be nurtured.

 

 

 

 

Detecting Trauma Triggers in Foster/Adopted Children

Dear friends through adoption,

I write this blog post with caution, knowing that this type of trauma–sexual abuse– doesn’t happen in the majority of adoptive/foster homes.

I’ve seen many parents weep with love for their children. They would rather suffer than have their children suffer.

But, for the loving, weeping parents, I beg you to not tune out to this message because there may be children in your area of influence that are suffering from sexual abuse. You can be an advocate for them on many levels.

In order to be free from this trauma, or any trauma, it is necessary to look for clues and try to uncover the triggering incidents.

This particular post focuses on sexual abuse as a trigger, but for adopted/foster children, there are many other triggers.

Common Adoptee Triggers

  • Entering new situations where child/teen/adult knows no one
  • Family gatherings when child would rather stay in room alone
  • Pre-birth wounds from a desperate mother trying to abort
  • Loss of a loved one, a pet
  • Saying goodbye

Being a newbie about this trauma stuff and being an adoptee who’s recently realized there is a smoke alarm going off in my brain, I have to think about the complexities of trauma in simple ways.

Then, I can learn to regulate out-of-control emotions and be the person I was created to be.

With that in mind, think about why adoptees and foster kids get triggered to the point of meltdowns or  shut downs.

Here’s a simple illustration of trauma.

Trauma Basics

Ten-year-old Jimmy, now living in his sixth foster home, rages on the floor, seemingly without reason.

Adoptees Can Understand What's Causing Meltdowns

Meltdowns can come from seemingly nowhere and make no sense to parents who are observing raging behavior.

His parents had no clue. Nothing could stop him.

After the rage, Jimmy’s sense of shame will spread, like mold in a musty basement. And, as he matures, he will wonder why he can’t control himself.

Is there something wrong with me? Is that why I was placed for adoption? Why do I get madder at things than my friends?

Here’s Jimmy’s backstory.

Finding Trauma Triggers

Dad abused Jimmy sexually and ordered that it be kept a secret.

A previous foster dad belonged to a bowling league that sported green team shirts. Jimmy dreamed of bowling on such a team.

On bowling nights, dad returned late, but Jimmy stayed awake to say goodnight.

Secrets

I know you can fill in the missing pieces here.

Something horrific happened that would haunt Jimmy for a lifetime. But, Jimmy followed dad’s orders to not talk about it to anyone.

And so. in the future, whenever Jimmy saw the color green, like his dad’s shirt, he raged, like a roaring freight train. He couldn’t control himself. It was like he went numb and was in another world.

Trauma Triggers Require Detective Work for Parents

Whenever Jimmy saw the color green, his mind flashed back to his bedroom and what happened to him there.

And so, green became Jimmy’s trigger.

It would take time and professional help for Jimmy to recover from this childhood trauma…or at least for his anger and shame to become manageable.

There was nothing wrong with Jimmy, even though he was convinced otherwise.

There was no hope in his heart that change was possible.

Recovery Is Possible

In time, however, through prayer and professional help, Jimmy could begin to see himself through God’s eyes… a jewel.

“On the day you were born, you were thrown out into an open field, unwanted. But, I came by and saw you lying there in your own blood, and I said, ‘Live, thrive, like a plant in the field. And, you did! You became a jewel among jewels.” (LB: Ezekiel 14:6-7).

Thus, we come to the first choice from the Choices book (above) that Jimmy must learn:

CHOICE: To claim both the positive and painful emotions as valid, and verbalize them. (Chapter 4: 20 LIFE TRANSFORMING CHOICES ADOPTEES NEED TO MAKE.)

Suggested Resource: THE BODY KEEPS THE SCORE…Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel Van der Kolk, M.D.

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Thinking Logically Seems Impossible for Attachment Disordered Kids

Are you kidding? Logical thinking.

For years, I have struggled with what I believed was a character disorder. I can’t make up my mind because I can’t think logically. It affects every relationship in life. But, there is hope if we can identify and work on it together.

Dear friends through adoption…

Last week, Bob and I were painting my office. I got all the color chips and showed him the best colors.

Within two hours, I changed my mind, and by the next morning, again. The following day, other colors and then back to the first.

“I just can’t track with you!” Bob said, leaving the room, shaking his head. This tendency has been a huge stress between us over our 51 years of marriage. Yes, adoption is surely a lifelong journey.

Then, I proceeded to hit myself over the head with a Bible verse….let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no.”

Why couldn’t I do that? Was I a wimpy Christian? What would God think about my spinelessness, not only on paint colors, but lifelong choices? Would he reject me like my birth mother did at reunion?

For the first time I realize that this inability to think logically is symptomatic of reactive attachment disorder.

Later, with paint colors strewn over the floor, Bob and I talked about attachment disorder and reached a new understanding. Shame rolled off me, like water over Niagra Falls.

Just before choosing the paint, Bob held up different colors repeatedly and so patiently to help me decide.

I felt understood.

No shame.

We can work on attachment disorder as a team now…at least this symptom of it.

Oh, and by the way, God has a special place in his heart for those of us who struggle.

Love to all…

 

The Game Changer for My Attachment Disorder

Trauma=Smoke Alarm in Brain

You’d have anger issues and learning difficulties too if you had a smoke alarm going off in your brain.

Can you imagine waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of your smoke alarm? Panic, right? Hasten to turn it off, right? Hate the loud, disturbing sound, right?

Adoptees and foster children live with a smoke alarm in their brains everyday, but no one knows it. Therefore, it doesn’t get turned off.

It goes off the moment we are taken away from our birth mothers. Or, for foster kids, multiple alarms go off over a span of time.

No one knows about the smoke alarm, nor do we.

We just live with it and it shows up in learning disorders, anger and rage issues, inability to think logically, sensory issues, stealing, lying, etc, etc.

What a relief it was for me to learn about this…even at the ripe old age of 72. Suddenly, all the stupid, wrong, clumsy, impulsive, idiotic things I have done throughout life washed away.

I felt God’s unconditional love.

I could see myself as a precious baby, a teen that had special needs that weren’t met, and an adult who has worked so hard to appear normal.

What a relief.

(Credit: Shefalie Chandra: Smoke Alarm)

 

My Set-Up for Reactive Attachment Disorder

Warm tears landed on my newborn body, like a spring rain.

I wanted to feel them forever.

To my once-orphaned delivery doctor, life was something to be celebrated, to shed happy tears over.

I couldn’t wait to feel his tears again.

What was it about those tears that soaked into my soul? Were they saturated with hope and comfort? Were they bright lights at the end of the traumatic tunnel of living my first nine months of life in the womb of a mother who fantasized abortion? Or, were they seeds, sown in secret, to produce a great harvest later in life?

Whatever it was, I wanted more.

Orphan Doctor held me up, gazed into my big brown eyes, and smiled.

But then Nurse Kratchit bent close to Orphan Doctor’s ear, whispering.

Orphan Doctor’s eyes pooled with tears.

What did she whisper?

Was there something wrong with me?

Was I ugly? Too little?

Is that why she suddenly whisked me off to a dimly-lit room where pleading and plaintiff cries hovered over me, like smog in LA?

Where was Orphan Doctor?

Where were those large, gentle hands that welcomed me to earth with orphan tears?

Why didn’t he come back?

Then, Nurse Kratchit shoved me into a box made of glass.

I kicked and screamed bloody murder, but the sounds of my cries bounced back at me, like ping pong balls.

No one hears.

And, so I give up and “go inside.” It’s safe in there.

Then, I hear Nurse Kratchit waslking near the glass box which was going to be my dwelling for ten days.

Proudly, she announces the name she’s chosen for me.

Baby X.

 

Adoptees Explain Boo-Hoo Birthdays

I am waiting for my birth mother to show up at my party.

I am waiting for my birth mother to show up at my party.

Let’s think about the concept of birthdays for adoptees. First, what does a birthday represent for the non-adopted person? For most, it’s a happy time, built on the foundation of being welcomed into the world. A time for birthday cakes, parties, and balloons.

Now consider an adoptee’s birthday. What does a birthday represent for him? It represents the day of his greatest loss, the day he lost his birth mother and all that was familiar. It was not only his birthday, but his loss-day.

For the child who was adopted later in childhood, it reminds him of the wrenching-apart day–the day that the past, as he knew it, was to be no longer. For the baby adopted as an infant, the loss happened before he had words to describe it, but it was real, nonetheless. The present-day birthday serves as a trigger, reminding him of past loss.

Nancy Verrier says in The Primal Wound of the child adopted at birth, “There seems to be an anniversary reaction (also felt by the birth mother), which sends many adoptees into despair around their birthdays… is it any wonder that many adoptees sabotage their birthday parties? Why would one want to celebrate the day they were separated from their birth mothers? The adoptees, of course, have probably never really understood, themselves, why they do this.”

With the best of intentions, those who love the adoptee celebrate the day as if she were a non-adopted person. However, in the midst of the parties, in the midst of the celebration, many adoptees feel churned up inside. They know they are supposed to be happy, but a nagging thought plagues them: “I wonder if she (the birth mother) is thinking about me today. If she does on any day of the year, certainly it would be today.”

Weighing heavily upon the adoptee as well are society’s romanticized views of adoption. Be happy. Be grateful you have a family. Don’t disappoint your parents.

The adoptee’s response to all of the above? More often than not, he slips into the role of the “good adoptee,” following through with what others expect. Shoved aside is his true self, sometimes wanting only to cry and be comforted. Or he does what I did by acting out my chaotic feelings and sabotaging everyone’s effort to show me love.

I don’t know about this, you may be thinking. I have never witnessed these behaviors in my child. Maybe not, but before you reach any conclusions, listen to the experts–adoptees themselves–and hear what they have to say.

What Adoptees Say About Birthdays

Mary Watkins and Susan Fisher describe a scene between a three-year-old and her adoptive mother in Talking with Young Children About Adoption:

“Is she coming? Is my lady coming?” the child asks.
“Which lady?” the mother asks.
“You know,” child replies, “the lady I grew inside. It’s my birthday, isn’t it?”

“I purposely go out of town on my birthday because I don’t want any attention,” sid a thirty-year-old male adoptee. “So I was born. Big deal. I don’t want any attention.”

“I hate my birthday,” Trisha confessed to her support group.

Reflectiang on his teen years, Bob said, “Birthdays made me feel awkward when I was an adolescent.”

Dan said that birthdays were always bittersweet for him. As a child, he said he felt like he was living in a gap, or a changing room. Birthdays were a time when he remembered his birth mother and felt like the two of them were kindred spirits. Whenever he communicated these thoughts to his adoptive family, they had difficulty relating to what he was trying to say. He confessed, “On birthdays, I wished I could have been a better child for my adoptive parents.”

When Sarah turned eighteen, she felt very melancholy as she thought about her birth mother. All day Sarah ruminated: “I wonder what she is thinking.”

“My birthday is the blackest day of my year,” Melinda said. “My husband would always know because I would either lay in bed at night and cry or soak in the tub and sob. I wondered if my birth mother knew what today was.”

Beth says, “As I look back at my childhood, I think I felt the uninvited guest at my own party. I was there but disassociated. I was in the midst of some kind of script and moved through it, but without any heart, without any sense of connection or aliveness. I’m not sure why I cringe when I hear about the celebrations of Adoption Day. For me, the joining with a new family carries with it the separation from another family. This is a gigantic double bind: celebrating joining and simultaneously grieve leaving. I think this is impossible.

Even though your adoptee may not verbalize similar thoughts and feelings, she may feel like the adoptees just cited. Of all the adoptees I have met, there is only a small minority that couldn’t identify with some of the above statements.

Why isn’t this written about in adoption literature? you may be wondering. Good question! I believe that for the most part it is uncharted territory. Perhaps that’s because adoptees rarely, if ever, talk about it, and parents or caring therapists might not have a clue that it is a problem.

What Parents Can Do

Recognize Distress Signals

Even though most adoptees don’t talk about it, I believe there are clues parents can look for in assessing whether their child is struggling with birthdays. Some of the symptoms you can look for in your child are:
• feeling sad and angry at the same time
• feeling like they can’t enjoy themselves
• trying extra-hard to please you
• wanting to run away and hide
• criticizing those who give gifts
• criticizing the gifts themselves
• feeling victimized by expressions of love–none of them are enough
• daydreaming (possibly wondering about birth mother)
• being disgusted with themselves for acting angry or critical
• feeling an unusual level of anxiety
• minimizing the importance of their birthday–“It’s is no big deal”
• sabotaging birthday celebrations
• depression
• withdrawal
• self-condemnation.

If your child demonstrates any of these symptoms of distress, respond in some of the validating and comforting ways you’ve learned in other chapters. But don’t look for problems where there are none. Not all adoptees have a difficult time on their birthday. Many aren’t phased at all.

One female adoptee said, “Mom always made everything so wonderful. One year she let me invite my whole fourth grade class to my birthday party.”

Twenty-seven year old Bill said that his parents celebrated both adoption and birthdays. “I felt like I had two birthdays. It was great.”

Establish Special Birthday Rituals

Bill said his mother established certain rituals that brought a sense of continuity and belonging for him. Special dinners with all the family members present. Celebrating adoption day as “miracle day”–the day they brought him home to be their own.
Another thing you may want to consider to help your child deal with the mixture of feelings is to pull the grief box off the shelf at birthday time and add another item–perhaps a birthday candle. Go through all the emotions described in an earlier chapter to help the child get in touch with her feelings. Then put the grief box up on the shelf until it is needed again. If using the grief box doesn’t seem appropriate, perhaps you could pull your child’s life book out and go through it from day one, reading the welcoming letter you wrote to your child.

Ask Questions

Ask questions of your child preceding and on his special day. “What would you like to do on your birthday?” “How are you feeling about your birthday approaching? Some adoptees feel sad or even angry on that day. Do you ever feel that way? If you do, it’s okay to talk about it with us. We will do our best to understand and help you work through the mixture of feelings.”

Give Your Child Extra Attention

Think about some of the things that soothe your child. If he likes back rubs, give him one. Children need to calm their bodies, which are keyed up with tension.
Beefing up bedtime rituals can also be soothing: an extra story, a massage, a night light, thinking together of some good dreams to have, or a tape recorder to play some favorite music.
There is no sure-fire way to predict how your child will handle birthdays, but at least now you will be sensitive to the possibility that he may have unspoken needs.

SherrieEldridge.com