What helps and what does not.
Our not for profit organization, We Are Adopted (www.weareadopted.ca) offers a monthly discussion and support group in Vancouver for adults age 18 and up. We are all adopted, some of us have also have experienced foster care, some have arrived in Canada from distant parts of the world, some of us have a significant trauma history and all of us find common ground, despite differences in age, race, background, cultural identity and affiliation, sexual and other orientations. Somewhere along the line each of us has stumbled upon the fact that being adopted has impacted us significantly.
In this article I want to share part of our discussion about how our adoptive parents assisted and hindered the process of coming to terms with our adoptive status and the reality of belonging to two families. The first realization from our discussion was that having been told early, so early in our lives that we always knew we were adopted, was helpful. Even before we could understand what that meant cognitively, we know (from peer reviewed research) that infants and young children store memory of early experiences with what they have available to them – their sensory motor systems. While they may not be able to access that knowledge verbally, they do in fact have a stored visceral “knowing” of their experience. Having information, early on, that is consistent with children’s “felt-sense” of personal history is helpful for them. Then they do not have to hold incongruous messages – often subtle hints and nuances transferred by casual remarks and observations – that confuse them and make them doubt their own ability to discern reality.
One member at this meeting was not told of her adoptive status until she was 26. It confirmed what she had guessed at over the years, however she realized it had eroded her trust in herself and in her parents over time, as she learned to essentially lie to herself and sometimes dissociate from her feelings and sense of reality to protect her parent’s need for secrecy. It was a mind game that left her feeling abandoned, confused and unworthy. Without the safety of adult support to make sense of her feelings and experience, there was only confusion and a subversion of self.
Throughout our discussion that same point came up again and again – the need children have for the safety of adult support to make sense of their feelings and experience. Of the group that night, only one adopted adult had experienced explicit, open, ongoing discussion with her adoptive parents that allowed her to explore her natural curiosity about her adoptive status. For her, being able to ask her parents anything felt as natural as breathing. As she reflected on it, she described how knowing that she could ask anything, no matter how often or how many ways, helped her feel whole and understood. Being met with what she needed, which was mostly that it was ok to be herself and to be curious helped her explore questions and feelings, challenging or not, that arose all throughout her journey from child to adult.
The rest of us sat listening in amazement. The feelings in the room were alive as we allowed ourselves to imagine having been understood and having had our parents know what we needed to feel safe. It was incredible, and healing. It was a moment of powerful insight, and that is why I want to share it here. Some of us in this room are also adoptive parents, and we instinctively provide that open forum for our children because we know what was missing in our early experience. As a mental health professional, I regularly see clinical levels of anxiety in adopted children and adults. One way to help adopted children deal with complex often unnameable feelings and the anxiety that comes with them is to be genuinely and relentlessly available to their curiosity.
Parents who can comfortably attend to the feelings of their adopted children give them a profound gift. It tells them “You can bring anything to me and I will see it for what it is, a need for security, understanding and acceptance”. As an adoptee I realize that receiving the gift of understanding is like a magic balm that erases shame, self doubt, dissociation, anger and pain.