Identifying what adopted/foster care children see in movies
A couple of months ago, the foster parent of one of my clients sent me a frantic email stating, “She can’t stop crying. I don’t understand what’s going on.” I spoke with this foster mother and used a technique I frequently use with my clients and their families when trying to identify triggers and root causes of emotional and behavioral reactions. I call it “rewind and slow motion.” Triggers related to adoption- and foster care trauma are often covert and it can be challenging for caregivers, teachers, professionals, and even the individual themselves to pinpoint what exactly set things off. Retracing steps can often be an effective way to increase awareness and recognize root causes.
I asked the foster mother to rewind the events of the day until before the reaction happened, back to when everything was “normal.” Then we slowly step by step went through the happenings leading up to this child’s emotional outburst. They had had a good day overall. The kids had done online school work, ate lunch, played outside, visited with their birth parents, eaten dinner, and sat down to watch a movie together when out of nowhere this child started to cry. Ding, ding, ding, red flag! Now we were ready for the slow motion—to get to all the small (sometimes seemingly insignificant details). I asked what movie and she replied, “Just a Disney movie, The Good Dinosaur,” almost as if to say that because it was a cartoon Disney movie, it could be ruled out as being the instigator for this response. Now at the time, I had not seen the film, so I asked for more details, keeping in mind that on many other occasions, parents have reached out to me puzzled and perplexed that their child was having a strong reaction to a Disney, Pixar, or other animated film.
“What is it about?,” I asked and foster mother gave a brief recap of the film saying it was about a dinosaur who gets lost and is trying to get back to his family and along the way he meets a little cave boy and together they make the journey to find their home. I asked her if she could pinpoint what was going on in the film when the crying started and at first foster mother could not quite place it, and then all of a sudden she had it.
“It was near the end; the little cave boy had to separate from the dinosaur and was adopted by a family of humans.”
That was when all the crying had started. That was it, and given this child’s history of being in foster care, the lack of permanency in regards to her future and on top of that, the fact that she had just seen her birth parents earlier that day created a perfect storm to be triggered by a movie in which she recognized bits and pieces of herself. For this child witnessing that ending loyalty bind of the cave child having to choose between the dinosaur who had kept him safe and shown him love, despite bearing no physical resemblance and the cave family of humans who resembled him, shared his culture, but who were essentially strangers to him was mirroring her own life in foster care. She felt that and it ignited grief, confusion, anger, and worry in this small little girl. It wasn’t until we rewound the tape and went into slow motion that we could put those pieces together.
Just recently, I watched The Good Dinosaur and even as an adult, found myself triggered at various points during the film. Watching Arlo’s father being swept away by the storm with Arlo desperately calling out for him, witnessing Arlo search for his family showing his inherent need to go back to where he came from, seeing Spot display a natural curiosity about those who look like him and the profound loyalty bind depicted as Spot says goodbye to Arlo and is adopted by a human family. These were all scenes that left an impact on me and I could very much see sparking a reaction in a young child. I thought back to that client of mine, who is only 4 years old, and thought about how hard that must have been for her to watch and navigate her thoughts and feelings.
This experience reminded me of my Disney infused childhood and specifically being brought to tears by the movie Fox and the Hound. I can vividly recall crying uncontrollably as I watched Tod’s(the fox) adoptive human mother drive him out in the woods on a dark stormy night, remove his collar, which was a symbol of him belonging to a family, and push the little confused fox out of the car as she drove away. Little me was gutted by this scene, but I for some reason watched that movie over and over and over again. My parents were so confused by my reaction and I am sure at the time had no idea the deeper thoughts and feelings it was triggering. Truth be told, as a child, I do not think even I knew with certainty that these reactions were linked to adoption trauma. I did not know this movie was stirring up deep-seated fears about being left, losing control, being abandoned, and about getting safety and security taken away from me. Many years later and seeing my life experiences through a trauma-informed lens, I now see that my brain and my body were having a trauma response. I was being triggered by this movie at a subconscious level. The feelings and sensations I had were strong and these scenes only served to bring them to the surface. The theme of family separation (a theme often played out in movies) is always applicable, to those who experience foster care or adoption trauma, even if the separation occurred before explicit memories could be formed. The body holds on to the trauma associated with that separation and when movies or other media trigger that sore spot, naturally all of those reactions come spilling out.
We oftentimes do not realize the impact that media, specifically media created for children, can have. As adults, we see ourselves, or pieces of ourselves portrayed in films, in certain characters or through themes, and so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that children do, too.
I do not know if the mirror of adoption/foster care was a mirror Disney was hoping to incorporate into many of their films, but clearly for those of us touched by this kind of trauma, it is a mirror that it quite apparent to us. It is imperative that adoptive and foster families have open and honest discussion about how these films can stir up themes for children about their own lives and stories. It is also critical for those of us working with foster and adoptive families to be aware of how the subjects of adoption and foster care are portrayed, as well as how those representations can impact our clients. We are inundated with media content and we see children being exposed to media in the form of music, movies, tv shows, social media, etc. earlier and earlier. At some point, children will come across content that touches on adoption and foster care whether it be a focal point or not.
Now don’t get me wrong, exploring adoption and foster care narratives and themes through film and other mediums can be a benefit. It can open up dialogues, help shed light on different perspectives, and help adoptees or those in foster care feel seen and less alone. That being said, it falls on adoptive and foster care parents as well as professionals working with these families to be aware and proactive about acknowledging how these seemingly harmless movies can hit different points for adoptees and those in foster care. Previewing movies before they are shown, watching movies together at home, being attuned to follow up on reactions and encouraging open, nonjudgmental conversations are all effective strategies to help mitigate possible triggering situations.
Exposure to movies that incorporate themes related to adoption- and foster care-related trauma is inevitable for children. This means that in the same vein, trauma responses associated with these films are inevitable as well. It is up to those in the adoptee or foster child’s life not to minimize the reactions that may arise from these experiences, but rather to normalize, validate, and support. Caregivers and professionals can use these films as supplements to routine conversation about topics such as family separations, grief/loss, reunions and more, but must also be aware that these conversations may not always get to be perfectly planned out. When we take a moment to see the world (this includes media contact) through the eyes of an adoptee or individual who has experienced foster care, it allows for increased empathy, understanding, and all around more opportunity to talk about the intricacies of the adoption/foster care experience.
Family Separation Triggers In Movies
This is a list of movies that my clients affected by adoption or foster care have identified as being triggering (I’m sure there are more that have not been brought to my attention):