Family Separation Triggers In Movies

Family Separation Triggers in movies

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.

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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):

Anticipating Core Issues In Adoption/FosterCare

Eyes Anticipating Core Issues

7 Core Issues Parents Need To Be Aware + Mindful of Always

Awhile back, I found myself wondering aloud to my family about how to resolve a personal conflict and nurture someone back into my life who had distanced themselves. As my one-sided dialogue meandered, I stopped when my 20-year-old adopted daughter said with an edge to her tone, “Mother….Why do you care so much?”  My first impulse was to just state what I thought was obvious so I could go on with my own thoughts. This strategy would have sounded something like: “Honey, you know how important it is to resolve conflicts with people that we love—what’s with the attitude?” 

Yet something about the intensity of her tone and the sorrow and anger all mixed up underneath her words that caused me to stop dead in my tracks and really listen. Not only with my ears, but also with my eyes, my mind, my heart and soul, taking her whole message in. I knew in that moment that my daughter’s statement was directly related to her adoption—her feelings of loss, rejection, and abandonment—having been given up at birth. My daughter in her own way really meant, “When will you realize that you have to let go of people who don’t have it in them to stick around for the hard stuff, no matter who they are?” or more simply, “You need to push them away because they have already pushed you away.” And so I paused before responding so that I could reflect on the fact that she was giving me an opportunity to see inside her emotional process, and that our conversation needed to relate to the emotional pain of loss and rejection she has endured as an adoptee.

Upon receiving my daughter at two months old from an orphanage in Bogotá , Colombia, and returning home with her a month later, it was striking what an easy going infant she was. She went along with everything that life threw her way, which was a ton in that three=month span: birth; separation from the only person she intimately knew—her mother; transfer from the hospital to the orphanage; cries of other babies around her while adjusting to the smells, sounds, and sights of her first home; building bonds with her Spanish-speaking caretakers only to then suffer separation from the orphanage/first caretakers; placement with us (an English-speaking family comprised of two doting parents and a 2 ½ year old extremely active, verbal brother); sounds, sights, and smells of Bogotá, including the high adventure of taxi rides in the city, hotel stays, and appointments; and then airports and immigration, three plane rides to get home, an airport homecoming party in Buffalo, NY with very excited new family members and friends who were eager to hold, talk, to and touch her. My daughter experienced all this before finally arriving to her new home with her forever family that also included meeting three new pets—a dog and two cats.

My daughter grew from an infant to a toddler to a preschooler, all while maintaining the same easy going, happy temperament. Looking back, I had the thought then that she would always be an easy going, happy child. It wasn’t until she became school-aged, around age 6 that her distress started alarmedly sounding. There was a direct correlation between her gradual awareness from just hearing the words/language of adoption to the meaning/significance of her life story. She began awakening in the middle of the night crying inconsolably, eventually being able to identify and articulate that she was missing her family in Colombia that she had no cognitive memory of, yet sensed with her whole being.

For most parents, discerning the cries of their child comes naturally. There’s the hungry cry, the wet diaper cry, the tired cry, the attention seeking cry, the boredom cry, the witching hour cry, the frightened cry, etc. However, for adoptive/foster parents there’s an additional cry to decipher that may not come so naturally. It’s the loss and trauma related to adoption/foster care cry. As an adoptive/foster parent it’s important to develop the skills to recognize this cry, but to understand that this distress signal doesn’t stop at any given age; although it may come and go, it is lifelong.

In order to recognize and anticipate an adopted/foster child’s distress, one must have knowledge of and inherently understand the 7 Core Issues of Adoption and Foster Care. (Silverstein, Kaplan 1982). They are: Loss, Rejection, Guilt/Shame, Grief, Identity, Intimacy, and Control. The 7 Core Issues impact all parties involved in the adoption constellation. They start with loss, because adoption and foster care are created through loss. Without loss-the crisis or trauma that precipitated the circumstance, there would be no need for adoption or foster care. Adoptee/foster child loss may result in a fear of abandonment, attachment issues, difficulties with change, and a dysfunctional pattern of holding onto or letting go of relationships, places, and objects.

The second core issue, rejection, relates to a real, imagined, or implied perceived loss of social acceptance, group inclusion, or a sense of belonging. We get our most basic needs met through human connectedness. Being rejected by a person, family, or community can leave a person feeling a deep sense of abandonment and isolation perpetuating feelings of unworthiness and fear of future rejection. Adoptees and foster children may internalize their placements as a rejection by their birth parents/family and in turn suffer from feelings of low self-worth, fear future rejection, and expect rejection throughout life.

Perceptions of being rejected lead to feelings of guilt and/or shame. Shame is a sense of being bad at one’s core, while guilt refers to remorse for real or imagined behaviors of wrongdoing. Foster children and adoptees may end up feeling shame around their differences or circumstances of their placement, and experience feelings that they deserve bad things and/or are unworthy of anything good in life.

Profound loss issues in adoption and foster care compounded by feelings of rejection, guilt, and shame, if left unaddressed, may result in complex grief. No matter the age at the time of placement, grief may occur in response to separation from the child’s birth mother and family, and all that is familiar: their language, culture, customs.

The next core issue impacting the adoption/foster care constellation is identity. Placement is a life-altering event that affects the identity of adoptees and foster children that is lifelong. It is common for there to be a lack of history information in the system leading to difficulties in identity formation and integration.

Intimacy requires a person to know who they are and what they need in relationships, and also believe they have value. If the earlier core issues of loss, rejection, guilt/shame, grief and identity up to this point have not been addressed, it will be difficult for the adoptee/foster child to understand themselves well enough to know what they really need or could offer someone in an emotionally intimate relationship. This may play out by the individual being fearful of getting close and risk re-experiencing loss issues, subsequently sabotaging relationships to avoid intimacy.

Lastly, Mastery and Control is the 7th Core Issue in adoption/foster care. All members of the adoption/foster care constellation experience loss of mastery over some point of their life circumstance, with the adopted/fostered child losing the most as they had no input whatsoever over the decision for their life. Regaining a sense of power and control over their lives will be important and is the ultimate goal to achieve in order to find balance.

Some helpful resources on this topic:

https://www.americanadoptioncongress.org/grief_silverstein_article.php

https://affcny.org/adoption/become-an-adoptive-parent/adoptionissuestoconsider/7-core-issues/

https://www.rainbowkids.com/adoption-stories/grief-and-loss-issues-for-adopted-children-331

https://www.mentalhelp.net/parenting/long-term-issues-for-the-adopted-child/

https://www.friendsinadoption.org/adoption-information-and-resources/resilience-in-adoption/http://www.brooke-randolph.com/Blog/7_Core_Emotional_Issues_in_Adoption


Adopted/foster children are constantly giving us clues to their inner world of emotional distress, we just need to stop long enough and pay attention to discern them. The clues come through their cry (or lack of cry), their words, questions, tone, play, reactions, behaviors, and their interactions in relationships.

Anticipating the 7 Core Issues with knowledge of their impact, and in conjunction with developing an awareness of the child’s trauma-related distress signals, will not only lead to more opportunities to help set the stage for the adopted/foster child to heal through timely, open, and validating communication, but will also build close, meaningful familial relationships and promote resilience in the child and adoptive/foster family.

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White Privilege Through Transracial Adoptee Eyes

Protesting White Privilege

Steps the Adoption/Foster Care Communities Can Take to Combat White Privilege

“How lucky you are to get to rant about discrimination and the hatred of white privilege that luckily pulled you out of Columbia (this individual meant to say Colombia) and put you in a family that loves you despite your arrogance….”

I’ll let that sink in for a moment….

The above is an excerpt of an actual comment I received in response to me voicing my support of the Black Lives Matter movement and my condemnation of police brutality, systemic racism, and white privilege in this country. According to this individual (and sadly many others I have encountered over the years, both whom I know and don’t know) I, as a transracial adoptee am supposed to be grateful to my white parents and their white privilege for getting me to where I am today. Let me be clear, I love my white adoptive parents dearly, but I am not and will not be grateful for a privilege that should not even exist, a privilege that has marginalized black and brown people—like me and my ancestors—for centuries. This comment as well as others I’ve received are a glaring statement that this country must do better, not only when respecting the dignity of people of color, but also of those who have been touched by adoption or foster care. We need to do better.

Let me back up for a moment and give some context and information on what white privilege is and how it ties into the world of transracial foster care placement and adoptions. According to McIntosh’s famous article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” white privilege is defined as “a set of unearned assets that a white person in America can count on cashing in each day but to which they remain largely oblivious.” Plainly stated, people by way of their skin color are predisposed to having greater opportunity in life; luckily, we are starting to call this out. This white privilege and the system of white supremacy has slithered its way into adoption and foster care in many ways. The numbers of white parents adopting far surpasses the number of minorities adopting. When adopting or applying to be a foster parent, individuals must complete home studies that often include some of the following factors, annual income, parent’s education level, home ownership, and job stability. Due to systemic racism and white privilege, white people are put in a better position to be able to meet those requirements. Also, historically, those white parents have preferred to adopt white children. For many years, black or brown children were viewed as not as desirable or tainted—stemming from the idea that white is better. As international adoption spiked, it was mainly white families who were able to afford this as an option to create their families.  The same goes for foster care, as we see in the United States black and brown children are in foster care at higher rates and for longer periods of time than white children (likely in part due to the impacts of systematic racism), and the majority of foster care parents are white. In many parts of the nation attention is starting to be brought to the racial disparities in the foster care system including lower rates of adoption or reunification, smaller numbers of people of color as foster parents and lengthier stays in the system for children of color.  There have been cases where foster families have “sent back” or refused children who are of different racial backgrounds due to feeling threatened. Over the years, thousands of children have had to grapple with the inherent trauma associated with being separated from their biological families and on top of that the added challenge of being raised by parents who have a very different racial experience and often times do not recognize the child’s differences. Historically, we have seen white adoptive/foster parents who have black or brown children assume a number of damaging approaches including, but not limited to:

  • not addressing color and race at all within the home
  • expecting or forcing black/brown children to assimilate to white culture
  • colorblindness or refusing to acknowledge their child’s racial differences by using the rose colored glasses mindset that everyone is the same and skin color doesn’t matter
  • bringing children into families where they are subjected to racism from extended family members or other relations

The impacts of these practices can be severe when it comes to attachment, identity formation, self esteem and more. Adoptive/foster parents may just see us as children they love and care about, but the world sees us very differently.

This video below gives a better understanding of white privilege check out the link below:

 

I have been aware of the presence of white privilege for many years. I have witnessed it myself at school, work, and in other environments. I have been involved in adoption support groups that refuse to acknowledge racial and ethnic differences of families created through transracial adoption. I have been met with ignorant comments from complete strangers. As I became an adult, I recognized how I, in a sense, rode on my parent’s privileged coattails, but it has not been until the injustices of late that the deep-rooted privilege, and in some cases, overt racism have really sunk in. We are in the throes of the Black Lives Matter Movement in this country. The murder of George Floyd was a flagrant display of systemic racism and white privilege that has now gone viral. He has become part of a long line of black and brown individuals who have been demonized and perceived as a threat by white people; as something to get rid of, without any regard for their dignity or human rights. This is a pandemic in and of itself that has plagued the United States for centuries and the antidote is to unveil, expose, and work to demolish white supremacy and a system that has never been equal for those with black or brown skin. I feel compelled, now more than ever, to put my discomfort or desire to appease aside and voice my perspective—even if in some situations it is unpopular. I have vowed to be a fierce advocate for a comprehensive view of adoption and foster care, both domestic and foreign. I and anyone touched by transracial adoption or foster care cannot turn a blind eye to how generations worth of inequities have impacted racial groups. In my opinion, sharing the truths about transracial adoption and dismantling the injustices of racism go hand in hand. It can seem like a daunting task, upending long-standing skewed mindsets and viewpoints and possibly standing against some people we hold dear to us, but it must be done in order to empower the transracial foster care and adoption populations; to help give them a voice.

What can foster/adoptive parents do?

1. Acknowledge and check your own privilege. Realize that you have not and will never truly understand what it means to be in their skin, not only due to race, but because they are also adopted. They will inevitably experience trauma related to these issues that you have not had to endure in your lifetime. Acknowledging and understanding privilege must be done before making the decision to adopt or foster and must continually be done throughout that process and beyond. This takes time and humility and is not always comfortable, but it is imperative in order to be an ally for your child. Be aware that in some ways, your child will benefit or be protected by your whiteness when you are with them, but that when they are not under the reach of that white umbrella, the world will see them and judge them differently. Noelle Palmer, an adoptive parent, highlights the need for white parents of black/brown children to be aware of their own white privilege and to fight against it.  Noelle Palmer’s Facebook post.

2. Educate yourself on the racial background and cultural history of the child, just as you would their history pre-placement or pre-adoption. Foster relationships and connections with people of their race and who share their cultural background. Instill pride and understanding in your foster/adopted child regarding their race and culture, just as you instill ownership and understanding of their adoption story. Do not adopt a mindset of colorblindness, we are not all the same and we must see and acknowledge color, just as we must tell children they are adopted, not keep it a secret. This is part of their story and they are entitled to it.

3. Encourage children in foster care or who have been adopted to openly discuss and call out racial injustices for themselves and others. Teach your black and brown children how recent events impact them, their ancestors, and their story and hold space for them to express their feelings about these events. You can serve as your adopted/foster child’s biggest advocate, their strongest source of back up. If they bring something to your attention that has been said about their race (or adoption), do not minimize it, but rather follow up immediately. Stand up for them, no matter what! Black, brown, and adoptee voices have been downplayed or ignored for years; end that cycle and teach your child that their voice matters using the privilege your white voice has to rally for change.

4. Do not let the fear of getting it “wrong” keep you from taking a stand and having the conversations. We see so many foster and adoptive parents who are avoidant or anxious about taking a position or using their voice to stand against these injustices because they don’t know enough and worry they will say something wrong. Mistakes are part or learning. You will make mistakes (just as you will when it comes to adoption). It’s okay as long as your stance is genuine. Keep your eyes, ears, and hearts open to experts and those who have personal experiences. They can be your guiding light.

5. Start small and build momentum. You are not expected to change the world all on your own, but you can make small changes in yourself, your family, and your community, which in turn will impact the world. Be the catalyst for those in your life when it comes to being sensitive and aware and when it comes to adoption and race-related issues. Start reflecting on your own experiences and beliefs; have the hard conversations with family members, friends, colleagues; donate to organizations; support minority-owned companies; and talk to government officials about changes you’d like to see. There’s no easy fix and sometimes this advocacy may be uncomfortable, but it must be done.

What can professionals who work with those affected by foster care/adoption do?

1. Acknowledge and check your own privilege. Acknowledging and understanding privilege must be done in order to align with your client. Be aware that your own experiences in the world may be very different than those of your client, and do not allow your privilege or internal biases to taint your interactions. Those touched by adoption and foster care are among the most vulnerable and need a place to be seen and heard without judgement or prejudice.

2. Educate yourself on the racial background and cultural histories of your client and their adoptive/foster/biological families. It is important to understand how to honor these histories and differences to create cohesion and appreciation. Cultural/racial information is yet another piece of the puzzle that those touched by adoption or foster care are entitled to and you can help them to integrate into their identity.

3. Ask the hard questions and identify the deep-rooted trauma associated with the perpetuation of systemic racism and white privilege. Racial issues, not unlike adoption issues, are extremely complex. Take your time to get as much information as you can, validate the experiences, and acknowledge that it will take a great deal of time to heal from these wounds.

4. Understand how issues such as systemic racism and white privilege impact the adoption and foster care world. Do your research and work to comprehend the ways that white privilege has presented itself overtly and covertly in adoption and foster care and how it appears throughout history. This is important in promoting increased understanding of the complexities of transracial adoption and puts you in a better position to help and promote healing.

5. Take a stand. Lead by example and strive to be an advocate, and an ally regarding issues that impact your client, whether they have to do with race or adoption or both. Be a voice for your clients who have been touched by foster care and adoption, especially those adopted transracially. Whether you own your practice or are a part of a bigger organization (a school, government agency, non for profit, etc.), do your part to help disassemble the confines of white supremacy and systemic racism.

We are at a time of change in this country. I have seen many transracial adoptees deeply affected by the recent events highlighting racism and this has triggered and made us think harder about many years’ worth of microaggressions, oppression, and injustice for us and our ancestors. We are calling on our transracial adopted brothers and sisters, our families, and those within our communities to fight this battle with us. Breaking down systemic racism and its many facets is a journey, much like the complex journey of adoption. There are harsh and ugly truths and realities that must be revealed and systems that need to be dismantled and restructured in order to create a real change. We, at Adoption Perspectives, LLC encourage members of our community to do their part to advocate for equality and stand against any kind of injustice whether it be based on race, gender, age, religion, family dynamic, or any other area. We must use our voices to pave the way for future generations, creating a path of acceptance, compassion and justice for all.

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Articles of interest and facts backing up this blog are available on our “Resources” tab under Blog and Article headings.

Reflecting On Mother’s Day

Significant and complex mothers day

Mother’s Day – Significant and Complex

With Mother’s Day just behind us, it’s hard not to contemplate the complex meaning of this significant day for myself, my children, and their birth mothers.

The month of May tends to bring on reflection of my memories of this special day, recounting the years when I struggled with failed pregnancy attempts and the years following all the way through to this past Mother’s Day with my now young adult-aged adopted children. Summing up my feelings spanning these different phases of life would be near impossible for any given Mother’s Day because they have each encompassed such varied ranges of emotion: a complicated mix of honoring, gratitude, and joy accompanied by guilt, anger, sadness, and grief.

During the time in my life when I experienced infertility, the duality was felt in the honoring of my own mother and all the other mother figures I had known, with the pain and uncertainty of whether I would ever become a mother myself. After I became an adoptive mother, my thoughts shifted to the reality of the meaning of Mother’s Day and its significance not only for myself, but especially for my children as well as their birth mothers. I knew full well going in that the responsibility of choosing to become an adoptive mother would bring great joy, yet also would mean the need to recognize the loss and trauma experienced by everyone involved. So, the challenge became the question of how exactly to celebrate (and allow my children to celebrate) the great gift in being a mother, while also recognizing the losses suffered by myself, my children, and their birth families as a result of this gift? Over the years, I have learned that although it is nothing short of difficult, with time and effort it’s not only possible to hold all of the emotions simultaneously, but it is necessary in empathizing with and helping my children to deal with their own complex range of emotions associated with this special day in May.

It is imperative to remember and understand in parenting adopted/foster children that they come to us having suffered great loss and trauma in the separation from their birth families. Because the celebration of special days tend to focus on the closeness of familial relationships, these days can become extremely confusing, disheartening, and emotionally distressing due to the range of conflicting emotions adopted/foster children may experience, without any means to fully comprehend these emotions without the help of the significant adults in their lives. These days most often include birthdays, adoption days, placement days, Mother’s/Father’s Day, and religious holidays.

Imagine attempting to be happy on your birthday as everyone around you is celebrating your birth with balloons and streamers, a party, and friends and family singing to you. Meanwhile, all you really want to do is curl up and cry because this is the anniversary of the day of your greatest loss—or symbolic of the day of the loss of your birth family. You’re supposed to feel grateful for what you have, not disappoint your parents, share in your family’s joy, yet you feel miserable, with no one around to acknowledge your pain. As a result, you are left with very little opportunity to understand yourself or your feelings.

Placement days, or “gotcha” days present similar difficulties for adopted/foster children, as do other holidays for the same reasons of carrying conflicted emotions and attempting to manage feelings of loss/trauma oftentimes alone, while simultaneously trying to please family and friends.
Now imagine just giving birth and having made the most difficult decision of your life to place your baby for adoption due to any number of reasons that often include young age, single with no support from the baby’s father, lack of readiness to parent, lack of emotional and/or financial resources, drug/alcohol abuse, abuse/neglect, etc. Or due to similar reasons, your child/children are taken from you and placed in foster care. Mother’s Day, the child’s birthday, and holidays are sure to be marked by difficult conflicting emotions of guilt, shame, loss, and grief. It’s more than likely that birth families of adopted/foster children think of their children just as adopted/foster children think of their birth families. This is why, even if from a great distance, birth parents/families deserve honoring and acknowledgement of the part they gave in bringing the child into the world, having made the best decisions they could for the welfare of the child at a difficult and sorrowful time in their lives.

Professionals, parents, and other significant adults in a child’s life can help adopted/foster children tremendously by being sensitive to this issue and asking open-ended questions regarding the child’s feelings about the upcoming special day, and what they might want or need in order to help them to be open and remain grounded in facing the day. Being comfortable bringing up the topic of the child’s birth family/history to give them space to share their thoughts is necessary. Establishing simple rituals to acknowledge the child’s birth family on special days will also provide a natural way for the child to feel more fully understood and allow for their expression of grief; therefore enabling the child to eventually experience their joy. Recognizing signs of anguish prior to and during the special day is also important and will provide opportunities to help the child communicate their complex set of emotions. Given this, it is also important to note that although many adopted/foster children feel this way, some may not, so it’s wise to first assess thoroughly and not make a problem where there may not be one.

Some Mother’s Day Links:

Although I am unable to say that every Mother’s Day that I have experienced has gone well, I am grateful to say that for my family, this past Mother’s Day was a beautiful celebration of the special relationship I have built with each of my children while also honoring my children’s birth mothers and their respective maternal lineages. I’m not sure what other special days this year and future years will bring, but I’m totally up for the challenge with the knowledge that adoptive/foster parenting is a lifelong process involving being there for my children and helping them to navigate their special circumstances and the special days and moments in their lives, as they learn to integrate every aspect of themselves into the beauty of who they are and who they are meant to become.

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Support, Safety and Security In Uncertain Times

Support, Safety and Security during COVID-19

Lessons & Support Ideas in the Midst of COVID-19

The COVID–19 pandemic has rapidly transformed the world we live in. All around us, we are faced with uncertainty, worry, sadness, and fear. Never in a million years did I ever anticipate living in this kind of situation, and as each day goes by, I am feeling the impacts of this crisis and seeing how it is affecting my clients. One trend I am witnessing associated with this pandemic is intense reactions from my clients touched by adoption and/or foster care. This tragedy has triggered powerful emotions and reactions that appear to “come out of nowhere,” but are clearly linked to residual trauma and lack of felt safety, security and support. For many, the connection between a pandemic and any kind of separation, whether it be a foster care placement or an adoption, would go unnoticed, but upon further reflection and research, I now understand why this crisis hits this population so hard. It has suddenly changed their sense of safety and security, leaving them in need of support now more than ever.

First things first, this pandemic is impacting our brains at an unprecedented level. There has been a plethora of transitions over the last several weeks and these changes have brought decreased feelings of safety and security. This has caused our brains to function much of the time at an animalistic level—in survival mode. At every turn, on top of our day-to-day obligations and responsibilities, we are trying to ensure our safety and the safety of others by washing our hands, staying 6 feet apart, wearing masks, and the list goes on and on. For those not impacted directly by adoption or foster care, this is a lot to handle. It’s new and it’s exhausting. Operating on survival mode, however, is nothing new to adoptees and those who have histories involving foster care. And although this is not new territory for us, the addition of the pandemic had caused this part of the brain to go into overdrive. Not only is this population managing the typical degree of survival mode and trying to regulate fight/flight/freeze responses—these reactions are now triggered more easily and the alarm bells are louder than ever. Increased support is needed to quiet that alarm and increase felt safety and security.

To find out more about how trauma affects the brain check out: Understanding Trauma: Learning Brain vs Survival Brain

For more info on how the pandemic and social isolation impacts us check out:
You’re Not Lazy — Self-Isolation is Utterly Exhausting
That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief

Adoption and foster care are riddled with challenges, as is this pandemic. Deborah Silverstein and Sharon Kaplan are known for their identification of seven core issues (Loss, Rejection, Guilt/Shame, Grief, Identity, Intimacy, and Control) that are lifelong in adoption. I would argue that these same seven issues also impact those who have been in the foster care system. I have come to realize that some of these core issues are being exacerbated by the COVID – 19 pandemic.

To find out more visit: https://www.americanadoptioncongress.org/grief_silverstein_article.php

In light of this health crisis, we have been forced to adjust our daily lives in order to guarantee our safety and support those around us. We have lost our routines, we have lost outings and social engagements, we have lost support, we have lost jobs, we have lost loved ones. We are all experiencing LOSS. We are being told we can only go to grocery stores during certain hours, that we must wear face coverings when we go outside, that we must work from home, that we must stay 6 feet away from others. We are all experiencing a loss of CONTROL. We are missing a sense of normalcy as our loved ones are getting sick or passing away, people are having to cancel weddings, baby showers, and graduations. We are all experiencing GRIEF.

Adoptees and those who have experienced foster care are also faced with additional loss, lack of control, and grief. They have already endured loss of biological families, culture, language, schools, and homes. They have dealt with a complete lack of control with court systems, multiple placements, and sibling separations. They have been faced with grieving their history, the circumstances of their placement, and what could have been. Now, the loss, lack of control, and grief are even more at the forefront. They are losing out on visits with biological family members, courts have been closed leaving pending adoptions in limbo, individuals have no idea if biological family members are safe and healthy, they are being ripped from their regular schedules, they are fearing being sent to different placements due to escalations of behaviors during this time, they are grieving the loss of what could have been. This heightened experience of loss, lack of control, and grief can be crippling for this population and sheds light on the fact that trauma can infiltrate every aspect of our lives and trigger us in the most unexpected ways.

What We Are Seeing?
Over the last few weeks, I have worked with clients experiencing some of following symptoms:
• Increased behavioral outburst/tantrums
• Depression
• Anxiety/hypervigilance
• Feelings of helplessness
• Intense concern for biological family members
• Emotional sensitivity

What do all of these symptoms have in common, you may ask? They can all stem from lack of felt safety. And a pandemic is just this, a complete lack of safety. It is imperative to work to create and/or strengthen feelings of felt safety, security and support especially during this time, for adoptees and those impacted by foster care.

How You Can Help Increase Safety & Security

Pandemic or not, these are some ways to help support adoptees and those in foster care

  1. Talk about what is happening

Open communication is essential when it comes to adoption and foster care, as well as in the time of COVID – 19. We need to be honest and we need to talk often to maintain connection. We need to be brave enough to handle the hard questions that may come our way, validate feelings, and work to find solutions. Talk to your child about how the pandemic has been affecting them and how some of the emotions they have may be linked to adoption/foster care trauma. Even if they are not ready to talk about it at the moment, bringing it up and helping them make those connections sends the sign that those big feelings and thoughts are important and you are there to listen.

Check out some links about ways to communicate with children about the pandemic and reduce stress.

https://www.anagomez.org/covid-19-resources/?fbclid=IwAR2wgL6W9vBCwgx7y51-D5BxTvrEnMl92DeO3ApKaPFermjzdD961Dgj6Ek

  1. Maintain as much consistency as possible

Transitions can be challenging for many with adoption or foster care as part of their story. Keeping things predictable is extremely helpful. So much of the normal routine has been lost and we have had to face so many transitions that we need structure now more than ever. Maintaining schedules in terms of eating, sleeping, doing homework, planning fun activities, and appropriately preparing for when aspects of that schedule will be different can go a long way in keeping anxiety and worry at bay. Focus on what has stayed the same throughout the pandemic—the love of your family, the focus on safety and security, the fun you can all have together.

  1. Make the effort to maintain contact

Thousands of children are now faced with not getting routine face-to-face visits with their biological family members due to this crisis. This can be a particularly difficult transition to face and the lack of contact can spark more fear or helplessness. Reach out to social workers, case planners, foster care/adoption agencies or biological family individually (if you are able) in order to find ways to keep regular visits whether it’s over the phone or a video chat. The more support the better!

  1. Always come back to safety

Remind adoptees/foster care children that they are safe with you. Discuss the ways they can keep themselves safe as well as what adults in their lives are doing to ensure safety and security. Now, more than ever we are incorporating safety measures into our daily lives (hand washing, social distancing, etc.), but don’t forget to call attention to the other ways we promote felt safety. These can include, keeping promises, providing for basic needs, giving comfort, showing acceptance. We always want to relay the message that “we can face hard things together and we will get through them.”

The world as we know it has changed, that is a fact, but with that I am reminded of another fact; the fact that just as we will get through the challenges of this pandemic, we can get through the challenges of adoption/foster care …together.

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Battle Adoptive Family Distress From Day One

challenging communication and distress in adoptive families
Minimize distress + anxiety with an open communication journey—immediately

I recently read about new research that supported what I’ve known intuitively since becoming an adoptive parent: Children who learn that they are adopted later than three years old experience an increased level of emotional distress and more overall life dissatisfaction than children who learn by the time they are three. I’m repeating this only because of its significance: by time they are three years old; not during the year that they’re three or older, but between their birth and through age two. More distress occurs the older the child discovers that they’re adopted. Respondents in the study shared in their narrative accounts that the betrayal they felt was a significant factor that added to their distress, and the findings also emphasize how secrecy and lies in adoption become destructive to the relationships involved. Delaying Adoption Disclosure: A Survey of Late Discovery Adoptees, first published May 14, 2019, Journal of Family issues. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0192513X19829503

For their own emotional well-being, adopted children need to be informed of their roots as early as possible, and long before they have the cognitive ability to fully process the meaning of their adoption. The goal would be for the child to be able to think back and have a recollection of always knowing their life story from the time of their first memories; and, it is as common place for the child to remember their parents talking with them about their adoption as, for example, about their love of soccer. The communication regarding their life story may start out in general terms. As the child develops and is better able to comprehend the intricacies of their life experience, more detail needs to be filled in to the best of the adoptive parents’ knowledge. Avoiding this important function of adoptive parenting will only serve to undermine and potentially harm the parent’s relationship with their child.

Through the years. I have seen hundreds of adoptive families during various stages of their adopted child’s development that do not deeply communicate about the wounds associated with adoption, in the way that the child desperately needs in order to feel understood and connected. They present for therapy for a myriad of reasons, typically none of which the family believes at the time center around adoption issues. Lovingly and well-intentioned, when asked about communicating about the challenging aspects of adoption with their child, many parents tend to respond by explaining that their child doesn’t bring up questions or issues about their adoption, or they feel their child simply doesn’t think about their adoption, it’s somehow insignificant in their present life, and/or they certainly don’t want to cause their child pain. Usually the underlying issue when further explored is either the parent’s lack of understanding of the psychological/emotional needs of adopted children, denial of the challenges involved with adoption for their own self-preservation, or general discomfort and anxiety around how to communicate about challenging and emotionally painful issues.

Honestly, as an adopted parent, I get it. Can’t we just wipe away the negative parts of adoption and pretend that our child’s life began the day we were united as a family? What adoptive parent in their right mind wants to talk about the fact that their child experienced a significant loss at birth or sometime later when the focus can be on the beauty and joy of the adoptive family? Who wants to broach those difficult, challenging, and painful conversations about the not-so-pleasant details and early history, especially if the child is not initiating the conversation and seems fine with their adoption?

None of us do, but literally if we don’t, we as their parents eventually cause our children more distress in their lives. We put our own relationship with our child at risk as potentially or eventually being seen by our child as untrustworthy with a lack of understanding and empathy of their needs.

Our children have suffered a profound loss, one that we as adoptive parents are not responsible for nor contributed to. One that we, with all of our might and determination, are not able to take away or protect them from. The quicker we realize that, come to terms and accept it, the better position we put ourselves in to help our child cope and build lifelong emotionally close, authentic relationships—not only with us but with others.

Points to ponder in communicating to minimize distress:

  1. How are adoptive children able to formulate and communicate their questions or concerns if there is no context or space in which to bring up the issues?
  2. Is there such a thing as communicating perfectly or waiting for the perfect moment? Isn’t it better to just start talking then not communicate at all? Communication about hard issues is messy; get used to and comfortable with that idea.
  3. Talking to your adopted child when they are very young and unable to fully grasp the significance of the losses involved gives you time to practice how and ways in which to explain their story. You will set the important stage of your child being able to trust and communicate with you—not only about their adoption, but likely about other significant issues as well.
  4. Natural opportunities and everyday moments consistently present themselves in which to bring up adoption issues with your child. Having this on your radar will help you recognize and utilize them.

Additional resources on how to communicate with children regarding adoption issues + distress:

https://www.parents.com/parenting/adoption/parenting/talking-with-kids-about-adoption/

https://adoption.com/how-and-when-to-tell-your-child-theyre-adopted

https://creatingafamily.org/adoption-category/talking-adoption-part-1-talking-0-5-year-olds/

https://consideringadoption.com/adopting/parenting-an-adopted-child/talking-to-your-child-about-adoption

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/navigating-the-adoption-journey/201703/how-and-when-discuss-adoption-your-child

Consistent communication from the very day the adoptive family is united is key; and ideally before the child is three, yet with the understanding that it is never too late to start.  We can help, either in a group setting in our future workshops, or contact us in our private practice(s) through “our journey” page.

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Enhance Provider Relationship To Promote Healing

Enhancing provider relationship

Healthcare providers, we can enhance relationship + experience.

Understanding the mentality and feelings of individuals who have experienced adoption or foster care without having a direct connection to either community or the proper insight into the lifelong impacts of adoption/foster care is complicated. The complex nature of these systems can leave healthcare providers feeling as if they are up against a wall not knowing how to best acknowledge and discuss these important issues with their patients or their colleagues. Learning about the degrees of trauma associated with adoption and foster care, using proper terminology, and taking the time to acknowledge and validate the individual’s point of view will enhance the relationship between provider and patient resulting in better quality visits and more effective outcomes.

As an adoptee and a trauma therapist, I have experienced firsthand the inequities that adopted individuals and those who have been in foster care face when it comes to healthcare. I can recollect countless examples throughout my life of entering providers’ offices where my adoption was not acknowledged or discussed or where I was asked invasive questions that seemed to stem more from the provider’s own curiosity rather than for the benefit of my treatment. In other cases, despite providers’ having an awareness of my history, I recall being questioned about my medical history or other family history information that I did not and still do not have access to.

As a mental health provider, I regularly witness providers who are at a complete loss when it comes to treating children and families touched by adoption or foster care. I have sat in countless supervisions and trainings with colleagues who demonstrate major discrepancies related to the quality of care being provided to these individuals; from unknowingly using insensitive adoption/foster care vocabulary, to completely ignoring separation trauma apart from noting it on a demographic form, to perpetuating the societal narrative of adoption and foster care as something for which to be grateful. To say these experiences with providers have caused me a fair share of headaches would be an understatement.

Oftentimes, as a patient, I would sit through an appointment feeling completely anxious or unheard. I would leave a provider’s office feeling uncomfortable, judged, and misunderstood. As a professional myself, I have participated in meetings with coworkers where the discussion focused on how challenging adoption/foster care cases are and how they have no idea where to begin— when to me, it was glaringly obvious. Admittedly, I became frustrated with them for not recognizing what felt natural to me. And while I realize this lack of understanding is not intentional, it quickly became evident to me that things need to change—we need to do better as professionals.

I believe it is important to shed light on these issues and assist providers to better understand that certain forms of questioning (or the lack thereof) or refusing to validate the adoption/foster care experience reduces feelings of safety in patients and can be negatively internalized by individuals who have been adopted or are in foster care. This makes it nearly impossible to form quality provider/patient relationships. Adoption and foster care related trauma is something that impacts clients/patients to their very core and affects every facet of an individual physically, mentally, and emotionally. It is the responsibility of providers to increase adoption/foster care competency as a way to promote and enhance provider relationship and achieve what we all strive for—healing.

MAKING POSITIVE CHANGE FROM WITHIN

Speak From Experience

One huge way in which I feel better care can be provided, is by increasing the number of therapists and other providers who have personal experience with adoption and/or foster care.

Since becoming a trauma therapist, I have worked with many individuals and families impacted by adoption and foster care. When working with these clients, I always disclose my connection to adoption and have found that it makes such a difference when working with these complex cases. When I disclose to my clients and their families that I am adopted and understand how complicated it is, I witness their bodies instantly loosen; the sigh of relief and physical response speaks volumes. Hearing me share that I am there to listen if they want to talk about adoption/foster care related issues or that I understand to a degree what their child is going through because of my own experience results in an immediate increase in safety and trust. The client sees me as someone who they don’t have to explain themselves to. I am not someone they have to educate about the conflicting feelings, the loss, or the other challenges, because even though our stories may not be exactly the same, we have a mutual understanding and respect. There is an inherent message of “I see you, I understand you, and I get it,” a message that I wish I had received from others when I was growing up.

Education

It is unrealistic to expect every therapist to have first-hand experience with foster care/adoption and this is where education comes in for providers. I have been in the position of having to educate my providers, as many of my adopted/foster care clients have had to. This is because too many professionals have no touchpoint or understanding of adoption/foster care, its complexities and its influence on health. This lack of experience unintentionally puts the client/patient in the position of knowing more that the professional, who is supposed to be the expert. This tip in the scale of power sends the underlying message to clients, “I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t know how to help you, and I don’t even understand you.” This is not the message professionals mean to send or what clients need to hear. It does not facilitate feelings of safety and security that adoptees and individuals in foster care often crave the most—and that sense of safety is necessary to start the healing journey. It is imperative that education and training surrounding these topics are made a priority when first-hand experience does not exist to tip that scale into balance; otherwise, we only do a disservice to our clients/patients who have already faced so much.

The good news is, times have changed. I have noticed steady progress on the front of adoption/foster care education since my experiences as a child and even since I began working in the mental health field. There have been many research studies on the impacts of trauma associated with adoption and foster care, more adoptees/individuals with histories of foster care are in the field of healthcare, and there are evidence-based treatments that can address the deep-rooted feelings and promote healing. That said, there is still much to be done to make sure this often underserved population is receiving quality care.

Adoptive/foster parents and providers can be proactive in helping to make available the best quality care for those touched by adoption and/or foster care.

Enhancing provider relationship as an adoptive or foster parent:
  • Advocate for your child. Do not be afraid to voice concerns to providers or provide them with pertinent information about your child’s adoption or foster care placement. This information is always important. 
  • Search out adoption/foster care competency trainings to help you feel more confident in providing and advocating for your child’s needs.
  • Find pediatricians and other medical providers who are aware of the trauma associated with adoption or foster care and how it can cognitively, physically, and emotionally impact your child’s development. 
  • Seek out mental health providers who specialize in adoption, separation trauma, and attachment.
  • Locate therapists in your area who are trained or certified in trauma resolution therapy (e.g., Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or Progressive Counting).
  • Search for providers who are adoptees or have histories involving foster care such as Adoption Perspectives. Having that connection can go such a long way in helping solidify feelings of safety and therapeutic rapport.
Enhancing provider relationship as a provider:
  • Educate yourself about adoption and foster care related issues. This will only help you to feel more confident when working with these kids of clients/patients. Attend training(s), read adoption/foster care literature, meet with individuals willing to share their experiences. The more you know, the better you can serve those coming to you for help. More on Adoption Perspectives training seminars.
  • If you see the words “adoption” or “foster care” on intake paperwork or a demographic, don’t gloss over it! Don’t just have this be a one liner in a social history write up or a box you check off on a form. Work collaboratively with the adoptive/foster parents (biological parents if they are in the picture), foster care workers, and any other person who can shed light on the individual’s history to provide as complete a picture as possible.
  • Do not view early life adoptions or placements as irrelevant. Separation trauma, regardless of the age of the child, is serious and can have lifelong impacts. It is always a factor that should be considered throughout the course of treatment. 
  • Do not expect the client/patient to explain themselves to you. They have come to you for help and it is up to you to do your research on how best to help them. Avoid putting them in a position where they feel obligated to teach you about the adoption/foster care experience and associated issues.

My hope is that the future will be different for those touched by adoption and foster care when it comes to seeking healthcare services. I believe the best way to enhance the provider relationship is through education and open dialogues that include the voices of those personally impacted by adoption and/or foster care. By bringing these experts and their experiences to the table, we validate those who have dealt with the challenges personally and we empower professional healthcare providers to become more comfortable and effective with promoting healing for this population.

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