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:

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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