This article was inspired by a reader who wrote to us about the grief issues faced by his granddaughter, who was adopted at five months of age from Korea. In researching this piece, we have talked with other adoptive parents as well, but will avoid sharing some of the specific of each situation to protect the privacy of both the parents and the children.
Throughout the article, we will often make reference to the “adoptive parents.” We fully recognize that the vast majority of these parents never see or call themselves anything but real parents. The reason that we are making this reference is simply to distinguish them from the “birth parents” for the sake of explaining things. Please know that no disrespect is intended. We have nothing but respect for anyone who takes on the role of being a loving and caring parent.
Sadly, there is no global standard for the type of pre-adoption counseling received by either parents or children. Some you may find that some of issues we discuss are things of which they you are already aware, while others may find everything in this article to be new information.
There are many reasons that parents might choose to adopt a child. They can range from issues of infertility or genetic concerns to simply wishing to provide a home to a child without a family, to name but a very few. The focus of this article is not on why parents have chosen to adopt, but rather on the elements of grief that these children often deal with as they grow older.
While some adoptive parents may receive counseling on dealing with this issue, others, particularly those who follow the route of private adoption, may not. What we, as adults, may not realize is many of the issues these children are facing are grief related. Any change in normal behavior patterns may generate feelings of grief. Adoption, at any age, is certainly a change. For those children who do not learn that they are adopted until they are thought to be old enough to understand, the fact that they are adopted is new information, and therefore a change. The grief of adopted children is a very real issue that must be considered and addressed. It is yet another example of Disenfranchised Grief.
Children adopted at birth
Children who are adopted at birth, by parents with a similar racial profile, may never realize that they were adopted until their parents determine it is the right time to share that information with them. No matter how lovingly it is explained, this information is likely to spark a variety of questions. Unless the child’s birth parent(s) died, there are any number of wonders the child might have concerning why they were placed for adoption in the first place.
The Center for Adoption Support and Education notes that some children think that they might be to “blame” for being placed in this position. Examples of the thoughts they might have include:
- I was bad
- I cried too much
- I misbehaved
- I soiled my diapers
On the face of it, as adults, we might find this reasoning without any merit, since we know that the reasons for placing a child for adoption are rarely related to such things. Young children, however, do not have the reasoning capabilities to understand the complexities of what may have happened and look for simple answers within the scope of their understanding. (Some years ago I met a child who confided that he was sure he was responsible for his father’s death. He had seen limousines and prayed for a chance to ride in one. Shortly thereafter his father was killed in an accident, and he rode to the funeral in a limousine. This made him think that God answered his prayers by killing his father.)
The Center also pointed out that some young children look for simple reasons to “blame” their birth parents, such as not caring enough about them to find a job that would have allowed them to be to afford a child. In some cases, they might even wonder if they were kidnapped from their birth family.
Whatever concerns they might have, they may or may not put voice to them with their adoptive parents. If there has been a history in their family of being told not to feel bad, when they dealt with earlier losses, that their parents discounted as insignificant, they may try to hide these feelings as well. (You will find examples explaining this in Discounted Grief in Children.) This is particularly the case, if they felt their reason for being placed for adoption was due to past misbehavior.
Young children view things from a different perspective than do adults. While we might think that our explanations make perfect sense, they do not have the reasoning capability to fully grasp certain concepts. They often tend to be very literal in their interpretations. This presents major problems in explaining why they were placed for adoption in the first place.
This story illustrates this point. One woman wrote about when she learned that she was adopted. Her mother told her that her birth mother loved her very much and “gave her away” so that she could have a “better life.” Her mother went on to explain that she was unable to have her own children and that having her, as a daughter, was a special gift that made her very happy. This woman went on to say that since her mother was so happy, she felt that there was no way to share her emotional pain in hearing this news and learning that she had been given away. Her mother had instilled in her that that this daughter was responsible for her happiness, which left her child feeling that sharing sadness would be inappropriate. It was not until she was in counseling, years later, that she learned that she did not have the responsibility to make her mother happy. Sadly, her mother continued to insist that the counselor was wrong.
It is not uncommon for adoptive children to fanaticize about their birth family, and even create an imagined backstory that they share outside their adoptive family. This is particularly the case when the parents have little or no information that they can share about the birth parents. When these children are of a different race or culture, these fantasies can become even more complex.
Any parent knows that there are times when they have to make decisions, in the best interests of their children, with which those children do not agree. That is part of being a good parent. If the child is adopted, however, they very well might imagine that their birth parents would have done things differently. They may put voice to this thought, in a moment of passion, or they might simply store this resentment inside, which can create even more problems at a later date.
Children who are older, at the time of adoption, can bring with them additional issues. If they spent time in the foster system, they may have lived in a number of different homes. In the majority of cases, these foster parents did everything possible to create a loving and nurturing environment. If the child created an emotional bond with their foster parents, but for some reason adoption by them was not possible, being moved from that family creates yet another emotional loss that impacts them. Some of these children find it difficult to form an emotional attachment with their adoptive parents, partly out of fear that this is yet another temporary living situation. Once again, this is a hidden grief issue. They may not put voice to these feelings, since they have dealt with this type of loss in the past and have limited expectations of a better outcome with the adoption.
While some of these children may be seen as sullen and unfeeling, others overcompensate by becoming “pleasers.” They deal with their often unspoken fear of being “discarded” once again by trying to be “the perfect child.” Trying to be perfect adds a whole new level of pressure for these children. Since the adoptive parents would never consider “discarding” them, it is easy for them to miss seeing that this is a defensive behavior pattern in the child, which means it might never be addressed.
In the case of those children who are adopted from another country, there are additional issues that may present. Many of these children have spent months or years in an orphanage, surrounded by other children. They are leaving behind and grieving the loss of their friends, their culture and even their language when they join their new families. They may have no memory of living in any kind of traditional family, and may not have the language skills to fully express their feelings in a meaningful and positive way. While their new parents may have received counseling concerning this, that may not be the case for these children.
What about families with multiple adopted children?
It is not uncommon for any first child to question their place in the family when a second child is born. Suddenly they move into a different role than that of being the sole center of their parent’s attention. They do, at least, have many months to prepare for this change and to experience the physical changes that are taking place during the pregnancy. Most parents use this time to prepare that first child for the new addition to the family.
In the situation of a second adoption, those physical changes are not there in the same way. If this first adoptive child is still relatively young, he or she might experience even deeper feelings of being replaced by the new baby as the object of the parent’s affection. Depending on how they are dealing with their own grief concerning being adopted, these feelings may be exacerbated.
How can we best help these children in dealing with their grief?
Most of us have little formal education in dealing with grief and loss. Many people even have trouble in actually identifying their emotional losses as being “grieving experiences,” unless they are related to an actual death. As we said before, every change from that which was familiar can bring on the feelings of grief.
Most parents find this lack of knowledge even a greater issue when they try to help their children effectively deal with emotional loss. They tend to fall back on the things that they were told as children. They have forgotten how lost they were as children in hearing their parents try to use logic to deal with their emotional pain. When a parent told them to “not feel bad,” they did not feel better, but learned to hide their pain in an effort to follow the directions they were getting from their parents.
The feelings of grief, especially over what might have been, can be especially difficult for an adoptive child to process effectively. Unless one or both of the adoptive parents was also adopted as a child, they have no true concept of what their child is experiencing. Even then, they may remember what they felt, but that does not mean that this child is dealing with the same feelings. Every person is unique, which means that their responses to situations are unique as well.
One tool that parents will find particularly helpful in navigating this unfamiliar territory is the book, “When Children Grieve.” This is a book written for parents to help them help their children. It is not a textbook, filled with logical information, but rather a guide book to help with them deal with their children’s emotional responses to loss. It is filled with valuable information on how to open the lines of communication with their children. It helps parents to prevent their child(ren) from “stuffing” their feelings of sadness, so that they can effectively release them. This is especially important for the children of adoption.
Parents can either read and use this book on their own, or, when available, join a When Children Grieve Support Group that will take them through this process over a period of six meetings. The grief support group setting offers them the chance to meet and gather additional support from other parents who are also trying to help their children.
The kind of support that this book offers can be a great assist to those who have taken on the role of being adoptive parents. It will help them be the best parent possible.
If you found this article helpful information, you may also find these articles from our searchable Grief Blog useful as well:
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