It’s hard to multiply fractions when you’re wondering if your first mom remembers you.
Ruminating thoughts of “Do I have biological siblings?” may make it challenging to focus while studying World History.
Believing one family didn’t want you and being terrified to disappoint your current family might make it near impossible to complete or even begin a science project.
Identifying with the perception of your birth-culture’s reputation for braininess while struggling to maintain a C average, may lead to feelings of defeat and inadequacy, culminating in a
“why bother” attitude.
Adopted kids and teens are thinking about their biological families, even if they aren’t talking about it. They spend time wondering if they have genetic brothers and sisters they might look like, where their biological family lives and whether their birth parents are alive. These are just a few discoveries I’ve uncovered in my collaborative work with adoptive parents and adopted kids. During our work together I help parents act as non-judgmental, curious detectives as we uncover reasons that explain behaviors. Once parents have a better understanding of the adoptive experience and the language to talk about grief, loss, separation, trauma and identity, they become their child’s best advocates.
Adoptees experience trauma – even when they are adopted at birth or shortly after. Older children adopted after multiple placements may experience further trauma. If separation from one’s biological family occurs before language develops, the memory is stored in the brain as an “implicit memory” and a child can’t explain why they are feeling a certain way. This is where attuned parents can help put words to an otherwise word-less memory.
As Bessel van der Kolk, noted trauma expert and author of The Body Keeps the Score, wisely explains, “We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present. Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.”
We also know that our brains change throughout the lifespan and much of that change can happen in the context of relationships. Adoptive parents can help their children by being open to their questions, feelings and struggles. They can lead conversations about the adoption even when their kids aren’t talking. By doing so they let their children know it’s ok to ask questions and it’s ok to experience whatever feelings they have. When adoptive parents have done their own work around adoption related issues, educated themselves about the grief and loss inherent in separation, and seek support from an adoption-informed therapist when necessary, they are best prepared to help their kids thrive.
Lesli Johnson, MFT uses a collaborative approach in her work with clients and is certified in EMDR, She has presented at AKA conferences several times over the past decade. Lesli is also an adoptee.