There is a great mystery behind every one of our lives, the great human mystery of why are we here sharing this miraculous planet? Where did we come from? For the adopted child the mystery is even greater because they have two active mysteries. The existential one all humans share about our cosmic origins and purpose and then the very real, very literal mystery of where did I come from? And why did my birth parents give me away? These mysteries inspire many powerful feelings but for the adopted child, the pre-eminent feeling is often grief.
As an Adoption professional and former foster-adopt child, I want to inspire parents to understand how important “the act of joining with their child’s grief” is. As scary as it seems, it will actually be very liberating. This liberation will not only bring joy to the parents but to the child as well. And it is through joy that the hormone for bonding, oxcytocin, is released into the cells of the body, which can restructure the brain and increase the desire for attachment. The first step toward honest attachment is for the parent to “feel” and accept the child’s grief and thus allow the child to “feel felt” at the cellular level where bonding occurs. After all, we all feel good about ourselves when our experiences are validated, supported and our fears reassured.
A common instinct of an adoptive parent is to present, in the words of the late Annette Baran, author of the groundbreaking book, The Adoption Triangle, “. . . an unflagging cheerfulness about adoption, in order that the children will feel positive, too. This is a mistaken notion. Parents whose children express sadness usually feel that they need to reassure them, rather than feel the sadness along with them. But having lost an original set of parents is something to feel sad about, and the best any parent can do for a child is to allow them to share those feelings of loss with them.”
So how does a parent do this?
I have developed an intervention that I recommend to parents, which is usually done in a therapy setting, however it can also be done in a safe space at home. This intervention is designed to bring emotional closeness by manifesting the grief and loss into something tangible, allowing the parents to see their child’s feelings in an objective light and to connect with their child’s grief in a non-threatening way. I call this intervention “Hold On To My Feelings.”
AGE RANGE: 4-17 suggested.
GOAL: To provide opportunity for family to create a safe and warm holding environment, build trust and secure the attachment.
SYMPTOM REDUCTION: Lack of trust/safety, reactive attachment, & anxiety.
SYMPTOM INCREASE: Trust, love, bonding, and attachment.
Old Phone Book
This intervention can be shared with any child between the ages of 4- 17. For purposes of this article I’ll focus on working with pre-teens. However, if working with teenagers just adjust the language accordingly. Materials needed are an old phone book, an unused pillowcase (that you are willing to draw on and use as the “holding bag”), and some permanent markers. I recommend providing a comfortable setting, okay for paper to be scattered around i.e. family room, bedroom. The parent or parents, (it is strongly suggested that both parents be present) are instructed to have an attitude of playfulness, total acceptance and curiosity, as well as empathy. These attitudes create a model that meets the needs of their child by providing a container for their feelings, producing a therapeutic environment where the child can feel felt, heard and seen.
To begin, the intervention can be introduced as “We have noticed you have been holding onto a lot of ‘feelings’ and wanted to give you a way to release these feelings by letting you rip up this old phone book. And guess who is going to clean up and hold onto all of the feelings??? Not you, we are.” The parent then playfully entices the child to participate by demonstrating the task first i.e. opening the phone book, ripping out a few pages at a time, ripping or smashing the paper apart or together, stating an example of what they are feeling such as “I’m mad because I can’t drink soda for breakfast!!” and/or by showing their frustration/anger/pain without words via their facial cues by throwing the pages up in the air and watching them fall down. Making it seem fun and cathartic is the critical element that gets children to begin the process of releasing their pent up feelings. It is strongly suggested that parents encourage their child to say words associated with their feelings to help them build emotional intelligence by teaching “I” messages. “I feel ______ because __________.” But do not force the child if they are non-verbal, their resistance may be a signal that they are not ready emotionally or are not feeling safe enough to verbalize at this time. Also, I recommend beginning the intervention with light-hearted feelings and complaints, allowing the child to feel comfortable with the process before digging in to more painful core issues.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to create an environment of safety. To do this it is important for parents to be very aware of their own state of being and not to be reactive. When successful this intervention brings up many deep and repressed emotions and feelings that can be painful and even shocking to hear. Sometimes a child might say, “I wish I was never adopted”, or “You’re not my real parents”. Let the child express their feelings without criticism, rejection, anger or dismissal. It is also important to keep in mind how one’s own non-verbal facial expressions and actions read to others. It is suggested to keep an open, stress free face, be overly curious (raised eyebrows), and breathe deeply during the exercise to help calm down and regulate any arousal states the child brings out in order to stay connected. Parents are encouraged to enjoy the child’s process by “oohing” and “aaahhing” with amazement as the child rips up the paper. This is a necessary part of the intervention as active and verbal support keeps the parent connected and engaged wile simultaneously increasing the levels of the oxcytocin hormone, essential for bonding.
A good tip is to bring a small journal or notebook into the intervention. If, as a parent, you are becoming dysregulated and overwhelmed, take a moment to write down what it is that is triggering you and you can revisit those notes at a later time. Remember, this exercise purposely manifests painful feelings in order to allow for a stronger emotional connection and feeling of trust.
Don’t expect every issue to be resolved after the first session. Providing the opportunity for this intervention on a regular basis will begin to build more trust and allow the child the freedom to express more pent up feelings.
If the child is resisting, some prompting is appropriate. I encourage parents of a reluctant child to ask, “Would you be willing to let mommy or daddy speak a feeling you have said before so we can feel it together?” i.e. “I’m mad because I don’t see my birth mother!” “I’m sad because we don’t look alike.” “I’m sad because I didn’t grow in your tummy!” “I’m sad because you are not my real mother.” “I’m mad because I have so many feelings and I feel so overwhelmed!” Doing this often entices the child to participate or correct a notion, allowing the intervention to progress.
Don’t feel the need to rip up the entire phone book or solve every painful issue in one session. A good time to “stop” is after an emotional epiphany or a particularly positive or emotional exchange. Or if you’ve been proceeding for 45 minutes and the child seems to be avoiding the deeper issues. You can get to them at another time. When you’ve sensed they’ve had enough or they tell you they’re done ripping the paper, instruct the child to take a comfy seat somewhere in the room and “supervise” as you, the parents, begin to “pick up all the feelings.” (Be careful not to say “time to pick up the garbage!”) However, before you begin to pick up the “feelings” take a moment and breathe . . . Look at the scattered papers around the room and see them as your child’s “emotional life.” I usually make a statement such as, “Wow look at all these feelings!!! They sure can get messy. Are feelings messy sometimes? Thank you for letting me know about all these. Now, I am going to give them all the love and care that they deserve.”
As the child observes, take the pillowcase and begin to pick up each feeling, either in piles or single pieces and comment on them with great empathy as you do so . . . “I’m sorry too that you do not see your birth mother.“ “I’m sorry too that we do not look alike.” “I’m sorry too that your birth mommy could not be your everyday mommy.” “This feeling I am going to hold on to and give lots of love.”
It is strongly suggested that parents do what they feel is authentic in their hearts at this moment. I have witnessed parents kiss each paper and not say much at all, hug piles of feelings and convey to the child through facial expressions “how much this means to them”, and have witnessed many parents reduced to tears upon truly understanding the depth of their child’s grief. Or realizing, in these moments, that it is their responsibility to feel these emotions along with their child and not simply deny them. I’ve also seen many children’s faces light up and be amazed at their parents’ capacity to be so reflective, open and honest about the reality of their adoption and the realization that they are truly loved. This intervention is a bridge toward healing and attachment for many of the families I have worked with and continue to work with.
In the end, when all the “feelings” have been identified and placed in the pillowcase, ask the child, “Are there any feelings I have missed?” The child scans the room and points them out so all have been acknowledged. Then the parents write a closing response on the bag such as “I understand.” “I love all of your feelings.” “I am here to listen.” “I want to help hold on to your sadness, so you don’t have to hold on all by yourself.” The parent then reads the response out loud to the child and lets the child know, “We are going to hold on to these feelings until you tell me to let go of them. I will keep them close to our bed and keep them safe.” This act conveys to the child their feelings can be secured and their parents can handle them and will not be overwhelmed by them. Whether your child was in foster care, moved from place to place or adopted in infancy, there are many overwhelming feelings of grief connected to the separation from their birth families and knowing that they are not alone in having these feelings lifts a great weight off emotionally.
In closing, for an adoptee/foster child, this sense of security, and the need to feel heard and seen is imperative for building trust. If an adoptee/foster child feels their needs are not being met early in life, they will “numb” themselves emotionally or “shut off” their feelings creating a negative attachment cycle with the adoptive/foster parents. By doing this “Hold On To My Feelings” intervention with your adopted or foster child, you will be helping them develop a sense of belonging and make sense of their early life. Repairing what has been emotionally “lost” and now “found” by you, their parents.
I hope you find this intervention as cathartic as I have in developing as well as facilitating for families touched by adoption and foster care. With a warm heart I encourage you to join with your child’s grief and feel liberated.
Jeanette Yoffe, MFT is a Psychotherapist Specializing in Adoption and Foster Care. She has private practice in West Los Angeles. Other interventions can be found in her treatment manual on Amazon, “Groundbreaking Interventions: Working with Traumatized Children & Families in Foster Care and Adoption”. Feel free to contact her at www.YoffeTherapy.com
Copyright 2016 Jeanette Yoffe, MFT