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Posted: Sep 23, 2009 13:58


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By Jacob Gibson, LMFT, PhD

The anticipation was much worse than actually doing it. Ten minutes before the start, one young man almost backed out, but his courage was bolstered by his fellow students and my co-facilitator. All seven teenagers had some degree of anxiety, and many were visibly shaken with the thought of going through with it. Their task? To tell their adoption story to a large group of professionals, adoptive parents and prospective adoptive parents at the Utah Adoption Council's annual Spring Conference.

The beginning of an idea came a year earlier after we attended a birth mother panel at the same conference. The goal of the conference is to service the educational needs of adoption professionals and the members of the adoption triad, namely adoptive parents, birth parents and adoptees. In talking to one of the conference organizers, I learned that adoptees are an under-represented population in the workshop presentations. I proposed the idea of a workshop where members of a group of adoptees at West Ridge Academy would present their adoption stories, talk about their work through adoption issues, and answer questions the audience has about their experience. The idea was well received and over the next year the idea incubated.

When I received the notice of the dates for the next adoption conference, my colleague Janey and I began to conceptualize the complete format of the workshop and submitted our idea to the conference organizers. We also presented the idea to our adoption support groups. They all seemed to like the idea and every member seemed excited for the opportunity to attend the conference. Many of them wanted to be on the panel to tell their story. We encouraged them to consider what it would be like to tell their story in front of a large audience, to write their story down and submit it to us. Our workshop was accepted, our panel members were selected, and preparations were made to attend the conference.

On the morning of the conference, both adoption groups gathered in the presentation room at the conference location. There was an excitement with those that were going to listen and an anxiety with those that were going to present. Final revisions to talks were made and workshop participants started gathering as the time for the workshop approached. At final count, the students shared their experience with around 100 people, including their own peers.

After a brief presentation by Janey and me about the core issues of adoption, how our groups attempt to address these issues and how therapists help the students transfer the attachments made on campus to their families at home, the students told their stories. Each story was different, some including abuse, transracial families, feeling left out, bad relationships and making similar mistakes as their birthparents. Some were adopted at birth, others when they were older and one within the last year. A few had biological siblings adopted with them, while others were the only ones adopted in their families. Throughout the stories, observers could see nodding heads from others on the panel as their counterparts shared their stories. Despite all these differences, their stories held common themes. What follows are six lessons we can learn from the stories shared at the conference.

First, they all talked about attachment issues, a difficulty getting close to those with whom children normally would bond. A few of their parents understood that this would be a difficulty and tried to handle it with understanding and by giving the children the space they needed to work through their issues. Others spoke of parents and family members expecting more than they could give, which created a "threat" to the adoptee and thus conflict when the teenager tried to manage the threat by behaving in a way that would push others away. Those telling their story asked for parents to give them the space to work out their fears by allowing them to get close on their timeframe and on their comfort level.

The second lesson revolves around the self-identified "identity crisis" that many adoptees go through. Their stories were filled with examples of the pain or discomfort they feel with not knowing about their past before their adoption or wondering what their life would be like if they had not been adopted. These seven adoptees would like parents and other adults to know that the questions will be there, but that questions are not an indication of dissatisfaction or a rejection of their family. Questions arise as teenage adoptees are trying to establish their identity and integrate the knowledge of where they are now with where they used to be, and for many of them, their past is completely unknown. The questions serve to help them settle into who they are and who they will be in the future.

The third lesson that we learn from these adoptees is that they want to be loved "in their way." The first impulse when we as parents hear that is to think that our children want to control things and that "their way" will be to buy them things or to say yes to everything. If you don't then you'll hear "you don't love me!" However, in talking with my group of adoptees each week and hearing the stories presented by these seven, it seems to be more of the idea that they want to feel love from their parents in a way that they can "understand." Similar to the concept of the Five Love Languages written by Gary Chapman, we all have things that mean "I love you." Adoptees are no different, except that their ways of feeling loved are different from ours and from our other children. To understand how they want to be loved, we need to get to know them in the phase of life they are in. A child that wanted to be cuddled and shown physical affection when very young may shift into wanting words of affirmation instead when they are a teenager. Their sense of self, and thus preferences, shifts, more so than other children who do not have to contend with the issues of adoption. Our task as parents is to meet them on their level and learn what they want/need, especially when they are unable to voice it themselves.

The fourth lesson my students would like to teach may be more for other adoptees than for parents. While working through their issues of loss and rejection, they have come to realize that they were not "given up" because they were not loved; they were adopted into another family because their birth parents wanted something good for them. Their birth parents wanted to give these kids something they could not provide. For those that were removed from their home, they have recognized that the state believed they were in danger and was trying to provide a place of safety for them. They all think about and wonder how their birth parents are doing. And they all wonder what their lives would be like if they were with their biological parents. This is a normal process and does not necessarily mean that they wish they were not adopted by their family.

The fifth lesson the students taught by sharing their stories was that they are grateful they were adopted. Despite all their questions, anger, sadness and crazy-making behavior, they are happy to be a part of their family. They recognize that they would likely have been in a tough situation had they not been adopted by their family. Either they would remain in foster care or they would be raised by someone not prepared to be a parent. Since the actual outcome if they had not been adopted is unknown, many fantasize a very positive scenario. However, these students came to the conclusion through their own conversations in group that they are grateful to be adopted.

Finally, the last lesson about adoption is that after all the struggles and hard work, it all works out in the end. Whether their challenges take them to a therapeutic boarding school or they are able to handle their issues at home with parents, the struggles do get resolved and the kids are better for having been adopted; many even get closer to family through the process of working through their issues.

The students seemed to want to leave adults with a sense of hope: that after all the trouble they caused as kids, things will work out the best they can, and the kids will be as close as they can to their families. At the same time I write this optimistic statement, I recognize that not all situations will "work out" and many kids will not "get closer" to their families in later years. Some of the issues of adoption may be too big for kids and their families to overcome easily and may take them beyond the years they live at home. Though there are no guarantees to how children will turn out when dealing with tough issues, these lessons can remind us that after the trial of our kids' struggles come many sweet blessings. Thank you my young friends for sharing with us these glimpses of all that we desire.

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