One of the most monumental and unforeseen obstacles I have faced as an adoptive parent is how to prove my love to my adopted child. This issue seems to be made more complicated by the fact we adopted him through the foster care system as a preteen. Adopted children struggle with feeling connected, loved, a part of the family; and foster kids are truly plagued with doubt and confusion over their feelings towards their caregivers. Love is often a foreign concept to them, or has been displayed in unhealthy ways. They are unfamiliar with how healthy love is supposed to feel, the way it works, and how it plays a role in relationships. By the time a foster child is adopted they have been disappointed time and time again by people who made promises they didn’t intend to keep, and their ability to trust is depleted. They often arrive on our doorsteps as empty hollow shells of their previous selves. They are void of every emotion that may open them up to be hurt. As parents we become frustrated when the only emotion they seem to posses is anger. We cannot understand why they can’t “get it”. Why can’t they see how much we love them? Or why we love them. We cry ourselves to sleep after a long day of giving and giving, with no reciprocation. We often feel like giant stars, burning bright with good intentions and open hearts, doing everything in our power to make sure that child feels loved. And yet, our struggling kids are like black holes, sucking every bit of light from us, draining us dry, and leaving us feeling lifeless. For people who have never experienced this kind of one-way relationship with a child I probably sound heartless, cruel. But, the reality is my heart is full, caring, and in constant search of a relationship with my adopted child.
It’s been quite the journey. Our family has been through hell and high water with our son. But here we are. We are still his parents and he is still our son. He has pushed us away. He has pushed and pushed, and run away, and hurt us over and over again. And, yet, we stand next to him. No matter what. It’s been nearly 6 years since he arrived on our doorstep a broken little shell of a boy, and one thing I have learned is that only time, consistency and open communication can prove my love to my child.
Consistency comes to me like second nature. Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Be a person of your word. Do not make promises you don’t intend to keep. Yadda Yadda. Time comes naturally as well. Obviously. But, there’s no rushing it. Trust me. I’ve tried. Time takes time. And you have to allow time to work for your benefit, instead of fighting it, or trying to rush it. Now, the concept of open communication with my child? Much different story. It took awhile for me to learn. I used to bang my head against the thick wall our son had built up around himself, trying to make him listen to me. Then one day I realized in order for him to feel validated and safe, I needed to listen to him. This wasn’t easy, and it took consistency and time to learn.
Learning how to listen, and creating moments of safety, allowed my son the freedom to open up and share his feelings. This was incredibly difficult sometimes. I had to learn to pick my battles and tell the protective Momma Bear laying in wait when to pounce on problems and when to let them slide. I quickly discovered it could be hurtful when I didn’t look at the situation from his perspective. I had to learn how to not take it personally. So hard to do, by the way. Learning how to listen to my son has taught me those uneasy feelings of his stem from somewhere deep within him, and were created long before he entered our home. But, now I’m the closest person to him and I’ve created a safe place for him to share those feelings of fear and anger, and so they pour over onto me.
Children in foster care experience a grueling nightmare when being removed from their homes. They suffer serious abuse or neglect at the hands of people they should be able to trust. Then they are placed in the care of complete strangers, consequently experiencing additional severe emotional, behavioral, and developmental problems. Physical problems often arise as a result of these experiences. Most children who have experienced abuse, neglect and foster care learn to shut down and look out for #1. They go into survival mode. Children in foster care, or who have been adopted through foster care, often struggle with blaming themselves and feeling guilty about removal from their birth parents. They wish to return to birth parents even if they were abused by them. Children can be left feeling unwanted if awaiting adoption for a long time. Their feelings of hopelessness grow if there are multiple changes in foster placements. They have mixed emotions about attaching to foster/adoptive parents, and feel insecure and uncertain about their future. They are often reluctant to acknowledge any positive feelings for foster/adoptive parents. Having said that, most foster children show remarkable resiliency and determination to go on with their lives. Sometimes, they just need a listening ear and an open heart to hear them. After all, they deserve the opportunity to be heard; to share these doubts, fears, anxieties.
When you open your home and heart to children in need of care; this task is both rewarding and difficult. However, learning to listen and then validating your child’s feelings through genuine sympathy/empathy, is an essential skill. The relationship with the child will be better, because the more validated they feel, the less conflict you’ll have. You will also find that validation opens children up and lets them feel free to communicate with you. They will be less likely to close up, or “shut down”, emotionally. Most foster/adopted children live in an emotional shell. Sometimes you see glimpses of that shell opening and then without warning it can slam shut! But remember, if there is a communication breakdown, if there is a wall between you and your child, it was probably built with the bricks of invalidation. And this may have been built up over time, so it will take time to break it down. This can sometimes feel like a slow and tedious process. Just remember, when you consistently listen and validate your children, you are allowing them to safely share their feelings and thoughts. You should be constantly reassuring them that it is okay to have these feelings, and demonstrating that you will still accept them after they have shared their feelings. (This is very important, because these children are so fearful of rejection.) Be sure to let them know that their perspective is highly important to you. This will help them help them feel heard, acknowledged, understood and accepted. And they will know they are loved.