Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Empathy and Adoption: What We CAN Do

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Before our sons came home through adoption, I didn’t spend one moment worrying about whether or not our biological son would learn to empathize. At two-and-a-half years old, through tears, he interrupted me reading him the first pages of “The Giving Tree” to ask if I would please stop because he foresaw the ending. A few months later, he saw our neighbor from a hundred yards away and asked us why this neighbor was crying. [He had been.]

I tend to think that his emotional intelligence is natural, given his first few years of life. He spent all of his time around adults who cherished him and felt with him. When his face communicated sadness, an adult immediately mirrored his expression and comforted him.

His ability to empathize developed naturally as others empathized with him.

Sadly, my husband and I often overlooked opportunities to feel with two of our children when they came home through foster adoption, because we felt so overwhelmed and isolated ourselves. 

About a week into adoption, I needed a safe space to be understood. I met with a trusted friend (who had been extremely supportive before our children came home) and cried as I explained the truly disturbing behaviors in our home. Her response was utterly dismissive.  To be honest, I don’t think that she listened to a word I said.

Over the next few months, my husband and I began to realize we no longer fit into our former social circles. Some friends separated from us because they didn’t want their kids influenced by ours. Other friends, who previously thought we were great parents, changed their minds and judged us as horrible parents post adoption (due to our obvious struggles). We had friends dismiss our hardship because it made them uncomfortable, and friends who couldn’t understand when we didn’t disclose gory details from our children’s stories. We had friends judge us because they truly believed that if we were doing the right thing, we wouldn’t be experiencing discomfort. To them, we were clearly getting what we deserved for our wrongdoings. We had friends who took personally that our children’s unique needs often kept us from meeting in person. It didn't take long for loneliness to set in.

Yet, I'm coming to realize, it is a sublime gift to feel isolated, afraid, and increasingly sad. If I accept this gift and use it correctly, it has the potential to help me empathize with my children- which is no small thing. My pain is minuscule compared to their pain. And, as I mentioned in the case of our biological children, empathy begets empathy.

Maybe, the sole reason many children from hard places struggle with empathy is because no adult has done the hard work of empathizing with them. [tweet this]

This has been our experience. The better I empathize with my children, the more I see empathy blossom in them. Empathy is natural for them to develop. Learning to empathize with them has been less than natural for me. That’s why I’m sharing a few things I’m learning. Below are six measures that are in my power and are helping me empathize with my children from hard places. 

1) We CAN Learn About Adopted Experiences

I’ve been given valuable insight into my children’s world through discussions with adult people who are adopted and as I read blogs by adults who are adopted. Let me be clear:  Not one other person in the world has the exact same experience or response to their circumstances as one of my unique children. However, the more I know about how various individuals respond to their adoption, the more context I have to understand my children’s complex emotions regarding their adoptions. Some parents avoid listening to adult adoptees because, “They always seem so angry.” First of all, all adult adopted people are not angry and I can learn from every adopted voice I listen to. In my opinion though, anger is a signal that I MUST listen. When I listen to the reasons adult adoptees are angry, I'm being given another gift:   A gift to avoid the mistakes of others. A gift to open a dialogue that needs to be opened. A gift that gives me a greater ability to identify with my children.

2)  We CAN Read Our Children’s Signs and Learn How to Respond and Meet their Needs

I’ve heard that “repeated behaviors” are serving a purpose. Watching for these behaviors and noting patterns has helped me understand when my children are emotionally regulated. When my children are regulated, I know they’re feeling safe. When they have unusual behaviors, those behaviors are often repeated. Sometimes the behaviors are even rhythmic, which proves to me my child is trying to regulate and even self-soothe. At the same time, he may be unintentionally driving me out of my mind. But that’s not his problem. It’s mine. When his behaviors are proving his dysregulation, my job as his parent is to give him to skills and tools he needs to regulate.

I need to ask questions. When do these behaviors happen? What is the feeling the behavior is communicating? The answers give me insight into how my child is feeling and about what causes him anxiety. As a result, I am able to begin to problem solve to help reduce his anxiety. Eventually, as his needs are met, he doesn't have to repeat (annoying to me) behaviors to attempt to soothe and create safety for himself.

3)  We CAN Believe the Best

My attitude has dramatically changed (for the better) since I've begun to believe my children are doing the best they can with the skills they currently have. When I believe my children lack skill and not will, I can begin to grasp how difficult it must be- being their ages and missing certain basic skills. I'm also empowered to help them build the skills they need to succeed. Also, I realize, again, the problem is not theirs. They are using the tools they currently have in their toolbox. As their parent, it’s my responsibility to teach my children the skills they need to do well.

While believing my children are doing their best, I also have to remember scared people cannot do well. It’s also my responsibility to create felt safety for my children so they don't have to live in fear.



4)  We CAN Mirror Real Emotions

When I remember to see anger as “the bodyguard for sadness”,  I am empowered to mirror the real emotion behind the mask and behind the behavior. Mirroring anger creates more grief and anxiety. Mirroring the real emotion (typically sadness, in our experience) has the potential to set the stage for real connection. Remembering this, it’s also easier for me to calmly say things like:

“I’m so sorry you’re feeling sad. Please let me know if you can think of something I can do to help.”

“I know you’re having a really hard time and that is completely understandable. If I were you, I would be struggling too.”

“I really don’t know why you’re having a hard time, but I’m here and I want to help. Please let me know if you can tell me why things are difficult right now.”

Often, I say one of the above after mirroring my child’s real emotion, and then I’m quiet. Minutes later, I’ll notice my child has gone from angry to being silent with a tear-streaked face. That’s when I can ask if he wants a hug. That’s usually when he says, “Yes.” Often, it’s when he is calm enough to tell me the reason behind his sadness. Even when he can’t, he knows I’m ready to listen when he can. He trusts me as I’m already listening to his behavior and body language and responding empathetically.

5)  We CAN Give Space

Sometimes my physical closeness and my words further trigger my kids. Learning when to speak, when to draw them into a hug, and when to silently remain at a close distance has been monumental in my learning how to care for our children from hard places- in a way they can accept. This is something that has been truly different from raising my biological children. When my biological children were infants and I accidentally clipped a bit of skin while trimming a nail, they would cry and reach for me to comfort them. It was natural- even though I was the one who had hurt them in the first place.

With my children from hard places, rather than representing security, I sometimes represent a person who caused them intense grief and pain. It’s not my fault, but it IS my responsibility to give them what they need (rather than what is natural for me to give) when they’re feeling threatened by me.

I am NOT advocating for isolation. I'm saying I need to respect my child’s need for space. There is a major difference. While I need to listen and respond appropriately when my child is telling me with his behavior and/or words that he needs space, I also know that space needs to be as close to me as his comfort allows. Giving space often means we’re in the same room, and I make myself busy (or make myself look busy) with something else while he's seven feet away deciding if he feels safe enough to let me into his world.

When I try to barge into his space uninvited, that’s generally when rages result. Most rages, in our house, are provoked by parents who mean well, but need to do a better job listening and responding appropriately. [tweet this]

6)  We CAN Remember this is Not a Formula

Everything I’ve mentioned I CAN do requires I do the intense work of attuning to my children and responding to them as individuals. In my experience, there is no formula that results in connecting with my hurting children and teaching them empathy. As I come to know my children, I better know how to empathize with them. As I empathize with them, they begin to empathize with others.

When I solely parent by following lists of specific strategies developed by experts who do not know my children, while refraining from the arduous labor of attuning to my individual children and meeting their specific needs, I am not building a foundation for trust. When I trust in a calculated blueprint, I may be inclined to pat myself on the back for doing the right thing while beginning to resent my children (if they're not responding by-the-book). If I'm trusting in my use of the right techniques and my children aren’t showing signs of empathy, I can easily believe the lie that they are incapable of developing empathy.

My children deserve better.

Before I end this post, I want to be transparent:  Our family has failed many, many times at all-of-the-above. Still, the opportunities to empathize and meet felt needs are endless. When we’re able to meet those needs, create felt safety, empathize, and even apologize for our failures, we are setting a foundation on which trust can be built. We’re taking what is unnatural for us and giving our children opportunities to naturally develop into individuals who are able to cry tears with others.

It begins with us believing our children have the ability to develop empathy. It begins with us accepting it’s our responsibility to respond to them in a way allows empathy to develop naturally in them.

It begins as we cry tears with them.






18 comments :

  1. Thanks for your wisdom and insight! May God continue to give you strength and empathy and grace and compassion...and respite!

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    1. Respite. That is the prayer. For all of us!

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  2. Very well written and explained. We too became familiar with isolation and like you, we came to (most times) view it as an opportunity to see into our child's life. God bless as you care for your children

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    1. Isn't the specific isolation unexpected? It was for us. While I describe myself as an introvert, it is very difficult- even for me- to go through life not being able to identify with others (while knowing many don't even WANT to identify with me). Blessings to you!

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  3. wow, this is so well written! I totally agree with you and appreciate reading this encouragement today!

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    1. Thank you for reading and connecting. Writing this was painful for me. It had to come out and it had to come out right, so it means a TON to hear it was encouraging to you. Best!

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  4. I was very touched by this blog entry. It was a wonderful window into your family's life and all that that encompasses, while also being a challenge. It can be hard enough to empathize with our children and others. But now seeing the deeper and more intricate issues in adoptive families, you have inspired me to be a better empathizer. Thank you so much for being so vulnerable and honest--having the privilege to see and learn from your lessons and struggles has humbled and motivated me.

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    1. This is such a humbling comment because you are among the most sensitive people I know. Thank you for reading and sharing this journey with us. It's HUGE to have friends who have a glimpse of our unusual (and beautiful) reality. Thank you!

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  5. This is a great post, so open and honest as well as insightful and helpful. Thanks for sharing on #WASO

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    1. Thanks, Sarah! #WASO is an a amazing place and I'm thankful for a place to meet with all of you on very different (yet, in many ways, similar) journeys. There is always more to learn.

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  6. There is so much of value in this post, specifically about feeling with our kids. Empathy can be really hard to do (or sometimes really easy) but when I am able to pull it off, the effects are huge.

    Sharing.

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    1. Thanks, Lori and thanks for sharing. I'll be honest, sometimes my own big feelings get in the way of me feeling with my loved ones. I've had a huge learning curve on this one. Still learning...

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  7. Thank you for sharing! My husband and I have been talking about adoption for about 5 years now. It took us a while to get pregnant with our first child and now we have two small children so those plans got put on hold. I have constantly been thinking and praying about it and told my husband yesterday that I am ready to start the process! We too want to adopt from foster care and know it is a tough road. Thanks for the post!

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    1. Hi Carrie, I'm so thrilled to hear you're about to embark on your unique foster care/adoption journey! I can't think of one other way to respond to this other than to say, "PLEASE, reach out!" I can also connect you with other adoption/foster care people and blogs. Here's the link to the archives from an Adoption Link Up I LOVE: http://www.nobohnsaboutit.com/category/adoption-talk-link-up/ Thanks for connecting!

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  8. THANK YOU for your great post today! I am a birth mother and I LOVE reading the thoughts of others. I learn so much about the son I placed, his parents and what this journey looks like on the "other side". So glad to have you on the link up! xo, Ashley Mitchell

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    1. Hi Ashley, Thank you so much for connecting. I read your blog and appreciate your voice and your bravery. I treasure this comment. Adoption is so complicated. My children are beautiful, and yet I have to continually learn so I know HOW to love them well. Your perspective, along with all other voices in the adoption triad, helps me love them better. This journey doesn't work in isolation. Best to you!

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  9. Hello! I found your post from Erin Bohn's Adoption Talk linkup. This is a beautiful, honest, and helpful blog post. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Thank you for connecting, Lynn! I love the Adoption Talk Linkup and I'll look forward to running into you there more often.

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