By Tina Kacirek
When people ask me how they can help us, one of our greatest challenges is how to allow them in to be with our children. I know details they couldn’t dream of. I NEED them to be what my children need, NOT what they think they should be. What every adoptive parent really needs to hear is, “I am willing to be trained to help you connect as a family.”
It’s not that adoptive parents want to isolate and don’t want help, it is that they have learned from prior experiences when well meaning individuals have stepped in and made progress more difficult without even knowing. The last thing I want to do is be critical or negative towards somebody who wants to love on my family. At the same time, I can’t allow unhealthy interactions.
As a friend said it the other day, one size doesn’t fit all. One size still fits one. What triggers one doesn’t trigger another. I may have a good grasp on trauma to know basics, but if I am going to help my friend with hers, I don’t assume I know. I ask for details on how I should interact. Should I touch? What kind of level of communicating is best? Should I stay task oriented? How is it best to bring calm? What things trigger negative responses? I make no assumptions. Just because I see a friendly happy child doesn’t mean they won’t begin eating their shirt and ripping pillows apart if something is processed a wrong way. And I am completely aware that the child in front of me is probably not the same when I am not there.
Here are common interactions that have been confusing to my children and possible ways to remedy.
1. Someone who has only known my child briefly becoming emotional and saying, “I just love you. You are so special, I just want to take you home with me!” Of course the person doing this is wanting to convey a message of acceptance and is truly moved, but it is overwhelming for more than one reason. Children who haven’t formed strong attachments yet with their parents, and have passed the “honeymoon phase” compare us to this idealistic moment. Further, they often take words quite literally so what was meant as a sweet sentiment can turn into fantasies of how much better it would be if they could go live at Susie’s house (or worse become frightened they will be kidnapped). Thoughts like, “Susie wants to be my mom! Maybe Susie will let me eat ice cream all day and let me do what I want. The parents I have are harder and make me do stuff now.” When we are focusing on attachment but still trying to slowly introduce basic expectations of the home, that can be processed as a threat. We are working through training our children at the same time as connecting. Use positive words that are not emotionally charged or that won’t be misconstrued. Reinforce the family connection. “It is lovely meeting you today. Your mom has told me how special you are to her. I hear you guys have been painting. Do you enjoy that?”
2. Serving my children food, touching/holding, answering questions to meet their needs hinders connection. Because my children couldn’t trust their needs would be met by caregivers, and I stepped in appearing as another caregiver, I have an extra big job of proving myself. It is so natural, especially in church communities to serve one another’s children affectionately. For those who are not familiar with trauma or attachment challenges, adoptive parents can appear a bit odd when we interrupt or stop another adult from helping. What we are doing is trying to establish relationship with our child and assure them that they don’t have to seek out others to meet their needs. Adding to those difficult moments is when someone becomes insistent with “helping” and doesn’t get it. The helpful interaction would be to redirect the child back to the parent kindly. “Your dad is right there and he will help you.” If you see the child hesitant about going over to the parent (and mom or dad somehow didn’t see them come to you) you can go over to the parent and relay the information. I so appreciate that. Offerings of help are such a blessing to me and even more so is when I know the person understands the delicate work connecting to our children involves for us.
There will come a time we aren’t as hovering, but it will be according to the child’s needs.
3. Excessively gifting my child makes it harder for me. I am a gift giver and I LOVE it so I really feel for those who are generous with my child. When it’s too much though, it begins to interfere and unfortunately can be used as comparison with some of our wounded ones. It’s not the case with all, but for some of my children, gifts equals love and if I am not gifting at the rate someone else is to my child they can skew it and use it. “Susie loves me more because she always gives me things and you don’t.” The best gifts are family gifts. Instead of the toy from that person to said child, hand the gift to mom and dad and say, “I was thinking of all of you today and how much you might enjoy playing this together!”
4. Ignoring some children. When only some children are acknowledged repeatedly, it makes the others wonder if they are important. Another reason why addressing our whole family is beneficial. Sometimes the children who weren’t adopted and don’t have special needs, notice.
5. Asking me if the child can have something or do something right in front of them. It’s a set up for failure. If I say no, then the person asking was the “good guy” and I was the meanie who took it away. Please always ask parents those questions out of ear shot. While ALL parents can probably get this (adoptive or not), the fall out and clean up time later for one of these can painful and unnecessary.
Remember, one size doesn’t fit all, so ask. This is not an exhaustive list but frequent encounters we have dealt with. I can absolutely say that those who sabotage have no idea they are doing it, and wouldn’t want to. More often parents will pull away quietly rather than confront someone doing this because they are already so tired and focused on their child. Some of us don’t want to hurt anyones feelings, too.
If you want to help, convey it to the adoptive parents in a way that lets them know you want to learn and do what they need you to do. They will remember it and be so thankful to hear it.
(Photo of my brother, Uncle Anthony with two my children. He is a blessing because I can trust him to encourage my children and focus them back to family and faith. )