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  • Guilt & Shame Seen in Adoption

    Guilt & Shame Seen in Adoption

    With me, I know guilt and shame has been a big battle in our adoptions. I severely underestimated this element. Keep in mind that the core issues in adoption (control, guilt/shame, loss, identity, intimacy, grief, rejection/abandonment) affect not only our adopted children, but also us as adoptive parents, and the birthparents of our children.

    Over twenty years ago, we felt called to adopt. We certainly were not ashamed of that, nor did we feel guilty about it. There may have been some not so nice comments about what it may do to our other children and whether it was fair to sacrifice for the purpose of adoption, but I honestly just blew off those comments. It was not a sacrifice to adopt. Yes, our first adoption cost more then our annual income, but we were on fire for the Lord and knew without a doubt that we were walking with the Lord in the direction He was calling us. Never once did it feel like a sacrifice until…..

    The small sacrifices began to add up and add up and the degree of trauma had to be dealt with on a daily basis. Guilt began to seep in and shame came hand in hand. When our daughter was diagnosed with a blood borne disease we began to be treated differently. When we adopted more and more special needs children, the treatment began to change as well. And adopting a black child (regardless of the fact that we had adopted transracially) brought forward new challenges. We began to respond not so much in shame, but in a fear of response based on treatment by others. I was honestly unaware of the underlying core issue of guilt for many years.

    Slowly and surely, elements of guilt began to plague us.  I had to continually tell myself that these things I was feeling “guilty” about were superficial things. Just things like not being able to take X number of kids somewhere because it would cost a small fortune.  It was different when we had 2 or 3 kids. The larger our family got, the more we cut expenses in order to afford so many children. I  remember standing in the butter isle at the grocery store distraught around the holidays because I wanted to buy butter instead of margarine, but we couldn’t afford it. That was a pretty minor thing looking back, but it hurt nonetheless and added to the feeling of guilt.

    I also remember just four years ago experiencing once again a distinct feeling of shame at Sonrise Church. I was about the only English speaking person in line for free food at a church where they have a food panty. I felt a little bit out of place. It was a humbling experience. There was an amazing person that would oversee their program. I wish I remembered her name… Anyway….she checked me in one day and as I was filling out all the information, she made some comment on us having so many children, and I burst into tears.

    For me, to be emotional was shocking because I’m not a person to wear my heart on my sleeve.  I’m sure hormones contributed. Our daughter was born three months early and spent two months in the NICU. She proceeded to need heart surgery and the reason we were getting the “free food” was because we had a 28K hospital bill above and beyond what our insurance would pay and above and beyond the 20K we had already put into that particular adoption experience. In that moment, I didn’t feel guilty. I simply felt really, really sad. I do not regret our adoptions, but there is grief over some of the details that have come with the adoption experience.

    There have been moments that I have felt guilty for the financial sacrifice on the entire family unit. All of our children joined our family privately or internationally and it has been an expensive process in so many ways. But….so many people have gathered around and supported us. We even went to our mailbox one day when our other daughter was rushed to the hospital to remove her kidney due to a tumor and discovered close to 2K in cash. There’s just been blessing upon blessing with this whole process. Our oldest son would joke that we were the local charity because there would be bread at the door when we arrived home. It’s been a relatively common occurrence for people to think we’re an orphanage. After all, we drove a bus around town and have a HUGE family.

    But…the biggest guilt factor has been the baggage/trauma that we’ve inadvertently exposed our other children to. It is not something we originally raised our hand for. I don’t think anyone in their right mind would raise their hand for this junk. I think people are often raising their hands for adoption, but not realizing what they are getting into. In fact, sexual abuse in particular was one of the items we considered ourselves “not up for” before beginning the adoption process. I realize now, it was naive to go into the adoption process without being prepared for this element. The vast majority of children coming out of orphanages have a sexual abuse history. The vast majority of children in foster care have the same element. Many, many toddlers and very young children also have this history.

    On one hand, I believe bringing in this degree of trauma has made our entire family unit stronger. We have all learned skills in working with kids from hard places and it has strengthened our compassion for others. It has also protected our kids in some ways from abuse by others. Abuse does not only come through adoption. A high percentage of individuals, just in the general population, have an abuse history on some level. This fact alone impacts how adoptive parents respond to the trauma elements of our children. The adoptive parents themselves may likely have an abuse history. If there is one thing I would advise, it would be to start taking a really close look at ourselves and our own history.

    On a positive side, our kids have, by necessity, been educated on grooming behaviors, the need for appropriate boundaries, recognizing predatory behavior, and a range of other things in order to protect themselves. On the other hand, I’m sad that they’ve had to grow up quickly. They’ve learned some tough things that no children should ever really have to learn.

    Don’t get me wrong, we don’t have imminent danger in our home currently and we actually have not been in that place for many years now. There was a VERY tough season in our lives many years ago and I honestly pray that we never go back to that place, but it has shaped the way we operate our entire family unit. Our kids do not play in bedrooms together. Actually, no two children are alone together in our home at anytime. They all do activities in the living room out in the open. We have schedules and rotations on where people are at in the home. If someone wants private time/alone time, that is scheduled and we need to know about it. Basically, kids do not just walk off to their room or even just walk off to the bathroom. The girls’ bedrooms are on one floor and the boys are on another. The girls and boys have separate bathrooms, etc. There are just logistics (house guidelines) that we have changed in order to have a firm safety plan in our home. I wish I had taken these precautions 15-20 years ago, but I did not realize the risks we had in the home. Thankfully, it became apparent before anyone was seriously harmed, but there were so many scary years during that time frame.

    I look at our youngest and I am so incredibly thankful that she has not experienced what our older kids experienced. Many years ago, we lived in crisis management. We have since adopted children with even more significant issues, but it has not been nearly as traumatic simply because we’ve been more prepared with a strategy in place.

    Understanding the core issue of guilt and shame has been helpful in this process. Not only do we experience guilt and shame, but our children that have joined our family through adoption also feel a tremendous amount of guilt and shame. This can display in a whole range of ways. 

    Ways to lessen guilt and shame in your teen:

    Find ways to connect with your teen. I know this is much easier said then done, but I cannot emphasize this element enough. At one time we had seven kids under 12 years old and I thought that was time consuming. I have memories of pushing a cart in the grocery store with a baby in the cart and three on each side holding on. Those moments were nothing compared to parenting teenagers. We now have 6 teenagers (and a bunch of older kids and younger kids) and our time together is much more complex then simply pushing a grocery cart in the store. I can’t ask them to simply “hold on” while I move along. They are not a captive audience. Teens are at a stage of development where they are breaking away from parents and establishing their own identity.  Individual time with your teen or child is essential in this process.

    Acknowledge the reality of adoption. Look at some of the tough things that adoption has brought into your lives and acknowledge the reality. That doesn’t mean I believe we should live there, but don’t be afraid to step in the mud and swim around for a while. I relate working though core issues in adoption as going to those expensive spas I have never been to. People pay big bucks to have mud smeared all over them and apparently then they come out on the other side “better” then what they were before. I think this is true with our kids that come from hard places as well. We have to schedule our mud spa time where we will delve into some messy core issues such as our child’s past, our past, and really look at how it has affected us. Many teens (or even most in my experience) feel shame surrounding the circumstances of their birth. They may feel guilty because they “should” feel happy~ after all, they were chosen. Allow your teen to feel sad. Just because adoption was a happy experience for us (at least initially), does not mean it was a happy experience for our child.

    Initiate conversations about birth parents. I mentioned this in the last post and I’ll mention it again in regard to guilt and shame. They may feel guilty for wanting a relationship with their biological family. There is so much guilt that teens express in my office revolving around questions about their birth family.  They may have been a baby when they were adopted, but have an underlying belief that if only they were a better baby and didn’t cry as much, maybe they would not have been adopted.

    They may swing between wishing they were never adopted to being very thankful for their adoption. They may understand logically the reasons surrounding their adoption, but still feel like they really don’t understand why this happened to them. They may very likely say that they are just fine with their adoption. They may also say that they never think about their birth family and do not want to talk about their birthmother. BUT….Many teens hold a common belief that something is intrinsically wrong with them that caused them to be placed for adoption. This belief is intertwined with thoughts of the birthfamily.

    Be sensitive of your teens possible need to connect with their past. I remember years ago helping out with Chinese heritage camps. One of the coordinators wanted to do an adult adoptee panel and they were looking for a participant (adult adoptee) that was doing well in life and had not done a homeland tour or search. I connected them with a person that I had grown up with that had been adopted from Korea as a toddler. She was doing very well in life. She did well throughout high school. She graduated with honors. She went on to college. She had a successful career. She had married a nice guy. She had a good relationship with her adoptive parents. There really was no “drama” to be seen in her life. She was on the surface a perfect adoption story. She stated she was completely content and had no interest in doing a “search” for her family or to even go to Korea to visit, but yes she would be happy to share about her amazing adoption experience. I thought she would be a good balance to the other participants that had chosen to search and did express turmoil surrounding their adoption. Keep in mind, just because your teen does not expressa need to connect with their past, does not mean they aren’t thinking about it.

    Listen to adult adoptee panels. Learn from them. What my friend thought she would express to adoptive parents and what she ended up expressing were two entirely different things. She had basically always told herself that she was happy and thankful to be adopted. She had never allowed herself to go to the grief, to the shame, or to the pain that was involved in adoption. The core elements of adoptions continued to eat away at her, unbeknownst to her friends or family. One interesting element when listening to adult adoptee panels is we will often hear very similar thoughts and feelings from adult adoptees regardless of whether they were adopted at birth, at 2 years old, 10 years old, or at 16. The core elements are there regardless of the age of their adoption.

    I see many clients that are 20 years old, 30 years old, 40 years old, or even 60+ years old that come to me because they finally begin to realize that adoption is a piece of what is going on in their lives. They begin to see the impact of adoption on their relationships. They realize adoption has affected their interaction with others.  Basically, there is a degree of unrest in their lives and they want to change that fact.

    Know the core issues in adoption and discuss them with your teen. Maybe your teen will say, none of these things matter to them. They may believe this to be true in the moment. On the other hand, that same adult that was on the panel did an interview with her adoptive parents. The parents said, “We tried to talk about her heritage and talk about her history, but she wasn’t interested, so we didn’t push” After all, she seemed to adjust just fine in life. This is a common response. The adult adoptees response is often, but I was a child or a teen. Of course I said it didn’t matter. I didn’t know how to talk about what I was feeling. I didn’t even know why I was feeling the way I was feeling.

    Allow a format to talk. I’ll talk a little more about “special time” and how to outline it in a future post. But, for now I will say that we often are not allowing undivided time to talk to our teens. Many clients will say to me that their parents never spend time with them or talk to them. The parents on the other hand will say they spend all kinds of time with them and the teenager doesn’t want to spend time with them. The parents take the teen to events or to all kinds of sports of activities. They may have one or two kids and spend hours alone with them in the car, but the teen does not view that time as spending time with them. Teens will basically say to me, “Yes, but they have to take me to that event or they had to take me shopping or they just want to buy me stuff or they don’t really want to spend time with me”. What we are doing and what our teen interprets as the reasons for what we are doing may be two different things. This why the way we outline our special time is so important. More on this in the near future…….

    What ways do address guilt and shame in your adoption? Do you as a parent ever feel a sense of guilt? Do you have strategies that help lessen guilt and shame in your child? Please feel free to comment and share your experiences as well! I hope that we can all learn from each other on this incredible journey of adoption.

    These trials will show that your faith is genuine. 
    It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold–
    though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. 
    So when your faith remains strong through many trials, 
    it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day 
    when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world. 
    ~1 Peter 1:7
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