Shared with permission
I did NOT attempt to talk him out of his feelings, but listened and empathized. In this way, I knew that he would get the feelings on the outside so that they would no longer have the power to hurt him and he could begin to change them himself. No one appreciates or feels understood when they share their feelings with someone who dismisses them, doesn’t accept them, as is, and fails to acknowledge them. Neither do others feel understood when another says “I understand exactly how you feel.” Listening in a way that says “I am trying to figure out how you are feeling– correct me if I guess wrong” feel understood, accepted and cared about. This is important because all too often, adoptive parents want to apply an emotional band aid when their child is struggling with feelings related to adoption or feeling different.
In this situation that I’ve described, my son spent several minutes crying and talking about how left-out he felt and how hard it is to feel different and rejected by his friends. Only then was he ready to problem-solve ways to cope. It was my availability to listen, verbalizing possible feelings so that he could connect how he was feeling inside with the words to communicate those inner feelings without trying to force him to confide in me before HE was ready to that helped him to vent, so that he could move on to something else. That skill is what we name Reflective Listening and it is a learned skill, no parent or adult is born with this ability. It is learned and it takes practice to perfect it.
Parents who are most successful at helping their children communicate with them about how they think and feel regarding having been adopted are those who listen for feelings and those who themselves communicate about their own feelings. We set the stage for children to talk with us about adoption all along the pathway of their childhood, adolescence, and communicating about both positive and negative feelings, and enable our children to express their feelings in a non-judgmental way when we start early. How early? I encourage families to practically stand over their child’s crib and begin to talk about feelings! Why? Although babies are, of course, too young to tell us how they feel, WE need the practice. Getting tuned-in to our own feelings will help us to be more attuned and ready to respond to others’ feelings.
Even if your child is way past the baby and toddler stage, it is never too late! We can all learn to communicate more effectively and our efforts will pay off. Parents who learn and practice these skills, even when their children are in their teens still find that it encourages their child to ask questions more freely, discuss any concerns they have more easily, and talk about adoption at least a little more openly. It takes patience and perseverance though to enable a child who has never seemed to want to discuss adoption to begin to share what he is thinking.
For more help to learn about reflective listening, there are several excellent books available. HOW TO TALK SO KIDS WILL LISTEN AND LISTEN SO KIDS WILL TALK, Double-Dip Feelings: Stories to Help Children Understand Emotions by Barbara S. Cain, and S.T.E.P. Systematic Training for Effective Parenting are three excellent resource books. For further information about how and when children understand (developmentally) adoption a wonderful book to read is BEING ADOPTED: THE LIFELONG SEARCH FOR SELF by David Brodzinsky and Marshall Schecter.
Jane Brown is both an adoption social worker/educator and an adoptive & foster mother of nine children, some of whom are now grown. She lives and works in Arizona. She serves on the editorial board of Adoptive Families Magazine and writes a regular parenting column for the publication. She is the creator of Adoption Playshops which is a series of workshops for adopted children age five+, their non-adopted siblings, and adoptive parents in which children are helped through playful, multi sensory activities to explore growing up in an adoptive family and racial identity, plus develop skills for dealing with societal attitudes and beliefs about adoption and includes helping children resist and confront racism and bullying. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org (and welcomes your questions and/or comments).