coaching

Talking to Your Child About Adoption

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If you are like many adoptive parents it can come as a big surprise when your elementary school-aged child, who has always “known” that they were adopted, begins to ask questions you thought were answered years ago. In many ways you’re right—you have probably told your child their story many times and answered their questions. But something transformative happens between the ages of six and eight that shakes everything up. As your child moves into middle childhood, they experience remarkable cognitive changes, from newly found reasoning and problem-solving skills to being able to take another person’s perspective for the first time.

By this age, most children are not only able to notice what makes them similar to and different from others, but they are able to arrange their thoughts into questions about skin color, family composition, and reproduction—which allows them to think about their adoption in a whole new way. It’s an exciting time, but also comes with some sadness and confusion as many adopted children are able to understand for the first time that relinquishment led to their being adopted. This is a significant shift for children and their parents and many of our coaching clients reach out to us at this time for support and to get practical tools and tips to help navigate these conversations.

Here are some of the techniques we use when coaching parents thru this stage of adoption development.

  • Go Slowly and Listen Carefully. It may sound counterintuitive but try your best not to rush in to answer your child’s questions or fix what might seem like a problem. Instead, listen carefully and ask your child simple questions to help them express what’s on their mind. This could sound like: “You mentioned that you wish you grew in my belly; what do you think that would have been like?” With a focus on listening, you will learn to see the world from your child’s perspective and be better prepared to respond to your child’s unique needs. We often use role playing in coaching sessions to help parents develop and practice this skill.

  • Keep Playing. If you’re getting tripped up over finding just the right words you are in luck because helping a young child make sense of adoption also happens through play. Play themes of caretaking, nurturing, separation and reconnection, belonging, being lost and found are common among all children and can have an added layer for adoptees. Your child may incorporate elements from movies or stories that worry or delight them, and it is through their play that they express their emotional experience symbolically. We often inform parents that it’s not necessary to correct a child’s play or to interpret the story line, just acknowledge the story line. You can simply enjoy the intimate experience of being included in their imagination and take note of the concerns or themes that your child is working through.

  • It’s Not about You. At this age, children are able to ask very direct questions about their biological family, and some parents feel hurt by their little one’s curiosity about their past. One thing that may help is to keep in mind that your child’s interest in their birth family is not a rejection of you. It’s hard, but crucial, that parents do not take this personally. Even at a young age, children are experts at picking up on this kind of defensiveness, and if your child feels that they are upsetting you, they may retreat from future discussions. Coaching sessions can help parents recognize how their own grief and fear may be getting in the way of responding well to their child’s developmentally appropriate questions.

  • Use Props and Resources: Using props to help move conversations forward is especially grounding when emotions run high and we can literally “hold on” to something to help us stay on topic. For example, picture books help to identify feelings, reflect diversity in families, and show images from birth places. Children’s literature is now bursting with adoption-themed stories, including chapter books. There are non-competitive games to encourage communication and build attachment as well as videos created to help both children and adults understand adoptive family life. This is also an ideal time to attend a Lifebook workshop to create or re-create a Lifebook with your child that will help facilitate conversations about their adoption story. Consider your coach as a personal guide to help you identify the right tools and how to use them to keep these conversations going.

  • Build Your Community: The usefulness of making connections with other adults and children who truly understand what you and your child are experiencing can’t be overestimated. People who are not personally connected to adoption, although loving and well-meaning, are simply unable to help in the way that other triad members can. I often encourage parents that when the time is right, becoming part of an adoption community can truly be life changing. Here at Spence-Chapin we believe that adoption is a lifelong journey and help parents build their community early with our Bagels and Blox Sunday meet ups. This is where young children and their parents can meet to play and socialize. We also have Play Café which gives adopted children 6-8 a place to explore their feelings through arts and crafts. Whether through coaching, a playgroup or support group, mentorship program, social event, or on-line forums. There is a way to connect that can be the right fit for you.

Any parent who has ever wondered how much their child needs to know about adoption and how to share it with them can benefit from a coaching session. Spence-Chapin’s coaching and counseling services can support you to gain clarity and receive guidance no matter your child’s age. Contact us at 646-539-2167 or postadoptionservices@spence-chapin.org to schedule an initial consultation.

What to Do After Finding Birth Relatives Through DNA Testing

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Have you identified a birth relative through DNA testing and are wondering what to do next? The technology moves so quickly that even those who plan carefully are often caught off guard by the rush of emotions and the flood of decisions that need to be made. Years of fantasies, imaginings, and what-ifs now have the possibility of becoming part of your reality. This brings tremendous opportunity as well as a loss of control that worries many adoptees and their families. In consultation with a coach, families can find an ally to navigate this complex moment in birth family connection.

Here are some things you can do to feel steadier in this process.

  • Identify your unique motivation and allow for flexibility. Now that you have identified a birth relative, it can be helpful to revisit why you originally initiated the search. For some, it is purely about finding medical information or to learn about their ancestry. And for others, there is a strong desire to develop an ongoing relationship that may begin gradually with correspondence and phone calls and could culminate with in-person meetings. We often coach people to give themselves permission to slow down and take the time they need to think things through. You may become more curious and open, or you may find yourself becoming more cautious and hesitant. And, many adoptees we have worked with find that as they get deeper into the process their paths can take unpredictable turns.

  • Think carefully about how you want to exchange information. Technology and birth family contact often moves more quickly than anticipated. It is likely that together you are going to be working out ways of communicating with your biological relative. Receiving new information can be exciting and welcomed, yet we find that this can also result in feeling exposed or overwhelmed. For instance, integrating new information about your early life circumstances or newly discovered biological siblings can powerfully impact your present life and relationships. Each new piece of your story, (for example a retelling of your relinquishment), may affirm, challenge or transform your personal narrative. Setting the right pace, creating comfortable boundaries, and finding careful ways to disclose personal information are tasks that can be worked through successfully in partnership with a coach. Remember that there isn’t a right or wrong way to develop your connection. Contact may move forward quickly and easily or may require more thought, negotiation and support. Sometimes these new relationships unfold slowly over weeks, months, or even years.

  • Attend to the emotional response. The momentum and the logistics of the search itself can be all- consuming and eclipse the importance of attending to emotional outcomes. Most adoptees have conflicting feelings when they identify a birth relative that range from elation, relief, and joy to fear, panic, and sadness. All of these feelings are expected and need to be explored and understood so that you can move forward with more confidence and less anxiety. Exploring the emotional side of your search with the guidance and support of an adoption-competent professional, can help you organize and manage these powerful feelings.

  • Find un-biased support. Having a solid support system of trusted people who are readily available to you is critical. Consider the different kinds of support that you may need. For instance, who in your circle can provide guidance with objectivity and won’t be influenced by their own needs or agenda? Who is a patient, empathic listener? And, who can provide sound advice about the wide variety of ways to make and maintain contact? Many adoptees find that well-meaning friends and family have trouble understanding this deeply personal process. If you feel this way, consider joining an adoption community that can offer a network of people who have been where you are and can share their search experience. Having the support of other adoptees offers invaluable camaraderie on this journey. In addition, there are books, blogs, support groups, advocacy and social organizations, and on-line communities, each offering different ways to engage with people who can relate personally to your experience.

Spence-Chapin’s coaching and counseling services can support you to explore the emotional side of your search and figure out what to do next. Contact us at 646-539-2167 or postadoptionservices@spence-chapin.org to schedule an initial consultation.

Sharing Difficult or Sensitive Information with Your Adopted Teen

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Many parents pick up the phone and call for coaching services when they realize that it’s time to tell their child a part of their adoption story that they have been holding. Perhaps you have photos you haven’t shown, know about a birth sibling, or there are circumstances surrounding your child’s conception or relinquishment that you have not yet shared. Best practice is for adoptees to know their full story before they transition through adolescence. There are exceptions to this, but generally this is a sound guideline and we have also found that even parents who would prefer to wait longer, tend to feel uneasy withholding information as their child moves deeper into the teen years. An understandable, but common mistake, is to expect there to be a “sweet spot” or the perfect time to share information so that it is pain-free. This may be too much to ask, but there are definitely some things that you can do to help the conversation be more comfortable for you and your child.

Here are some tips to support you and your family as you move into sharing more difficult information

  • Review your information. One of the most helpful things you can do is to go back in time and pull together all the information that you have about your child’s adoption—everything from the handwritten notes you may have taken, to documents from your agency, lawyer, or oversees representative. Any photos, videos, and correspondence with anyone connected to your adoption process from the very beginning to the present. There are two main reasons ask parents to do this. The first is so that you, as the parent, can make a clear inventory of what you do know about your child’s adoption. Most parents’ memories of the adoption process are filled with gaps or their memory of what happened is different from their partner. The second reason is that by sifting through these items, you are likely to be flooded with memories and to feel emotional— we ask parents to do this exercise as an important task to get familiar with what comes up for them and addressing this so that they can feel more comfortable sharing this difficult information.

  • Write down all the facts. Write what you think you have told your child on one page and what you have left to share on the other. Write out their story in a way that you think they can absorb. Your children are looking to you for the truth. The more in control and prepared you are the easier it is for your teen to take the information in and process it on their terms. This is one of the areas where a coach can help you formulate and articulate the information and your intent.

  • Consider the timing for your child. It’s important that you be the one to provide your child with the truth about their story. The older your child gets, the more likely it is that they will learn information about their adoption from other sources—they may stumble upon the information in your computer or file cabinet, hear it from someone that you confided in, or search for information themselves on the internet or by using social media. So, yes, it’s important that you not wait too long to provide your child with their full story. But with your newfound readiness, be sure to consider if it is also a good time for your child. Think about their overall mental health, their current ability to understand and process information, other transitions they are experiencing with friends or at school, and significant changes in your home life (parent separation, illness, or other losses.)

  • Address your own anxiety and fears. Addressing your fears and anxiety head-on is a critical step in preparing to share difficult information with your child. Parents worry that this new information is going to cause distress for their child and, understandably, want to protect their child from this pain and protect themselves from witnessing it. Parents’ worry tends to fall into two main areas. Their first concern is that the child will feel more rejection or shame as a result of having this new information. The second area of concern is that this information will change the relationship and create distance between the parent and the child. This is an area where I find coaching can be most effective because parents need a place to express their own fears and worries without judgement. Often coaching provides relief for parents, enabling them to have difficult conversations with their child without becoming overwhelmed with their own fears. Your coach can help you develop language, determine timing, and build your own resilience so that you feel more confident in your parenting decisions.

Spence-Chapin’s coaching and counseling services can support you as you explore how to share difficult information with your teen. Contact us at 646-539-2167 or postadoptionservices@spence-chapin.org to schedule an initial consultation.