Updated: Mar 20, 2020
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I recently read a blog by an adoptive parent that read: “If you received your child at birth or adopted an older child out of foster care, you may have heard “Just love them and everything will be fine.” No one told you that you were assuming responsibility for a grieving and/or traumatized child. No one told you that your child may be afraid to truly connect to you because of the trauma of being separated from the birth mother. The fear that every new relationship will be like the first. On a deep level your child yearns to get close to you, but they are afraid to do so for fear of another abandonment. When a trauma occurs early in life, fear often wins over everything. No one but another adoptive parent can understand the pain of almost but not quite connecting as profoundly as one might want to. And it can be very painful.”
As an Adoption professional and former foster-adopt child, I want to inspire parents to understand how important “the act of joining with their child’s grief” is. As scary as it seems, it will be very liberating. This liberation will not only bring joy to the parents but joy for the child as well. And it is through joy, that the hormone for bonding, oxcytocin, is released into the cells of the body which will restructure the brain and increase the desire for attachment. The parent must first “feel” the child’s grief and the child will “feel felt” at this cellular level for bonding to occur. Children feel good about themselves when their experiences are validated, supported and reassuring.
Annette Baran, author of the groundbreaking book, The Adoption Triangle, says that “Adoptive parents must weep with their child: ’We’re sorry, too, that you didn’t grow in Mommy’s tummy.’”
“I think parents don’t realize they’re allowed to show these feelings,” says Baran. “They think they have to present an unflagging cheerfulness about adoption, in order that the children will feel positive, too. This is a mistaken notion.”
“Parents whose children express sadness usually feel that they need to reassure them, rather than feel the sadness along with them. But having lost an original set of parents is something to feel sad about, and the best any parent can do for a child is to allow them to share those feelings of loss with them,” explains Baran.
So how does a parent do this?
I have an intervention that I have recommended to parents, which is usually done in a therapy setting, however it can also be done at home. This intervention has brought emotional closeness as well as emotional intelligence between parent and child. And has helped parents feel their child’s grief in a non-threatening way.
This intervention was derived from another intervention I had created called The Anger Bag, which is composed of 16 coping skills for children to use and assist in expressing, releasing and projecting their anger outward. I called the exercise the “Paper to Rip” intervention which has now expanded itself from “Paper to Rip” to “Hold On To My Feelings.”
This intervention has been successful with children between the ages of 4-17. Materials needed are an old phone book, an unused pillow case feasible for drawing and/or writing on which will serve as a bag, and some permanent markers. I recommend providing a setting that is a comfortable space, okay for paper to be scattered around i.e. family room, bedroom. The parent or parents, (it is strongly suggested that both parents be present) are instructed to have an attitude of playfulness, total acceptance and curiosity, as well as empathy. These attitudes create a model of parenting which meets the needs of their child, by providing a container for their feelings and produces a therapeutic environment of emotional safety so the child feels “felt, heard and seen.”
To begin, the intervention can be introduced as “We have noticed you have been holding onto a lot of “feelings” and wanted to give you a way to release these feelings by letting you rip up this old phone book. And guess who is going to clean up and hold onto all of the feelings??? Not you, we are.” The parent entices the child through playfulness by demonstrating the task first i.e. opening the phone book, ripping out a few pages at a time, ripping or smashing the paper apart or together, stating with words an example of what they are feeling such as “I’m mad because I can’t drink soda for breakfast!!” and/or by showing their frustration/anger/pain without words via their facial cues by throwing the pages up in the air and watching them fall down. This is the critical element that gets children to begin the process of releasing pent of feelings. It is strongly suggested that parents encourage their child to say words associated with their feelings to help them build emotional intelligence by teaching “I messages.” “I feel ______ because __________.” But do not force the child if they are non-verbal, there resistance may be an explanation that they are not ready emotionally or are not feeling safe enough to verbalize at this time. To note: as a parent provides the opportunity for this intervention on a regular basis the child will begin to build trust, feel more safe and be eager to express. An environment of safety must be established for the child to express whatever he/she pleases without criticism, rejection, anger or dismissal by the parent(s). It is also important to note, as a parent how one’s own non-verbal facial expressions reads to others. It is suggested to keep an open face, be overly curious (raised forehead), and breathe deeply during the exercise to help calm down and regulate any arousal states the child brings out emotionally within the parent in order to stay connected. If as a parent, you are becoming dysregulated and overwhelmed this is a signal the child is triggering emotional memories within your past which needs to be addressed and acknowledged for healing and understanding i.e. therapist, journaling etc. as not to get in the way of building a trusting relationship with your child.
Parents are encouraged to enjoy the child’s process by “oohing” and “aaahhing” with amazement as the child rips up the paper. This is a necessary part of the intervention as the parents are able to stay connected, focused, and excited by their child’s expression this will increase the levels of the oxcytocin hormone, essential for bonding.
If the parent has witnessed the child utter words of frustration, anger, or sadness in protest I encourage the parent to ask the child, “Would you be willing to let mommy or daddy speak a feeling you have said before so we can feel it together?” i.e. “I’m mad because I don’t see my birthmother!” “I’m sad because we don’t look alike.” “I’m sad because I didn’t grow in your tummy!” “I’m sad because you are not my real mother.” “I mad because I have so many feelings and I feel so overwhelmed!”
After the phone book is completely obliterated in the living room the child is instructed by the parent to take a comfy seat somewhere in the room and “supervise” as the parent(s) “picks up all the feelings.” Be careful not to say “time to pick up the garbage.” And take a moment and breathe... to take in visually the scattered papers around the room and see them as your child’s “emotional life.” I usually make a statement such as, “Wow look at all these feelings!!! They sure can get messy. Are feelings messy sometimes? Thank you for letting me know about all these. Now, I am going to give them all the love and care that they need.” The parent (s) then picks up the pillow case, begins picking up each feeling, either in piles or single pieces and talks to them with great empathy, “I’m sorry too that you do not see your birthmother.“ “I’m sorry too that we do not look alike.” “I’m sorry too that your birth mommy could not be your everyday mommy.” “This feeling I am going to hold on to and give lots of love.” It is strongly suggested that parents do what they feel is authentic in their hearts at this moment. I have witnessed parents kiss each paper and not say much at all, hug piles of feelings and convey to the child through facial expressions “how much this means to them”, and have witnessed many parents have many tears upon truly understanding, seeing and feeling their child’s grief realizing it is their responsibility to feel it too with their child. I have seen children’s faces light up and be amazed at their parents capacity to be so reflective, open and honest about the reality of their adoption and how they became a family together. This intervention, I can proudly say has been a bridge towards healing and attachment for many of the families I have worked with and continue to work with.
In the end, when all “feelings” have been identified and placed in the pillow case bag. Ask the child, “Are there any feelings I have missed?” The child scans the room and points them out so all have been acknowledged. Parents then, are instructed to ask the child what they want to name these feelings today and have the child write the name, if they can, on the bag. Then the parents write a closing response on the bag such as “I understand.” “I love all of your feelings.” “I am here to listen.” “I want to help hold on to your sadness, so you don’t have to hold on all by yourself.” The parent then reads the response out loud to the child and let’s the child know, “I(we) am going to hold on to these feelings until you tell me to let go of them. I will keep them close to my (our) bed and keep them safe.” This act of merely holding onto the feelings bag conveys to the child their feelings can be secured and their parents can handle them and will not be overwhelmed by them. Whether your child was in foster care, moved from place to place, or your child was adopted in infancy, there can be many different ranges of overwhelming feelings of grief connected to the separation from their birth families and the knowing that they don’t have to be in this overwhelm alone anymore lifts a great weight off emotionally.
In closing, for an adoptee/foster child, this sense of security, and the need to feel heard and seen is imperative for building trust. If an adoptee/foster child feels their needs are not being met early in life, they will “numb” themselves emotionally or “shut off” their feelings. By enacting this “Hold On To My Feelings” repeatedly with your adopted or foster child, your child will develop a sense of belonging and this intervention will help them make sense of their early life and repair what has been emotionally “lost” and now “found” by you, the parent.
I hope you find this intervention as cathartic as I have had in developing as well as facilitating for families touched by adoption and foster care. With a warm heart I encourage you to join with your child’s grief and feel liberated.
Jeanette Yoffe, MFT is a Psychotherapist Specializing in Adoption and Foster Care. She has private practice in West Los Angeles. Other interventions can be found in her treatment manual, “Groundbreaking Interventions: Working with Traumatized Children & Families in Foster Care and Adoption” at www.CeliaCenter.org