Sunday, August 17, 2014

What Can I Do To Help? A Guide to Supporting Adoptive Families

Last week I wrote about my journey to adoptive parenthood, in Expecting Without a Bump. I was deeply touched by all the encouraging messages and comments it inspired – from family, friends, and complete strangers who picked up on it via Twitter and elsewhere. Many friends expressed their desire to support us through the next stage of the adventure, when our children actually come to live with us, and asked what they could do to help. As we’re now only two sleeps away from moving in day, I took advantage of a quiet house this evening compose a follow up piece with some thoughts on this very subject. I hope it will be useful to my nearest and dearest, and to anyone else out there who is supporting an adoptive family in the early days.

It will be a challenging time for the kids and for us, as they leave behind their foster carers and get used to their ‘forever family’, and we adjust to being ‘Mummy and Daddy’ to two walking-talking beings after 15 years of DINKY freedom. As well as the obvious basics of feeding, clothing, entertaining and protecting our children, we also need to help them process everything that’s happened to them so that they can move forward and flourish, and to instill in them a tangible sense of feeling properly claimed into their ‘forever family’. A lot of this will come down to love, patience and instinct, but thankfully there is also a wealth of accepted wisdom on attachment theory as well as many useful resources available on child development specifically relating to adopted families.

We’ve used the past year and a half in the lead up to the adoption to take advantage of these, and have done a lot of reading up and thinking about different approaches, to try and identify strategies that resonate with our own values and will fit naturally into our parenting style. Of course we won’t get it right all the time, but we hope that with the help of our support network, we can in turn give our little ones all that they need to thrive. If you are one of our loved ones reading this, or indeed a friend to someone else who is adopting, here are some fairly simple ways you can help…

Be there, but don’t be there

Please don’t be offended if we don’t invite you to visit in the first few weeks or months. It’s really important that we spend most of our time just with the children, bonding with them on their own, and forming the all-important attachment with them. We still need your help, though – so do drop us a line or call us (in the evenings!) to see how we’re doing. We may feel very isolated during this time. If we happen to bump into you in the park or supermarket, it's fine to say "hi" casually, so don't feel you have to scamper past.

Cuddles and Comfort

When you do eventually come to visit, or we arrange to meet up with you, we’d ask you not to be overly affectionate with the kids. To begin with, things like sitting on laps and comforting cuddles is reserved for Mummy and Daddy. This may seem strange (especially for close family), but this is to help them understand that we are the most important adults in their lives. In the nicest possible way, please re-direct them back to us if they seek you out for comfort and affection.

The Etiquette of Gifts and Treats

We know that you’ll be excited to meet our new kids and might want to help them feel loved with welcoming gifts, but we’d ask that you check with us before handing over treats. Too many new things can be overwhelming for children who have never had many possessions of their own, and it’s important that they value love and security in the home over material items. Appropriate gifts are small things that can be enjoyed by all the family together and can help with our bonding.

Support our parenting style

Because of their backgrounds and the things that have happened to our kids in their short lives, the way we parent them may seem different to how you might approach parenting a birth child. For example, we won’t use the naughty step or time out, because these methods can be traumatic for a child who has experienced neglect and abandonment. We’ve decided not to use reward charts either, as they can reinforce poor self-esteem if never ticked. You can help by accepting and supporting the way we parent and discipline our kids, even if it seems a bit alien.

Help build their self-esteem

These children have suffered loss and will need a lot of re-assurance. We've been reading up on ways to reinforce children’s self-confidence, and these are some of the key things we've discovered:
  • Be specific with praise, and praise effort over skill (e.g. instead of saying “hey, that’s a great picture you drew”, say “wow – look how carefully you chose the colours for those flowers” or “I can see how much effort you put into making those lines so neat”). Children accept this type of praise more readily, they trust that you mean it, and it encourages them.
  • Engage with their intellect over their physical appearance. In particular, please try and resist the temptation to say to girls when you greet them “you’re so pretty” or “look at your lovely dress/hair/shoes”. We’d like our daughter to grow up valuing herself by more than looks. Ask her what book she’s reading or what crafty things she’s made lately instead.
  • Try not to label them – Our kids will have already attracted labels just by virtue of their situation in life, but we will try our best not to add to or reinforce these. This means never saying in front of them things like “oh, aren’t you the bossy one” or “wow, you’re such a fussy eater”. Kids with low self-esteem particularly will take on board such statements and model their view of themselves on this. Better instead to adopt a positive model that states what you want them to be: “It’s great that you’re so confident, and because you are kind and caring as well, I am sure you’ll let your friend have a say” or “It’s good that you ate all of your peas tonight…you’re an enthusiastic eater!”.

Avoid play that involves pretend abandonment or rejection

It may seem like a harmless tease to run away from a child or enact putting them in a bin, but games like this can unhelpfully reinforce feelings of being unwanted and unsafe. Being a big scary baddie may not go down too well either for kids who have been exposed to domestic violence or chaotic households.

Acknowledge inner truth and show empathy

Sometimes our kids may get overly upset about things that seem trivial (as indeed all kids do), but it’s really important not to dismiss their feelings or say things like “it’s nothing to be upset about”. Every opportunity to explore what’s on their minds is valuable as part of processing what they have been through, and their tears may be about something other than whatever actually happened in the moment. So if they seem distressed by something little, ask them “I can see you’re upset. I’m wondering what that’s about?”.

What not to say

Please don’t tell our kids ‘you’re so lucky’ or ask them how they like their new family – it may seem to you that they are fortunate to get adopted by us, but actually none of what has happened to them is at all lucky, and it’s OK to accept and acknowledge that. You can help them to accept and trust us by demonstrating that you do.

Never introduce them to other people as our ‘adopted kids’ or refer to them as such – they are just ‘our kids’. It’s OK to talk about being adopted with them if they bring it up (as they will always know they are adopted), but we’d like to avoid them being labelled and feeling stigmatised because of it. Likewise, don’t refer to their birth family as their ‘real family’. They will always have two families – a ‘birth family’ and us, their ‘forever family. Both are very real.

Social Media and sharing

Sorry, but however cute they are being, we won’t be putting photos of our kids on Facebook, and for fairly obvious reasons, we need to ask the same of you. Please don’t ever share any details or photos of our kids online, talk about them by their actual names to people we don’t know, or discuss with anyone else information about their history and circumstances that we may share with you in confidence.
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It’s also important to say that just because we’ve suggested some specific steers around the needs of adopted children, it doesn’t mean you have to treat our kids any differently to any other kids in your life for most of the time. Above all they are amazing little people who want to have fun and feel safe and loved.

If you’re interested to dig a little deeper into some of the above theories, I can recommend some really accessible books on the subject that we’ve found particularly useful:

Attaching in Adoption by Deborah Grey
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber (all parents should read this – it’s genius!)
Creating Loving Attachments by Kim Golding & Daniel Hughes

And some good articles:
10 Things Adoptees Want You To Know
10 things adoptive parents wish their friends and family understood
Adoption in the UK: 9 common misconceptions
17 Things Never to Say to An Adopted Person 

Finally, to anyone from our social circle and extended family who is reading this, THANK YOU. You have all already been so supportive and wonderful through our journey to adoption, and we are truly grateful for this and for all that is still to come in the biggest adventure of our lives. Bring it on.
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