The Importance of Maintaining Adoptive Family Support Groups
As their children get older, many adoptive parents regret having cut theirs and their youngsters' ties to these supports group.
By Jane A. Brown
Sandra eagerly got dressed to go the adoptive family gatherings until she was eight years old. She then began to protest and act out when her parents asked her to get into the car and drive to meet the other families. She didn't have a terrible time when she was playing with the other children whom she'd known since she was a baby, and it wasn't that she had something else planned. She just no longer wanted these reminders of how "special" her family is. That word had become the code word for "different", and being different meant because she is transracially adopted she was often singled out in school for intrusive comments and uncomfortable questions. Joining other children at these group gatherings reminded Sandra that like her, these kids are different, too, in the same way she is. Sandra didn't want to confront that fact or think more about it.
Wanting to be sensitive to their daughter's feelings, Sandra's parents pulled back from attending these gatherings. Perhaps, they believed, they'd done enough to help Sandra to understand her adoption. It was time to move on.
Years later, when Sandra's acting-out behavior erupted, her family plunged into a crisis. But there was no longer any natural support group for them to return to. Sandra's parents found themselves accused by family, friends, the school, and therapists as possessing poor parenting skills. They were told they were responsible for the serious problems that had developed. They felt isolated and, with a sense of hopelessness, they were ready to give up.
The Trajectory of Change
Many of us welcome the opportunity to connect with families like ours during the adoption process and when adoption is new and we are reveling in parenting. We are thrilled to celebrate our child's heritage and watch as our child grows alongside children on this shared journey. We look for children's adoption books and affordable art work from our child's culture and country. However, as our children go off to school, they get involved in other activities and our lives seem to grow busier and more complicated. So at the time a lot of children begin to protest that they are no longer interested in adoption group activities, our enthusiasm usually wanes, too. We attend fewer gatherings, and we notice, along with our child, that fewer families with older children are in attendance. Seeing this decreases even more our motivation for participating.
Yet for adopted youngsters, issues involving adoption and race might appear and then be resolved, but resurface during later developmental stages, peaking during pre-adolescent and adolescent years. Research shows that many adoptive families seek psychological services, with the majority starting this process when their youngsters are between 12 and 16. Grief and loss are the central issues of adoption, and attempts at grief resolution occur through a lifetime.
Conflicts sometimes arise in families due to divided loyalties. Anxiety can continue to plague adopted youngsters who experienced several traumatic transfers early in their lives. For these children, control battles can ensue as they try to exert control as a way of assuring their safety as a result of having been so out of control during these transfers.
Identity confusion can also complicate the adopted youngster's struggle for identity.
These normative challenges can often result in behavioral symptoms, which are outward clues to inner turbulence that these youngsters grapple with. Unfortunately, this situation can be wrongly seen as a pathology rather than understood and addressed appropriately so that children can build successful lives. And when problems are not addressed early, they tend to escalate in intensity and become more difficult to solve.
By staying within an adoption support group, recognizable patterns of these challenges can be better observed and addressed appropriately. Acting-out behaviors might shock others who are not as accustomed to how these issues play out, and this can result in adoptive parents being judged harshly and unfairly as possessing poor parenting skills, as happened with Sandra's parents. For this reason and others, many adoptive parents regret having cut theirs and their youngsters' ties to these supports group and they can be disappointed and alarmed to learn that this essential support network - with adoptive families who have children of a similar age - no longer exists. These families report feeling isolated and stigmatized, feeling they have nowhere to turn.
We know that both preventive group work and group counseling with adopted youngsters and adolescents is extremely powerful. It works by mitigating the feelings of difference and isolation. When youngsters connect with others who share similar experiences, ideas, and feelings regarding adoption losses they are empowered by the discovering a sense of being "normal" which, by itself, can reduce behavioral and emotional problems.
Adopted youngsters and their parents would be better served by remaining connected to adoptive family support groups through the middle childhood years. It is during this time that children tend to go underground with theories and beliefs they develop about what it means to be growing up adopted. These ideas evolve during a time of youngsters' more sophisticated cognitive development. But these ideas emerge into an environment that largely misunderstands adoption, invalidates adoptive family membership, and holds onto negative stereotypes about adoption that are conveyed to adopted youngsters by peers at times when adults are often not present to hear them and intervene.
Gender issues are also something some families wrestle with as they try to be a part of the FCC community. I've heard loud and understandable complaints from families who have adopted boys from China. They tell us that other parents regularly suggest that boys are of lesser value and that they were unlucky to receive referral and placement of a boy instead of a girl. In addition, negative stereotypes of Asian males are expressed by parents of Asian girls within the FCC community in front of these families. Often, their sons are by their side when they receive these comments. In addition, they complain that the language used and the planned activities are girl-centric. Their sons are rendered invisible or unimportant, or they are regarded as rare anomalies. Seeing no other boys in these community gatherings and hearing insensitive comments has driven many of these families out of the FCC circles, particularly as their sons mature. The effect of this is not just deleterious to the boys and their families. It is damaging to the girls as well, for despite parents careful explanations of why China made them available for international adoption and being told that they are of immense value, their experience is that China only sends away girls. This societal messaging suggests that girls are unwanted and not valued in China, and the lack of community participation of families with boys reinforces this damaging message.
What Makes These Groups Work?
But when adoptive families keep their ties to the support groups, they can work together to provide educational services and shared opportunities for their youngsters to explore these issues, thus easing their complicated path to adulthood. Doing this, though, requires commitment and understanding by individual parents and the support group. Below are some things to keep in mind about forming and sustaining these groups:
- Adoptive parents must recognize that leaders of these groups volunteer their time and effort and, unless helped, will burn out. New leaders often spring from the circle of parents with younger children, who must look for ways to volunteer regardless of how busy their lives are and regardless of whether they are involved in single-parent or two-parent households. A willingness to give of themselves usually pays off in their children's motivation to stay connected because they are able to give input into the type of activities that they know their child will be willing to engage in.
- The support group, as a whole, must recognize that the children's interests differ depending on their age and thus plan for activities and educational opportunities that address this divergence. That is terrific, but it is vital that groups make certain they have at least one or two board members with maturing children to represent the voice of those members whose children are older and to plan for programming for older youngsters and their families.
- Organizations probably need to make a 10-year plan that gets revisited each year to revise goals and determine whether activities fulfill members' needs. To stay vital, the board needs to look far into the future as it gathers the expertise to meet the needs of member families. This means making a commitment to struggle through together the inevitable growing pains of an enlarged, ever-changing group with divergent needs. These groups must address how they will communicate early to younger families the value of staying connected and actively giving of their time so they don't drift away from participation. To this requires the regular repetition of the message that connection might become a lifeline for their families when their children enter adolescence.
Successful groups also find ways to network with one another. Compartmentalizing themselves as families who have adopted from a particular country mirrors the racial and ethnic segregation that they should be, and often are, actively fighting against. To stay separated from broadening experiences makes more likely that racism and ethnocentrism will continue to flourish and possibly harm their children and families. By reaching out and connecting with other support groups, alliances can be built for advocating for their children and families and in developing resources for the delivery of important services. For example, groups can work together to identity resources, such as creating lists of pediatricians, speech and language specialists, therapists, educators who are adoption-knowledgeable. Local or regional workshops or conferences can be jointly planned. This can be enriching rather than subtractive for members and the organizations. Groups that network seem to last longer.
Seeking Advice From Younger Members
As children age, there also need to be new roles for them within the organization. When we created our families and joined these groups, support was often seen as meeting our parenting needs. Sometimes this remains the case as our children mature, when in reality these groups need to address some our children's changing needs. They should be given the opportunity to help decide what they want and need that would encourage them to stay connected and committed to the support group. They have a great deal to teach their parents and the membership as a whole about what they think and feel and what they want and need. They can also describe how their capabilities are expanding in ways that make it possible for them to pass along to younger siblings and friends what they've learned and how they have benefited from developing their support network. For us to hear them, we must give them the chance to find their own voices and encourage them to use them to speak to us. We can do this by:
- Helping them to develop an advisory board
- Entrusting them with the responsibility to organize an activity for themselves or the younger children
- Encouraging them to contribute articles and art work for newsletters and involving them with planning.
Organizations also must be sensitive to the changes in its population. While families might have come together because their children were adopted from the same country, family composition can shift as time goes on.Parents give birth to children or adopt from a different country. The focus on country-specific culture might become problematic for families whose other children were not born in that country, thus alienating those families and children.
An adoptive family support group should recognize and try to serve the needs of all members of the adoptive families in its membership. It should not exclude non-adopted children or children adopted from other countries, nor treat them as fifth wheels who are not valued members of the adoptive family circle. This exclusion has caused many adoptive families to cut their ties to such groups due to conflict within their families that is not healthy nor constructive. It also robs the organization and especially its children of the opportunity to see that people of all cultures and backgrounds are valued. Either we demonstrate by our actions that we truly value racial and ethic diversity, or we don't. Do as we say, not as we do has never worked for parents, and it certainly won't work for us in this circumstance as adoptive parents.
Children learn much about themselves by comparing and contrasting their experiences, beliefs and feelings with others. Non-adopted siblings and children who were adopted from other nations have a great deal to teach out of their experiences and perspectives. Adopted children benefit from discovering what is normal about growing up adopted through sharing their thoughts and feelings with other adopted kids, but they also learn what is not adoption-related from having the chance to hear about the experiences of non-adopted youngsters living in an adoptive family. This is not information that youngsters are ready or able to talk about when they are five or six years old. But it is what they can share with one another when they are older and able to reflect more on how they think. This is another reason that, as parents, we must work to sustain our support groups and keep families as part of the membership.
Adoptive parents report that the most satisfying support groups to belong to over time are ones that incorporate a blending of adoption education, discussion and support for parents, and social opportunities that feature the cultural heritage of members. Ongoing support groups sustain adoptive families through the unexpected challenges, tragedies, achievements and successes that life can deliver. They can and should provide opportunities for parents to help other parents, and working in tandem with other groups, they can recruit and train professionals who can help adoptive families to maintain psychological health. We've learned over time that when challenges intensify, parents involved in support groups are able to better weather them while they and their children work through them. We've observed, too over time that their children, once they are grown, often return to thank the support groups and share with members how critical that support was to them gaining psychological health if they experienced a difficult struggle. And they often tell how vital the group was to sustaining their mental health through the confusion of building a complicated identity.
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Jane A. Brown, MSW, is a longtime adoptive parent, social worker, and adoption educator who regularly contributes articles to FCC newsletters. She and her husband are parents to eight children, many of whom are now-grown adoptees from Korea, with one child having been adopted in China. Jane is the creator of Adoption Playshops, a series of workshops that she facilitates throughout the U.S. and Canada for adopted youngsters and their parents. These workshops - one of which was held for members of FCC-NE - empower members of adoptive families to explore what it means to be growing up adopted.