Grief, Loss and Fear of the Adopted Child
We may assume, wrongly, that young children won’t understand the loss
Society tends to focus on the ‘happy ever after story’ and the many positive gains of adoption, of which there are many.
We presume babies and children come from awful, distressing circumstances and often this is the case, being removed from abusive parents, parents who are fighting addiction, etc. Children may also have been victims of tragic circumstances, for example the death of their parents.
No matter what circumstances, the child has been removed from their family and they are experiencing that loss, in fact many losses. I would like to acknowledge and address those significant losses and fears faced by the child, and when those losses may have started.
We may assume, wrongly, that young children won’t understand the losses they have endured. They actually do feel the loss. They may not understand, they may not recognise it as losses, but they do feel it. They may be aware of a strong physical feeling, such as a big feeling in their tummy.
How early might that loss occur? What might it look like?
We know from previous research that babies can recognise their mothers’ voices even prior to birth. When the child is no longer with the mother, we find the initial loss for the child.
When a baby is born it learns to cry, it learns to express a need for attention and care. The mother usually responds. The baby knows her smell, her touch, her taste, if breast fed – all is well.
Try and imagine when the mother is suddenly gone, replaced with someone else’s touch, smell and routine. The mother who is known to the child is replaced with the unknown. Where has the known mother gone? Why has she left me? So the questions begin.
Can you even begin to understand that loss?
Would you have even thought of that as a loss?
As the child grows older their questions may become more intense as they try to make sense and perhaps find answers to their situation.
Some children may feel guilty, that they are to blame for being placed for adoption:
Was I bad?
Was I naughty?
Was I rude?
Didn’t they love me?
Didn’t they want me?
What did I do wrong?
They may feel rejected and abandoned, they may feel their parents chose addiction over them, chose to keep one sibling but not them. There can be many conflicting emotions.
Whatever their feelings, they may not be able to voice them. For some, they may have heard many unhelpful comments such as, ‘Stop crying or I will give you something to cry about’, ‘If you are going to cry, then go to your room’, ‘Don’t cry, everything will work out ok in time.’ If they have been told this, or if their cries were not ‘heard’, then there is a chance that they feel it is not worth trying to ask questions or share how they feel with their new adoptive parents.
When they were little, they may have learnt not to cry because their caregiver didn’t respond, no one came, and in the past, they were not listened to. If the child is now with their new adoptive parents due to tragic family circumstances, their sadness and confusion will be overwhelming to say the least.
It is also worth remembering those children who may have spent time in Foster Care may suffer an additional loss if they are then placed into the care of their adoptive family. They may have made an emotional bond with their foster parents; being moved from them will create another emotional loss.
It is likely they won’t voice these feelings, as again in the past when they tried to talk they were shut down, it didn’t give them the outcome they thought they would have. This presents another layer of loss and more emotions neglected and misunderstood.
Processing emotions and what this may look like
We must remember that it is important not to downplay their feelings of loss. As adults, we want to spare the child the emotional pain. We cannot wrap them in cotton wool and protect them from all the bad things in the world. We need to guide them in a safe way to acknowledge their emotions.
Trying to process their emotions and understand them, I imagine, must seem totally overwhelming. So what might this look like?
We know their loss will ‘come out’ in one way or another.
Some children may feel they need to control the situation or the adult, constantly talking or asking the same questions repeatedly.
Some children may come across as sad and quiet, as having no feelings and unable to show empathy to others.
The other side of that may be a child who just wants to constantly please. They will hide their fear of not being good enough by trying, often too hard, to be perfect.
Addressing the fear
The fear there will never be enough, enough love, enough food, and enough attention.
For some children, they will find it hard to trust that there will be ‘enough’ when they store many memories and emotions from the time when there actually wasn’t enough. They may have endured times without food, without love, without attention, without even being acknowledged. Their need for attention from someone can become as great as their need for the basics they need to survive.
We can tell them over and over that we are coming, that we hear their questions, that we will be there in a minute, we can reassure them and show them love daily but for the child who holds on to the fear because this never happened, it will not make any difference.
They will not trust that this is going to happen. They may need to feel seen and heard and this could be driven by the fear that they will once again be neglected and abused if they can’t control what is happening.
Being removed from the family home, from their biological parents, can instantly bring about many other forms of loss, such as:
Birth parents – even if there is limited contact
Loss of identity/culture/history
Each new loss builds upon the previous one, forming more complex layers.
How we can support
Sometimes the answers are not found in the words we say but the way we connect with them. It is about meeting the child at their level with empathy and love:
Listen with your heart, really listen to them. Stop doing whatever it is you are doing and show them you are actively listening to what they are trying to say in their own way, whether that is acting out or being a pleaser.
Be patient when they ask that same question over and over and over again.
If you are able to, hold them and let them know you hear them, that they are worthy and that you are there to support them.
Provide them with an emotionally safe space in which to express their emotions. They may need to throw stuff around, shout or just sit.
Acknowledge their feelings and emotions without guilt or shame.
Be prepared for triggers to come up at unexpected times.
Remember, we are all unique and individual. Their loss is unique to them. This is about them.
We need to help and guide them to communicate their emotions and that it is ok for them to do so, and that their feelings are a normal and natural reaction to their loss. We can’t expect only joy and gratitude, we must recognise the sadness, the fear and the loss.
Jill Attree is a Advanced Grief Recovery Method Specialist, based in Dorset. Jill has helped grievers throughout the UK by listening without judgement, analysis or criticism - so that you can move forward through your loss. To help you create a brighter tomorrow. Find out more about Jill.