Our understanding of loss and grief associated with adoption has evolved over the years due to the shared perspective of adoptees, birth parents, foster and adoptive parents, and professionals. It’s important for those considering adoption to first make sure they are aware of the concept of grief and transition as it applies to foster care and adoption. In order to be your own best advocate and your child’s advocate when dealing with your shared adoption journey, you will need to understand transitions and grief.
In Season 2, Episode 2 of the Gladney reFRAMED podcast Emily Morehead, LPC, sits down with health expert Robyn Gobbel, LCSW, RPT-S. She shares her 15+ years of experience with loss and transition in the adoption and foster world. Robyn is a therapist, trainer, and consultant located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Prior to that, she ran a private practice in Austin, Texas working mainly with adoptive families for 15 years. Her training includes eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (including EMDR adapted for children with attachment trauma), Somatic Experiencing, Theraplay, Trust-Based Relational Intervention®, Circle of Security Parent Educator, The Alert Program®, and Yogapeutics Aerial Yoga Level 1 Teacher Training.
In order to understand how to handle and help manage adoptees’ feelings of loss, abuse, trauma, or grief, it is important to first understand where it comes from. To do this, you should first know these terms and what they mean where adoption is concerned.
Grief and Transitions in Adoption — What does it mean? Where does it come from?
For a very long time, the focus on adoption has been about the positives and that it is a happily-ever-after solution with a traumatic and downplayed beginning. The adoption community has traditionally recognized the positives that result from adoption. Adoption for a birth parent who has made the tough decision (decision in the case of foster care may be too liberal a word) to choose an adoption plan for their child has traditionally been talked about as a blessing for both parties involved. The perspectives of an adoptive parent who has made the decision to grow their family via adoption and an adoptee who finds a forever home through adoption are both the positives that are shown when discussing adoption. However, there are also negative and challenging sides to adoption.
Not that adoption isn’t a good solution and an answer to many children’s prayers who find themselves in a desperate situation or spending years caught in the foster system, but for a long time, it almost felt taboo to recognize that fostering and adoption is 100 percent the result of loss. It seems almost naive, thinking back, to assume that despite a hopeful transition and final placement with a loving adoptive family, that the adoptee is not also going to experience loss and grief being separated or removed from a biological family.
In recent years, professionals and all members of the adoption community have made great strides in recognizing this loss and accepting the fact that adoptees need everyone involved in their lives to acknowledge their pain and to allow them to grieve for as little or as long as is required. At the very least, to make sure not to use language or practices that only add to the loss and grief a child may be feeling.
A quick Google search defines grief as “the response to loss, particularly to the loss of someone or something that has died, to which a bond or affection was formed. Although conventionally focused on the emotional response to loss, it also has physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, cultural, spiritual, and philosophical dimensions.”
Additionally, according to the Adoption.com article “reFRAMED: Reframing Grief,” “Grief doesn’t only occur during deaths. Grief can occur in many other situations. Specifically, grief can come from moving, a change in jobs, school, churches, homes, or also in the form of adoption.”
In her article, “How Can I Help My Adopted Child Cope With Loss And Trauma,” author Caroline Bailey points out that helping adopted children to cope with loss and trauma is an essential part of adoption. “Loss, grief, and trauma are unavoidable parts of adoption. It is unwise to believe that an adoptive family can escape any aspect of loss or never have to deal with some level of trauma.”
When we first adopted our oldest child, we touched on the subject of loss and grief in our parental training. But addressing the trauma of an adoptee is not something that you can pin on a child like you would a “Hello My Name Is” label. Every child will experience and process the loss as a result of adoption in a different way. It is really up to the birth parents, the adoptive parents, and the professionals to take the time to understand what loss and grief may look like for each child. Every child experiences different things as a result of foster care and adoption. No matter if the child is an infant and placed for private adoption immediately or if the child is a teenager who has had the unfortunate experience of being moved around from home to home multiple times before finding a forever home. Most children who have experienced the adoption or foster world experience grief.
While the issue of loss and trauma can feel heavy and scary to all parties involved, author Liz Young says that hope is not lost and it’s never too early or too late to help children, especially those who entered foster care after having suffered trauma early in childhood. In the article, “Age: Just a Number When It Comes to Trauma,” Young says, “In order to catch up developmentally, children need trauma-informed, trusting adults to form lasting relationships where they have the safety to practice these essential skills. Children who have survived trauma must have a chance to gain back some of what was lost when trauma invaded their lives and hindered their development.”
The transition can look and feel quite different for children depending on individual circumstances. While we like to focus on the “happily ever after” portion of the adoption process, one truth can not be denied as Robyn points out in the interview “Adoption is based on the worst loss ever: separation of parent and child.”
So, as advocates for our children, how do we approach this? How can we best help a child who has experienced loss and grief, especially when also dealing with adjustment to a new home? Robyn points out that “we don’t want transitions, we want stability. That is what the goal of adoption is.”
The question then becomes how do we get there? How do we navigate our children’s’ loss and grief while making them feel safe and providing them with the support they need in order to provide a sense of stability?
Taking on Trauma in Order to Heal
Robyn suggests that we need to focus on the trauma associated with foster and adoption. In order to do so, the adoption community needs to lift the curtain. For many people, equating trauma to adoption can feel negative and scary, but it’s a reality that must be acknowledged before the healing process can begin which is less-often understood.
Robyn knows that the concept of trauma and adoption can cause adults to shy away and not want to address it with a child or anyone else for that matter. She discusses having worked with many families who were unwilling to acknowledge or put a name to what their foster or adopted child was experiencing. She quickly realized that even the most well-intentioned families had no idea what to do or what to say. Sometimes, she says this is because they were dealing with their own loss and grief on top of not knowing how to deal with a child’s.
How to Get Started
There is no doubt that taking on some of the heavy things related to fostering and adoption can feel, well, heavy. Most of us, parents and professionals alike, are sometimes unsure of how or where to begin, (especially without having received the proper training or support).
Robyn realized early on that even a little bit of assistance, support, and direction or even just having a script to go by was enough to help unsure or ill-prepared adoptive parents to feel confident in talking to their adopted children about this topic. Robyn said, “Talking about transitions and grief feels rewarding because it feels like a very little amount of information is needed to help people to do things ‘better’.”
No matter whether you are a foster parent, adoptive parent, or professional, allowing permission to discuss these matters and recognizing that this is a normal question (even if it doesn’t feel normal) is okay because dealing with grief,transition, and loss is not personal. It’s not a checkmark against anyone involved in the adoption process. Instead, it’s healthy and it’s okay to acknowledge that having multiple, and even conflicting, feelings about something is normal. You can feel happy about something and sad at the same time, and that’s okay.
Foster and adoptive parents need to recognize that a child’s conflicting feelings of loss are not an attack. It’s not a failure on the part of the parent for trying to be the child’s safe place or forever family. “We can have all these feelings and they don’t take away from the validity of any of them — and that goes for birth parents, adoptive parents, and adoptees,” Robyn explains.
We’ve all heard the comments (whether it’s from a family member, friend, or stranger), directed toward either an adoptive parent or adoptee themselves, “It’s so great that you’re adopted,” or “Aren’t you so lucky?” And while the sentiment may be completely well-intentioned, many adoptive parents who have experienced the loss and grief associated with infertility, miscarriage, or failed adoption placement do not feel so lucky to be involved in the adoption process. Additionally, an adoptee who has either never known their biological family, was removed from their biological family into the foster care system, and has perhaps moved around from home to home for months or years may not feel lucky he or she had to be adopted.
ReFramed’s host, Emily, explains that in being open to talking about loss and grief associated with the foster and adoption transition, participants are sort of forced to recognize the reality of the situation. Not that adoption isn’t wonderful and that adoptees and adoptive parents aren’t fortunate, but that adoption itself is based on the worst loss ever, the separation of a parent and a child.
Transition and placement can be equally overwhelming, especially for a child who may be conflicted about leaving a biological family no matter the reason. While not every story is the same,—and people have a habit of assuming why a birth parent would choose to make an adoption plan and/or be at a place in their life where a child is removed—the end result remains the same; the child will experience grief.
Emily talks about having worked as a caseworker and recalls a situation where she was tasked with removing children from an abusive situation at home. Young and unsure of how to process what she was seeing, she didn’t know how to react when the children involved rebelled and acted out in favor of staying with their biological parent despite the fact that it was not a good or safe situation.
And just as foster and adoptive parents need to recognize and be prepared for the toll that grief and transitions play out in a child’s life, so do professionals who act on behalf of families and children in crises. She makes the point, “We (caseworkers) need to remember what is the best way to handle the situation. We have to be aware of these circumstances. Helpers become helpers because they want to help other people.” She goes on to say, “But, we’re talking about the devastating parts of other people’s lives. So they need to be aware of the whole picture and understand as unpleasant as it may be—hard choices may need to be made on behalf of children in bad situations.”
Both Emily and Robyn agree that it is important to remember that almost all children will also have positive feelings about adoption. Part of what they know or have known before entering foster care has been positive. So, it’s necessary to acknowledge that as well. “In most circumstances, not all experiences have been bad and so on top of the experience of loss, many of these kids have had positive experiences and this is everything they’ve ever known,” Robyn says.
Recognizing Our Own Trauma in Helping Others to Manage Theirs
An interesting portion of the interview includes birth parents, adoptive parents, and professionals taking the time to understand that oftentimes we bring our own trauma into the situations impacting our children. In other words, it’s important to recognize how our own past hurts, our fears, and our uncertainties play into how we communicate with foster and adoptees.
Just as trauma can spring up at any age for any child, so does our own trauma. Oftentimes at key milestones in our lives, the trauma will come back. Just like we sometimes need to recognize our feelings for what they are, we must also allow for reoccurrences of loss and grief at different times in a child’s life. Even the supposed “happy” times like celebrations, birthdays, holidays, graduations, new jobs, and marriage can trigger feelings of loss or trauma.
Robyn says, “As helpers and caregivers, be willing to sit with the truths.” For example in the instance of removing a child from their birth home or from a foster home, “I have to do this devastating thing…and sometimes that requires minimizing your own feelings to push through a traumatic event…caregivers included.”
Explaining Loss and Trauma to Kids
For children who have experienced living in an abusive home or who have been moved from place to place, they understand trauma. “You’re not telling them anything they don’t know. If you’re using words that are accurate you’re only describing something they already know. And even if unwilling, there will be a part of them that acknowledges things weren’t safe,” Robyn explains.
“Specific words,” she says, “vary a lot by age. You’re not going to say the same thing to a 3-year-old as you would to an 8-year-old as you would to a 12-year-old. Be age-appropriate and as specific as possible. Explain things on their terms.” This same logic can and should be applied to children adopted at birth who may not have the same experiences as that of an older adoptee.
You don’t need to do this alone. Not knowing what to say, do, or how to best support a child, no matter the age or circumstance, is normal. What you can and should do, however, is seek professional help when in doubt.
You can expect kids to feel angry and/or sad. Birth families will feel angry or sad too. Adoptive parents will feel angry or sad. The complicated emotions that are involved with foster and adoption do not belong to any one person or any one group. Robyn talks about the fact adoptive parents need a lot of front loading in order to be prepared for taking on the grief and transitions of a foster child.
Oftentimes, adoptive parents are portrayed as receiving a gift. Their prayers have been answered and a hole in their lives has been filled. In reality, parenting a child who has experienced the loss that comes with adoption can be difficult because the adoptive parents feel the responsibility to fix things for their child and present the happily-ever-after forever family that everyone talks about.
Both foster parents and adoptive parents bond to the child or children they take in and find themselves becoming protective over that child or children. They will want to protect them from experiencing any further hurt. You can’t hug and kiss this sort of pain away, and this is why it’s important that parents receive the proper preparation and training.
Robyn suggests making sure that you have made connections and have support networks and groups in place beforehand. Don’t wait until you’re in the mix of things. By doing your research and getting ahead of the situation, you are better preparing yourself to deal with any potential issues that may come. You will be ready to handle things for your child correctly without making their experience even worse. Obviously, no foster or adoptive parent wants that to happen.
Tips to Help Work Through Grief and Transitions
For the adoptee, Robyn advises finding places and people with similar experiences. It can be through books, other media, and professional groups either in person or on social media. Finding others along the way who have been through a similar journey can help you put into words what an adoptee may be feeling.
In the case of professionals such as social workers, Robyn says the most important thing is to empathize with parents and adoptees by letting them know that all of the feelings, even the negative ones, are normal.
As for parents, foster and adoptive parents should be curious and observe their child or children. They need to be ready and supportive if things don’t feel right. A foster or adoptive parent should not make an assumption or put thoughts or feelings into a child’s head because they think that is what’s bothering them. Learn your children’s sensory vocabulary and know that “Some kids don’t even know how they feel. So, don’t jump right to intense feelings. Don’t make assumptions and don’t assume a child is angry with you because they are acting out.”
Robyn consults, teaches, and trains extensively throughout the U.S., and is an instructor for the Foundations of Interpersonal Neurobiology Certificate Program at Portland Community College and with the Adoptive & Foster Family Therapy Post-Graduate Certificate Program offered by Portland State University and Oregon’s Department of Human Services. For more information on how to talk to your child about grief and/or to learn about the many resources available to adoptees, parents, and professionals check out Robyn online at:
The reFRAMED podcast is created to educate, encourage, and inspire parents and professionals that have a love for children and want to meet their needs.