I think one of the most needed, yet least talked about, skills in parenting is the ability to not react. By not reacting I mean, while you may be screaming, crying, dying inside at something your child did or said, on the outside, after a deep breath, you can respond to your child in a calm and reasonable manner. The reason this is important is that it allows your child to trust you, and it can pave the way for greater communication between you and your child.
The phrase “you’re not my real mom” is one of those times where you will get to exercise your ability not to react. More often than not, a child will fling this particular phrase around when feeling scared or upset or disappointed. In this fearful state, any over-reaction from a parent will confirm for the child that there is reason to be afraid. In fact, an extreme reaction on the part of the parent will just add fuel to the fire, and make the whole thing even less pleasant than it already is.
As with so many things in life, the problem usually lies deeper than what is showing. So let’s take a look at that “real parent” comment and see what is going on.
First, it is common, even among emotionally healthy and stable children, to fantasize about having different parents. During my childhood, I went through periods of pretending I was a changeling or hoping that I was actually the long lost daughter of some minor monarch. And my childhood was happy and loving. For our adopted children, they actually do have another set of parents, and it is a very small leap from being unhappy with a current situation to fantasizing about what life would be like with other parents. These fantasies are not rooted in any sort of reality (my rational brain knew that there was no way I was either a changeling or a lost princess), but are merely a response to things not being exactly as one would like in the present.
Imaginary situations are always so much easier to navigate than real-life ones. In one’s imagination, there are never people who say “no” to things or plans. In one’s imagination, it’s easy to get along with others and have them get along with you. In one’s imagination, there is little to cause frustration or disappointment. Biological parents are so easy to make into imaginary perfect parents because they are not the ones in the present saying no or being frustrating or asking a child to do something he doesn’t want to do.
Real life can be hard and messy. Real life and real relationships take effort. Real life and real parents can be frustrating. It’s not surprising that when a child does have two different sets of parents, the accusations that “you’re not my real parents!” will be heard. It is precisely because you are real, and thus not the perfect imaginary parents, that you are hearing this.
So all of this is interesting, but not terribly helpful right in the moment. You know, that moment where you are getting the opportunity to practice your mad non-reacting skills. What do you say? I think you could one of two ways, depending on the personality of your child. The first would be to deflect the statement with humor, by saying something along of the lines of, “Wow, I sure feel real. Let’s see if I can walk through this wall just to double-check.” Of course followed by you walking into the wall. (If you actually do go through it, you have more problems than I can hope to address.) Once you have done this, move on, and continue with life, which is probably helping your child through whatever frustrating event is currently happening. This would work for some of my children, but others of them do not appreciate me trying to jolly them out of their bad mood. It usually backfires, and I’ve learned not to even try. In that case, addressing the root of the issue head-on is probably a better tactic. Saying something along the lines of, “Wow, it sounds like you have some really big feelings at the moment. Do you want to talk about them now, or finish ___________(whatever set the child off) and then talk about it when you’re calmer?” Usually what set the child off is not even closely related to your realness or not. It may not even be adoption-related. It was likely born out of frustration and/or anger at the current situation and in the moment, the child grabbed the weapon which was handiest.
By not reacting to what was said (“You’re not my real mom”) instead of what was meant (“I’m really, really upset about something and I don’t know how to communicate it”), you save you and your child a whole host of misunderstandings and conversations. I sometimes wish every parent were equipped with a universal translator (or Babel Fish, depending on which sci-fi geekiness you subscribe to). That way when our child says something along the lines that we are not real, we hear what is actually at the root rather than merely the words.
The next time your child says something that is upsetting, remember these steps:
1. Do not react, at least on the outside. I don’t care if you are running around and squawking like a chicken inside your head.
2. Install your aftermarket universal translator and make use of it. Practice listening to the meaning behind the words.
3. Deflect the situation either with humor or by naming the actual problem, depending on the child.
4. Circle back in a calm moment and talk about what went on.
5. Maintain connection with the child during the whole process. The child’s words may have hurt you, but that does not give you permission to shame or hurt your child in turn. Be the grown-up.
6. In private, after it is all done and sorted out, go ahead and flap and run around your bedroom and squawk like a chicken.