You’re listening to Together by AGCI. I’m Melissa Rush. Today we’re chatting again with Jill Crewes, AGCI’s, Director of U.S. Child Advocacy Services. This might be my favorite episode to date. I learned so much. Jill and I dove into abandonment history and its impact on future behavioral needs and how this affects children. This is a must-listen for anyone who cares for kids from hard places.
Let’s get into our conversation. Well, welcome back, Jill. Thank you for joining us again. I’m so excited to talk with you and learn more about how we can help kids who have abandonment history. Can you just start by defining, like, what does the term abandonment history mean in the context of children being raised outside their first family? Yeah, for sure.
And thanks for having me, by the way. So when children are separated from their first family or their birth family, it creates a rupture in that attachment or that initial connection for everyone involved. So not just for the kids, but for their family members and everybody, that’s a piece of their puzzle when that happens. And this is true even if it happens at first.
So while the impact of separation can vary from kid to kid, the reality is that it’s a significant loss for the child. And it can be traumatic because that is their first their very first connection even in utero. There’s a lot of research, actually, that’s been done about the quality of the emotional connection between the mother and the baby when the baby is in utero, and how that impacts the baby’s development over time.
So it can influence a child’s experience of how they felt safety, how do they feel in the world, how do they feel in relationships and their ability to trust, know is this person that I’m supposed to rely on? You know, whether this is a person that I was just born to them where I was depending on them, my life was dependent on them for nine months before I came into the world.
Or is this a situation where maybe I’ve lived with them and they’ve been caring for me to the best of their ability and then I’ve been separated? What happens is it results in a lot of questions that kids can have in their journey as they go through their lives and when they navigate relationships. And a lot of times, they revisit that experience of abandonment at different developmental stages, such as adolescence.
That’s a big one. Yeah. And they can also different seasons of the year, anniversaries, birthdays, things like that. Mm hmm. Seasons of the year, like, tied to maybe when that abandonment plays kind of bringing up old memories or. Yeah, yeah, for sure. So, I mean, our sensory systems are so powerful that there’s not even when like the season change.
So like, let’s say it was in the fall when the leaves were changing and the smell of the leaves changing and the, the colors and just the time of year or knowing like, oh, it was right around Halloween and that’s when this happened. That can be that can bring up a lot for our kids. And remembering that trauma and remembering that loss.
And so it’s really important for us to recognize that and honor that and be prepared to support them through that as well. Yeah, well, that’s really good to know because that’s not necessarily something you would or at least I wouldn’t think. I mean, yeah, just like kind of everything that’s going on at that time, not things that, you know, are explicitly tied to that trauma, but that can bring that up.
That’s really that’s really interesting. Can you go a little bit deeper into kind of what this can look like for kids? Yeah. So, you know, a lot of times for kids who have been separated from their first family or their birth family, this can result in a lot of oftentimes self-blame and guilt because they may have a lot of a lot of times they have unanswered questions about why did this happen or if there was if there was a situation that was unsafe.
A lot of times kids will say, well, if I had just behaved better, then this wouldn’t have happened to me. Or if I had, you know, if I had done something differently, you know, or that a feeling of why did this why did these people that were supposed to be such an integral part of my life and that I was supposed to be able to count on.
Why did they give up on me? Why did they leave me? Right. Even if the reason is, you know, out of love or, you know, the parents didn’t feel that they could give the child the care that they needed. There’s still a lot of what we call the complication of guilt around the abandonment. There can be a lot of fear about maybe their carrier, their current caregiver is going to leave and won’t come back.
Yeah. And this I have a story about this with my own son. So we adopted my son from the child welfare system here in the US when he was a born when he was an infant and he had an initial separation like immediate separation post-birth with his, his biological mother, he was actually a safe haven baby. So if you don’t know what safe haven is, it’s some states have laws where parents can bring their baby to a hospital or a police station or fire station and walk away and without any ramifications or questions asked.
And depending on the state where you live, the timeframe for that varies. So in Colorado, it’s within 72 hours of birth. So for my son, his mom gave birth to him and then, you know, actually at a fire station and then got up and left. She didn’t give him a name. There was like it was just this immediate separation.
But he has been with us ever since then. And so for my for work and travel go different places. And when I do travel, a lot of the times it’s for, you know, more than a few days it might be for a week or something like that. Yeah. And my son has always had a really hard time with me traveling, you know, just crying a lot, really upset, excuse me at all different ages.
And there is there was a time when I noticed he was stealing my makeup, but and I’m not big on, like, makeup or anything, but like, he would take my eyeliner and I would get frustrated with him and irritated with that, like, why are you taking my eyeliner? Are you doing artwork with it? Like, I’ll buy you some colored pencils and pastels, or is it just it’s just like the consistency of it, like what is this about?
And I would just get mad at him, you know, and I’d be like, Stop stealing my stuff. Stop taking my stuff. And then after it happened, like two or three times, I started to ask myself the question, okay, well, what’s the reason for this behavior? Was the why behind the behavior, which I probably should have asked the first time, but, you know, I didn’t.
And so I finally we just I was like, huh, there’s a pattern here. The times that he takes it out is usually like the day before I leave to go on a trip. So I kind of was like, I wonder if the two are connected. And I thought I felt just because of what I know. About his challenges with feeling abandoned by his first mom is I said, I bet he thinks that if he has something in mind that he thinks is important to me, that he’ll ensure that I’m going to come back to him.
And so it was the day before I was going to leave for a trip he had taken my eyeliner and so I was packing and I noticed and I went and sat down next to my buddy. I know I didn’t even ask him if he did. I said, I know you. I know you have my honor. And he’s like, Yeah.
And I was like, Did you take it because you think that because you have it, that’s going to make sure that I come home to you? And he kind of got a little teary and he’s like, Yeah. And I looked at him and I said, Buddy, I will always come home for you. I don’t I don’t care about my makeup.
I care about you. So let’s come up with something that’s going to help us stay connected and feel connected when I’m gone. And so we kind of settled on like and I did not come up with this. I think this is true. I love you rituals or something like that, where when I am going to travel, we will take a Sharpie marker and we will color a heart on each other’s hand or arm or something like that.
Yeah. And so then it’s like when, when we’re away from each other, we can look at each other’s hearts and we know we’re connected and we know I’m going to come back. And up until recently is now a teenager, but up until probably a year, year and a half ago, he still wanted to do that. And I would face time.
I’m from wherever I was. He’d be like, Fuck, mom, I colored in my heart. But after having that conversation about why he was taking it and finding a different thing that would help satisfy that need, he stopped taking my makeup. And I think that’s just an example of like this, I think is just an internal fear. Yes, he was just born when he had that abandonment experience.
And I don’t think it’s just about knowing that he has. His mom made a plan through safe haven for adoption and the you know, he came to us. I think it’s that physiological kind of internal experience of remembering what that felt like and that the fear of that. So it can look like that sometimes kids it goes back to the shame and guilt piece.
They wonder, well, what’s wrong with me? Yeah, what’s wrong with me? That my first family didn’t want to keep me or couldn’t keep me for whatever reason, which leads to questioning their self-worth, confusion, lots of different emotions sadness, anger, sometimes that they’re removed from a situation that was dangerous and unsafe. Then they can feel a sense of relief.
But relief does not mean that they don’t have love for their first family and that that first family does not hold a very special place in their heart, because they will and they always will, regardless of the situation. Usually. I know another thing that we see sometimes is that they have behaviors to push away their current caregivers and not create emotional relational distance because it’s safer for me or I feel more comfortable pushing you away before you leave me.
And that’s very common with kids who’ve had multiple different caregivers. Yeah. Yeah. Well, thank you for sharing that story. I just I love that image of having the hearts on your hands and, like, kind of the visual reminder.
Yeah, that’s really touching. So you kind of mentioned this a little bit, but a lot of times, you know, there’s there are a lot of unknowns of kind of what the circumstances were or, you know, in your your son’s case, you know, not really having a ton of information around why that decision was made. How can caregivers address unknowns like in a child’s background?
Yeah, that’s that’s really hard. I mean, it’s hard on us as caregivers and because we don’t, we can’t always answer. Yeah, the questions that our children have. And that’s really hard for us. It’s really hard for them. But I think you, you do whatever you can. I mean, best case, best situation, if there is an opportunity to meet that child’s first family or anybody that’s directly connected to that child’s first family, do it.
It may feel scary. It may feel it’s going to require a certain level or level of vulnerability. But the reality is that they’re the best source of information and insight about that child, about their own family, about so many things. So especially as a child, ask questions about their identity, why is the personality that I have? Why do I have these certain mannerisms?
Why do I look the way I do? Where do I get such and such? I mean, you think about yeah. As caregivers the claiming that we do naturally like if we have biological children and there’s a lot of that without us even realizing it, like claiming that happens like oh, she looks like so-and-so or Oh, he has my personality trait or he gets that from Aunt So-and-so or grandma and grandpa, right?
There’s this kind of claiming and so that can be a missing piece for kids that come to us through adoption. But if we have information and we can say, Oh, hey, buddy, that is the same look that your dad makes when he’s excited or, you know, just things like that. It can feel so good to have that connection, even if they’re not if they don’t see those people questions that they ask about, Well, why don’t I live with my first family?
Having information about that can really help with that complication of guilt and the self-blame. And I’ll talk a little bit more in depth about that here later. Obviously, questions about medical history and things like that is really important. Questions about culture, traditions. If you can get connection with the family or somebody who knew the family, take advantage of that as soon as possible.
Pictures, pictures, think. I think about growing up and how many pictures that I had. And I mean, I grew up when there was like paper pictures that you printed out and you put it in the photo album. So people still do that? I hope so. Well, I mean, that it wasn’t like a Shutterfly, but that was like the actual picture.
But I think about that. I mean, when I think about memories of growing up in my family and like I have that to go back and look at. But you know when we how kids come to us especially well at any age actually like there’s a huge there can often be a huge gap there. So photos, life books kind of documenting their history with them.
If you don’t have photos at different stages in the child’s development, ask him or work with them to create drawings of what they remember. Because even if they don’t have a photo, it’s a that’s a precious thing to have. You know, when your kiddo is 17 and they’re thinking back on their toddler time or their elementary school days and they may not have a photo, but if you did an activity with them to say, hey, tell me what you remember about your mom and dad or, you know, your favorite meal with them or what you did on the holidays.
And they have a picture they drew that because. So for that connection, I would say research what you can learn from others that know that child and know their history documented and don’t just do it as a one and done right. Sometimes we have the benefit of getting like a written child social history from the caseworker or something like that.
And usually at the beginning when we’re deciding about adoption or even foster care, we might read that and then it kind of gets put away somewhere safe. I would encourage you. Yes, keep it somewhere safe, but make a practice of going back and looking at it again like regularly, because it’s a really good reminder of our kids history and maybe why they have some of the challenges that they have.
And it will help us more accurately answer the questions. Visit, connect yourself with that child’s history and culture. Visit their country if they’ve come to you internationally, visit their country. Learn about their culture, go to their neighborhood and just drive around, see if you know what home they were in before they came to. And I think it’s not just about first family, but other homes that maybe they lived in before they came to you and try to retain those healthy relationships with relatives and others in their lives before they came to, if that’s possible.
So that’s not just family, that’s friends, neighbors, sports coaches, things like that. I mean, if we think about if we think about our histories and like our growing up here, it’s like I can tell you certain people that weren’t necessarily family members but who were very important to me and being able to maintain connections with those people was really impactful and important to me at different stages in my life.
Yeah, yeah. No, I mean, I, I think sometimes when we think about this, we like, oversimplify it to just be about your, your birth parent or your biological parents. And it’s like there’s so much more to our to our history and to what makes us who we are than just those people. And like all the extended family, friends, where you, your neighborhood, your school, your coaches, all of those things, and to have that not have any connection or information about that would be difficult.
Yeah. So how should a caregiver answer a child’s questions about their background history? Maybe if you know there is more information available, but it’s difficult. Yeah. So I think first and foremost, let the child lead when they ask a question, follow their lead, but make sure you understand what they’re asking. So it’s always okay to follow up their question with a clarifying question.
So tell me what you mean by that question or what is it that you’re asking me now? Obviously, depending on how old they are or what their developmental level is, that can impact how you might approach that. But I had I always remember this because I went when I was in graduate school, I went to a conference, an adoption conference, and the presenter was telling a story about this scenario that their child, who is like an elementary school or something, came home from school and said, Mom, where did I come from?
And so her mind went to the birds and the bees and like, how are babies made and all of that. So she’s like, like, you know, preparing herself. She’s like, All right, here we go. We’re going to have the time. I was a fifth grader, so like is older elementary school. And so she proceeded to tell her child about the purpose of the bees.
And kiddo is just kind of like a deer in headlights almost. And she just kind of kept going because she’s like, all right, a minute. I’ve got to do this, like, you know, which is great. It’s great to have those conversations. And then her child was like, No, I mean, where was I born? Because they were doing like, what state was I born in?
And they were doing a geography project. And part of their project was for them to share like what state they were born in, what city. And so she’s like, Oh, but all of that could have been avoided if she were to clarify, like, where did I come from? Well, tell me what you mean by that. But yeah, yeah, yeah.
And he could have said, Oh, I mean, like what state was I’m born in? And it would have, you know. So I think it’s important to ask those clarifying questions. And even if you think you for sure know what it is they’re asking, it actually gives you a moment to almost buy yourself some time to be like, How do I want to respond to this?
By asking that clarification, clarification question. The other thing is, kids are going to ask you what they need to know, when they need to know it. It is so important to be honest. Don’t sugarcoat things. We as caregivers, we want so desperately, as we said, to protect our kids from harm and to protect them from things that we feel like if they know it, that it’s going to hurt them or it’s going to be painful.
But the reality is that part of healing is leaning into the pain of whatever’s happened so that you can work through it. And so if we are not honest and we sugarcoat things for them or we try to make it seem less than what it really was, then we’re actually denying them the opportunity to really lean into what happened and heal completely from it.
The other thing is that our kids know anyway. They know they know in their bodies and in their being. They may not know cognitively. They may not have a full understanding and understanding cognitively because when whatever happened, that part of their brain may not have been making what we refer to as explicit memories or memories that we can put a time stamp on, that we can put words to, that we can tell a story about.
But the reality is that before we have that capacity, so before the age of three or four and even in utero, we have the capacity to make what we call implicit memories. So those are memories that are stored in our brains and bodies, but we don’t have a cognitive connection to it necessarily either because we didn’t have the capacity in our brains to create a memory like that or it was traumatic.
So when we have traumatic experiences, no matter how old we are, we go into survival mode, which means we kind of disconnect from that cognitive piece of our brains that puts words and timestamps and visualizes all of that. Like what happened and that kind of thing. But it’s still there and it’s still stored in our bodies. And so on some level, we know it, regardless of if we know it cognitively, our bodies know it.
And so that’s another reason it’s so important to, you know, to be honest and share that information because that can actually be really helpful for our kids to say. I think that’s why whenever I smell this smell, I get anxious. Well, that makes sense because this and this happens. Right? So and I’ll tell a story a little bit later about with my son about sharing some of his story with him and how that worked.
I’m so glad you said that, because I think I don’t know when people adopt children, you know, from birth, a lot of times they’re like, well, it’s not going to impact them. They were a baby. They don’t remember. There’s not even really young kids. And, you know, we know from the science and all the things you just spoke about, that’s not true.
They might not, you know, have the words to talk about, the memories, but their body, you know, what’s that book? The body keeps the score. Yeah. So they call it. Yeah, yeah. It’s yeah it’s still with you. So we kind of touched on this a little bit, but sometimes, you know, kids have really tough stories like involving their first family and, you know, sometimes there’s abuse or neglect and how and as you said, I mean, there’s kind of a tendency to want to not go into the depth of really hard stuff.
But how should families address that when speaking to a child who maybe doesn’t cognitively remember their history? Yeah, for sure. I think, you know, it’s human. It’s natural in very common for, you know, as parents, we want to protect our kids. Again, though, remembering that keeping information from them, it can actually be harmful as opposed to helping them.
The truth can be freeing and it can really help them to heal. When we share that information, because it helps them understand maybe, you know, why do I have certain feelings or why do I have certain anxieties or reactions or why do I have these questions? Why do I respond the way I respond? Why do I have the behaviors I have or the challenges and different situations throughout their lives?
And having that information can be tremendously helpful. It can also really help with some of the kind of that guilt and shame stuff as well. And so, you know, and like I tell a story in a minute, but like I said, the reality is that they know, right? We’re not doing them any favors by not giving them the words and the depth of information.
Obviously, how deep that looks is depends on what are the questions are asking, right? Following their lead, understanding what they’re asking. And they will keep asking us questions until they’re satisfied and they have what they need. Right. If they don’t if they’re not ready to hear something more, they’re not going to ask questions. So it’s important that we pause and we let them respond and let us know if they have other questions if they’re processing.
And we’re not sure that we can say, does that answer your question? Are there other things that you’re wondering about and do our very best to respond, but giving them the information is a way to help them heal so that they can process it with our support or therapeutic support to help them heal. It’s it can be really helpful because of, you know, the way we store traumatic experiences oftentimes in our body.
There’s a lot of focus, I would say, probably in the last ten years or so and maybe longer. But it just feels more prominent now that there’s a lot more focus on using body centered therapies or somatic work as a technique to help actually process and work through trauma. Because it’s hard to talk about something that you don’t have words for, right?
So a piece of that is like exploring how your body feels in response to different information or stimuli or things like that. So it can be helpful if you’re finding like if you have your child seeing a therapist and you feel like, gosh, it just don’t feel like we’re getting anywhere, you know, with the talking or the play therapy, I would suggest seeing if you can find a body center therapist who does some of that body centered work and that might, you know, maybe provide more support.
So a story I have about my son with sharing hard information. So when he was probably about seven or eight years old, he had so we were getting to we were had a dinner party with like my family and his cousin who a couple of years older them him they were, you know, running around the house and kind of rush out, roughhousing.
And it got it got, you know, a little intense, but they weren’t harming each other at all. But yeah, there was a, you know, some fear response that my son had in response to something his cousin did. And he kind of went over the top and, you know, one of his struggles with impulse control and his struggles with, you know, executive functioning and kind of his sensory system is a really big one for him.
He has a lot of sensory challenges. And so the situation with his cousin triggered a sensory experience that was that felt very unsafe for him. And so that’s why he responded. And the reason why he has his challenges is because he was born with methamphetamine in his system. And so it’s had a big impact. And then you have kind of his initial separation and those kinds of things.
So we sat down with him after this situation occurred because he was having a really hard time understanding why did I respond? Like, it doesn’t make sense to me cognitively why I would respond that way to my cousin whom I love and care about and trust right? Yeah. And so we sat down and in a way that he could understand, we explained to him what his in utero experience was, that his biological mom used drugs when he was in utero when he was in her tummy, is what we said at the time.
And we explained to him like we have this little I don’t know why, but we grab this little like kind of like a nerve, a little nerve football and we’re like, okay, so this is your if this is your brain, the drugs kind of when you were in your mom’s belly, like almost like poked holes in your brain.
Right. So your brain didn’t develop the way it should have. And so you have challenges related to that. So we talked about the things that he struggled with and he his response was his biggest response was relief. Yeah. Like, and I think he may have said, it’s not my fault that I struggle at this. It’s like nobody, it’s not your fault.
It does still mean that you have to work harder at things than other people, and we have to support you and find ways to help you be successful with other kids. Maybe it comes easy to them, but it was a huge weight off his shoulders. And then he had sadness and some anger and we had to validate those feelings that he had.
But the next morning he woke up and he said this. And so he was kind of after processing it overnight, he was clarifying with us is like, so when I was in my mom’s tummy, she did drugs and it made holes in my brain. And that’s why things are hard. You’re right, buddy. And for him at that developmental stage, that was what he needed to understand.
And of course, as he’s gotten older, we’ve been able to kind of, you know, provide more information and details as he’s needed it. But I mean, who would have thought like if you had asked me when he was a baby, like when he’s seven, are you going to tell him he was exposed to drugs for the whole pregnancy and that this harmed his brain?
I probably would have said, why would I tell him that? Like, that’s just going to make him feel bad. But it actually was really healing and helpful for him. Yeah. Oh, thank you for sharing that story. I mean, that’s just such an incredible example. It’s like why honesty and like sharing in an age appropriate way is so important because I mean, I just the relief that then he feel, I mean, like you said, there’s already so much, you know, shame and guilt and all of these things that kids with abandonment history are dealing with and to, like, have some explanation of, like this is why this might be hard for you.
And this is nothing, you know? I mean, not like it’s ever anything anyone did or is wrong with you or anything like that. But just to have some more information and to feel like, okay, like that makes sense. Why that would be hard. And so we another thing is sorry about that, but the other thing I think is they may not need to talk about it anymore.
Yeah, that’s where like let them lead, pay attention to their cues sometimes as adults we just automatically think like they have this response. Like, well, I feel relieved and now I feel sad and now I feel angry. But let them decide how much of your support or how much they want to talk to you about it, because they might actually what they need in that moment may just to be to process it and not to talk more about.
So that’s where it’s tricky, but following their lead is really important. So in that circumstance, like it felt like, you know, there was kind of an incident where he didn’t understand, like why his reaction was the way it was. And so it seemed like a good time to kind of share like, okay, this is this is a normal reaction, given your history.
Are there like what about when that doesn’t, you know, for kids who don’t know their history and they’re their parents or caregivers, do and they don’t necessarily ask questions or there isn’t like an incident that kind of sparks that conversation? Like how should they when’s it when’s it appropriate to bring it up? If it’s not brought up by the child, that’s where you have to be a detective.
And that’s true just in parenting. I think in general. But, you know, the way our kids tell us things or is often through their behaviors. Right. So one of the things we say in TV or is behaviors in language of unmet need or it could be a language of like a lack of knowledge or a skill they don’t have.
It’s a way to tell us, hey, something is going on, but I don’t know how to tell you in another way. So I’m going to I have this behavior. So I think that’s where just really being a detective and trying to figure out, okay, why is this behavior happening? Right. Is there a pattern to it?
Is there you know, what might be perceiving it? You know, is there something that’s triggering it? And it’s probably it may not be something that you can just determine right away and it may not be some big outward. Sometimes when we say behaviors, we tend to think of like it was a big tantrum or some big event or something that happened and oh, they’re trying to communicate things well.
That’s usually the time when it’s obvious to us. But sometimes things like isolating themselves or shutting down when they’re not, when they’re more normally more talkative or, you know, just connecting like that can also be science. So digging into that, sometimes asking them questions or you know, I wonder since statements like I wonder, you know, or even putting it on yourself and say, hey, you know, I’ve kind of been thinking lately about your first family and how you came to be with us.
Right. And just kind of voicing and putting on yourself, like what that might feel like for you to maybe open up a conversation. Pay attention, pay attention, even if there’s not obvious behaviors that come up or things that happen. But that’s why going back and reminding yourself and reading that history, reading whatever documentation you have, reminding yourself of what that child has experienced and what brought them to you can be really helpful in giving you information about, you know, what things might be coming up for them at different places.
So unfortunately, it’s not an easy button, but I think it’s, you know, it’s important to check in. And I think there’s certain developmental stages like going from elementary school in middle school, entering adolescence. If they have to change schools for some reason and they’re separating from a relationship with friends or teachers and then going somewhere new or you’re moving from one neighborhood to another, those are like great opportunities to talk a little bit, hey, how are you feeling about this move?
You know, it’s you know, and see what they say. Yeah, but it’s hard, you know, it’s like you kind of have to sometimes just go with your gut and yeah, you know, hope that. Hope that you’re on the right track. Yeah, yeah. No, I mean, that makes sense. So we kind of talked about when, you know, kids maybe don’t at least cognitively remember some of their difficult history.
What about when they do remember? Yeah. So I think providing a safe, emotionally connected space for them to talk about their experience is really important. And that starts from the very beginning. So communicating openly and honestly about that child’s having, you know, come to your home through adoption, that this is not something that you just hold to and pretend that that’s not the case until they’re a teenager or however old to tell them, Oh, by the way, this is how you came to be part of our family.
This is something you need to be talking about from the very, very beginning. You know, very beginning, having open conversations, because even if that child is what we think is too young to understand. Right, because cognitively they’re not understanding the language of that, because this practice to communicate as a family system so that we’re comfortable having that conversation.
Yeah. The other thing is it is so important for us to validate and honor our child’s perception about what happened to them and how they feel about it, even if their recollection isn’t accurate or factual, it’s important to still honor their perception of the situation versus correcting it in that moment. Because if in that moment, if if our kid was saying like, you know, when I when I was two, my my dad didn’t want me and she didn’t like me and, you know, I got abused and I came to you, right.
You have to validate, like, I bet it feels that way for you. Right. And because the reality is how we feel about something or our perceptions, particularly when it comes to traumatic things, it’s in the eye of the beholder. Like, nobody can tell me what’s traumatic for me except for me, right? Or how I feel about it, except for me.
And we have to validate those feelings. Now, it doesn’t mean that at a later time, like when they’re in, when you’re maybe in a different conversation or later within the same conversation after you validated, you might then let them know what you were told about the situation. So they have some accurate information where what you understand to have happened in the situation and then ask them how they feel about that.
So you can still provide some correction, but you had to be really careful around that. The other thing is it’s very tempting for us as caregivers to want to dismiss how they’re feeling or try to fix it right away, because we want to protect them from pain. Right. But we have to understand that how they feel is up to them and validating their feelings so they can feel seen and heard and understood as children.
And actually, all of us as humans oftentimes will only accept offers of correction or solutions from other people after we feel seen and heard. Right. So if, for example, like if you’ve ever talked to like a friend or a partner or a family member about a situation that you were upset about, you know, oh, hey, I was I will just use work as an example.
I was at work and I had this interaction with a colleague and I was really frustrated. And then, you know, there’s a need to feel heard and understood and validated for what you perceive to have happened and how you feel about it before anybody can say, oh, well, I think and a lot of times, as you suggested this or I don’t think that’s what they meant.
Right, or that’s probably not what happened at all. And you’re overreacting or, you know, why aren’t you just you know, it doesn’t because it’s like what I need from you right now is to hear me and validate how I’m feeling. There’s actually a really funny video. It’s called It’s Not About the Male, and it’s British. No, it’s not British.
It doesn’t matter. It’s a video. If you just go on YouTube and put in. It’s not about the nail. It is a perfect leg. Just satire about exactly what I’m talking about. So if you have time, I would go in and I would look that up. But it’s so important, so acknowledge that when stressful and traumatic things happen to us, our brains out, they protect us by flipping our lids, right?
We go into survival mode and the impacts and that impacts how we remember what happened to us. So it’s common for information to be not completely accurate or incorrect or but we have to kind of work through that and be heard and validated in order to to get to a place of full understanding. So, I mean, the biggest thing from that whole answer is be present, connected and validated.
Yeah. Thank you. Yeah. I mean, I think that makes so much sense when you because it’s almost like the obviously you want people to have accurate information, but it’s like that’s not really the point. It’s like the point is to like talk about it and express how you feel and the details of it. Well, you know, you as a you have those and you can talk about them at a later time.
But to kind of it feels like you’re almost shutting down, not intentionally, but shutting down their vulnerability. And you know what they’re sharing with you by correcting them in a moment like that? Yeah, well, we can get caught up in that too. Like if we’re participating in a therapy session with our kids and the service is asking what happened and the kiddos telling, and you know that what they’re saying is actually not entirely accurate or yeah, it was a little different.
It’s so tempting to jump in and be like, well, actually that, that, that, that, that, that, that and what we’re doing is we’re dismissing our child’s experience and what they need is to be heard about that experience from their perspective, regardless of you know, is it entirely accurate and correct? Was it really at 855 or was it at 930?
Like, okay, it doesn’t matter exactly. Exactly. Can you just go a little bit deeper into how, you know, abandonment history can impact future behavioral needs? Yeah, sure. So like I was talking about before, the experience and the feeling of abandonment can bring up a lot of complicated feelings about one’s self, about identity. It can bring up shame, it can bring up guilt and so the reason that what can happen behaviorally as a response to those feelings is that sometimes there can be.
And this isn’t just with kids. I mean, this can be with really anyone but preexisting connections with other people. So for kids resisting connection with their caregiver and possibly with others because they’re fearful of another loss. Right. We see this almost I don’t want to say obviously, but we see this very commonly for kids when they first come to a foster home or an adoptive home from another home, then they’re initially place a lot of times.
Like they don’t want to unpack their things or they don’t want to go out in the neighborhood and meet other kids or they’re not really super eager to get to know their new school, you know, or they’re not willing to talk about future plans, vacations, what you’re going to do for the holidays as a family, and how that might be similar or different from the family they came from because there are experience.
They may not they may be in the place of I’m just going to go home. Like I’m not going to stay where I went and why would I do all these things? And then the fear of like even if they know like this is permanent, like they’re cognitively know it’s permanent, there’s still that potential that if somebody left them before, you could do the same.
Yeah. And so I’m going to create emotional and relational distance to protect myself from the pain of that experience. We can see another behavior that sometimes we see as frustration, a lot of like anger and frustration. If there’s a lack of information about what happened or their first family or their cultural culture or medical information or, you know, and we can see that at all different stages of life, feeling lost and confused about their identity and some of the whys behind their personality, how they look, you know, that lack of claiming like that lack of like just kind of natural or automatic connectedness to their adoptive family can come up.
There may be a refusal to participate in family traditions with your family or try new, new things because they might feel like they’re denying their first family connection or like that’s so much that it’s this is a whole other podcast, but the like, that’s part of who they are. And so that’s one of the one of the things that’s so, so, so important, regardless of how old our kids were when they came to us to build that connectedness to their culture, whether that’s the country they came from or their ethnicity.
But it’s also like their family traditions and things they did with their first family before they came to you and really try to honor that. We shouldn’t be in the place where we’re saying, well, now you’re with us. And so you got to drop everything out the door and do what we do, because that’s essentially denying part of who they are.
And then it just reinforces shame. The other things we see is sometimes anger and sadness. Who are their first family that can show up in conversations that you have with them? School projects. School projects oftentimes will trigger things for kids who are not living with their first family, especially when they’re talking about you. If they’re learning about genealogy or, they’re learning about like, well, let’s do our family tree or even things like you’re the star of the week.
And the questions that they ask about the kid who’s the star of the week is oftentimes about their family. And depending on how long they’ve been with you or what their story is or what’s happened to them that can trigger a lot for them. It can be triggered like seasons, holidays. We talked about that, birthdays, anniversaries, special events.
And then a lot of times, well, you might see big behaviors and like, why on earth all of a sudden are they having this big behavior? And that’s another opportunity to go back and remind yourself of the history and timing of things and our kids. And we talked about guilt and shame but feeling unworthy of love or unmotivated to connect because they’re abandoned.
Like, why bother? And maybe it’s unmotivated, not just about relationships, but why would I be motivated to try to succeed in school or with friends or whatever? Because somebody, in their experience, they may feel like somebody care about me enough. So why should I care about myself? It’s very common for a yearning, also a yearning to reconnect with their first family.
An example that I have from my own family experience we had. My daughter likes to ask deep questions sometimes, so we are sitting around as a family and my daughter asked the question, if you could have dinner with me. And my this was, I don’t know, a while back. So my kids are probably like nine, ten, 11, like eight.
If you can have dinner with anyone who you normally don’t get to see or you know whether you know them or not or whatever, who would you have dinner with and why? Right. Yeah. So we ran around and you know, we talked about, you know, loved ones who had passed or it’s, you know, it’s I think one of us said something about like a like a historical figure or something like that.
And I came to my son and he said I would want to have and this is his language. I would want to have dinner with my real mom and dad. And I looked at him and I said, Buddy, that’s awesome. Can I come to your dinner? I would love to have dinner. Dinner with them, too. Right. And my parents my parents were actually there for that conversation.
And my mom kind of was like, oh, like, where did she just say? Because I think or what did he just say? Not more because of this. This term, he used real mom and dad and mom and like I want to meet them. But the reality is that although we might be really fearful about that connection and nurturing that connection because we’re worried like, oh, well, if they get connected with their first family, then they’re not going to want to be connected with us.
It’s not the case. I mean, we as humans have the capacity for as much love as we want to give and receive is endless. It’s infinite, right. And so but that was that’s how he understands. That’s how he understands those two people as what their role is. They’re my real parents. In other words, they’re the parents that biologically created me.
Yeah. And so it wasn’t about correcting any of that. It was just leaning into it and being like, Yeah, buddy, that would be awesome. It’s really hard not to have had the opportunity to meet them and how much you would learn. So that’s just an example of that when you in those might not take it to some, but in those in those moments, like do you do you have like a gut reaction that you have to correct?
Or is that just second nature to you at this point? I personally don’t. I think part of that is because before I became an adoptive parent, I have been in the field, I’ve been a social worker for, you know, my whole career. And so I’ve kind of been immersed in this world. But I also think part of it is that I’ve been very purposeful along the way about reminding myself that this is not about me.
Yeah, this is about him, and this is about what he needs and that’s the bottom line. And I think that’s been helpful in like responding to different things even around the abandonment issue along the way is like, this isn’t about me, this is about him and this is about what he needs. And my job in this moment is to support him and understand where he’s coming from and validate him because that’s what he needs from me.
And, you know, I think the other piece is that like I have seen along the way, like and it’s been hard for me but like how hard it is to not know them and to not have a picture to not know who they are, to not to know nothing. And I mean, if I could have changed anything about how he came to us, I would have so wanted to meet his parents or anyone from his biological family.
I didn’t get that opportunity. But what we did do when we finalized his adoption, he was actually 14 months old because there’s a lot of he was a the very first safe haven baby in the county where he was born. And so there is a lot of precedent setting stuff that was happening legally. And so it just took a really long time.
But what we did was we were able, because he was born in a fire house, we figured out we went, we figured out which firehouse is born and who was there, who delivered him. And after we finalized his adoption, we went and took pictures and met those people. So at least we have something. But it’s really hard and it’s just, you know, it’s like my when he’s you know, will register him on the adopted persons registry to try to make connections like I am completely 100% when he is ready and he feels ready emotionally and relationally, try to find them.
I will be by his side every step of the way because it’s about him and it’s about what he needs. And I know it doesn’t diminish his connection to me. No, but I do think some of that just comes from my background in my career, too. Yeah. Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. So with some of these.
Well, actually, I have one more question about behaviors. Do you ever see like is it common for kids with abandonment histories to kind of test their caregivers, like in their true love or commitment to them staying in their family? Is that something that you see? Yeah, I think that’s part of that. Like I’m going to push you away before you leave me, so I’m going to test you.
I’m going to push your buttons. I’m going to, you know, and it may be in a very overt way or it could be in a withdrawal way. Like I’m going to. I’m testing. Yeah, exactly. I’m testing you to see, are you going to stick with this or not? And actually we see that very often happen right before adoption finalization or just after immediately after, but particularly leading up to it, because that’s like the judge is saying, this is done and there’s it’s never going to change.
And so oftentimes we see a big behavioral regression and a ramp up of some of that pushback behavior of I’m going to push you where I’m going to push you away, because it’s too much for me to have, you know, follow through with this. So it’s like a self-protective thing. So that’s very common. That makes sense. So aside from that time frame of like obviously a really big transition, are there other time frames or ages when these behaviors can tend to manifest?
You know, I’ve hit on this a little bit, but developmental stages going through different developmental stages that can intensify as well as if they’re navigating relationship, new relationships, whether they’re friendships, romantic relationships, you know, relationships with other people that could be important to them in their life. It could be a sports coach or something like that that could kind of amp up some because it’s that vulnerability.
And the unknown of, you know, is this person going to stick with me? But remember, you know, some of the responses can happen immediately. Even infants, even babies remember their brains and their bodies know. So, yeah, I mean, you might have an infant who I mean, there’s lots of reasons that this can happen, but one of the reasons that a baby might not be easily calmed by you or may not melt in one of them, could be that abandonment piece.
Yeah. Like, are you going to leave me right there? That can also happen due to exposures and things like that. But yeah, so there’s lots of times that it can be brought up. Yeah. No. And I mean, it sounds like bringing up the romantic relationship piece like it’s like kind of a lifelong thing. Like that’s not that doesn’t, you know, just go away when you turn 18 or.
Right. Yeah. Like something you’re dating somebody and yeah. They ask you to marry them or you ask them to marry you and it could bring up a lot of stuff, right? You know, even things like, you know, going off to college. Well, my parents going to still be there, like or are they going to move to a different house and leave me now that I’m out of the house?
I mean, there’s just there’s so many, so many times when it can come up. Yeah. Yeah. So if these behaviors are, like, particularly challenging, how can a caregiver help a child like begin to work through this? I’m kind of thinking like in the moment. Yeah, I think in the moment, giving the child voice or reminding yourself about their history so that you can address the behavior or what they’re experiencing from a place of compassion.
Right. We have deep insight. Then we can respond with compassion and know like this isn’t about us, this isn’t our child just trying to be difficult. This is reflective of what they’ve been through. I think if a child’s been or if a child is disregulated, then it’s important to focus on helping them regulate first before you try to do any kind of correction or dig into it.
Because if somebody’s disregulated, they’re not going to be able to do those things until they kind of their lid comes back down and their cognitive calmed at least a little bit. And that includes a regulation piece, includes the validating of their feelings even if you think they’re totally overreacting or how they’re feeling, makes no sense to you. Well, feelings are not they’re not connected to making sense.
They’re not a cognitive experience an emotional experience. Right? Yeah. Yeah. And remembering their feelings are theirs and validate when they’re calm and you both are connected, then you can talk to them about like what the behavior was, maybe why it came up. If you think it relates to their history, you might say, Hey, I wonder if this is why helping them process what happened.
One of the things that I like to always remind myself is about like be the coach, right? Be the coach, not the warden in any behavioral situation. Right. Because when we’re correcting behaviors, what we really want is to teach our kids, like the more appropriate way to get their needs met or how to ask for what they need or how to how to address a certain situation.
So if we’re a coach and we can kind of come alongside them and say, hey, you got this and let me help you and you’re going to be successful. You’re going to get longer-term behavioral change. You’ll remain connected in that relationship, and you’ll leave the situation feeling content. If you’re the warden and you say no, you know, and you lay down the law and you’re, you know, it’s your hammer.
And I’m with this is what it needs to be. You’re going to get behavioral change temporarily, probably not for the long run. And Then you’re also going to you could diminish connection and you’re not going to feel good about it either. And neither will they. So, you know, be the coach, chase the Y, give them a voice, validate their feelings.
Thanks for sharing that. And That’s a great way to think about it. Just to have in the back of your brain to be the coach, not the warden. So you shared your perspective on this and you know, like you said, maybe this is also tied to your professional history. But for caregivers that maybe are struggling with this, like how can they address their own emotions, you know, anger, sadness, all the things around their child’s traumatic background.
Give yourself grace. It’s okay. You’re human. It’s so normal to have feelings about what’s happened in your child’s history and have a lot of different emotions about, you know, the if they’re, you know, the trauma that’s happened to them and who may or may not have caused it or may or may not have helped them through it, or that’s okay.
And that’s normal. And give yourself grace, but make sure that you find your own supportive connection separate from the child to process how you’re feeling. So that could be a partner, can be a case manager therapist, but be really mindful about when and how you’re processing that. If you’re having an emotion or a feeling in the child’s right there in front of you, it’s okay to take a break and say, Hey, you know, moms, my lives a little flipped or I’m feeling a little disregulated or however you’re communicating about it.
And I just need to take a break. But I will come back and we’ll finish the conversation because the last thing you want to do is put your feelings on the child. Yeah. And or put them in a position of having to take care of you. Yeah. Because what happens? We say negative. Like if we find ourselves saying negative things about that child’s first family or what happened to them, even if you’re not saying who did it, they know who did it, they know what happened right then.
Ultimately, what ends up happening is they internalize that as like if this person who I came from is X, Y, Z, or did X, Y, Z, and you feel this way about it, then you must feel that way about me. Or I’m. I must be the same way as them. Right? And so it just it can internal they can start to internalize that it’s like part of who they are even that’s not your intention.
So really it’s so important to make sure that you demonstrate respect and grace and understanding about that child’s first family, because that’s where they came from. Regardless of how you feel about it, you process that in a separate place. Okay, so we just want to be really careful about that. An example is like if you have difficult in-laws, right, and you’re you’re frustrated and they’re like, they’re so disrespectful and they’re so rude and they never the la la la la la la la.
And you’re sitting there talking to your partner about that. How are they going to fit? Those are the people that were used to raise them, like how are they going to feel about themselves? Right. And although they may share some of your what you’re saying or what you’re feeling, it still can be painful and hurt. Yeah. No, that’s a good lesson for everyone.
Listening. Who has listening? Maybe keep that one. Share it with your therapist, your partner. So we kind of talked about how to deal with, you know, behaviors like in the moment and but how can caregivers help kids begin to like I’m kind of thinking long term, you know, he’ll begin to heal from the past. You know, it’s honestly a lot of the same stuff.
And it’s not necessarily and none of this none of what I’ve said is one and done. Now it’s going to be an ongoing, ongoing, evolving experience, like for the entire journey of your relationship in your life. But so just to reiterate, connect, be present, give voice, learn to be a really good listener and not speak. Just take and really, truly try to understand where the child’s coming from.
When it is time for you to speak and share information, be truthful, validate feelings, honor the connection that they will always have with their first family. Regardless of how you feel and give, give grace. Thank you. That was a short answer. Too long. No, but no. I mean, I think just, you know, unfortunately, with all of these things and I mean, honestly, with I can’t think of anything.
This is true. There’s no like you said, there’s no easy button. There’s not it’s not just like, oh, great, can we have this conversation now? We’re done. Can check that off the list. It’s a lifelong journey throughout your whole life. Like not even just when your child is in your home, once they’re in adult, like there’s going to this is going to be something you’re going to be continually coming back to.
So that’s a good reminder. Are there any resources that you’d recommend for families? Yeah. I mean, I think any time that you can learn about for the first time or refresh or learning about supporting children who have experienced trauma, that can be super helpful. So there’s lots of books out there, books around TV or I connect a child and the connected parent are great.
You know, there’s just so many resources out there. I would take another hour to go through them all around, you know, just always continue your learning and refresh your learning. You know, just you may have done like a whole training series or 24 hours of in-classroom or whatever before you retire and before you had your child come to you.
But that does not mean the learning stops reminding, always reminding yourself and relearning is helpful. Learning new things. There’s a great book which I’m sure many people have heard of. It’s called What Happened to You? It was written by Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey. I think that’s a great book that doesn’t feel super technical because it’s written like a conversation that’s like that’s just a insightful book.
Beneath the Mask Understanding Adopted Teens by Debbie Riley is is a great book to about understand and kind of some of just what it sounds like beneath the mask of like, you know, what’s going on for our kids internally around their adoptive experience versus what they might be portraying externally. You mentioned that it keeps the score by Dr. Bessler Vanderbilt.
And then the other one I would recommend around a similar stuff about how we store things in our body is Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine. Those are those are good those are good books as well. A little more technical, but interesting, interesting reads. So that’s what I came up with. I would say that there’s if you if you dig in around YouTube, depending on where the content come from, you might want to take it with a grain of salt.
But definitely watch that. It’s not about the now. I love that. I’m going to watch that right after this. Well, thank you so much, Jill, as always. It’s a pleasure. I learned so much I like now I just want to read all of the books. I feel like there’s just it’s an endless journey. There’s so much to learn.
Thank you. You’re welcome. Thanks for having me. That was Jill Crewes as Director of U.S. Child Advocacy Services. Thanks for listening to Together by AGCI. As always, if you like what you heard, please rate or review us wherever you listen to podcasts. If you’d like to read or watch even more stories, check out our website, allgodschildren.org.
Reach out to us and let us know what you think on Instagram @allgodschildreninternational or email us at email@example.com. We look forward to sharing another story of hope the next time we’re together. We’ll talk to you soon.