Thursday, May 27, 2010

When is it too much?

I've been thinking about this for quite a while now -- we all know that it is perfectly normal for adopted kids to think about their birth parents.  They have a very natural curiosity about them, they may build elaborate fantasies around them. They need to incorporate their lives before us into their identies and lives now. Some of their thoughts of their birth parents involve the big WHY question -- why couldn't you keep me? They have to come to terms with this felt rejection as they develop self-esteem. All quite normal for adopted kids.  But is there ever a point when children think TOO MUCH about their birth parents? 

Two things have me thinking about this -- Zoe's note to her birth mother on Mother's Day where she says she thinks of her every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week. . . . and ends, "I can never stop thinking about you." Yes, that's surely an exaggeration, but feelings and thoughts of her birth mother were really triggered this Mother's Day, and it holds a kernal of truth, too.  And the second thing is this comment to another post: "My 7 1/2 yr old daughter is obsessed lately with her birthmother and the possibility of finding her. . . . Its amazing but is becoming dispruptive. Ive had to tell her lets put it on the shelf and we will bring it out at night and talk about it when I put you to bed."

So how to tell when normal thoughts of birth parents crosses a line?  In thinking about it, I've come up with three factors, which are really not independent, but quite related: frequency, intensity, & disruptiveness.

1.  Frequency

How often does the child think about her birth parents?  I'm not sure that's ever quantifiable -- the only thing we know is how often she talks about her birth parents (or how often her behavior cues us in to the fact that she's thinking about her birth parents).  I've found with my kids that it comes in peaks and valleys, with high frequency at some times, little interest at other times.  When the periods of high frequency last longer and longer, that might be a problem.

2.  Intensity

There's a difference between passing thoughts about birth parents, or pleasant thoughts of birth parents.  But when those thoughts bring on intense feelings of grief, that, too, is worrisome.  Of course, loss of birth family causes grief, but a growing intensity of grief might indicate a problem.  No one should expect an adoptee to "just get over" the grief, but when she's "stuck" there, and can't move forward, maybe it's time for extra attention to the issue.

3.  Disruptiveness

Disruptiveness of thoughts of birth parents is really the external manifestation of frequency and intensity of those thoughts, I think.  If the thoughts are disturbing relationships and play and learning and sleep, Houston, we have a problem!

So what do you do when/if you think your child is thinking TOO MUCH about birth parents?  You don't want to shut down the thoughts, you want to maintain open communication on the issues so you'll know what she's thinking rather than driving the thoughts underground.  I like the "lets put it on the shelf and talk about it at bedtime" approach, but it is a delicate balance . . . .

And at what point do you decide your child needs extra help -- talking to the school counselor, finding an adoption-qualified  therapist?

So is this all pretty funny coming from me, such a passionate advocate for talking openly with your children about hard issues in adoption?  I'm not calling for an end to the talking, just asking for insight on how to deal with the Genie who comes out of the bottle 5 times normal size! Please share your experiences, I really want to know.


Anonymous said...

I recall an e-mail that my relinquished and now reunited son sent to me shortly after he contacted us. He told me that he didn't remember exactly how old he was when he found out he was adopted, but he did recall that by the time he was in Gr. 2 he and all his friends had a plan to find me and has dad so he wouldn't have to wait until he was 18 to do so. Unfortunately, he said, they never did figure out how to do it, but that he thought about every single day until he turned 18. We got the call from the lawyer less than a month after he turned 18. He told me he still regrets that he and his "posse" couldn't find a way back when he was in Gr.2, he regrets all the time that was lost.
And it goes without saying that his dad and I regret it even more.

Mei Ling said...

It's impossible to know "how much" is "too much." No parent truly knows how much a child thinks about their original parents.

And there is also no way to measure grief.

joy said...

I think your parents are part of who you are. Like your arm or leg. So while it may not always be forefront it is always there.

suz said...

I cringe at the statement "too much" as it implies there is some structured appropriate level. I dont believe such a thing should exist or such judgemetns should be made.

I believe (and I think what you are getting at) is that if a child is obsessed with their first parents, if it is effecting their ability to cope, function normally, attention should be given.

What should NOT be done is to set limits on a childs desire to think, love, ponder about their first family.

As a mother who surrendered her child to adoption, I can tell you that I think of her every day, in the morning, at night, all the time. As a mother, she is no different than my other children that I think about, worry about every day, every hour, etc.

Adoption took my child away. It did not take the connection or my motherhood.

SocialWrkr24/7 said...

I completely understand what you are getting at here. There is obviously not a quantifiable amount that makes it "too much" - but instead its a quality of life type issue. If a child is talking or thinking about a birth parent- and subsequently feeling that loss or grief or concern for their whereabouts - to the extent that it is causing disruption in their day to day lives, it is time for some intervention. Not neccesarily reducing the time talking about the subject - in fact, possibly talking about it more! But definitely addressing how to help the child manage their feelings so that their thoughts are not intrusive. Children need to learn to process their feelings about their birth families just as they need to learn to process every other difficult thing that happens in their lives. It doesn't mean brushing it aside or "getting over it" - it means learning to incorporate it into their lives in a way that is balanced and not distructive.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it is not so much the quantity, but the extent to which the thoughts are disruptive or bothersome is key. Something that you didn't mention, also, is whether the person WANTS to have these thoughts to the extent that they have them. Therapy is usually more effective if the person wants to change!

For example, I have noticed lately that many of my thoughts are very negative and I am working with a therapist to change that (because I want to). It seems to be a matter of becoming aware of my negative thoughts and then replacing them with something else. That is, I am learning to think more positively.

I guess I haven't always been such a negative thinker.... I recall that when I was waiting for my children, I would think about them all the time. Many adoptive parents do this... many probably worry about their children. I never did worry that much, but I tried to imagine them being cared for and safe. Since I had no way of knowing what was actually happening to them, it made more sense to me to think good thoughts. My point being that to some extent, we have choices about what we think about or the way we think about it.

I am not sure how much children can learn to change their thinking. But, my 11-year-old daughter has OCD (diagnosed at age 9) and she has been learning to recognize her OCD thoughts (though often I need to help her identify them if she verbalizes them) and "boss them back." It seems to be a long slow process, but it is possible if the child is motivated.

I'm NOT suggesting that OCD thoughts are the same as thoughts about birthparents, just that in my limited experience, children that age can begin to understand their thoughts and change them if they are motivated to do so. I'm also NOT saying that they should, just that it might be possible in cases where such thoughts are becoming disruptive and there is a desire to do something about it.

I also think it is important for people to fully experience feelings of grief, but not to get stuck. I remember a guy I dated whose dad died when he was 8. His mother had been wearing nothing but black for 10 years. I think that is really too long. Not that feelings of grief will ever go away, but it is possible to get stuck in grief and not be able to move on. I remember reading that Christopher Reeves, after his spinal chord injury, would wake up every day and experience his grief for a short period of time, and then he would put it aside and go on with all the things that he set out to accomplish for the day. That seemed to me a very healthy way to acknowledge grief but not let it be disruptive.

Finally, as long as the therapist is a good one, I don't think it can every hurt (except for the cost) to try therapy. It might not help, but when in doubt it is probably worth a try.

Anonymous said...

Being adopted and living day to day not knowing your biological parents means no resolution.

When someone dies, you can grieve and work through the loss.

With adoption, there are no answers, just mystery. Without resolve the thoughts will continue to swirl around and never be processed.

Von said...

Agree with Anon, there is no resolution for the grief of loss of attachment.Even reunion doesn't solve it once the damage is done but reunion and as much information as possible can only help.
It is important to see that these experiences for adoptees are their normal, it's what happens when you take a child from his/her mother.You can't normalise adoption by patholigising a child's reactions and making the difficulties their 'fault' as so many adopters try to do.

Jessica said...

I am the adoptive mother to a daughter and son, 8 and 5. Our conversations about birth families come and go in waves. It's a real credit to you as a mother that your children feel safe enough to air their feelings and grief.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Suz.

I too thought about my son every single day. I always took a day off on his birthday - there was no way I could cope with anything on that day. It was for grieving the loss of his childhood in my life and the anger at the world at large that did not give me a chance that I and my son deserved to have to be together.

I have now reunited. I know he thought about me a lot.

It was hard for my son, especially when he was told that he was disappointment to his adoptive parents and that they could not understand why he was not academically gifted like their bio children. He didn't look for me because he thought I would be disappointed in him too. It was heart-breaking to hear that.

Yes, he thought about me a lot but I do think that his adoptive parents may have pushed him in that direction even more so because of their somewhat demoralising treatment of him.
It was this that drove him to drop out of school, go into debt and promoted a drinking problem which drove him more to think about me and his life in which he was stuck in a rut in a dead-end job that he was not happy in.

When we reunited and my son made the statement about how I might be disappointed in him, I asked him if he had murdered anyone.

He looked surprised and said no.
I asked if he had committed any crimes at all or spent time in jail.
He said no.

I told him that I could never be disappointed in a good person like him. It was like a light went on inside of him. He has since gone back to school, gone on to college and is now almost finished his nursing degree. With my non-judgemental guidance, he paid off his debt with his own money and he has very little to drink as he has no time in his now very rewarding life - I am very proud of him and told him that. He replied that he had *never* been told that by anyone ever. We are now very close.

BTW - I get the impression that his adoptive parents mocked his career choice of nursing. Now that I have reunited with my son, they are much more careful about what they say to him!