In honor of National Adoption Awareness Month, we’ve asked Jen Berge, a mom of six through birth and adoption, and our content manager, to share her insight on some common misconceptions about adoption. But we believe what she’s learned applies to all parents!
When we began our adoption journey in 2013 we did all the things. Our agency required a certain amount of education, but we went above and beyond.
We anxiously tried to prepare ourselves and our four biological children for anything that could come along in our growing family. Our daughters were coming from Haiti, and we knew that international, transracial adoption would come with its own set of complexities. We were also trying to prepare for whatever trauma our girls may have faced before coming to us.
As I said, we did all the things.
- We went to seminars…
- We read books…
- We attended webinars…
- We talked to and interviewed friends who had adopted…
- We talked to and interviewed adult adoptees…
- We did online courses…
- We took classes to help learn how to help our four older biological children adapt to having new siblings…
All this was in an effort to find out how to best parent, discipline, and raise a child (or children in our case) from another culture who had experienced the loss of their first family. Our focus was almost entirely on how to adapt our parenting style. We already understood that traditional parenting would not cut it with children from a background of trauma.
What we didn’t realize about our adoption journey
Our deepest desire was to create an environment where the daughters joining our family through adoption could grow and thrive in healthy ways.
But nothing—and I mean nothing—could have prepared us for the work we have had to do (and continue to do) on ourselves.
As it turns out, our adoption journey has made a significant impact on our own transformation.
It’s painful at times, but so incredibly good and necessary. Does this sound familiar? You may be relating now to how much the challenges of parenting have changed you!
Over the past few years, I have recognized that the Connected Families Framework contains essential messages not just for our children but FOR US! I’ve learned that the more I can hear the messages for myself, the more effectively I can pass those messages on to our kids.
FOUNDATION: I am safe (at peace) with myself
My first misconception about adoption was assuming if our family did all the “right” things to make our children feel both emotionally and physically safe, they would feel safe. (And then they would obey.) Automatically. Direct correlation. The more things we did to help them feel safe, the safer they would feel and the more compliant they would be.
You see, kids can spot a fake (especially our kids who joined our family through adoption from hard places). They’ve learned to survive by reading body language and facial expressions. They know if we are just going through the motions. They know if there is a hidden agenda. And they can definitely spot if I am impatient, even if I’m trying to hide it.
There’s a saying, “When you are at ease with yourself, you are at peace with everyone else.” My kids know if I am not at peace with myself and it can make them feel unsafe.
Safety is vital for all kids, but especially those from hard places, or with sensitive nervous systems, because their lives have so often felt out of control. When any child feels out of control their coping mechanism is often to try to control others, and it usually shows up as dysfunction and misbehavior.
What I’ve realized about myself is that when I feel the need to control I often seek control in dysfunctional ways and misbehave too.
Why I struggled to be at peace with myself in my early parenting
If I could go back and do anything differently in my early years of parenting, 20+ years ago, I would take a harder look at myself and what my own agenda was when it comes to parenting.
Often I had concrete expectations in my head about how my children should behave. And if they didn’t deliver, then I was doing something wrong. It was all on me. The more I felt I lacked control, the more I tried to control them.
When I have a goal to control my child, I set myself up for anxiety and frustration because controlling another human being is not a reasonable, achievable goal. That goal keeps me from being at peace with myself and my child.
With my own inner turmoil and conflict ever present, I’ve really struggled at times to make our girls feel safe. When conflict erupts I have had to learn to consistently ask myself, “What’s going on in me? Why do I really want to control this situation so badly?”
Only when I acknowledged that, yes, I did often have an agenda of my own, could I start really letting go of my own need to control my children. And only then did my children start their journey toward feeling safe around me.
I’ve noticed that all our kids trust me more now. They no longer seem to worry if I’m going to overreact and they feel more comfortable talking to me about things (and choices) they are struggling with. Deep down they are learning to understand that I truly am “for them” and it shows in how they approach me. It’s been a rewarding journey!
CONNECT: I am loved by God, even when I make parenting mistakes
When we first brought our girls home we put all our training and preparation to work. The to-do list was long and we inevitably made mistakes. But we kept trying harder and harder, believing that if we got it right that things would go well for us all.
And we were exhausted. As mistakes piled on top of mistakes, we increasingly felt shame and self-doubt. Perhaps worst of all we began believing lies about ourselves: “I can’t do this!”, “I’m not lovable myself,” or even, “God picked the wrong parent for this.”
Lies like these can permeate not only how we think about ourselves as parents, but how we think about our kids. I found myself thinking, “This child will never make it in the world, and it’s all my fault.”
What I have come to understand is that parenting of any kind is a purifying process and probably one of the hardest things a person will ever do in their life. And when you step into adoption (and/or foster care), the purification becomes that much more evident because of the impact of trauma and shame on kids.
Letting go of my shame, and guiding my kids to let go of their shame
It is well-known in the adoption community that kids who have experienced trauma of any kind (and trauma can come in all shapes and sizes) often hang onto a shame-based identity. Shame is something they live with daily. But guess what? Parents face shame and fear too. And that includes me.
I’m learning to face my personal shame about my parenting mistakes in order to better help my daughters work through their own (often misplaced) shame. One verse that has been a consistent encouragement to me is Zephaniah 3:17:
The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in His love He will no longer rebuke you, but will delight over you with singing.
How amazing is it that the God of the Universe not only is with me but delights and rejoices in me and doesn’t rebuke me?
I am loved no matter what
My kids can’t realize they are loved no matter what until I accept that I am loved no matter what. God loves me in ways I can’t even imagine. God showed His love for me even while I was a sinner. Or, re-worded, God shows His love for me, in that even when I mess up in my parenting, Christ still died for me. His love is unconditional and unfathomable.
As I’ve learned to fully grasp the deep and unconditional love God has for me, I am better able to pass that along to my children in ways they can understand. And I can then better lead them toward the Hope that Christ brings.
Each night as we put them to bed, we make a specific point of telling our girls the same thing: “You are kind. You are smart. You are important. Our family belongs together and you are loved no matter what.” Sometimes they feel so ashamed they don’t want to receive it, but we say it anyway. Because that’s what God does for us. He speaks Truth to the lies we hear.
COACH: I am called to (and capable of!) what God is asking me to do
Most parents experience feeling alone and overwhelmed at some point in their parenting journey. I am no different. It’s easy to be discouraged and feel like, “There is no way I am equipped to handle what God has brought my way.” But God has never left me. His promises are real and I lean on that daily.
As we sought to walk in our calling to encourage our kids, a vital habit has been to evaluate how our feelings of being overwhelmed or discouraged might overflow onto them. It’s been eye-opening to think about how we might be inadvertently communicating unhelpful messages to our kids, especially when we’ve had a difficult interaction with them.
I remember one day I was working in the kitchen and feeling particularly tired and overwhelmed. My sweet daughter was talking on and on and asking a lot of questions about things I didn’t feel like talking about at the moment. All of a sudden she said, “Am I annoying?” Talk about a wake-up call. My body language was communicating to her that she was annoying. I had to tell her, “No, you are not annoying. Mom is just tired right now and it has nothing to do with you.”
Resting in God’s promises
The Bible is filled with the promises of God—all aimed at reminding us that He will equip us for whatever good work He has for us (Ephesians 2:10). This applies to adoption, foster care, respite care, caring for a child with a disability or a challenging diagnosis, and any other type of parenting life could throw at us. At our house, we work to rest in this. And it brings us great peace.
Sometimes God uses other people to communicate that we are capable and can overcome. (Another misconception about adoption: I’m in this parenting thing alone.) And often in ways we don’t expect. I can remember a day when I was feeling completely over it. Over parenting. Over the energy it takes to parent six kids. Over it all. I wanted to get away. And then I opened my email. I had an email from a dear friend that said the following regarding her own struggles, which mirrored mine at the time:
Right now, [in this discouraging time] I just have to sit with sad, make friends with it, and get through it. Then I can resume being grateful for all of my blessings—which are many. Jesus is risen. God has a plan. He loves us and is with us. I am still grateful. For everything. Even through my tears.
Surrounding myself with people who are steadfast
I have learned to surround myself with people who are steadfast and who will help carry me when I feel like we can’t go another step in this journey. People who will preach to me when I need to hear it. People who will encourage me and walk through the daily messes of life with me. These friends and family have been a physical representation of how God cares for all of us. They are a gift and continue to show me I am called and capable, even when I don’t feel that way myself.
When you believe that God is going to equip you and provide you with the resources and people you need in your life, you are better able to parent from a place of confidence. And when any kids, but especially adopted and foster children, feel your steadfast and strong confidence in God’s plan for your family it can’t help but boost their own confidence that they too are called and capable to walk in the plan God has for their lives.
CORRECT: I am responsible for my parenting
Perhaps the most humbling step of the framework (especially if you were raised with traditional parenting) is the need to be able to recognize when you’ve blown it and apologize to your kids when appropriate.
At our house, we use The Five Steps to Sorry, which was introduced to us in a therapy session.** This has increased our kids’ insight into the “why” of their misbehavior and has encouraged them to face their own mistakes.
But here’s the catch: the parents at our house use The Five Steps to Sorry too.
If you’ve ever felt the need to apologize to your child, you know it can be excruciating. And you worry it will undermine your authority. But the truth is, it does the exact opposite. By owning your own mistakes, and then making things right, you are modeling for your kids the humility and grace that comes from God to all of us.
Is it hard to apologize to your kids? Absolutely.
Is it worth it? Absolutely.
Can I guarantee that my kids will start apologizing on their own when I model it for them? Nope.
When I am able to lightly and confidently show my kids what true humility looks like by apologizing and “making things right,” it opens the door for them to do the same. This is not a sulking sort of apology. It’s a peaceful, connected apology that comes when you know God’s grace for you. And then it’s that much easier to offer it to your kids.
Putting grace at the center of responsibility
God’s grace and mercy for us come completely without merit or condition. It sends the message to me that it’s okay to mess up in my parenting. It leads me to make things right with those I’ve wronged. In the same way, owning my own mistakes sends the message that in our family it’s okay to mess up!
But guess what? I know I’m not responsible for how my kids behave all the time. That’s their journey. What I now know is that I’m responsible to get my value from Jesus. I’m responsible to thank God for the trials. I’m responsible to welcome God’s grace into the journey. And I’m responsible to make right what I’ve made wrong.
**If you are an adoptive or foster parent we cannot recommend therapy enough!
This is a holy and purifying journey we are on as parents. And for adoptive and foster parents, the pressure can be that much more profound. At Connected Families we get it. Several of our staff have grown our families through adoption and foster care. We count it a privilege to walk this parenting journey with you. Blessings as you work to lead your family with grace, no matter how God has brought your family together!