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Helping Adopted Children Express Themselves

Jojo Ensslin

Assisting kids who've been adopted to give voice to their feelings in healthy ways.

Many adoptive parents want to love their kids enough to heal the hurts of the past. But despite giving their children all the love they can, they often find themselves asking, “How can I help my daughter if she won’t tell me how she feels?” Or, “My son seems so distant. How can I reach him?”

Adopted children do not consciously choose to be emotionally guarded or withdrawn. Their struggle often stems from neglect or abuse early in life. Some children may come into their adoptive family with a profound sense of loss and fear of being vulnerable. For others, multiple foster-home placements or years in an orphanage impede their belief that adults really care about them and will love them consistently.

Many of these children truly have lost their voice.

Parents who want to help their children find their voice and express feelings in healthy ways can begin with these steps:

Be a model. Because children learn by example, parents should begin by modeling what sharing thoughts and feelings looks and sounds like. Parents must be vulnerable and transparent about their own feelings, thoughts and experiences so that their children learn how to be vulnerable and transparent as well.

Don’t edit the story. When children feel comfortable sharing painful experiences and memories, they may first give shallow, glossy or even rosy stories about their histories or early caregivers. Parents must resist the temptation to edit or correct. The goal is to provide a blank slate on which children can record their feelings, memories and stories. If parents fully support their children’s first attempts at telling their stories, their children may eventually have the courage and trust to share deeper feelings.

Let them lead. Above all, parents should let their children choose the depth and pace of their disclosure. Adopted children often start talking about one topic and then veer dramatically into another topic when they feel anxious. Parents should not press for more than their children are willing to give during these times.

Feeling heard and understood is one of the most powerful gifts parents can give to their children. A parent’s loving persistence in overcoming hurdles can deepen the parent-child attachment as well as enrich the child’s sense of safety and trust. When parents create a sense of safety by their caring, consistent presence, they help their children find the strength to share what’s truly on their hearts.

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