Thursday, February 28, 2013

5 Things Adoptees Need to Hear from Absolutely Everyone

One of the things people consistently ask me is, "I have a family member who doesn't understand my adopted loved one, how can I help them understand?"  There are many ways to respond.  I could refer them to information on adoption history.  I could make them aware of adoption statistics that dispel stereotypes.  I could send them links on adoption trauma theories or identity theories.  I could reference memoirs of other adoptees that prove any given adoptee isn't alone in how they feel.  Yet I still need to ask myself, "how helpful is this to the individual and their individual situation?"

Books, research, and narratives are vital components of understanding the adoption experience--especially for those who are not adopted.  There are common adoption-related thoughts, feelings, and experiences among adoptees.  However, how these things intersect in an adoptee's story differ because every story is different.  When we talk about making interpersonal relationships better, we are really talking about how to listen and be sensitive to an adopted person.  Here are five things that I personally think adoptees need to hear from those around them.

"I will give honor to your story."
I realize that if I am not adopted or have a different adoption experience, I cannot force your experience through my lens.  I cannot demand that you adapt your story to my comfort level.  Your story, the conclusions that you draw from it, and what it means to you are yours.  I don't have to agree with your opinions to honor and respect the story behind it.  I will let you lead when you tell your story rather than interjecting assertions and making assumptions that leave you wary of saying another sentence.  I will use the terms and language that you use for your story when I ask you questions about what you've told me.  I will deal with the emotions that your story made me feel before I respond to you.

"I will embrace those whom you embrace."
I will not use my own lens of how I was raised or how I view family to tell you how to view yours.  If your reality of having two non-biological parents, feeling you have four parents, or wanting to include your original parents in your life seems peculiar to me, I will understand that I need to investigate why I feel this way before I respond to you.  I will do this to handle your feelings with care.  I understand that your connections are important to you.  Even if I do not understand your connections, they will be important to me because you are important to me.

"I will ask about and listen to your story when it helps you."
I will ask you to talk about being adopted when I sense you want to talk about it.  I will carefully think about my questions before I ask them, and make sure I ask them in a way that is respectful.  The questions I ask will only probe as deep as is appropriate for the level of closeness and intimacy in our relationship.  I will ask questions that help me learn how to support you and other adoptees.  I will not ask questions simply to satisfy my own curiosity.

"I will validate your feelings."
I will not always understand will how you feel but I will do my best to empathize with you.  I will examine how my life experiences may differ from yours which impacts my ability to fully understand what you're feeling about your own life experiences.  I will acknowledge that wanting biological connections as most other people have, or not feeling ready to reach out for them right now are both normal aspects of being adopted.  I will not use my own life experiences to tell you that you feel the wrong way.  Our conversations will be a safe space for you to be yourself.

"I will advocate for you."
I will help you as best I can with what you need.  If you have a petition that addresses a need or inequality, I will sign it.  If you need to petition the court for information, I will drive you there.  If you are calling a loved one for the first time, I will hold your hand.  I will not make you feel as though adoption issues are silly, out-dated, or unimportant because that's simply not true.  If you need to talk, I will listen to you.  I will write to my legislators and tell them that I support the issues that are important to you.  When I hear adoption stereotypes or ignorance spoken about adoptees, I will confront it immediately.

I am sure someone is going to tell me that these active listening skills are not unique to adoption and could be employed in daily life or with any other circumstance.  I absolutely agree.  Responding sensitively, letting the person you are listening to lead their story and supporting them as best you can are key pieces to good dialogue in just about any situation.  What people need to know is that adoption is no exception.  People do not always let adoptees lead their story, accept the adoptee's given family reality, or validate their feelings.  We as a society have become so sure about what adoption means that people not connected to adoption at all sometimes think nothing of shutting an adoptee down completely and walking away.  Adoptees deserve the same time, sensitivity, and attention as anyone else.  Let's give it to them.