So many of you read and appreciated Sara Easterly’s last guest post. I was thrilled when Sara offered her thoughts what adoptive parents need to know about adoptees and the Covid-19 pandemic that affects us all.
We are all under stress, encountering disruption and disconnection as never before. Sara’s guest post addresses the fears today’s adopted children may be experiencing and the messages they need to receive from parents.
Sara’s insights come as an adoptee as well as a staff member and at the Neufeld Institute, which provides education and training for an attachment-based developmental model. Read on…
A Fearful Adoptee during the Covid-19 Crisis
As a child, I embodied the role of Fearful Adoptee as if it were a paid Broadway gig. Fretting? Check. Nail-biting? Nailed it. Teeth grinding? In my sleep, baby … though I always slept with my eyes partially open — an unconscious attempt, I now know, at spotting danger coming before it could creep up on me.
The catalog of my childhood fears was longer than my holiday wish list and included such terrors as: The Dark, The Basement, thunderstorms, tornadoes, fireworks, spiders, snakes, Ferris wheels, roller coasters, burglars, and Freddy Krueger. In my memoir, Searching for Mom, I wrote: Everywhere I looked, it seemed I had no control over the world around me. I had no idea that as an adoptee I was predisposed to remain in survival mode, that “when trauma happens at such an early age, fear is part of the residue.”1
Now that I’m adulting, I have tools to settle my fears when they threaten to unravel or freeze me. Being conscious of attachment wounds and their effects goes a long way, as does maturity and a host of skills and resources that stretch my brain out of its primal mode that’s driven by fear.
Under Stress: Fears & Needs of Adopted Children
But my fears haven’t been completely vanquished, so imagining how my younger self would have felt during a global pandemic is fairly easy. As COVID-19 first began showing itself in my region, the frightened adopted child in me certainly sought to take over. For this I’m glad, because it helps me relate to the emotions of others — particularly, today’s adopted children — who may be experiencing similar thoughts in response to today’s crisis.
Here are 4 things parents need to know about adoptees during times of pervasive stress
Let me know that I’m not alone.
Now that we’re more than a month into it, I’m not so sure I would have felt as threatened as a child by the COVID-19 pandemic as I was by so many other things that rattled me. The common thread in my childhood fears was that I felt alone—it was up to me to notice the threats. It was my job to pay attention and move to safety. I believed it was my sole responsibility to save myself and my family. It was an impossible load for a child to shoulder, and failing left me feeling isolated, frustrated, and even more scared much of the time.
For decades I awoke to recurring nightmares, I wrote in Searching for Mom. Nightmares where tornadoes would be whipping wildly around, right outside our living room windows. But my parents wouldn’t join me in retreating to the safety of the basement.
One of the silver linings in this pandemic is knowing that we are all in it together. Noticing the danger of COVID-19 is no longer the sole job of the hypervigilant adoptee. Almost everyone, around the globe, is paying attention to the threat.
What a relief this would have been for me as a child, as it is for me now, to know I’m not alone in seeing the menace of this virus and taking it seriously.
Home is my safe place.
When I was six years old, I had a school assignment to fill in the blank for the statement: I feel safest when _____________ . My answer? When I am at home. Home is a place where most children feel safe — assuming they are living with at least one caring adult.
With the exception of parents who are front line workers, or those living in areas without mandated sheltering-in-place protocols, right now parents must stay home with their children. The resulting togetherness can be comforting to young children, even in the midst of danger, and it has been for me as an adult, as well. I’m physically holding my loved ones close — closer than ever before possible.
For the first time none of my loved ones, near or far, across generations and birth/adoptive/extended families, are risking their lives in many of the usually unnoticed ways: driving on the freeway, bicycling in traffic, participating in sports, going to school. More than I like to admit, my adoptee brain is ever on guard for accidents that could take away my loved ones, creating an undercurrent of worry that has been resolved by the fact that the pandemic is keeping everyone home.
There’s still worry, obviously, but right now it’s funneled into one fear — that one of my loved ones contract COVID-19 — rather than directed at any number of identified and unidentified catastrophes that subversively hum in the back of my mind.
I’m hyper-aware that my parents could die.
Speaking of ongoing worries, the fear that we could lose our adoptive parents any moment is a real, ongoing threat for many adoptees, even if we’re unaware of how pervasive this fear is and how it can drive our emotions and behavior. After all, we already lost our first parents. No matter the circumstances, loss precedes any adoption. Even if we don’t recall the relinquishment, our brains remember, and have responded accordingly, to parental loss.2
Facing real or imagined separation of our adoptive parents, which we presume could happen anytime, can be equally, and sometimes more, traumatic. For adopted children with any knowledge of COVID-19, who’ve heard that older adults are at a higher risk for death, this can be immensely alarming — even more so for adoptees with family members personally affected by COVID-19.
If we’re old enough, we want to be leveled with. Denying there are monsters under the bed or bad germs that can kill is gaslighting and crazy-making. We want and need the truth, as developmentally appropriate, together with confident assurances that our family members are doing everything possible to minimize the risk and that we will be cared for and loved no matter what.
I need to cry and I need to laugh.
If I’m not crying or laughing regularly, I’m prone to raging. There’s no way around it. Right now I’m full of emotions — frustration, sadness, alarm, lack of control.
Emotions need to move. This is not specific to adoptees, nor to children, nor to this pandemic. But adoptees already hold a lot of emotion inside. Plus, we have a tendency to suppress our emotions even in normal times. In a time of crisis, our basket of emotions can overflow pretty quickly if not regularly emptied.
To empty my basket, I need a lot of sad books and movies. I need funny books and movies. Sometimes I need scary books and shows to play with my alarm in a not-for-real, non-threatening way. I need to write, paint, journal, dance, and play the piano.
What do these activities have in common? They cater to my natural bent, aren’t outcome-based, and give me a chance to express emotions sideways rather than tackling them head-on.
Child developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld calls these, “safe emotional playgrounds for our frustration.”3 Such playgrounds are important to everyone’s mental health right now — adopted and biological children, as well as adults.
More to Come on Adoptees & the Covid-19 Pandemic
These are just four my pandemic-related thoughts to shed light on dynamics for adopted and nonadopted children.
In part two, I share specific ways I’m parenting, informed by lived experience as an adoptee as well as my studies in attachment and child development. My hope is that these strategies will help you bring down your child’s alarm, keep loved ones close, and even offer the opportunity for fun in the midst of these difficult times.
Sara Easterly is the author of Searching for Mom: A Memoir, a gold medal winner of the Illumination Book Awards. Her essays and articles have been published by Dear Adoption, Psychology Today, Feminine Collective, Her View From Home, Godspace, Neufeld Institute, and the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI).
Sara is mom to two tenacious daughters and daughter of two amazing moms—both her adoptive mom and her birth mother. She enjoys supporting mothers in their journeys and has a passion for helping the non-adopted better understand the hearts of adopted children. Find her online at www.saraeasterly.com.
1 Nancy Newton Verrier, Coming Home to Self: The Adopted Child Grows Up (Baltimore: Gateway Press, Inc., 2003), 58.
2 Paul Sunderland, “Adoption and Addiction: Remembered Not Recalled,” LifeWorks Community, January 1, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3pX4C-mtiI .
3 Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D., “Taking Care of Children in Alarming Times,” Neufeld Institute editorials, (March 30, 2020), https://neufeldinstitute.org/taking-care-of-children-in-alarming-times/.
Along These Lines
- I Want My Real Mom! — post by Sara Easterly
- Calcutta Is My Mother — review of film by Reshma McClintock
- You Don’t Look Adopted — review of book by Anne Heffron
- Connected in Crisis: list of resources for families from the Karyn Purvis Institute for Child Development regarding Covid-19
Lori Holden, mom of a teen son and a teen daughter, writes from Denver. Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, is available through your favorite online bookseller and makes a thoughtful anytime gift for the adoptive families in your life. Lori was honored as an Angel in Adoption® in 2018 by the Congressional Coalition of Adoption Institute.