With each new racial injustice making the news, I know the work my clients will bring with them to our next therapy session. We will set aside their goals and what we had planned to discuss. My clients’ need to process continued trauma to their community will take precedence over everything else. Increasingly over the past six months, I sit with children holding intense feelings that they struggle to describe to their white adoptive parents. I sit with them as they realize that their experience as a transracial adoptee is not something anyone who’s not adopted can ever understand. I sit with their parents as they struggle in their discomfort to find meaningful words to say.
I am a parent. I know what it’s like to struggle to find the right words that let my kids know I support them. This is especially difficult when the topic of discussion makes me uncomfortable. As parents, we hope our kids know how much we desire to take away their struggles. In some cases, we may have direct experience with the same aspects of life that challenge our children. In these moments, it’s important to remember that we never have their exact same experience.
At some point, we likely all fall into the temptation to tell our kids that we “understand” their thoughts and feelings. Maybe we really do believe that we understand. Other times, we lack the words to say. Yet we feel a burning compulsion to speak. Sometimes we speak to fill silence. Sometimes we speak because we intend to show love. Sometimes, the impact of our words as a result of our need to just say something has the unintended impact of invalidating our children in that moment.
In families of color, conversations about racism are natural and fluid. They are a matter of life and of survival. As I explain this to the white adoptive parents of my BIPOC clients, I emphasize how hard they must work to have conversations that prepare their children for racism. They must understand that, no matter how hard they try, they never truly understand what it’s like to experience racism like BIPOC parents can. This is why “I understand” is something that they can never authentically say.
Telling children that we understand what it is like to be them when it is clear this is not possible causes them harm. It affects their self-worth and their willingness to be open about their truth. It affects their relationship with their adoptive family and their willingness to trust others charged with their care. It has always been abundantly clear to me that parents don’t intend to cause harm. If given the opportunity to say something more authentic and validating, they would.
“You are strong. I’m proud of you for coming to me.” – Often times adoptees need to feel validated that they made the right decision coming to their adoptive parents. Like any child, adoptees are concerned about upsetting their parents or hurting their feelings. By saying “you are strong,” parents build up their child’s inner self-talk. By saying “I am proud of you for coming to me,” you are reassuring your child that you are ok and affirming their decision to come to you.
“I hear you and I am listening to you.” – This is such a simple sentence but it speaks loudly to an adopted child who may not always feel heard. Adoption places a child at the center of adults making decisions that impact their life. However, adoptees are rarely heard or asked how they feel about these decisions. Sometimes, all you need to say is “I hear you.”
“Let’s talk about how I can help” – This statement avoids trying to “fix” a problem or steamrolling over a child’s perceptions of how a problem could be solved. It indicates the adult is there to take charge of what a child can’t handle alone while not making the child feel as though they have no control.
“I love you. I am sitting with you in this” – Holding space is powerful. There will be hardships in life that have no solutions. However, sitting in discomfort with the child is something a parent can always do. There are times when silence and a calming presence are the best way to respond. It is important to acknowledge when there is no solution. By consistently staying present, a parent provides comfort and unconditional love in the face of pain, adversity, and trauma. Be unmoving and unwavering. Parents can be the strength for their child in a time of need.
I know that many adoptive parents were told that love was enough to parent an adopted child. Which is no different than saying that intentions are the only part of what we do that matters. Angella Okawa talks about the differences between Intent and Impact here. Intent is what we are trying to accomplish or communicate. Intentions can be negative or positive. Impact is the actual effect of what we do or say on another person. Intent and impact are not always aligned and we must always care about both.
When a white parent tells their child that they “understand” the hardships associated with being adopted or being a target of racism it is dismissive. It is dismissive because, more often than not, the child knows that it is untrue.
As a transracial adoptee, I experienced the dismissiveness of white, colorblind parents telling me that they “understand.” As a therapist to transracial adoptees, I continue to witness the collapse of openness and trust between parents and children when this phrase is repeated.
Parents are meant to be the calm within the storm. Parents are entitled to their own emotions, feelings and perspective. However, this comes second to the needs of the adopted child. Children with trauma are keen on authenticity in adults. What parents say matters. How parents present information matters. A parent’s tone matters. A parent’s nonverbal cues and posture matters.
How a parent acts and speaks can make the difference between their child feeling protected by their parent or feeling as though they need to protect their parent.
A parent’s ultimate goal is to help their child along their adoption journey as an adoptee. Part of this process includes acknowledging that you can not truly understand what they are going through. Part of this process is to be the anchor that keeps them grounded during the storms of unrest that feel bottomless and endless.