Welcome back to Adopted, Now What?
In this episode, Becky Walker talks about a quote from Tony Robbins and relates it to being an adoptive parent and how to relate, connect and understand your adopted child better. The quote is: There are three decisions that we all control each moment of our lives. What to focus on, what things mean and what to do in spite of the challenges that may appear to limit us.
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Focus On The Reason, Not Behavior
I had one of those 365-day calendars on my desk last year. It provided a quote from Tony Robbins each day. I’d like to share the one from July 7th. In it, Tony says, “There are three decisions that we all control each moment of our lives. What to focus on, what things mean and what to do in spite of the challenges that may appear to limit us.” This leads me to what I’m grateful for as I start this podcast today. I’m grateful that I get an opportunity to start over and over and over again in each moment of my life, to improve the way that I show up in the relationships that are important to me. That idea is key to what I want to cover today. At Beyond Adoptions Incorporated, which I founded to provide coaching and support to adoptive parents, we have a mission statement, which says in part that our mission is to improve the dynamics in adoptive families by listening proactively, identifying problems, recommending appropriate solutions and providing guidance and options to help create a harmonious home environment.
After all, that’s what we want as adoptive parents, a harmonious home environment. We’re not seeking perfection. We’re not believing that every moment of every day is going to be perfect, but we do want to live in harmony. We want to have healthy, connected relationships within our homes so that, most of the time, our interactions come right along. So that when the inevitable times of upset occur, our relationships have the strength and resilience that allow us to resolve the difficulties and restore harmony in a constructive and emotionally safe way.
Clearly, having a home environment that is up to meeting these challenges that life throws at us, depends on the efforts that we put into our relationships within the home on a day-to-day basis. Because of this fact, at Beyond Adoptions, we believe it’s important for the family, starting with the parents, to understand, learn and above all, practice some basic interaction and communication techniques that are proven to reduce emotion in disruptive situations, that are proven to reduce conflict and that are proven to increase connection between people.
This information and the associated techniques are not unique for use in relationships involving adoption, rather they are applicable and can be highly effective in every single relationship we have. Be those close intimate relationships, such as those between spouses, parents and children, siblings and very, very close friends or be they casual in frequent relationships, such as the one time interaction with the checkout clerk at a grocery store.
As the quote from Tony Robbins that I started with today suggests, there are decision that we can make in each moment of life, through which we can control those moments. Those decisions are: what to focus on, what to assign as the meaning to what happens and what to do in the face of the challenges we encounter in those moments. The techniques and skills we suggest adoptive parents learn and use help with these decisions. First, what to focus on? As an adoptive parent, you may regularly experience, as I have, behaviors by our adopted child, be these actions, statements or both that defy understanding when they occur. I will provide some examples from my own life with my adopted daughter. These will probably stimulate stories of your own that have been equally astonishing to you.
My daughter was six years old. This was within the first six months of her having come to live with us from a Russian orphanage. She and I were having lunch in a restaurant with a close friend of mine and her young daughter. As conversation was going on, I noticed that my daughter had not finished her drink. I briefly paused in my conversation and told her to finish her drink and then continued talking to my friend. A look of surprise and then disbelief bloomed on my friend’s face as she looked at my daughter.
I glanced down to see that my daughter had taken the remainder of her drink through her straw and into her mouth, leaned back on her chair, opened her mouth and was allowing the drink to run out and down the front of her shirt and into her lap, the chair, the floor. My reaction was immediate and swift. I snatched her out of the chair, marched through to the restroom, scrubbed her down, all the while informing her with very forceful tones that this is not the way we behave. Something like, “Do not let me ever see you do that again.” I’ll discuss my reaction in those words that I said a little bit later.
Another story, in her first grade class, the teacher instructed the class to do some activity. My daughter did not comply with the rest of class, which resulted in her being told specifically by the teacher to do the activity. My daughter’s response was to climb up and stand on the top of her desk, bend over with her rear end facing the teacher and point at her rear repeatedly to basically indicate, “You can kiss my patootie.” She was pulled down from the desk and marched immediately to the principal’s office for discipline and was given a note of warning to deliver to me at the end of the school day.
Lastly, my daughter did not want to stay in her car seat or wear a seatbelt while in the car. Of course, she had to do this to be safe and to keep the car driver for being stopped by the police and being sided or worse, for endangering a child. The routine went like this. This may sound familiar to you. Get in, car seat and clasp seatbelt, start driving. Seatbelt unclasp and climb out of car seat, stop car. Tell her to return to seat, “No,” forceful return to seat and seatbelt and forceful words by adult to stay in the seat and leave that seatbelt alone.
Clearly, these stories are relatively benign. No one is going to hear these and think, “What an awful child.” Of course, they’d be correct. I have three reasons for telling these particular stories. First, these actions of my daughter were in response to simple requests. Second, the requests were made in nonthreatening environments and were voiced in a non-challenging way, at least initially. Third, the reactions of the adults to her actions were immediate and forceful.
The reason these examples are important is they are not at all unusual in the adoption world. With many, many adopted children, these types of scenarios and many, many others of higher and lesser severity occur every day. They can occur numerous times per day, often in rapid succession. It doesn’t take long for the parent to become tired, then frustrated, then irritated, then exhausted and finally overwhelmed and highly reactive. It’s not hard to understand why.
When I first talk with adoptive parents, a lot of times this is the adoptive mom but not always, you adoptive dads are not immune to this either. When I first talk to these parents, they look completely worn out. Their shoulders are slumped, their chins are down and they have a very specific pleading look on their faces. After one has endured an onslaught of behaviors day after day, that seem to be in response to any little thing that you, as a parent, say or request or do, it’s easy to get to a place of embracing beliefs that sound something like, “This child is doing this intentionally. He does this to me because he doesn’t like me. He does this on purpose to aggravate me.” The ultimate, “Maybe I’m just the wrong parent for her. Someone else could do it better.” That’s such a hard place to be as an adoptive parent. I know that place so well myself. It’s a dark hole to be stuck in. I was able to crawl out of that hole. If you find yourself in that place, you can crawl out too. Heck, I want you to be able to leap out of that place. Let’s start that journey.
Let’s explore some key information that will serve as the foundation and the springboard for leaping. Remember the first part of the Robbins’ quote that we started with? That was, “What to focus on?” In my previous podcast number 004, I talked about the idea that behaviors are not what they seem. I said then that a pivotal juncture in the healing of my relationship with my adopted daughter was the day I heard the statement, “All human behaviors are clues to feelings in met or unmet needs.” This statement changed my world as an adoptive parent.
In a difficult moment with our adopted child, what do we do? We often do the absolutely normal thing. We’ve focused on what they do or say. In other words, we focus on the behavior and we react to the behavior. Often we do this by using what Marshall Rosenberg, the father of Nonviolent Communication, referred to as, power over strategies. These are actions that use force or coercion to bend the child’s behavior to what we want it to be. This can take the form of both rewards and punishments or consequences.
The author, Inbal Kashtan, says the following in her book Parenting from Your Heart, “When parents want children to do something their children don’t want to do, it’s often tempting to force the children’s compliance.” She goes on to say when she was asked about using rewards and consequences, “I do think that there is a problem with rewards and consequences because in the long run they rarely work in the ways we hope. In fact, I think they are likely to backfire.”
When I hear parents or parenting experts say that consequences are effective, I often wonder what they mean. I believe effective usually means that parents get compliance from children, that children do what parents tell them to do, at least for a while. Both the goal, compliance and the means, rewards come at a price. They not only involve fear, guilt, shame, obligation or desire for reward, they are also often accompanied by anger or resentment. “Hold on a second,” you might say. “Compliance is exactly what I want. It’s the way the world is supposed to be. Children should do what we say because we’re helping them, protecting them, teaching them, guiding them. That’s what my parents did for me and I turned out just fine.” I know. I’ve been there with all those same thoughts. As Dr. Phil might say, “How’s that working for you?”
Let’s think back to the quote from Inbal Kashtan that I read earlier. “The goal of compliance comes at a price. They are often accompanied by anger or resentment.” Let’s think a second about these sweet children, our adopted children. What’s something they are already displaying lots of? In my case, the answer included huge amounts of anger and resentment. If anger and resentment are already there in spades, why would we want to use strategies, however familiar they are and however normal and justified they may feel? Why would we do something that is highly likely to increase their anger and resentment even more, especially if we could do something else? That something else takes us to the second part of the Robbins’ quote, “What to assign as the meaning to what happens?” In other words, what is the meaning behind the behavior or why is my kid really doing this?
Remember the statement I said was pivotal in my journey to healing? It applies to your journey too from this moment forward. “All human behaviors are clues to met or unmet needs.” That means, those kids of ours, they are a treasure map, X marks the spot. Each and every behavior is telling us something about their needs. If we can find out what it is that they need and help them get that need met, the behavior will change. The kid himself will change the behavior.
Let me assure you, from my own experience, where I was so stuck in that dark, dark hole, where I could not imagine that the relationship with my daughter would ever feel truly connected. I changed my approach. I stopped using power over strategies in order to force her or coerce her. I stopped even asking her to change her behaviors and I moved to a new strategy; a strategy that takes us to the final part of the Robbins’ quote. “What to do in the face of the challenges we experience in those moments?” In other words, what can we do when our kids behave in disruptive and contrary ways?
I started using a technique of interaction and communication, which I mentioned earlier in this podcast. It utilizes empathy and compassion. It is called nonviolent communication or compassionate communication. It is the latter name that I will use going forward. Compassionate communication is a technique we teach our parent clients at Beyond Adoptions. In future podcasts, I will provide details about this important technique, about compassionate communication.
To close the day, I feel very grateful for the willingness of adoptive parents like yourselves to search, find and practice ways of interacting and communicating that enhance the healing process for our adopted children. I look forward to being with you next time.
- Marshall Rosenberg was the creator of nonviolent communication, also referred to as compassionate communication, and founded the Center for Nonviolent Communication which is an international non-profit 501(c)(3) organization.
- Kashtan, Inbal, Parenting From Your Heart: Sharing the Gifts of Compassion, Connection and Choice. Puddle Dancer Press, 2005, p. 2-3.