Tag Archives: Adoption

fame

MjWhen I was a little girl, I dreamed of becoming a famous actress. I had this little silver crown that my mom brought home from a New Year’s Eve party, and I’d set that atop my head, put on my little white crocheted poncho and pretend that I was being interviewed. My mom would peer into my bedroom and ask who I was talking to. I was inspired by old musicals. My favorites were The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins and An American in Paris. There was also a young girl whom I idolized, the daughter of my second piano teacher. The girl was very pretty and participated in lots of beauty pageants. I mean, this kid had a display of trophies that filled half her bedroom. I remember seeing her perform in a play with my Brownie troop and thinking, “I could do that.” I was far too shy though to really pursue acting. In college, however, I auditioned for a small part in a play called Open Admissions by Shirley Lauro. It was during my sophomore year. The role was for a a character named Kitty Shim, an 18-year old Korean college student. I was a shoe in, as I was the only Asian, female or male, in my entire college. I learned an accent by going to a local Chinese restaurant and talking to a waitress. I even recorded our conversation on cassette tape. Isn’t that funny. The student who played Ginny, one of the leads in the play, was very kind and later told me  that she thought I  had talent. She was in a number of plays performed at Centenary College’s Marjorie Lyons Playhouse. I held onto that compliment, and it opened up a whole new fascination that I wanted to explore.

“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” – Jim Carrey

Oaplaybillcover-originalWe took Open Admissions to Regionals that year, and I received a small, but positive review for my role. Later, I participated in a theater student’s class assignment, playing the role of Lady Roxane in a scene from Cyrano de Bergerac. It was just me and a guy in the scene. I was told that the theater department director gave me positive remarks. I remember feeling so nervous about that and relieved by the words of encouragement. I was bitten by the acting bug and eventually auditioned for other plays. Performing on stage was euphoric. Unlike a piano performance, I didn’t feel pressure to perform perfectly. Any mistakes or memory lapses at the keyboard meant failure. Perhaps that’s why to this day, I struggle with performance anxiety. I never landed any leading roles, just minor parts, I think primarily because I didn’t know anything about acting and probably wasn’t that skilled. Furthermore, I was terribly insecure, and did I mention shy? I wasn’t capable of showing very much emotion. Most of that came from deep-rooted identity issues that I was not even conscious of at the time. I hardly felt comfortable in my own skin.

After college, I taught piano for awhile in a couple of after-school programs at St. Mark’s Episcopal and a Baptist church in Shreveport. A year later, I moved to Florida where I began taking acting classes. It was such a fun, reckless period in my life. I had a college degree in music, yet was waiting tables at Friday’s. And, I was really the worst waitress ever. It’s almost embarrassing how bad I was. I auditioned for commercials, community theater and dancing roles at Disneyland. Eventually, I auditioned for a Studio Tour Guide position at Universal Studios Orlando, which was just being built at the time. There was a grand opening with lots of celebrities weeks later. I was so excited when I got the position. Then came memorizing a very large script. My peers and I spent hours performing, improvising and critiquing each other in preparation for giving studio tram tours. I was in a group of other “want-to-be” actors and became friends with many of them. We had such a blast working together. I was an idealistic, naive young woman with a lot of ambition, but not a lot of smarts. And it was a time of great freedom. I was landing roles in commercials and community theater, waiting for my “big break.” That arrived when I got a bit part in a made-for-television movie, which earned me my SAG card. No, I never saw the movie and am not sure that it ever aired. Shortly thereafter, I moved to Los Angeles to further pursue acting. I did not get very far. My priorities changed after getting involved in a church and meeting my husband. For someone Asian with little experience and few substantial acting credits, it was difficult to get a callback amidst all the competition.

Sometimes I regret spending so much time chasing a dream that was way beyond my reach. “I should have just continued to teach piano. I should have continued my music studies,” I tell myself. I’ve come to realize that the desire to act stemmed from a need to be seen and heard. On stage, people see and listen to you. You’re literally center stage. And, you get immediate feedback from the audience – that connection was like a high. To cause someone to laugh or to feel something was extremely gratifying. I also loved the camaraderie that came from being part of a cast, a not so dysfunctional family. Growing up adopted, I did not have a voice. I didn’t know how to find my voice nor did I have the ability to identify my feelings or the trauma that caused some of my insecurities. I did not know how to connect with others in a meaningful way. I believed that acting would somehow give me the voice I lacked. I craved adulation, but what I really needed was self-acceptance. It would take years to grow that and a voice.

Although I’m much more comfortable with who I am and what I’m about, I’m still haunted by my own insecurities. To this day, I struggle with anxiety, disordered thinking around food and body image and self doubt. I’m a perfectionist and an overachiever. What I’ve learned is that the very things I sought in the past – status, achievement, beauty, a bigger paycheck, are the things that bring me the least amount of joy. It’s just taken me a Very long time to figure that out, and sometimes, it’s difficult to strike a healthy balance. Like you, I’m a work in progress. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll go back and audition for some community theater 🙂

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

 

 

music to my ears

One of the things I love about Saturday mornings is doing absolutely nothing. I love to start the morning slowly with no agenda. This morning I practiced yoga, had a cup of black tea and made pumpkin pancakes. Then I listened to Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto (No. 5 in E-flat, Op. 73) performed by pianist, Maurizio Pollini, and conducted by his son, Daniele Pollini, with the Sinfónica de Galicia. It literally brought tears to my eyes – not only the beautiful performance by a much older Pollini, but to see father and son perform together. How meaningful that performance must have been for them both. How often do musical performances you listen to bring tears of pure bliss?

Piano, of course, is my favorite instrument, not that I’m biased or anything. I truly, deeply, madly regret not continuing to play the piano after I graduated college. I didn’t touch a keyboard for what must have been 15 years, maybe more. Why? I think there was a certain level of inadequacy that I felt as a pianist. My college piano teacher was very inspiring, yet because of my own issues, I never quite met her expectations. I don’t think I was capable of it at the time, as there was so much exploration that needed to take place surrounding my identity and self. I eventually began teaching piano and had my baby grand shipped out to California from Louisiana. We barely had space enough for it to fit in our tiny condo at the time. I joined the Music Teacher’s Association of CA and opened up my own studio. Still, I didn’t play very much; however, I did teach for about ten years, until I went back to grad school for social work.

Long before social work, I took classes at ASU as part of the master’s program in piano pedagogy and performance. I began studying under a doctorate student in order to get to a level where I could audition for the program. Sinjin, although nice, was not the greatest teacher. I had lost a great deal of skill as a result of not playing for so many years and was attempting to re-learn some of the pieces I’d performed in college. In hindsight, that was a huge undertaking, and as a result of over-practicing, I developed carpel tunnel syndrome in my right wrist. Cortisone shots were painful, and I was told by the doctor to stop practicing. That was not going to happen. I practiced several hours a day, as long as the cortisone provided relief.

At my lessons, Sinjin loved to change the fingering of almost every piece I was practicing in some of the more difficult passages. Weekly, as though this would help. That’s like asking someone to change the lyrics in a song repeatedly and re-memorize them over and over, only worse. It required more work, and with constant change, muscle memory was almost impossible. On top of that frustration, I sensed from Sinjin that I just wasn’t good enough to be in ASU’s master’s level program. There were many, many young, talented students, and I was very intimidated by them all, not to mention the program director, who was a bit of a snob. The snobbishness throughout the piano department irked me, so I dropped out. I did not want to spend my days practicing nine or ten hours knowing that I may or may not be selected to enter the program while, at the same time, feeling less than.  Eventually, I studied music therapy thinking that I’d rather use music as a tool for healing. Although I loved the idea of helping others through music, I had to leave that career because it just wasn’t lucrative enough, although I continue to keep my certification current.

A couple of weeks ago, I finally had my baby grand piano tuned for the first time since moving to California – that’s two years with an out of tune piano. It sounds great now. I just wish that I could play like I used to and have to admit that it’s quite disappointing to not be able to pick things back up. I try to remind myself that at least I can still read music and play simpler pieces. Interestingly, I learned that my new piano tuner is also adopted. It’s ironic to me how I randomly end up within the same orbit as other adoptees. For example, when I worked at Arizona State Hospital, I learned that my co-worker, Greg, was an adoptee from Brazil, and the psychiatrist I worked with had three internationally adopted children. I don’t know our piano tuner’s story, as my husband had a conversation with him after he came back a second time to fix a sticking key. I was, unfortunately, at a work-related event. I hope to learn more one day though.

Despite my inability to play as I once did, I still love music almost more than life itself. I remember times practicing in college getting completely, utterly lost in the music that I was playing. I honestly had a better relationship with music than with people. Kinda sad, but true. Music doesn’t judge or have expectations like people, and it’s easy to form an attachment to. I hope one day to use music therapeutically more frequently with adoptees and adoptive families. As Victor Hugo said, “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” 

I’ve included below the YouTube video of the Pollini & Pollini performance of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto. Enjoy.

Header Photo by Adrian Swancar on Unsplash

adoptee singer-songwriter

Hello folks! How’s it going? I wanted to introduce a fellow adoptee and singer-songwriter, Ferera Swan, whose new single release, “Second Time,” will debut on February 1st.

second timeFerera Swan, is an artist, adoptee, and advocate who intends to use her musical talents to bring greater awareness around mental health, trauma, adoption, foster care, and victim abuse. Her own adoption journey inspires her songwriting and will truly resonate with other adoptees. Ferera learned that she was adopted at the age of ten, and like many adoptees, felt the ache of unanswered questions. This she channeled into songwriting.  She wrote her first song at age 12, then quickly moved on to compose her first cinematic score, “Serenity,” at age 14. “Serenity” was eventually performed by four different orchestras during her senior year in high school. Her original piece, “Lighthouse,” was featured as a soundtrack in the film documentary, Swim for the Reef, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival (2016) in France. Ferera’s music has been featured in soundtracks, film festivals, and she has written with hit makers including Pam Sheyne (co-writer of GRAMMY award-winning Christina Aguilera’s ‘Genie In A Bottle’).

Ferera’s debut single, “Second Time,” is a deeply personal work and was written for her birth mother following their reunion. This event once again sparked feelings of great loss and woundedness. Swan says: “By allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, we inspire others to be curious about their own pain. Together, we spread the kind of love and healing this world needs.” 

To learn more about Ferera, visit her website and blog, soulnotes. Please give the sneak peak below of Ferera’s song, “Second Time,” a listen, and be sure to grab a copy or stream it on February 1, 2019!

“Oh, you’ve shown me everything I need to know about you
Now I finally understand just why I’ve been without you
How can you say you love someone you don’t even want to know?”
– “Second Time” lyrics

Connect With Ferera Swan: Website  | Facebook | Twitter | InstagramYouTube | Soundcloud

extraordinarily ordinary life

I’ve been a little under the weather this week and have been out of the office, lazing around watching Netflix and drinking lots hot tea. There is much value in slowing down, although I don’t recommend getting sick in order to do so. When I do get some down time I too seldom realize how fast life is going and that I’m spinning out of control. In those moments, I try to slow down and look for things that bring comfort. So this morning, I tuned into the NPR All Songs Considered Podcast. Wow, so soul-inspiring. The song list included: 1) John Denver: “Poems, Prayers and Promises,” 2) Tom Adams: “In Darkness,” 3) Sharon Van Etten: “Come Back Kid,” 4: SOAK: “Everybody Loves You,” 5: Miya Folick: “THingaming,” 6) Jason Lytle: “Color of Dirt,” 7) J.S. Ondara: “American Dream.” I loved all of the songs, but the song that stood out to me this morning was John Denver’s, “Poems, Prayers and Promises.” Talk about a song that just sucker punches you right in the gut.

Poems, Prayers and Promises” resonated with me deeply. Perhaps it has to do with getting older, but lately, I’ve given much thought to the days of old, reflecting on raising my daughter, going to graduate school and even further back to high school and college. Reminiscing about easier times. When my daughter was growing up, I taught piano, primarily to young kids and a few adults, so I could be home with her. I often felt pressure to get a full-time job to supplement our household income, but I’m glad I didn’t give in to it. Life was much slower back then, as being a mom was my biggest role and my most favorite role ever. My daughter is now in college, and I’m working full-time, trying to obtain clinical licensure. Ugh. The chapters related to raising a family have closed. New ones have followed. I’m not particularly enjoying the new chapters. On most days, it feels like a grind. At my age, grinding is not particularly fun.

I guess it’s taken me this long to realize that after all of the graduate school, student loans, goals and achievements, I’m pretty disillusioned and tired. And more importantly, I realize that all of the misplaced ambitions were primarily to gain a sense of self worth and significance. After a lifetime of feeling invisible, one desires nothing more than to be seen and heard. Adoptee stuff.

What I’m learning is that life is so much more valuable than achieving. It’s about enjoying every minute of it and letting go of *!@# that brings you down. I’m still working on working on that , and I wish that I could impress it upon my daughter, who is starting her life as a grown up. She is doing so well, despite many challenges in her beautiful, young life.

Motherhood taught me a lot about life and love and ease. I guess that’s why I miss it so much, not that I don’t continue to mother, it’s just different now. This is what I know: Hold the people and things you love the most close to your heart everyday. That is why I so desperately want to go back to Taiwan. To see my birth family. Alas, there are always obstacles. Yes, there is something to be said and learned from achieving and making a difference. But life is short, and you cannot go back. Do what makes you happy, and don’t let naysayers dissuade you. Surround yourself with others who support you and your dreams because God knows, life is not easy. I wish that someone had told me these things when I was a young.

One day I hope to have clinical Iicensure. I’ve worked so hard for it, yet it feels as though it’s beyond my reach. I truly hope that it has not all been in vain, as things that are most valuable do not come by way of a diploma or a degree or clinical hours. There are moments in time I wish I could redo; nevertheless, life is precious. Your life is precious. Every single minute of it.

Photo by Kenny Luo on Unsplash

attachment and attachment styles

In this post, I’ll discuss attachment and attachment styles, including adult attachment styles. This will be a very broad discussion of attachment because it’s such a complex subject!

We know that children who are in foster care and/or have been adopted experience disruption in primary attachment relationships due to relinquishment, abuse, neglect, multiple placements, etc. The separation of a child from his/her first or natural mother is the most significant disruption. The Primal Wound by Nancy Newton-Verrier is a great resource for learning more about the significance of this initial disruption in an adoptee’s life.

Attachment can be described as “a reciprocal process by which an emotional connection develops between an infant and his/her primary caregiver.”2 It influences the child’s physical, neurological, cognitive and psychological development and becomes the basis for development of basic trust or mistrust.” It shapes how the child will learn and relate to the world and others. In other words, attachment is the give and take relationship between the child and parent primary caregiver. It is critical to a child’s healthy behavioral, social, emotional and neurological development. Healthy attachment teaches a child to trust and to form healthy relationships throughout his/her life.

I will not discuss attachment theory fully, as there are a plethora of textbooks and articles written specifically on that. Suffice it to say that key researchers include John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, Mary Main, and Vera Fahlberg. Bowlby believed that a child’s healthy psychological development was dependent upon a safe and functional relationship with a parent or caregiver. Bowlby theorized that attachment begins in infancy via a bond between the child and the most present, attentive caregiver. This first relationship forms the basis of the internal working models for the child, influencing his or her thoughts, feelings, and expectations with regard to future relationships. Mary Main developed the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), which is widely recognized as the tool for assessing adult attachment. And Vera Fahlberg is a doctor who formalized the arousal-relaxation cycle, the positive interaction cycle and claiming behaviors in the early 1990s. She wrote A Child’s Journey through Placement, which is a standard training textbook for child welfare workers. Many others have stepped forward and contributed to attachment theory over the years.

In my last post, Healing Childhood TraumaI discussed the arousal-relaxation cycle and how it influences the attachment process in the infant’s first year of life. In a nutshell, an infant expresses a need through crying, fussing, or otherwise raging, which causes her stress response system to become aroused. Her caregiver meets the need, and the infant relaxes. The child’s parasympathetic nervous system helps calm her body once the distress has passed. This dance between infant and caregiver occurs multiple times throughout the first year of life. The signs and symptoms of attachment problems develop as a result of the way a child’s parent/caregiver behaves toward her, environmental factors, and her own particular psychological traits. If a child’s caregiver is unresponsive toward her needs or inconsistent in meeting her needs, she will be at risk for attachment problems. Unattached children have difficulty relating normally to others. For example, it’s common for foster and adoptive parents to report that their child is manipulative, lacks a conscience, or is unable to show genuine affection, when these behaviors are very likely the result of insecure attachment and significant trauma. It’s important to recognize this so that the child is not punished repeatedly for bad behavior, but rather the most appropriate interventions and parenting strategies are sought and learned by the parents. The child does not have it in his wheelhouse to respond in behaviorally/emotionally appropriate ways because brain wiring and neurochemistry have been greatly altered by trauma. Essential areas in the brain that control executive function, common sense, emotional control, etc. are underdeveloped and must be healed in order for change to occur. And this takes time…I’ll say more about trauma and attachment sensitive parenting strategies in another post.

Attachment Styles

Mary Ainsworth pioneered an experiment called the Strange Situation Test. This test was developed and is used to examine the pattern of attachment between a child and the mother or caregiver. The results of the experiment were categorized into four specific types of attachment: Secure, Insecure/Avoidant, Insecure/Ambivalent, and Insecure/Disorganized. Parenting styles are associated with each of these types of attachment. The Insecure/Avoidant and Insecure/Ambivalent attachment styles are interchangeable with or otherwise known as the Anxious/Avoidant and Anxious/Ambivalent attachment styles.

Secure Attachment

Children with a Secure attachment style have a caregiver who consistently responds to them when upset. The infant cries and learns to trust that a caregiver will be available to respond to her needs. Children secure in their attachment go on to have healthy social functioning, have fewer behavioral problems at school, and can become competent leaders within their peer group. They grow up into adults who trust that they are worthy of receiving love, are able to give love/care/nurture, negotiate their needs, and remain autonomous.

Insecure Avoidant Attachment

In Ainsworth’s studies of mothers and infants, observations showed that when some infants became distressed, their bids for comfort were rejected by their mothers. The mothers of these babies were also uncomfortable with close bodily contact. The behaviors exhibited by these infants were later categorized as Insecure/avoidant. Avoidant children do not have caregivers who consistently respond to their needs. When activation of their attachment system leads to painful rejection, infants may develop a strategy where their attachment systems are activated as little as possible.2 These are infants who learn not to cry when they have a need. Avoidant infants and adults appear to suppress activation of their attachment systems, or in other words, have trouble seeking care.

In laboratory studies of babies separated from their mothers, observations revealed that some babies did not seek the mother for comfort or even interaction upon her return as most infants do2. These infants rather actively avoided the mother and became focused on toy play. Avoidant children learn to turn defensively toward self-soothing behaviors, e.g., a play activity, due to past painful rejection when expressing a need.

Evidence demonstrates that avoidant children tend to mask negative affect and replace feelings of sadness with a smile.2 These children often avoid adult eye contact, thus precluding any comfort or reassurance an adult might offer. Although avoidant children may feel and display sadness, they may do so only when there is no child-adult eye contact or when an adult is not present.

Data shows that individuals with an avoidant or Dismissive Adult Attachment style  have trouble seeking or receiving care and giving care. For example, they may fail to share their concerns with others, and may, in fact, withdraw from others as they become more anxious. A number of other studies report that avoidant adults are less likely than secure adults to seek support in response to stress.

Insecure Ambivalent Attachment

Ainsworth observed that mothers of Insecure/Ambivalent infants were inconsistent in providing care. Sometimes these caregivers were loving and responsive, but only when they could manage, not in response to the infant’s signals. An infant whose mother is sometimes responsive, but at other times, preoccupied or overwhelmed, may develop a strategy to stay near the mother at all times.2 The infant cannot count on her mother to monitor her needs. She may cling and vigilantly monitor her mother’s availability in case some need arises. The infant/child takes on a disproportionate share of the burden in maintaining the connection. As a result, hyperactivation of the attachment system occurs.2 These infants/children may show extreme distress on separation and difficulty in calming upon reunion. They may display angry, resistant behavior toward the parent. The negative emotionality of the ambivalent child may be exaggerated and chronic, as the child recognizes that to relax and allow herself to be soothed by the presence of the attachment figure is risky – she may very well lose contact with the inconsistently available caregiver.2 The child may have trouble maintaining boundaries between another person’s distress and his own. Furthermore, the child may feel that the only way to gain care is by sending exaggerated signals of need.

This hyperactivation in adults with an ambivalent or Entangled Adult Attachment style manifests as an insatiability for closeness to others.2 These adults may have a desire to merge with a significant other. They portray themselves in relationships as ‘preoccupied’ and may be particularly upset by relationship breakups. The heightened desire for closeness reflects an impairment of the attachment system. Ambivalent adults may expect others to fill all their needs; thus, they have difficulty negotiating needs and remaining autonomous. They may be codependent or threatened by another’s desire for autonomy. Obviously, this behavior can lead to ambivalence and resentment in both the individual and the significant others in his life.

Insecure/Disorganized Attachment

Children with an Insecure/Disorganized Attachment style have had experiences of maternal/caregiver behavior that is so frightening or unpredictable that they are incapable of developing an organized, strategic response to it.2 Their attachment systems are behaviorally disorganized. The child has no pattern for how to relate to her caregiver. She may behave erratically with toys and might prefer a stranger over her caregiver. These infants may demonstrate a high-pitched cry and/or shriek.

Children with a disorganized attachment style may have the most severe difficulties related to seeking care. Frightening behavior by a caregiver activates simultaneous competing tendencies: to flee to the parent as a safe haven, and to flee from the parent in response to alarm. In this paradoxical situation, there is no organized behavioral strategy available.2 The infant/child is in a terrible position, as neither proximity-seeking nor proximity-avoiding is a solution, and the resulting behavioral responses become freezing, disorientation, and/or disorganization. The adult with a disorganized, or Unresolved Adult Attachment style, has difficulty giving and receiving care/love/nurture, negotiating needs, and remaining autonomous.

In Summary

It’s important to know that these attachment styles are fluid. You may see features of yourself in each of the attachment styles, or may notice that you lean toward one attachment style with one person, e.g., your spouse, and a different attachment style with another, e.g., your mother. This is normal, the point really is to notice and gain awareness.

None of us has a perfect attachment style. Learning and understanding which style I lean toward has given me incredible insight into why I behave as I do and why some of my relationships are more difficult than others. As a younger adult, I was often told that I seemed aloof, that other’s did not feel connected to me, and that I lacked facial expression. Can you guess what my attachment style is?

Upon reflection, I recognized that I did not have a strong attachment, if any at all, to any one person during infancy, as I was in an orphanage for the first four months of my life. My relationship with my adoptive parents was not emotionally close. They provided for all of my physical needs, but I did not feel connected to either of my parents. I loved them, but I had great difficulty expressing my needs and showing affection. My adoptive parents were ill-equipped to nurture a strong attachment. They did the best they could with the knowledge they had, which was pretty minimal. This insight has empowered me to be more intentional in how I interact with certain others in my life. It’s also helped me to understand how important it is for fost/adoptive parents to understand attachment, and furthermore, to get appropriate training and education. I hope that this very brief overview of attachment and attachment styles is of benefit to you and gives you some insight into your own particular style.

                                                                                                                                               

1 The Association for Treatment and Training in the Attachment of Children (ATTACh). Retrieved from http://www.attach.org/about-us/attach-accepted-definitions/.

2 Cassidy, J. (2001). Truth, lies, and intimacy: An attachment perspective. Attachment & Human Development, 3(2), 121-155.

Featured Photo by Tanja Heffner on Unsplash

healing childhood trauma

Hello everyone. In this post, I wanted to talk about childhood trauma. To heal childhood trauma, it’s important to understand how trauma affects a child’s development. So, that’s where we’ll begin. If you have not yet read my last post on adoption and preverbal trauma, you can check it out here. Today, I’ll present a very brief overview of brain neurosequential development and how trauma affects this process. I am a trainer and educator to fost/adoptive parents on complex developmental trauma, attachment, and TBRI®.

First, let’s talk about childhood trauma. You can go to this link to learn more about adverse childhood experiences, or ACES, and the impact of negative experiences on an individual’s lifelong health and wellness. We know that children in foster care and children in orphanages have suffered trauma, and their ACE scores are high. The very fact that they are in such institutions is a trauma. Children in foster care typically come into care due to neglect, physical/sexual/emotional abuse, domestic violence between parents. Kids in foster care and kids who have been adopted experience separation, loss, and grief, feelings of abandonment, instability, and have often not been provided with the kind of sensory diet that promotes healthy development. Additionally, many kids in foster care have experienced multiple placements. Prolonged exposure to one or more of these factors can lead to complex developmental trauma, which psychologist Bessel van der Kolk describes as “the experience of multiple, chronic and prolonged, developmentally adverse traumatic events, most often of an interpersonal nature (italics and bold added).” Complex trauma impairs social, emotional, and cognitive development.

Dr. Karyn Purvis, Developmental Psychologist and Co-founder of Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI®), described six early risk factors that influence the way children from difficult backgrounds think, trust, and connect with others: 1) Difficult pregnancy – the birth mother has experienced medical problems, drugs/alcohol, crisis, or other trauma. Persistent and high levels of stress throughout pregnancy affect the infant in-utero. Stress response chemicals in an infant’s brain can remain for up to a month after the mother gives birth.  2) Difficult birth – a difficult and traumatic birth is risky for lots of reasons, including perinatal hypoxia, which can lead to mild neurological insult. 3) Early hospitalization – children who experience early hospitalizations often experience painful touch rather than nurturing, comforting touch in the first days of life. 4) Abuse – the brains of children from abusive backgrounds have been trained to be hypervigilant, or always on guard, to the environment around them. 5) Neglect – children from neglectful backgrounds, e.g., orphanages, often suffer from the most severe behavioral problems and brain deficits. The message they have learned is you don’t exist. 6) Trauma – this may include witnessing an extreme event, like a natural disaster or 9/11, or any number of traumas in the child’s life. A child’s developmental trajectory will change as a result of trauma.

brain 2

As you probably already know, different parts of the brain have different functions. Author and psychiatrist, Dr. Dan Siegel, says the brain is like a two-story house. Emotional reactivity, motivation, attachment, and the “fight, flight, or freeze” response are regulated in the downstairs brain. This is where the brain stem and limbic system are located. I’m not going to discuss all of the structures in the brain, but will highlight the areas that pertain to this discussion. The limbic system is involved in emotions and motivations related to survival, including emotions that are pleasurable, e.g., eating and sex. The upstairs brain regulates executive functioning, thinking, planning, control over emotion and body. It’s where the cerebral cortex or “grey matter” is located.

When you experience a strong emotion such as fear or stress, your downstairs brain sounds an alarm, and a stress response is activated. The sympathetic nervous system triggers the fight or flight response. This causes certain physiological responses to occur in your body. Think back on a time when you felt frightened or stressed. Your heart and respiration rates increased, your pupils likely dilated, and the blood flow to your muscles increased in preparation to fight or flee. This is a survival response. Other parts of your brain are off-line when your stress response is activated. In other words, thinking clearly or executing a well-defined plan become much more difficult when your stress response system is activated.

Now let’s talk about brain neurosequential development. The brain develops sequentially from the bottom to the top and inside-out from the brain stem to the cortex. Our downstairs brain comes much more developed at birth than our upstairs brain. Each part of our brain develops at different times beginning in-utero and continuing to adulthood (the brain is fully developed around 25-years of age). An infant’s brain stem is the most developed region of her brain. When distressed, she needs a responsive caregiver to help her regulate. She has a need and expresses it through crying, fussing, or raging. The need is gratified when a caregiver changes her soiled diaper, feeds her, provides movement, skin-to-skin contact, speech, and warmth. The parasympathetic nervous system helps to put on the brakes and calm the body once the distress has passed. All of these actions serve a very important purpose – to teach the infant how to self-regulate. We refer to this dance as the arousal-relaxation cycle.

Arousal-Relaxation+Cycle.jpgWhen abuse and neglect occur, it interrupts the arousal-relaxation cycle, and consequently, affects the attachment cycle. This leads to serious problems in the development of personality, which has long-lasting effects into adulthood. When the cycle is not completed and repeated, difficulties may occur in very critical areas, including social/behavioral development, cognitive development, emotional development, cause and effect thinking, conscience development, reciprocal relationships, parenting, and accepting responsibility. Furthermore, positive or negative experiences that occur during critical or sensitive periods of brain development alter the development in that particular area, which cascades and alters other areas of the brain. When children experience repetitive activation of the stress response system, their baseline of state of arousal is altered. The child lives in an aroused, hypervigilant state, ill-prepared to learn from social, emotional and other life experiences. She is living in the minute and may not fully appreciate the consequences of her actions. Her brain stem has “muscled up” in fight, fright or freeze mode, as any part of the brain that we use most often is the part most developed. Her ability to control her emotions and body and behave in ways we consider age appropriate may be severely compromised.

As a side note, two Yale pediatricians, Provence and Lipton, found that if caregivers did not meet the needs of infants quickly, they stopped crying within a period of 30-60 days. The infant learns that no one comes. She has lost her voice. Despite the absence of crying, the baby may still be hungry, scared, soiled, or in pain. Additionally, she is likely to have high levels of cortisol, or stress hormones, released in her brain, though outwardly she may appear to be calm and not at all distressed.

Infants and young children need to feel safe. They use attachments with their caregivers as models for future relationships. Caregivers are a secure base from which infants can explore their physical and social worlds. As you can well imagine, children who have histories of abuse or neglect very often have not experienced felt safety or secure attachment. This sets them up for attachment difficulties with foster and adoptive parents and difficulties in relationships with others.

There are numerous theories and therapy approaches directed at parenting and healing children who have experienced trauma, including abuse, neglect, grief and loss. I will delve into this in later posts, but a good resource is Attachment Theory in Practice: Building Connections Between Children and Parents edited by Karen Doyle Buckwalter and Debbie Reed. There is a chapter at the end of the book called The Voice of the Adoptee written by adoptees Faith Friedlander, Clinical VP and co-founder of Kids and Families Together, and Melanie Chung-Sherman, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and psychotherapist. Finally, an attachment-based professional/parenting resource that includes adoptee voices!

We know that traditional parenting does not work with kids who have experienced trauma. With deep fear comes a desperate need for deep control. It’s a survival strategy, as these kids do not know to do anything better. The way they think, feel, learn, process the senses, and interact with peers has been profoundly altered due to trauma. Their stress systems stay on, and the smallest thing or a transition can cause a meltdown. They fight or flee. They have lost their voice. Timeouts, spankings, and lectures are not effective and may further traumatize the child. There is hope. Parents must become healers and help repair their child’s brain by creating the proper environment for change. The brain can adapt and new behaviors can be taught and learned. In the next few posts, I’ll offer more resources. Stay tuned for an overview on attachment and attachment styles in my next post.


Featured Photo by Carlo Navarro on Unsplash

Keck, G.C., & Kupeckty, R.M. (2009). Parenting the hurt child. Colorado: Navpress.

Perry, B. (2005). Maltreatment and the developing child: How early childhood experiences shapes child and culture. Retreived from http://www.lfcc.on.ca/mccain/perry.pdf.

Provence, S., & Lupton, R. C. (1962). Infants in institutions. New York: International Universities Press.

Purvis, K. and Cross, D. (July 2013). The healing power of “giving voice.” Retrieved from http://www.adoptioncouncil.org/files/large/f7bb17e8fba418b

 

elevate adoptee voices

photos-by-lanty-597554-unsplashSince last November, I’ve had the privilege of connecting to many other adult international adoptees around the U.S. via a podcast I hosted called Global Adoptee Talk. Some participated in my podcast and others did not. Nevertheless, just to hear and share stories was incredibly validating, and I appreciate the supportive community that we’re a part of. Unfortunately, I had to let go of my podcast before it even had a real chance to get off the ground due to increasing demands at work and the lack of time and energy I had to keep up with editing/interviewing. I am always inspired, grieved, saddened, angered, and motivated by the many adoptees stories I hear – motivated primarily to elevate adoptee voices in whatever shape or form that may take. It’s always important to be mindful of the fact that though an adoptee may have had a positive adoption experience, there is still undoubtedly loss, trauma, and frequently a longing to connect to his/her cultural roots. That may mean searching for one’s birthparents or birth family or traveling to one’s country of origin, learning the language, and/or connecting to other’s who have similar backgrounds and experiences. It doesn’t go away – it may ebb and flow across the span of an adoptee’s life, but it’s a part of our makeup, it’s part of our DNA and hard-wired into our brains, literally. I don’t have time to go into how separation from birth mother is trauma, but suffice it to say, there is research that supports it. Acknowledging that adoptees have a vital role in the future of how adoption occurs and are given a voice is crucial.

I work in foster care and adoption, and it’s not always easy as an adopted person. Whenever there is an adoption, it’s very difficult for me to celebrate knowing that first there was loss – loss for the first mother and child. When reunification occurs with the child and birth family, my heart makes a little leap, as reunifications are rarer. When they do occur, it is a celebration.

Despite the challenges of working in foster care and adoption, I have the opportunity to work with some resource or foster families that get it to the extent possible in their circumstances- the trauma, the loss, the necessity of keeping birth connections in the child’s life. Families are trained in TBRI, and we talk about loss, trauma, and attachment from the very first clinical interview. I don’t want to villainize every foster/adoptive family out there, as I know some foster/adoptive parents who attempt to understand the loss and trauma adoptees experience. Even so, I dare say that it’s difficult to grasp the magnitude of what being in foster care or being adopted means if you have not experienced it first hand. I observe things through the lens of an adopted person, not as an adoptive parent or case manager or supervisor, and my thoughts and opinions sometimes differ from those I work with. This work gives me an opportunity to educate foster/resource/adoptive parents. Not every family who comes through gets approved to continue the process for multiple reasons, and that’s a good thing.

All in all, I’m sad to let go of my podcast, but I have hopes of one day picking it back up, as time allows. I miss that connection to other adoptees. There are plenty of super podcasts out there. Right now, I’m digging a couple of podcasts related to intuitive eating, health, and nutrition. One is called Food Heaven, and the other is Food Psych. Two of my favorite adoptee podcasts are Adoptees On and Adapted. The Rambler was also a favorite, but the show closed earlier this year. All of these podcasts are available on iTunes – listen in – it’s totally worth it.

I sure learned a lot while producing my podcast and am super grateful for those international/transracial adoptees that I had the opportunity to connect with. Adoptee voices are truly making their way to the forefront of discussions on adoption, as they should. Let us continue to build a strong and vibrant community, inclusive and respectful of all adoptees and their unique stories.

by Photos by Lanty on Unsplash

Past episodes of Global Adoptee Talk are available on iTunes

 

adoptee book review

old-books-436498_1280Just wanted to thank Andrew Adams, an adoptee from S. Korea, for reading my book and providing a review! Andrew and I connected via social media on a facebook page he created, #adopteesfromasia. Andrew lived in Indiana, but recently moved and is working in S. Korea! Read his review below, and if you haven’t purchased your copy of Beyond Two Worlds: A Taiwanese-American Adoptee’s Memoir & Search for Identity, click here.


Finished the book in 5 hours! From start to finish, Marijane Huang’s story pulls you in for a roller coaster of emotions. I laughed, cried, and sometimes even both at the same time! Beyond Two Worlds is a beautifully written memoir about a very real, and relatable human being in search of answers – only to find new questions at every turn. The short, succinct chapters are packed with memories and orchestrated in a way that weave her childhood recollections with today’s introspection. And at the same time, we get to know the author and her family and friends more and more throughout the book. For example, at times in the book, I was upset with her mother’s behavior, and other times, I was 100% sympathetic. More importantly, Marijane illustrates each person in her life so well, it makes us want to know more about them, ask them questions, and just give them a hug. This is the kind of person we find out that Marijane is – a curious, inquisitive, and loving individual who reflects herself so well in writing that we end up feeling the exact same way. As an adoptee from Asia myself, I can relate with many parts of the book. In fact, all of the questions that Marijane presents, most adoptees have asked. Those questions are tied to deep level insecurities, abandonment, and hope. But this book is for anyone. The hope and persistence will inspire you to keep going, especially when you are ready to give up. Feeling alone and heartbroken? This book shows us that there are people in the world waiting to meet us. And for myself, Beyond Two Worlds, makes me proud to be who I am today knowing that I can embrace every part of me unapologetically and that there will always be more questions, more to learn about ourselves.