As adults, we know that our hardest times are also when we’ve learned and matured the most. Synthesizing the past is important to our sense of identity and ability to move forward.
Your kids have already been through a lot – losses, mental health crises, social stress, academic failure, and of course, the context surrounding their adoption. But, whatever happened was a significant aspect of their lives but doesn’t define their lives. Although we don’t want to push or insist, we do want to open the door to talk more, then or later.
How do we talk about the past? I know that I’ve said that questions aren’t always the way to go, but there are times when they’re useful! Here are some examples of how to initiate conversation.
How do you look back on that time? Sometimes we find ourselves assuming too much, in part because we don’t get needed information from them. This kind of question allows enough openness for the adoptee but still directs it so as not to be overwhelming. Another version of this question is, what do you remember from that time?
What stays with you? This is more of a feelings question without putting too much of a spotlight on them. Again, we’re giving them control over how much or little they share, and suggesting that their experience matters more than our opinion in that moment. Teens can sometimes get the sense that we ask questions so that we can share our perspective, not hear theirs. This is the opposite message.
How much do you think about what happened? Or, is that something that is on your mind a lot these days?” This question gets to how much or little it haunts/scares/empowers them. This can be helpful when addressing current issues. For example, let’s say I have a someone who was in a deep depression last fall and this fall is now struggling. If I ask how much he thinks about last fall and he says, “I think about it all the time,” I can utilize it to know potentially what we can learn from it – patterns, themes, successes, disappointments, etc.
Let’s say you approach them and they minimize it, saying, “It was not a big thing,” or “I don’t think about it at all,” how should you respond?
You might say something like, “Somehow I feel like there’s more to say about this… maybe we could circle back to it sometime.” Note that you’re not exactly asking, just letting them know that the invitation is there.
What if they say, “I wasted a whole year!” or something like that? Try not to get into a power struggle. Our message is, “It didn’t go as you would have expected/wanted/needed. You know yourself in a different way now, but you had to learn it the hard way.”
“It’s really hard to accept.”
Of course, it’s not the past itself, it’s our relationship with it that we can change. We’re encouraging acceptance by empathizing with them. That way, if and when they do come to accept it, it comes from them, not us.
This may seem pretty detailed analysis for a simple everyday discussion about the past, but the words we choose can make all the difference.