Sometimes parents are the ones that teach kids to squash their emotions. The parents don’t want to see the fear, the pain, or the uncertainty that is clamoring for a voice. So they keep urging the children to “just be good” and “just smile” and “go along with things” and “don’t make trouble” until . . .
BAM!!! The poor kid explodes like a f*^king bomb and obliterates everything in his or her path. The sheer exhaustion of suppressing uncomfortable emotions creates a pressure cooker effect.
What kids really need is a chance to let their less pleasant emotions out in a safe, trusted environment. Whereas this is tough for many kids, it can be particularly elusive for adoptees.
We need to teach emotional intelligence to kids – it’s a life skill, as important to survival as swimming or knowing how to cross the street -- but emotional intelligence is such an abstract concept!
Disney Pixar’s new groundbreaking film, Inside Out, provides a very clear illustration for how emotions behave, and it can provide a key jumping off point for talks about feelings. (After the movie, my 5-year-old said, “Are there little guys in my head?”)
All three of our kids loved the movie, which has ignited amazing discussions about Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust. In our analysis, we decided that the five main characters are the umbrella emotions that contain other related feelings.
For example, Joy is an umbrella for feelings such as Excitement, Confidence, and Pride. Sadness is an umbrella for feelings such as Discouraged, Lonely, Disappointed, and Ashamed. Some emotions can even fall under multiple umbrellas. Frustrated or Confused can fall under the umbrellas of Sadness or Anger, which helped my girls understand how you can feel more than one thing at a time.
Joy is good at running things. So good, in fact, that she is afraid to let others take the helm, because the way they do things is different from how she does them, and different can feel scary.
This morning, I mused to my middle daughter, “Joy is sort of like Mommy. I know how to run our house and get you all to where you need to go, but as you get older, you want to try things your own way, and I keep trying to do it my way, because my way has worked for a long time. But I know I need to let you take the lead more, just like how Joy needed to let others take charge sometimes.”
In that respect, Joy is relatable to many parents who are feeling the growing pains of their children. But there are other ways in which Joy is particularly relatable to an adoptive family.
Joy was afraid of Sadness. She thought that letting Sadness touch anything would ruin it. Joy manifested a very black-and-white way of thinking, which is often a contributor to psychological pain. Joy kept trying to contain and control Sadness, but it was impossible to do, and the harder she tried to control Sadness, the less control she had.
There are many adoptive parents that inadvertently try to contain Sadness by pretending it doesn’t exist. One example of this is a parent who doesn’t recognize that while a child’s birthday or Adoption Day may be the parent’s happiest memory ever, it is quite possible that the same day is tinged with subconscious sadness for the child, who not only gained a forever family that day, but also lost a forever family. Family events, holidays, and other milestones are complicated in adoptive families.
Adoptees who feel the pressure to “just fit into the family” are not allowed to express the full range of their emotions. While watching Inside Out, my children saw how much richer life is when a person is allowed to feel all the feelings. Some memories need Joy and Sadness and Fear and Anger and Disgust to all be expressed, or the memory is false.
There is narcissism inherent in parenting. When someone compliments the intelligence, beauty, or achievements of your child, it is hard not to feel joy in the reflection of that positive reinforcement of you, the parent.
But sometimes, for parents of adoptees, parenting can be a particularly complicated form of narcissism. As an adoptive parent, you know that another person is genetically responsible for your child’s beauty, for some of her gifts.
So you might place even more import on her behaviors, her work ethic, her reflection of your ability to create a loving, supportive home, because if she is well-adjusted and successful, then you are a good parent.
But have you left room for her to have imperfections? Did you make room for her to say, “I am not happy right now, and I don’t feel like I fit in right now, and you are not enough for me right now.” In watching Inside Out, we see what happens when a child keeps trying to please an adult. She eventually breaks.
This makes me think about how there is a constant subtle pressure on adoptees to keep being good. Screw being good. Better to be real.
If we are to love our children unconditionally, then we have to allow Sadness and Fear, Disgust and Anger, all to have a seat at the table.
The exact titration of happiness is an ever-changing, imprecise measurement. In adoptive families, the composition of happiness is a very complex formula. The emotional needs of the parents are often at odds with the emotional needs of the child. I pull, you push away. I run, you chase. I need, you reject. You need, I reject.
The true Joy is found when we are able to move towards each other. You need, I listen. You give, I receive. A balance of back and forth, give and take. Unpleasant emotions are not a negative reflection of parents; they are a necessary and healthy part of life.
I open my arms to my child; I beckon her to me in her entirety. Even when she feels Inside Out.
Like what you are reading? Check out Portrait of an Adoption's MUST-HAVE new early reader children's chapter book JAZZY'S QUEST featuring adoptee Jazzy Armstrong! This is a groundbreaking piece of literature for adoptive families.
Check out Carrie Goldman's award-winning book Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear (Harper Collins, 2012). www.carriegoldmanauthor.com