Identity, Belonging, and Bridging the Gap Between the Cultures
Supporting our children who were adopted internationally
By Su Park,
Senior Case Worker/Counsellor, Post Adoption Support Services and Forced Adoption Support Services, Relationships Australia
When children are adopted from one country to another, they lose everything they know (e.g., their previous caregiver/s and/or family; their familiar environments; and the sights, smells, and feel of their home countries) as they transition into their adopted lives. Children’s capacity for learning is strongly connected to their personal, psychological, and social well-being, and so the Post Adoption Support Services Mentoring Program addresses the challenges adopted children face in order to build their capacity for learning and development in their new world.
The Mentoring Program offers opportunities for young adoptees to forge valuable connections with each other and older adoptees, both local and inter-country, and with people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds. This program is based on group activities, rather than individual mentoring.
Adult adoptees who have reflected upon their own adoption experiences tell us that they often struggled, and still do, to find a place where they truly belonged, as their life stories are so different from those experienced by the vast majority of their peers. This program provides a therapeutic environment in which adoptees can connect in a range of ways and gain a different sense of belonging that affirms their experience and identity. Younger adoptees get to meet and connect with older adoptees, enjoying conversations about similar experiences. It also provides an opportunity for early intervention—a place for the issues and concerns of young people to be noticed and, where needed, for referrals to other support services to be made. Peer support is central to this program’s success, as the young adoptees are able to see that they are not isolated in their experiences. Often, the only other adoptees that young people have met have been other children; the notion of “grown-up adoptees” has been a surprising and positive one for many. They get a view of adoption beyond the childhood experience.
We call the program, MAG (Mentor and Adoptee Group). The program began in 2010, and has grown and evolved over time along with the needs of the participants. Since it started, 150 young people and 28 volunteer mentors have participated. We have held 53 group sessions in that time.
The majority of the children in the group were adopted from overseas to Australia and were between a few months old to 10 years old at the time of their adoption. We have been fortunate to have several long-term committed volunteer mentors who have continued to support the program over the years. Our mentors are either adopted persons themselves or people from a CALD background. The children attending MAG usually know which volunteers they can expect to see when they come. This is important for children who have experienced uncertainty, trauma, and disruption in their lives. It is crucial that MAG is a secure and familiar environment for the children, as this supports the therapeutic work of the program.
MAG runs a variety of activities/workshops catering to all different needs and interest, including art therapy workshop, indoor rock climbing, cooking, swimming, drumming, mindfulness, and opportunities for the children to learn about their countries of birth and talk about their adoption experiences. We focus on creating a space where young adoptees feel connected to each other and to the Mentors, which can help build a sense of belonging in the group. Meeting peers and adults with whom they share the similar experience of being adopted helps them to feel not so alone. This is particularly important for the children who do not have adoptive parents with their same racial and cultural background. Developing a strong sense of identity is a complex process for adoptees, especially when they cannot see themselves reflected in those around them (e.g., seeing from whom they got their eyes, nose, and skin color). Inter-country adoptees are often asked “who their real parents are” by their friends and strangers, and this can set them up for confusion and distress that continues through their developing years. MAG tries to normalize these experiences by bridging the gap between mainstream environments, such as school, and the children’s unique life situation.
The MAG activities aim to meet the children at the level of their needs and development. As a group-based program, this is a challenging task at times. Nevertheless, we strongly believe that valuing individuals’ strengths and catering to their needs is one of the most effective ways for the children to learn and flourish.
Offering Opportunities for Children to Keep Their First Language and Meeting Individual Children’s Needs
“Hola Carlos & Hola Lucia.”
Carlos came to Australia when he was adopted from Chile at age 7. While he was competent in expressing himself in Spanish, he did not have any English language skills at this stage. His world had completely changed. Despite his adoptive parents’ effort to help Carlos make sense of this major life-altering transition, the communication difficulties meant he had difficulty understanding what was happening to him.
One of the MAG volunteers, Lucia, is from Chile and is fluent in both Spanish and English. She was paired with Carlos during activities to assist and support him. As Lucia approached Carlos, she spoke to him in Spanish, saying, “Hola.” His eyes lit up with surprise and he happily started to speak in Spanish to her. It was obvious that the two clicked and Carlos felt more in control of his environment when he was able to communicate easily with someone.
Communication is a vital tool for engaging with one another. With the support from Lucia, Carlos’s first experience with a MAG activity was a positive one. It’s now been more than a year since he first joined the MAG program. While he no longer has difficulty communicating in English, he still wants to talk to Lucia in Spanish. His connection to his birth country and language is clearly important to him, and we have been able to provide a space for that connection to be maintained.
Providing Positive Encouragement
Tom says, “I don’t want to do. Too hard for me.”
John approaches Tom, saying, “Let me join you.”
Adopted children are often hypervigilant and very sensitive to and intuitive about their surroundings. This may be the result of early trauma and/or disrupted attachment experiences, which have an impact on their capacity to develop and thrive. In our mentor training, using safe body language is highly emphasized so the mentors can reach out to the children in ways that the children can respond to, as they feel safe and know they are supported.
Tom is an 8-year-old boy who was adopted from overseas to Australia at the age of 2. He didn’t particularly want to come to the MAG Mindful Origami Making workshop, but he came with his sister at his parents’ urging. He did not want to do what everyone else in the group was doing, which was following the instructions to make origami items. He repeatedly said he didn’t want to do it and he squashed a few origami papers and threw them around the room. Experience has shown us that many children we work with do not like to try tasks that may be challenging and do not guarantee success for them. They often display a fear of failing, and it is important not to set them up for something they cannot do. Instead, we will work with them to find a way to achieve the intended tasks.
All of our Mentors are trained to respond with a therapeutic intent to young people, and to use supportive non-verbal communication. We paired Tom with our mentor John, who began to engage with him one-on-one and to focus on the task at hand, rather than bringing attention to Tom’s behavior. It took a while for Tom to feel relaxed enough to begin the origami and to understand it was OK for him just sit with John and fold a piece of paper a few times. The key to making this happen was to let Tom lead and guide the process at his own pace.
With John providing a nurturing environment, Tom became less anxious about trying something new. He began to settle down and stopped squashing the origami papers; eventually, he became curious about the origami. At the end of the workshop, Tom left with something he made and was proud of. He had participated in a challenging activity that had a positive outcome, despite his initial resistance.
Building a Sense of Group Identity and Empowering the Children
“I wish I looked like my mum. I wonder what my birth parents look like.”
It is very common for adopted children to be asked adoption-related questions that can make them uncomfortable or upset; “Do you want to find your ‘real’ parents?,” “Why don’t you look like your parents?,” “Why didn’t your birth parents keep you?,” “Did your parents pay to get you?” Whether those questions are intended to hurt adopted children’s feelings or just arise from curiosity, they can cause embarrassment or pain for adopted children and remind them that there is something “different” about them.
Ten-year-old Sarah mentioned during a MAG session that she wished she looked like her (adoptive) mum. When Sarah sees herself in the mirror, she is reminded that she doesn’t have blonde hair and blue eyes like her mum. Adopted children often feel alone if they do not have someone around with whom they can identify; it can be challenging for them to reconcile their racial identity when they look so different from everyone around them. A few of the other children and mentors joined Sarah in the conversation by sharing their own experiences and feelings. This conversation allowed Sarah and others to feel less isolated in their experience, and to have a place where they could chat about these complex issues.
Kate, another child in the group, says she doesn’t like to meet new people, as they usually ask her about her adoption and family. She is unsure how to respond to them and thinks that she often overshares her personal story to others. As a group, we talk about their adoption/life stories belonging to them, and that they do not have to tell their story if they do not want to. The Mentors are able to validate these choices for the young people, and to share their own choices about when to tell and when to not tell their stories. Hearing how others have managed these situations gives all children in the group guidance in managing uncomfortable situations. The group learning process empowers the children to make choices that work for them.
MAG provides adopted children and young people with meaningful and constructive relationships and stepping stones toward self-confidence and resilience as they build a sense of individual and group identity. We ensure that our approach is sensitive to individual children’s needs, respectful of the diversity of their family structures, and appreciative of each participant’s unique experience and individual contribution to the group. We believe this helps the children gain some sense of control in their lives. We also believe that a group-based mentoring program offers a therapeutic environment that provides important validation of adopted children and young people’s experiences and contributes to their confidence and self-esteem as they move forward with their lives.
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photos courtesy of Relationships Australia