Guilt and Shame – I must have been a bad child.

Beginning with the first post on this topic dated April 19th, we’ve been discussing how adoption impacts our children. As I said from the beginning, researching the issues related to adoption took me by surprise. What I learned about our adopted children is that most of them feel shockingly similar.

As I began my research I learned that guilt and shame played a big role in how our children felt about themselves and the circumstances of their birth. Yep, it’s gut-wrenching but most of the tumult is driven by their internal dialogue as well as the stories we keep alive, mistakenly thinking it is better than the truth.

As I explained in my opening post on this topic, “Adopted children often feel that they deserve the loss and rejection they have internalized, which in turn, often leads to the feelings of guilt and shame. Adopted children often believe that there is something wrong with them or that their actions caused the losses to occur. Guilt, the feeling of having done something wrong, refers to actions or behaviors. Shame is the painful emotion resulting from an awareness of personal inadequacy or deficiency.

Adopted children feel guilty for what they did (or didn’t do) that caused the adoption. Adopted children internalize these feelings to such an extent that they create scenarios where they are the perpetrators of wrong-doing in order to justify being given up for adoption – “I behaved badly.” “I was not a good child.” Because of their egocentric thinking, it is often very difficult to dissuade a child from these beliefs.

Another common practice that contributes to these feelings of guilt or shame is when we the birthparents assume a “story” that we tell our children. “Your birthparents loved you but could not take care of you.” Your child might make the assumption that his or her birth family was very poor and that’s what kept them from keeping him or her. “Your birthmother might have been sick.” Your child might wonder if she was too poor to get well and if she died without proper care. Sadly, and inadvertently, adoptive parents create a story whereby the adopted child feels ashamed of their origins. They equate poor with being “bad” and, therefore, they are bad too. They are embarrassed by their adoptive status, often concealing it from peers.”

As a coach, my goal is to help you understand how your stories impact your children and how their internal dialogue is reflective of their beliefs about themselves and the circumstances of their birth.

In his book, Feeling Good: The New Mood TherapyDavid Burns, MD, (a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University Medical School) discusses the best ways to regain your happiness. One of the areas that he focuses on is guilt. Research has shown that pride, shame and, guilt all activate similar neural circuits. The reason guilt and shame are so difficult to release is because those feelings activate reward centers. We feel good when we feel guilty. Crazy, huh?

So the question then is how do we get out of the guilt/shame cycle? Dr. Burns thoroughly examines all of the feelings that come up with regard to pride, guilt, shame (and other impediments to happiness) but since I don’t have enough room to go through it all here, I’ll give you this summation from the blog post How To Stop Feeling Guilty, 5 Secrets Backed By Research, by Eric Barker:

“Here’s how to stop feeling guilty:

  • Stop magnifying: Ask yourself if your self-punishment fits the crime. It probably doesn’t.
  • You are not your actions: You’re responsible for your actions but they don’t make you a bad person.
  • Self-compassion: Forgiving yourself makes you behave better. Thinking you’re a bad person makes you act worse.
  • Apologize: Say you’re sorry for what they think you did wrong, not what you think you did wrong.
  • Ask ‘What can I learn from this?’Torturing yourself doesn’t make you a better person. Learning does.”

And how might we as parents use this wisdom to help our children?

  1. Model these behaviors! If we are always beating ourselves up about things that went wrong, our children will too.
  2. Our children are NOT responsible for the actions of the adults in their lives and we need to make sure they understand this. We also need to make sure our stories are consistent with what we actually know about their adoption history – not some fantasy we have conjured up. The facts are always better than our personal assessment of a situation.
  3. Have compassion – for ourselves, for our children, for everyone we come in contact with. When we remember to treat other people the way we want to be treated, it’s takes the pressure off of all us and we’ll make the world a much nicer place to live!
  4. Never mince words. When you screw up, apologize. It teaches our children that we are fallible too. Always take responsibility for mistakes you’ve made. When your child sees you apologize, it teaches them that, a) we’re not perfect and, b) it’s good to apologize if you’ve made a mistake.
  5. Talk about things. Make sure your child knows you are always there to help when they need you.

One thing we know for sure, the guilt and shame your child associate with their adoption history is NOT the same as the guilt and shame we experience when we say something mean to our best friend, or break our mom’s kitchen faucet. But it takes using the same tools to help guide our children to find relief from the feelings that consume them. First, they must understand it is not their fault, then they need to learn how to forgive themselves, even when they did nothing wrong! Self-compassion is huge here. And building self-esteem is the greatest way to build self-compassion. I talked about self-esteem a couple of weeks ago so if you want to refer back to that post you can find it here, Self-Esteem – Am I Good Enough?

If you would like some help navigating these sticky issues with your child, let’s set up an appointment to talk – coach to parent. I do coaching sessions for families or one on ones with parents. Either way, I am here to support you on this journey. You can set up an initial Discovery Session with me to determine what you need by following this link

As I’ve said many times, we’re in this together!

And when you are ready to explore the world with your family, please give me a shout. I’d LOVE to help you design the perfect adventure for your family!

Sending you much love and strength,

Bambi Wineland is the mother of two internationally adopted children, a traveler, a Certified Professional Coach, and the Founder and CEO of Motherland Travel. Motherland Travel began by designing Heritage Journeys for families with internationally adopted children. The emphasis of those Heritage Journeys has always been on deepening family connections, building self-esteem and cultivating pride in a family’s multi-cultural heritage. Motherland Travel also uses the philosophies of transformative Travel for designing family trips with purpose – building rich connections, with each other and the world! Read more about her here >>

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