Do Adoptive Families REALLY Need an Adoption-Competent Therapist? Transcript


Episode 7 Podcast > Full Transcript


Lori Holden, Greeting:
This is Adoption: The Long View, a podcast brought to you by Adopting.com. I'm your host, Lori Holden, author of The Open Hearted Way to Open Adoption. Join me as we take a closer look at what happens after you adopt your child and begin parenting. Your adoption journey isn't over then; it's just beginning.

In this podcast, you'll hear from a variety of thought provoking and influential guests as we help you make the most of your adoption journey. Like any trip worth taking, there will be ups and downs and challenges. Here's what you're going to wish you'd known from the start. Ready? Let's go.

Lori Holden, Intro:
Not every adoptive family will need an adoption-competent therapist on speed dial, but many will at some point. This is not to pathologize adoption. Lots of non-adoptive families also end up seeking therapy for various struggles. But adoptive families are statistically more likely to reach out for help. There are so many possible reasons why, and those are beyond the scope of this episode.

Today, we're coming at the topic of adoption-competent therapy from a stance of you might know when they need it and when you do, you'll want to already know about it.

What I found in my 20 years as an adoptive parent is that parents themselves need to become adoption competent. And it goes without saying you don't do that just by adopting a baby. We need to unlearn what we were told by well-meaning professionals who advised us to treat the baby like our own. That parenting by adoption is really no different than parenting by birthing.

None of that theory has played out to be true. Adoption is not nothing. Adoption is something; to the birth parents who experience a childectomy, to the adoptive parents who experience a grafting onto the family tree, and to the adoptee who was severed from one clan and transplanted to another. To none of us is adoption nothing.

Once we unlearn what is not true, we can begin learning how to better serve our beloved children as they grow from baby to toddler to school age to tween and teenagers, and maybe even uncover some of our own wounded parts. Check out episode 206 and do our work to heal ourselves.

So, how does an adoptive parent become more adoption competent? Well, for one thing, seek out and listen to adoptee voices. Search for podcasts, blogs, memoirs, Instagram accounts, YouTube channels, all these sources that are helmed by adoptees offering their hard-won lessons learned to adoptive parents. I've learned from many of them and have featured some on other episodes.

Another thing you can do is to learn about adoption-competent therapy, which you'll want to be able to access long before you are in the throes of needing it, which, if you think about it, is a tricky thing to figure out that timing.

Lori:
So, let's take a first step today by talking with a highly regarded adoption-competent therapist. I attended a session a few years ago at the annual conference of the National Council for Adoption when it was in Denver, and I was blown away by the presentation of Jen Winkelmann and her colleagues at Inward Bound. I have also come to know Jen in other capacities, and I'm so excited to welcome her today. Jen Winkelmann, so glad to have you with us. Welcome.

Jen Winkelmann:
Thank you, Lori. I'm so glad to be here.

Lori:
Let me tell people a little bit about you, Jennifer Winkelmann, MA, LPC, NCC is the founder of Inward Bound. As a family therapist, Jen's primary clinical focus is adoption and foster care issues, including the impact of early trauma and the spectrum of a relationship difficulties that result from disrupted attachments. She is a TBRI Practitioner and Trainer. That stands for Trust-Based Relational Intervention.

Jen specializes in work with children who may have suffered attachment trauma, but she also offers services for couples and adult individuals seeking help with depression, anxiety, relationship difficulties, stress and grief and loss.

Jen's non-work passions include ballroom dancing, photography and producing her own podcast, All I Know, which I highly recommend. I love that podcast. Thanks for being with us, Jen.

Jen:
Thank you. I'm glad to be here.

Lori:
To get us started, Jen, briefly tell us your story of becoming an adoption-competent therapist. What was your path to that? What was the calling like?

Jen:
It was quite by accident, and I actually wouldn't say that it was a calling that I understood. I think that attachment disruptions is probably in my bones because of some of my family history. Both my parents’ sides, both of my parents lost parents in their infancy in different forms. And so, I think there's a part of me that's just kind of primed to understand that because it's part of my DNA, because the people who made me went through it.

But it wasn't on purpose that I came to adoption at all. I actually took a job at a residential treatment center in Denver after college, and I thought it was going to be a flash in the pan while I figured out what I really wanted to do. And I ended up being there for five years and figuring out that I wanted to go to grad school, after I kind of got my groove with some of those kids. And a lot of the kids that were in treatment with us had attachment difficulties.

Lori:
Where does that fit in with adoption? Is attachment difficulties connected with adoption, and to what degree?

Jen:
I think attachment challenges are definitely connected with adoption because adoption starts with a break. The only reason an adoption happens – It's like what you said when you were introducing this episode, you were talking about the severing that happens for that baby and the grafting to a new family tree.

So, an adoption only happens because something has been broken; something has been let go. And it's an amputation; it's not a gentle, meaningless event. It's a significant event even in the life of an infant.

A lot of your listeners have probably heard of Bruce Perry. He's kind of a forerunner in thinking about how trauma impacts the child's development, and he runs the Child Trauma Academy in Texas. I remember going to a training with him once where he talked about how separation from the birth mother is the single most traumatic event a human being can survive. It rolls off our tongues pretty easily, but if you slow down and really think about those words, it's significant.

Lori:
And I think that can be a tough thing for adoptive parents to hear that the way they became parents was through inflicted pain. And I think the way out of that is to acknowledge it and then to deal with it and mostly to not pretend that it hasn't happened.

I think there's always a fine line that adoptive parents have to run between dwelling on something and maybe making it bigger than it needs to be and denying something and minimizing it. So, really tuning into what actually is in any moment for the child?

Jen:
Well, and you don't know when you bring that baby home, how is their temperament and personality going to process this loss? Because some children, for reasons that we can't understand, tend to be a little bit more resilient about it. And they're very factual and they just sort of, you know, it's just sort of the way they process information. And they're generally kind of okay about it.

And then there's other kids where it's so painful they can't even speak it, and they're in a level of denial for a portion or all of their lives, but that impact still plays out every day. And then there are other kids who are going to just want to dive right in and they're going to need you to be there with them.

So, the way that an adoptee processes that loss, you won't know when you bring the baby home and it will become an unfolding that happens over time as that child develops. And you got to be pretty nimble. You got to be quick on your feet because as that shifts, so must you.

Lori:
And that's probably some of the work that you do with parents. Let me just say, too, Dr. Bruce Perry just came out with a book that was co-written by Oprah or her name is on it. And it's called What Happened To You. So, that's a resource I want to put out here. And another resource is our Episode 111, which was on The Baby as a Blank Slate.

So, you're telling us they come into this with their own personality, their own traits. And they don't have the language, when you adopt as an infant, they don't have the language to explain this experience. That sometimes mean it's harder to access, in therapy, the wounds of that experience. Is that correct?

Jen:
That's absolutely correct. And psychological processing begins during the second trimester of pregnancy. You know, we think everything begins or starts after birth, but it doesn't. There's a lot of impact from the intrauterine experience. And so, what is that birth mother or the birth family going through during that period of time during the second and third trimester that is being processed without language for that child? And they come into the world with that imprint, and now we have to figure out how to move forward from here.

Lori:
And you're not talking just about substances that may be being used during that.

Jen:
No.

Lori:
You're talking about other influences like cortisol and the mother's stress level, how well she's attaching. Attachment is probably good at that point, right, from the-

Jen:
It's great because then a baby feels welcomed into the world and want it. When a birth mother is really struggling with what to do with a pregnancy, that struggle becomes part of that baby's identity, but they don't have any language to associate with.

They can't obviously talk to you about it right after they're born, but it's part of the fabric of their being because they are processing, on a psychological level, what their birth mother is experiencing emotionally and what's happening around her.

Lori:
And that sounds almost counterintuitive to how we have thought about infant adoption in the past where we don't want the mother to get too attached because that might hurt her. It might disrupt the adoption. But really, if we're caring about the baby, her being attached is an important piece.

Jen:
The very best thing that can happen is that the birth mom falls in love with that baby while she's carrying it. And as horrific and devastating as it is, the very best thing for everyone involved is to go through the process of deeply grieving the loss when it happens.

And if there is a relationship and a falling-in-love experience that happens while that baby is in the womb and even in that day or two or week or month or whatever it is after birth, before the child is placed with the adoptive family, whatever falling-in-love experience can happen actually helps lay a template for that child that they can fall in love again.

Lori:
Hmm. So, this is helping me segue into another question how closely aligned are adoption-competent therapy and trauma-informed therapy?

Jen:
To me, I think they're one in the same adoption-competent therapy is one specialized thread of trauma-informed therapy. But really, when we use either of those phrases, we're talking about exactly the same thing. If your adoption competent, you're specifically understanding the nuances of how adoption is traumatic for human beings and how that ends up playing out in relationships.

If you're a trauma-specific therapist who deals in natural disasters or in chronic pain or in sexual trauma, it's understanding the nuances of those particular experiences and how that trauma plays out for the person who experienced it.

Lori:
Okay. So, how is an adoption-competent therapist different from just a regular old therapist? Does it really matter to adoptees and adoptive parents? I think you've kind of touched on this. It does matter.

Jen:
It matters to me.

Lori:
Because you're acknowledging it, too.

Jen:
It matters to me.

Yeah. I mean, the truth is, graduate programs may be different now than they were when I finished mine. But I will tell you that I don't know a single adoption-competent clinician who got their training in graduate school. Every single person who's working in adoption had an interest or a passion or a pull to it, for one reason or another, and ended up having to do a deep dive, individually, to be well educated in that area.

Graduate school and being trained to be a therapist is really just kind of like a first step, it's a launch pad, and then you need to find your niche and go deeper. And a lot of that is a personal responsibility of the person who's facilitating that work.

Lori:
So, this sounds to me like it might be a little difficult to find an adoption-competent therapist when you need one, because it's not generally taught. How would you go about finding one and how do you know that somebody is adoption competent? Can they call themselves that if they're not,

Jen:
A lot of people do. A lot of people will say that their trauma informed as well without really knowing what that means, because those words are popular right now.

So, it's so funny that you're asking this because years ago I actually put together an audio training called The Right Fit, which was specifically coaching adoptive parents around how to find an adoption-competent therapist; what are the questions that you need to ask? So, I'm willing to share that with you, if you think that would be something that'd be useful for the folks that listen.

But in general, a couple of the first things that I would say is I would have the parents ask the therapist, “What's your approach?” Anybody who is willing to work with your child alone and feels really strongly about confidentiality and privacy laws is probably not going to be a good help to your family. Because by the time you're looking for help, you're probably out of infancy. And this child is walking and talking and has their own ideas about some things, and it's coming out one way or another.

You want somebody who's able to engage with the entire family and who understands that adoption, work or work on adoption trauma is not individual work, it's family work. It's not even work on the adoptee or work on the parent, it's work on the space in between you.

Lori:
The system. The family system.

Jen:
Mm hmm. Exactly.

Lori:
So, you probably have people who come in and say, “Here, fix my kid. They're struggling with this.” And is this where you break it to them, “Yeah, we're all going to work together”?

Jen:
Well, I think at this point in my career, I've developed something of a reputation. So, I don't have to have that conversation much anymore. I did years ago. Parents would want to drop their kid off and take a little break at Starbucks, and it's like, “I get it. You need a break. But unfortunately, this clinical time is not the break. This clinical time is work.”

Lori:
What are some of the common themes that you see in the families who come to you? Like, what are they struggling with and what does it take for them to become more savvy and more easeful as adoptive parents?

Jen:
Most families will come to me because of behavior. Behavior is the language of children. It's the way that they communicate. They're not going to sit down with you and say, “Mom, I've been thinking a lot about my birth mom. And here's the way that it's affecting me. And could we talk about it?” Instead, it's going to come out sideways in some form of behavior. So, a lot of times, the catalyst for doing some work is that parents are kind of at their wit's end trying to figure out how to manage behaviors.

We start by consulting about that and end up kind of working our way backwards to what is the blueprint that this child has for relationship that actually gets them to this place where they're acting in this way. And not only what is the child's blueprint, but actually what is yours? And how does that influence the way that you're interacting or approaching or engaging as a parent? It's not as simple as the behavior. The behavior is a symptom.

Lori:
So, the behavior is often rooted in other deeper things that you're trying to get at through some sort of therapy; the beliefs, the feelings, the emotions. What are some of the common themes that you're finding in that? Does it have to do with abandonment, rejection?

Jen:
Yeah. When we were talking earlier about that intrauterine experience, one of the things that I think influences almost 100 percent of the children that I work with is what I call The Shame Core. It's like this center of themselves that has come to believe that there is something bad about them. And I believe that that comes from that intrauterine experience and that severing in infancy.

It communicates, maybe that you're not wanted, even if that's not the birth parent’s intention to communicate that; something about the process of being separated and coming to understand that you didn't get to stay with your birth family, even when you kind of know it in your bones, but may not have the words for it. It creates this deep sense of shame. And none of us functions well from a place of shame.

So, that shame core can present itself in a lot of different ways. Sometimes it's very demanding because it's trying to collect evidence that you're okay, right? And so, it can be very, very needy and very demanding.

Sometimes that shame core can present as something that looks more like a mood disorder or a lot of emotional volatility, because I just never feel okay and I'm in constant grief and I just can never get my feet underneath me.

I mean, there are lots of ways that that shame core can play out, but it's almost always a factor is that there is a message that was sent in the separation and in the process of adoption that communicates to that child, “You're not okay.” “You're not enough” or “You weren't that important.” And figuring out how to undo that message and send a new message is pretty artful, tricky work

Lori:
And behavior wise, on the flip side of maybe being needy or acting out, a previous guest has said that sometimes adoption trauma looks good on you, like you become overly compliant and very pleasing.

Jen:
Oh, that's such a great point. It's absolutely true. There's a good handful of kids that just fly under the radar because they're just all about pleasing and keeping things in check; making sure that their relationship is going okay. And the way that I do that is by performing for you.

And it sounds lovely to have a perfectly compliant child when we're talking about somebody who's two or maybe even somebody who's six, but that starts to get really dangerous when we move into being 12 or 14 or 19 and we start thinking about the influences in a child's life at that point. And what will the child be asked to comply with? And how damaging will that be? Because those requests may not be healthy anymore because they're coming from a peer group.

Lori:
And so how do those families sometimes show up in your offices?

Jen:
Out of control and really, really tired; totally exhausted. I think one of the things that you and I have talked about in the past is that the unfortunate thing I think for a lot of adoptive families is that they come to the work after they've been doing the pattern of struggle for more than five years.

I feel like typically I actually meet someone seven to 10 years after things started to get tricky. And if you think about it, that's a lot of time and a lot of repetition to try and undo and rewire. And so, that idea that when families come to me, they're usually a mess by the time they're asking for help.

I think there's something that is a real struggle about reaching out because part of the adoption process is letting everybody know how great you are and that you should be picked as an adoptive parent. This agency should approve you. These birth parents should select you. And so, I think there's something in the psyche of the adoptive family where it's like, “We have to be good enough. We can't need backup here.” And reaching out for help as saying, “I may not be good enough to do this by myself, but I just spent months or even years proving to everybody around me that I am. So, now what does this mean?” You know, there's kind of an imposter syndrome. It's like fraud feelings that play out, I think, for adoptive parents.

Lori:
I was just going to say that. And what you try to do if you are feeling imposter syndrome sometimes is you try to squish it down and not feel it and not deal with it.

Jen:
Yeah, and we'll get through this. We'll figure it out. And you keep grinding and you keep grinding. And then, years have passed and then you reach this point, you reach this wall where it's like, “Okay, I can't. I can't do it. I'm absolutely at the end of myself.” And what a tricky time to start therapy because you're coming in with low to no emotional resources.

Lori:
And in the meantime, if you wait five years to search for and find an adoption-competent therapist and then it takes some time to kind of build that up, get those relationships going, you have already solidified some very dysfunctional patterns within your family.

Jen:
Right.

Lori:
Because the parents have things going on with their own emotions, possibly imposter syndrome, insecurity, getting over having to prove how good a person you are to be a parent, and then being forced to ask for help, because maybe you don't got it the way you told everybody, “I got this.”

And then the child also who's struggling with identity, which all children do. I mean, that's just a human transition, but also the added layer of adoption.

Jen:
Yeah, an adopted person usually has a highlighter over that identity stuff. You know, all humans do it, but it's more intense and more complicated for someone who has adoption as part of their history.

Lori:
Yeah, I would think if you have just two parents, it's easier to figure out identity than if you have four parents and you're figuring out, “Who am I? Who am I in relation to these people?” It's just an added layer of complexity and depth.

Jen:
Right. And we got to remember, too, like four parents is even kind of a minimum; like what happens if the people who adopted you don't end up staying together and they get into new relationships and you're navigating steps? And I don't know, it just gets really complicated.

Lori:
Yeah. And if both parents go on to have their own families and you've got half siblings.

Jen:
Yeah.

Lori:
A family tree can look – it can have so many different shades of leaves on them for.

Jen:
It really can. It really can. And the one who bears the most of that and trying to find their place in it is the adoptee.

Lori:
And our role as adoptive parents is to support that, however we can, by increasing our own adoption competence.

I'm so glad you mentioned The Blueprints Program and I can see the why you called it that. Can you tell us a little bit about what you and your colleagues created?

Jen:
Sure.

Lori:
How does it fit with adoption competence?

Jen:
Sure. So, we were looking at the problem of families coming to us five, seven, 10 years after the adoption, and we were trying to think, how could we improve this process for the parents who are going to be raising these little people with broken hearts? And how can we help these kids have a better start in their adoptive family? And so, that's kind of the genesis of where it came from.

Over the years, I have utilized a tool that I was introduced to during my internship in Graduate School. It's called the Life Script. It was developed by Terry Levi and Mike Orleans. And it's basically a tool, a therapeutic tool, to help a parent uncover what their blueprints for relationship are. How do they lay out an approach to a relationship and particularly an approach to a relationship with a child? That's totally subconscious, because most of us don't actually think about this; we just do it. And we just do it because of our own experiences. So, part of the program is unpacking that.

And the other part of the program has to do with some psychoeducation around what's happening biologically, what's happening psychologically during different stages of development and stages of adoption so that parents know some of the science behind what's happening with their child.

And that makes it a little bit less personal. You know, it's not necessarily something that you're doing. It's just this is the circumstances, and this is how the circumstances impact development. And now that we know that, how do we respond?

Our main intention with the program is to try and get it to families as soon as possible. And so, part of the plan with it is to try and match with adoptive families while they’re in the process of being matched with a child or right after they've been matched and maybe even before a child comes home. So that you have the opportunity to build that relationship with a clinician or a therapist that can support you to try and help you see what some of your blind spots might be or your Achilles heel, because we all have it.

And then that relationship is established and in place. So, when the child comes into the picture, it becomes a lot easier to talk about what's going on and how are things going and what do you need because there's a relationship already there. You're not asking for it when things are already in crisis.

Lori:
How are you connecting with parents before they adopt? Are you working through adoption agencies?

Jen:
We're trying. Yep. But a lot of times, as you can imagine, adoptive families have a hard time with getting another item on the checklist that they feel like they have to do. So, it's a pretty unique family that steps forward and says, “I want to do this.”

And most of the families that we've actually been able to use the program with, in the way that we intended, have come to us quite by accident. A handful of them have come by referral from a social worker who said, “I really think you should do this” and they have that openness or willingness. And so, they do. And we're able to dive in and get started early.

Lori:
I can just look back and think how much this would have helped me earlier in my journey to, as you said, kind of find my blind spots; the things I didn't even know I had in me to deal with and that would come out when I turn from being a daughter to a parent; to a mom.

And also, one thing you said is, I'm thinking of the shame. That sometimes uncovering those things, especially for parents who have really put themselves forward as being exemplary humans worthy of adopting, to be able to look and say inside and say, “Yeah, I got some things that I don't feel so great about.”

Jen:
That's something with adoption, the culture of adopting that I really wish we could shift. And I think it's getting better than it was 10 or 15 years ago, but I still think it has a ways to go. It's just the idea that this isn't actually something to hide. This is true for everybody. There's not a big secret here. But we wrestle with it.

But the truth is we all go into every single relationship we have with a little bit of brokenness because humanity isn't perfect. And so, all this is, is taking an honest look at how might that play out with a child who I know has this exposure to trauma? And can we get ahead of it?

Lori:
And that worthiness isn't something just our kids are going through. We go through it as well. And that capacity.

Jen:
A hundred percent. A hundred percent. And part of the early process of adoption, for an adoptive family, is clearing those hurdles where it feels like you're getting evaluated; is your health good enough? Is your home good enough?

Lori:
Is your marriage good enough?

Jen:
Is your marriage good enough? Yeah, exactly. All these things. If you've parented other children, are the children that you've parented, has that parenting been good enough? It’s just hurdle after hurdle after hurdle.

And so, I understand why adoptive families get in this frame of mind. And I wish as an adoption community, it was something that we could talk about and recognize more easily.

All of us are coming to the table with stuff, and this isn't a threatening or scary thing. It might be painful, because a lot of times those dynamics and the things that make us interact the way that we do have a lace of pain, but really, all it is is just trying to put a puzzle together a little bit better. It doesn't have to be this big, scary, horrible, shameful thing.

Lori:
And I find that that's part of the value of therapy is it takes something from being in the dark where it's secret and powerful and unknown and prickly and mysterious and mostly powerful. And when you bring it into the light to deal with, sometimes it is a lot more manageable just by pulling it out.

Jen:
Absolutely. Turning the lights on is one of the most significant things you can do as an adoptive parent for your child. Don't let things be in the dark. Because if they are in the dark, you are inadvertently and unintentionally reinforcing that shame core; there is something to be ashamed of, there is something wrong here, there's something that's not okay.

So, if you're in that practice of just, “Hey, we have the lights on about this. We're turning on the lights for you. We’re turning on the lights for me. We're all looking at our stuff because this is just part of being a person and it's definitely part of being a family that's built by adoption. It's okay. We can put the puzzle together. We just have to look at what our pieces are.”

Lori:
Oh, Jen, I love that. That's about the theme of this entire podcast is openness over the long view. So, thank you for summing that up in such a beautiful way.

Before we get to the last question, is there anything else I haven't asked you that you would like to talk about?

Jen:
I can't think of anything, but maybe that's because it's Saturday morning

Lori:
And we've done a good job covering the topic that we set out to cover.

Jen:
A bit, maybe. I mean, I guess I feel more like asking you, “Do you think there's something that we missed that, you know from prior conversations, you feel like, “We have to touch on this”?

Lori:
From my facilitator training, I feel complete.

Jen:
Okay.

Lori:
Except for this last question.

Jen:
Okay.

Lori:
This is the last question that I'm asking of all guests this season. From your perspective, as an adoption-competent therapist, what do you think people need to know to adopt well and to adoptive-parent well?

Jen:
Well, I think we just spent the last half hour talking about it; exactly. It's that idea of having the courage to turn the lights on. Having the intention – I mean, truly, if we could do adoption according to what I think would be most beneficial for everybody, having a relationship with somebody who gets adoption issues, who's clinically minded, would just be an automatic part of the process; just like a home study, just like the paperwork that you have to do. It would just be part of it.

So, I think to adopt well, and particularly over the long haul, the most significant thing I can say is that please be open to the idea of developing a relationship with someone.

And I think it is an investment well made to develop that relationship before you need it, because if it comes to a time when you do, you'll be able to call that person and hit the ground running. And there will be so much less work to do to try and put you back together, to try and give you enough fuel to get through the therapeutic process. There will be so much less to unpack. You won't have to build trust because it will already be there. There's just there's so much value in just giving yourself eight or 10 sessions with somebody who knows that option. And just having that in your back pocket for if you ever need it.

Lori:
Another podcast I listen to, he says, “Dig the well before you get thirsty.”

Jen:
There you go. That is the perfect way to say it. That's the perfect way to say it.

Lori:
And I can attest to all that you're saying; finding early, building a relationship before the need becomes so great that you're in crisis. So, that's excellent advice.

Jen:
Just assume you'll need it. And then if you don't, it's gravy.

Lori:
And like you said, adoption is rooted in this trauma; this severance. So, why not assume that you're going to need it at some point?

Well, thank you, Jen, so much for being with us today. I really appreciate you giving up part of your Saturday morning to talk with me.

Jen:
Oh, I'm so glad to be here. Thank you for the invitation.

Lori:
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