Did you know that there were different kinds of empathy? It’s true, and while you don’t want to make yourself crazy dissecting what you say and do with your adopted teen, it’s important to know about, especially when you’re talking with your adopted teen about something that really matters to them. Small shifts in the way you talk with your adopted teen can make all the difference!
Let’s get into the ways we express empathy…
First, there’s political empathy. When you’re talking with your adopted teen and they say something about “why” they were given up, the political response would be something like, “Well, sweetie, when China instituted the one-child policy, they were not able to keep them,” or something to that effect. Now, there is a place for that. Absolutely. Adoptees, like everyone else, should be informed people. They should know and understand the political landscape that they were born into. But, in that moment, when your adopted teen is actually confiding in you about their feelings, the political response is not the one that they need. They want you to know how hard it is to not know why, not politically, but personally. They want a story of their own, and without that, they can feel lost.
Then there’ s what I call, birth mom empathy because sometimes adoptive parents can inadvertently side with the birth parent. Let me share an example of what an adopted teen in an open adoption situation might say, “I don’t get why she (birth mom) doesn’t want to come see me if she knows I’m here.” You might say something like, “I know, sweetie. Tara (or whatever her name is) has a lot of drug problems and she’s not in control of her life. She doesn’t even know what she wants.” It is empathy because we clearly feel empathic when we say that, but it doesn’t penetrate. They still feel alone. What do they need? They need you to know what they’re going through, and one way to illustrate that is by saying something like, “I know, it is really hard to understand. And, I know that you wish that you could see her. I know that you have a lot of feelings about her,” for example.
There’s also the empathy that has turned into pity, inadvertently, of course. I had a colleague who would often say, “You poor thing!” It didn’t necessarily bother me at the time, but it is an expression of pity. “You poor thing!” I feel so sorry for you! As adoptive parents (and those of us who play a role in your teen’s life), we can get scared sometimes about how hard it’s been for them. We worry that the toll that it’s taking on them will be too much to withstand. Those fears can often lead to panic, a place you don’t want to be, especially when you’re talking with your adopted teen. When things are falling apart, we may say things like, “What are we going to do? Nothing’s working!”
On the other hand, there’s the “can-do” empathy. I’m referring to something that all of us do, and that sometimes can be helpful. We want to encourage them, and we do this because we want them to know that we believe in them. “I know you can do this!” Or, “You’re a smart girl, I know you can do better in school!” In the right circumstances, it can be inspirational, but more often than not, when it comes to adopted teens, it falls on deaf ears. What more often happens is that the teen starts debating you about how you’re wrong, they really can’t do it and how you don’t know how hard it is to be them.” It’s downhill from there.
Well, what’s an adoptive parent to do? With so many things not to say, what’s left? Take heart. There is one left and it’s a big one. And, the only thing you really have to know about to do it is yourself. It’s, what I call, personal empathy. I mean, that even if you’re not adopted, you’ve known trauma and loss, too. Just about everyone does. Adoptees have not cornered the market on trauma and loss. You have a well of experience to draw from, but not to find inspiration, but to resonate with where they are now. And, they’re in the middle of it now, not looking back, not ahead, in it. And, they don’t know how it’s going to turn out. They’re scared and feel alone. I invite you to find that time in your past, before things got better. That time when you didn’t know how it would turn out, and you felt scared and alone. I’m not suggesting that you tell them about that, or that you get into a debate with them about how much you do, in fact, “get,” no, it’s the mindset that I’m after. They want to feel less alone, and when you can resonate in a personal way, you can really be there for them, in the ways that they need. Not with answers, just with you.