The importance of Empathy in Adoption.

In the training for prospective adopters I am currently developing, I have discussed the importance of Empathy and the need to build your empathetic skills as an adopter. This is a fundamental pillar of the applicant’s preparation for the role of an adoptive parent.

Expert Dr. Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston, Graduate College of Social Work, as well as the author of the #1 New York Times bestselling book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. As a researcher she has examined the development of shame, Empathy.

Brené Brown coined one of the best explanations of empathy and why empathy is so important. “Empathy fuels connection. … Empathy is a skill that can bring people together and make people feel included”.

Brene’ Brown references nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman’s four attributes of empathy:

  • To be able to see the world as others see it—This requires putting your own feelings aside to see the situation through your family member’s eyes.
  • To be non-judgmental—Judgement of another person’s situation underplay’s their experience and is generated by an attempt to protect ourselves from the pain of their situation.
  • To understand another person’s feelings—We all need to be in touch with our own feelings in order to understand anyone else’s. Again, this requires putting your own issues to one side focus on your loved one.
  • To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings—Rather than saying, “At least you…” or “It could be worse…” try, “I’ve been there, and that really hurts,” or (to quote an example from Brown), “It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.”

Brene’ Brown also explains that empathy is a skill that strengthens with practice and she encourages people to both give and receive Empathy often. By receiving empathy, not only do we understand how good it feels to be heard and accepted, we also come to better understand the strength and courage it takes to be vulnerable to others and share the need for empathy in the first place.

What does Empathy mean for adoptive parents?

Empathy for your child

Empathy must be consciously shown with the child, their history, their understanding of the impact of loss and trauma as a result of their adoption. However justified the decision to remove the child to adoption, this act results in the child losing significant aspects of their own identity, self-knowledge and confidence.

Hard though this can be for you as an adopter to accept and acknowledge that your child has experienced loss and trauma however old they were when removed, it is critical to empathise with this trauma and build strategies both for you and your child to enable them learn and accept their personal history.

Discovering your identity is such a part of growing up.  I know as a parent just how challenging it is to be empathetic to a disgruntled teenager, especially one who is struggling with their own identity, but if it wasn’t hard it wouldn’t be so important!

Strategies for building empathy with your child could include good communication, family meetings, social activities, showing curiosity about the child’s inner world, thoughts and feelings.

Empathy towards birth parents

This is probably one of the hardest tasks for adopters. To build a positive image of your adopted child’s birth parents. However if as an adopter you can’t see birth families personal strengths, talents or positive attributes, it is unlikely that you will be able to give your child a positive image of their own parents. And their parents represent a part of them as a child, so by association they are unlikely to be able to feel wholly positive about themselves.

I am totally aware of how challenging it can be to be empathetic, so suggest that you find out as much as possible about your child’s birth parents and their history. Understanding a little of what led them to end up where they are now will help you empathise and not feel blame. This is likely to assist you in nurturing empathetic feelings towards birth parents.

Feeling empathy towards birth parents will assist you in being able to communicate effectively with them, even when they are challenging in their behaviour. The closer a relationship you can build with birth family, the better for the child especially when the relationship is stressful or remote through letter box/letters.

Empathy towards yourself and your family

It is really important to look after yourself as well as nurture your partner and family. Build a strong habit of increasing your skills, learning and regular self-care. Empathetic treatment of yourself may include regular exercise, meditation, eating healthily and/or research and training.

To be able to maintain empathy in the face of challenges build resources around you, such as supportive family, friend’s social networks, adoption groups and regular opportunities for time out.

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