I was a self-soother. As a young international adoptee, I would rock myself back and forth on the family room floor trying to re-connect with the rhythms of my birth mother.
It was instinctual. Like a lost animal in the wild, searching for its mother, the rocking was a primal ritual performed by a child looking for her home.
I don’t remember having an awareness of why I would lay there, rocking myself. I just remember that the behavior seemed to calm and comfort me. It made me feel connected to something real inside of me. Something I could not openly express.
Looking back, the rocking gave me a sense of control. When I rocked, I could feel my mum. It was the only time when I could feel her close. Rocking myself offered me certainty.
The problem was that the rocking made my adoptive mother feel very uncertain. She’d wonder what was wrong with me. Why did I do such a strange thing? Did I need therapy? Should my family reach out for help? She would ask me if the rocking felt good. I’d shyly respond, yes, while a look of disappointment filled my mother’s eyes. I was strongly encouraged to stop. I did. No pushback. No arguing.
It was clear—this act of self-soothing was unacceptable. It made my mom feel bad. I wanted to please her. Wasn’t that my role, after all? And so, the rocking ended.
The end marked the beginning of a pattern of behavior and response. Whenever I would try to comfort myself, in any way, or express my pain out loud, it would be suggested that I stay quiet. I was urged to be grateful and to move on. I could easily tell that the desire to connect with my raw emotions made my mother uncomfortable and suspect. My want to connect with my pre-adoption self was disturbing to her. I felt ashamed for even thinking about that earlier girl. I felt ashamed for thinking about my birth mum.
Pretending that this desire didn’t exist was how I believed I could stay as part of my family. It wasn’t real, it wasn’t authentic, but it was safe. For an adoptee, staying safe is often paramount in the front of our minds. Safety is a driving force. Some of us will die inside—little-by-little—instead of risking rejection.
I died, little by little. I kept quiet. I choked off my truth. I stayed safe until the staying could no longer be tolerated. Pleasing everyone else and never being authentic to yourself, never tending to your soul, can take a hard and destructive toll.
As I grew, I equated “self-care” to bad behavior. Anything akin to the soothing of me, my emotions, my thoughts and feelings—I felt was self-centered and selfish. I didn’t want to slow down because, in the slowing, I might be forced to recognize just how much hurt I carried inside of me. Facing that hurt could be potentially displeasing to others. There was so much at risk.
Rocking turned into running…
I ran from my feelings for a very long time. Too long. I felt sad inside. I was pretending to be someone I was not. I was afraid. I had become so accustomed to pleasing that I had lost myself. I was numb to what I needed. Walking around emotionally deprived and disconnected is a huge tragedy.
I share this story, during National Adoption Awareness Month, because I want adoptive parents to be aware and awake to what their adopted child may be going through. What appears to be “undesirable” or “socially unacceptable” behavior may very well be a sign of your child needing to feel connected. Connected to something of who they were before adoption happened in their lives. Comforted through the pain and insecurity. Even if this desire cannot be verbalized, it can be felt.
We feel deep and wide.
I urge you to seek understanding. I ask you to be open to seeing what your child may not be able to speak. Self-soothing behavior—learned due to neglect, limited social interaction, lack of loving caregivers, or the trauma of abandonment—can be difficult to stop. However, with loving patience and the stability of a family, the behavior can decrease over time.
I stress the words “over time” because severing the behavior, as was done in my case, can do a great deal of harm. So much has already been severed in an adoptee’s life. Cutting off self-soothing behavior can result in intense feelings of loss. Which can exacerbate the behavior you hope to end. Or, it can send a strong signal that the adoptee is not safe to come to you and share their deepest emotions and questions. Which was my response to the severing.
There are ways of helping our kids transition beyond the behavior and onto feelings of security. You might consider helping your child recognize the need behind the behavior by verbally acknowledging how they may be feeling, instead of somehow shaming them into stopping. For example, what if my mother had said something like this to me: “You must be feeling sad or lonely right now.”
Then, what if she had offered me some suggestions to help provide comfort like asking, “Would you like a hug, or maybe we could sit in the rocking chair now and rock together?” This offering of ideas for a replacement activity should always involve the parent providing comfort to the child in some way. This, in turn, can help strengthen attachment between the parent and child. It can help the adoptee see that they are not solely responsible for taking care of their own physical and emotional needs.
I believe this kind of approach could have greatly helped me during my childhood when so much felt lost inside of me. I don’t hold any blame. We do what we know and my mother was doing the only thing she knew to do at the time. I like to think that, with education and awareness, we’re beginning to know better. We’re learning. We can meet the needs of adoptees earlier. We can offer them comfort more effectively. We don’t have to fear self-soothing behavior, as parents. We can address it and, together, work through it.
Please, don’t make your child run.
Running—the act of avoiding our feelings and emotions—is much more difficult to stop, I believe, than the self-soothing behavior will ever be.
Here’s what I’ve learned through my own journey of self-soothing in childhood:
- Getting to the need behind the self-soothing behavior is essential. Identify the need and tend to that need.
- Truth is safe. Anything other than truth and transparency in adoption will only promote feelings of insecurity and lack of safety. Get to the truth!
- Shame is never an appropriate deterrent to self-soothing behavior.
- Adoptees should never feel that they have to be pleasers in order to be accepted.
- Running from pain won’t help to heal it. It will only extend the suffering.
It took me a long time to end the running. It took time for me to face what needed to be faced—to use my voice to express the wounds and the emotions of my journey as an adoptee. It took traveling back in time to heal the hurts of that little girl on the family room floor.
The woman who is me has gotten up from that floor, not by myself, but with the help of many others.
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