She herself lived in a neglectful home until 15 months, bounced around to several foster homes and then landed in an ill prepared adoptive home at age 7 ½ years of age. Many years later, she is a therapist and focuses on working with adopted and foster children. So, whenever I get a chance to hear or read her perspective, I jump at it. Jeanette Yoffe has much to impart to adoptive families.
Her gentle voice said, “if a child is defensive, easily criticized, highly sensitive to the threat of rejection and hard to redirect”, then she knows there is excessive shame underneath. Some adoptees carry the deep feeling that there is something terribly wrong with them as a person – after all, one set of parents has chosen not to parent them, and children certainly don’t have the ability to look at this from a nuanced point of view. This powerful statement by Yoffe clearly communicates how some foster and adopted children feel – “when they make a mistake, they feel like a mistake.” That is where some of our children reside.
But the point of this talk was not to wallow and hang out in the shame place. It was a call to adoptive parents in the midst of some of the most challenging times to become strength detectors. Rather than look at much of the disruptive behaviors as manipulative, controlling, attention grabbing, she challenged us to recognize the strengths that underlie the frustrating behaviors. For example, for the child who always wants to win and losing can turn into a tantrum, recognize the trait of determination. For the one who gets into fights when a friend is wronged, acknowledge the loyalty and justice behind that. The list of possibilities is endless.
Yoffe stated that when we can first give credence to the strength that underlies the behavior, then we can gently address more adaptive ways to express these strengths. No, it is not ok to tantrum and attack. But when we adjust our lens to see and point out the underlying character strengths first, then there is a more open heart to receive the suggestions on more appropriate means of expression.
In parenting all children, it is often easier to hone in on the negatives, the deficiencies, the problems rather than take a step back and delight and speak of the positives, the strengths, the amazing things about our children. It takes a level of intentionality to train ourselves to really see the gifts and positive character traits (not achievements) of our kids. Thanks to Jeanette Yoffe, I am on a mission to see the positives and point that out before gently addressing the behavior changes needed. It is a joy and delight to see my child stand a little taller and smile a little brighter as I acknowledge her incredible strengths – a true shame buster.