Support Groups Cannot Meet All Needs

by Barbara Free, M.A., LPCC

     Recently, we have written about the importance of support groups for adoption triad members, even years after a person may have searched or decided not to search. Others have also written about the continued, perhaps changing, role of support organizations concerned with adoption and foster care issues. None of that is to say that support groups can meet all the needs of all persons with adoption connections.
     There are many reasons for giving up legal custody of a child, at birth or later. It may have been truly voluntary, or it might have been pressured relinquishment, forced or even forged signing of papers, or it might have been prompted by recognition of the inability to support or raise a child, even within a relationship, particularly if either parent(s) or child were seriously disabled. Later relinquishment may have come about through the court system, possibly with legal charges.
     Support groups may not be able to adequately meet the needs of birth parents or adult adoptees in these latter circumstances. Persons attending a group made up mostly of those who relinquished at birth, or who were relinquished at birth, may be hesitant to divulge their circumstances, either at the time of relinquishment or later. Even many professional therapists do not have the training or understanding to really help such triad members, including adoptive parents and adoptees who are still children.
     A parent who relinquished at the time of her/their child’s birth may have on-going grief and loss, sometimes interpreted as guilt, and resentment at whoever or whatever caused the need for relinquishment, but those whose children were removed from their custody later, through intimidation or through the court system, may have added grief, shame, and real feelings of guilt because of their inability to adequately provide for the child. Sometimes they are never reunited with their child(ren), sometimes they have a positive reunion relationship, and sometimes they are reunited, but not happily. The parent may be so consumed with remorse that they cannot move into a new relationship, with the offspring or perhaps with others. Sometimes they are still so full of anger at the courts and/or the adoptive family or other persons that they cannot let go enough to reframe their relationships. Sometimes the grief, loss, anger, even fantasizing about other possible scenarios of what they wish had happened in the past, have become the only “relationship” with the adoptee for so long that it seems more real than the chance of healthy relationships. This is similar to some adoptees’ reluctance to give up their own fantasy birth parents for the chance of a real relationship with real birth family who, because they are real, are flawed.
     There are birth parents, particularly, who are so used to blaming themselves for imperfect or non-existant relationships that they may expect to continue that mind-set, and may unconsciously do things to perpetuate it. They may believe that somehow catharsis and drama, even if it is painful to them and others, will bring about healing and acceptance, although that is very rarely the case. They may wallow in self-recrimination. In other words, feeling bad feels familiar, feels real. Many people, not just birth parents, hang onto grief and loss of a partner, a parent, or offspring in similar self-defeating ways. It is not unusual, but it isn’t healthy, either. It is like a spiral that keeps winding inward. The image that comes to mind is of a person being slowly squeezed by this spiral.
     A peer support group can offer support and encouragement, but it is not therapy and cannot bring about drastic change in a person’s entrenched ownership of their loss, nor should they try. Support groups might be well-advised to state some sort of short disclaimer along these lines at the beginning of meetings, and in their literature, so that new attendees understand the nature of a support group. Numerous times, new attendees have come in with the impression they are joining a therapy group, where they will be encouraged to blame others or themselves or where they will find the magic answer to all their problems. This misperception has caused hurt feelings and awkwardness at times. Therapists referring individuals to adoption support groups also need to understand the nature of the group and do their best to communicate that to the person they are sending to the group. The same is true of various on-line groups, perhaps even more so.

Excerpted from the January 2015 edition of the Operation Identity Newsletter
© 2015 Operation Identity