Episode 51: Understanding the Adoption Journey

In this episode of The Family Couch, we talk with Sabra Starnes about adoption and what the adoption journey looks like.

We jump in and discuss who Starnes got into this line of work and why it is so important to her.  She discusses how she is African American and was adopted with her twin sister by a caucasian family.  She feels that her parents really did a good job of providing her and her sister with African American dolls, music and culture to make them feel very secure in their identities.  When she became a young adult, she knew she wanted to be a mom and decided she wanted to be an adoptive mom.

We change gears and discuss the types of issues Starnes faces as a social worker.  She discusses the feeling of abandonment that comes from many adoptees. They are brought into the world by someone who decides for whatever reason that they cannot or do not want to take care of their child.  This feeling of abandonment is something that Starnes still experiences from time to time even as an adult, especially when it comes to relationships. Starnes discusses the spectrum of attachment by using an analogy of being on a desert island.  If you would be perfectly fine being alone and having no connection to anyone, you are at one end of the spectrum. The opposite end is needing connection and relationships to feel safe and comfortable. When children do not have a healthy attachment with a caretaker who meets their needs, they start to self-soothe which is not healthy.  They may hoard food or have unhealthy, unsafe relationships where they tolerate any form of treatment from someone just to have them there. The child can become violent and hurtful.

Starnes became passionate about this and knew it was needed because there was no therapist for her growing up to tell her why she was so mad.  Her father told her he could see the rage and anger building up inside. Since she was adopted at birth, she did not have the memories that a child who is adopted older may have.  Starnes could not figure out why she was so mad. She needed someone to tell her it was okay to be angry that she didn’t look like her mom or to be upset that her parents were white.  Starnes needed someone to tell her it was okay that she was not just like her mom. Until her early 20’s she really did not connect to her mom–what she needed from her mom was difficult for her mom to give.  She needed to be able to put some words to the anger and pain she was feeling. A therapist instead misdiagnosed her as having ADHD.

Starnes provides that parents often come to her and say their child is hitting them, and they’ve tried everything to get them to stop.  The issue is the underlying actual attachment issue that needs to be addressed. This is not a quick fix but a lifelong journey. Starnes discusses that when she was 25, she met her birth mom.  The “best practice” in place at the time Starnes was adopted was to have them be closed. Starnes always felt that someone knew who her birth mother was, and the fact that no one would give the information to her made her very angry.  Starnes mentions that a big fear is that the child will meet their birth family and want to go with them instead. She says that this doesn’t usually happen but that she cautions parents to make sure that their child is ready and prepared to handle either the rejection or the reunion.  Waiting until they are a teenager or young adult is best for this reason.

We change gears and discuss how to help adoptive families understand that their child has trauma even though they did not have any connection to their birth family.  Starnes does role playing and reenacting where she will have the parent hold the child to connect emotionally and physically. They then discuss why it is so hard for the child to connect to the parent holding them.  When they were born and cried, they may not have had all of their needs met. She then reminds them that the person holding them has got them now. She will have the parent say, “I got you,” over and over again to reinforce this.  Starnes does a good amount of psychoeducation with parents to get them to understand what trauma looks like and how it can come out years later. A child may flinch when they hear a noise because of something that happened that they don’t even remember, possibly indicating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  They may be reliving some abuse that was physical or emotional, or neglect. Starnes then has parents discover what is a “healthy attachment.” She wants the family to understand that even though trauma occurred, it doesn’t have to live with you.

We discuss how adoptive parents try to fill a void that the biological parents have left with their love, toys, a beautiful room, etc, but this is not always possible.  Starnes says that in her attachment therapy, she focuses on the child and the parent–not things. The basics need to be met in order to survive. A child may be 11 but emotionally more like age 3.  This child would need to be parented differently as a result. You may need to sing a lullaby and tuck them in at night. You may need to use more eye contact and safe touch. She says that just being there and not giving up or giving in is what will hold the child together.  Starnes provides that adoptees and children in foster care want the truth. They do not need to be lied to, but this does not mean that they need to know every single piece of their past. As they grow up, the discussion can be more open with the adoptee asking questions they may want to know the answers to.  

We finally discuss what tips Starnes would give to adoptive parents who want more support regarding shameful questions or hurtful comments that may come their way.  Starnes recommending connecting with other adoptive parents. She also tells them that there is nothing wrong with choosing not to discuss certain topics with others.  Starnes also recommends connecting with people who honor and support what you’re doing.



Sabra Starnes has been a Clinical Social Worker for the last 20 years in the Maryland and Washington DC area and is currently the owner and psychotherapist of Next Place Therapy. Much of her work is done around attachment therapy with children who are going through the process of being adopted.  She focuses on adoption, foster care, parenting issues and skills.



WEBSITE: http://sabrastarnes.com/

EMAIL: sabrastarnes@gmail.com


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