Lessons from the Corner Drug Store

We pulled into our neighborhood drug store parking lot with one goal, to get snacks for the girls to take with them to the youth group winter retreat, which started in just a few hours. Things like cheese puffs and jumbo bags of Starburst; things that would be normally banned from our house except for special occasions. It’s OK, I told myself. Their midnight sugar high will be some camp counselor’s problem, not mine. My husband and I were getting the weekend off.

We entered the store and Daughter #1 and I veered off to the candy aisle as Daughter #2 headed to her favorite section, cosmetics. This was not uncommon and we’d been in that store countless times. After a few minutes of Daughter #1 debating the benefits of M&Ms versus Skittles, Daughter #2 came up to us with a panicked look on her face.

“Mama! I thought you’d left me! You left me.”

“No, honey. We’ve been right here all along, you knew that” I said with insufficient patience. What’s the big deal, I thought? What now?

“No, you left me,” she repeated as she forced open my arms for a hug.

We stood in the aisle embracing for a few minutes, my words offering reassurance, my mind pinging from thought to thought, trying to figure out what was going on this time.

It wasn’t until 2 hours later when we were saying goodbye at the camp, just 5 miles from home, that the dots finally connected for me. Standing there among the bunk beds, sleeping bags and over-stuffed suitcases, Daughter #2 was angry and aloof and generally pissed-off that we had insisted she attend this retreat. This was her teenage version of separation anxiety and it didn’t start here at Cabin 6, it started before we even pulled into the CVS parking lot. Issues of abandonment simmer under her surface, and she let me know how she was feeling when she thought I’d “left her” in the drugstore.

I can be slow to catch on.

Fears of abandonment have no age limit when it comes to the adopted individual. Fear is defined as a distressing emotion caused by pending danger, evil, or by the illusion of such. Both fear and abandonment are knotted together in the adopted teen’s psyche.  Sherrie Eldridge provides an insightful perspective in her book, Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adopted Parents Knew. A normal childhood fear of abandonment is an illusion not based on truth. But for the adopted child, the fear is not an illusion but is a reality based on relinquishment from the birth mother. In addition, the birth mother is real, and at the same time illusive because the adoptee can’t see her.

Considering these paradoxes, is it any wonder that my daughter was behaving the way she was in the drug store?

Eldridge advises adoptive parents to demonstrate empathy when their adopted child is experiencing fears of abandonment. Parents should strive to intellectually identify with their teen’s feelings, thoughts, or attitudes. It can take some imagination, but the effort is worth it.  The following expressions can get you started:

“I can’t imagine how it must feel to….” (emphathy)
“I’d be confused, too, if…” (identify with)
“It must feel ….” (understand)
“Many other kids/adoptees feel this way.” (sympathy)

In addition, this experience reminds me that as an adoptive parent, I face a perpetual challenge of always needing to be on alert, always wondering what’s behind this irrational action, that illogical thought, or those stinging words. There is always something that explains it. Sometimes it’s instantly clear. Other times the fog takes a while to lift. But I’m learning to look deep into the mist when we’re in the midst of what might be an odd, embarrassing, or challenging situation. That’s where I’ll find the clues I need to figure out what’s really going on. Once I know that, my next step becomes clearer.

What happened next, you ask? Well, after reminding Daughter #2 that last year’s retreat was “the best weekend of her entire life” my husband and I insisted that she stay at the camp and give it a chance. We got no kisses or hugs goodbye, just the view of her back as we walked out the door. “Have fun, sweetheart. We’ll be back Sunday at noon to get you.” And then we drove off praying hard and feeling two inches high.  A short text from the camp counsellor a few hours later indicated that all was well and she was having a good time. We didn’t hear another word until the Sunday pick-up when we got a steady stream of details about who said what and who did what and the cute guy who played the drums and oh, how great it all was.

Somehow my husband and I managed to keep our “we told you so’s” unsaid and filed this one away for future reference.

What about you? How has your teen expressed his fear of abandonment when you least expected it? How did you respond?