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Creating Ceremonies for Older Adopted Children

An Interview with Cheryl A. Lieberman and Rhea K. Bufferd,
Authors of "Creating Ceremonies : Innovative Ways to Meet Adoption Challenges"

Interview By Allison Martin

Creating Ceremonies is a guide for conducting rituals for adoptive families. Cheryl Lieberman is a single adoptive parent who adopted two sons at ages seven and six years of age. She has a Masters degree in Social Work and City Planning and a Ph.D. in Organizational Planning from the University of Pennsylvania. Rhea Bufferd has been an adoption social worker since 1974. She has a MSW from Boston University.

What inspired you to write your book "Creating Ceremonies"?

Cheri : I had been doing ceremonies with my children for years. When I talked with people about it they would say, "You should put these in a book." I started to help different friends -- creating ceremonies for them and their children. Finally I agreed that I should put these in a book! So I contacted Rhea Bufferd, who had been my social worker (she not only did my homestudy but she provided education sessions and did the six month post-placement supervision for my two children). I asked her if she would join me in writing the book. We agreed to do the book together.

Rhea: In my work with adoption placements of older and special needs children it became clear to me that love was not enough to insure success. These children had suffered early life deprivations and possibly abuses and had difficulty adapting to family life. The adopting families and the social workers assisting the newly formed family needed new skills. I was impressed with Cheri's creative abilities and her use of ceremonies in helping her own adopted children and felt it was a skill that could benefit other parents and children.

How did you come to do these ceremonies with your children?

Cheri: When I first met Eric, he was almost eight years old. During that month before he came to live with me, he and I met and talked five or six times. During those visits he gave me a lot of information about the things that worried him. I also knew that he had been in a number of pre-adoptive homes that had disrupted. Even though I told him that I would be his mom forever, I don't think he believed me. I felt that the first ten minutes after he moved into my home were going to be awkward for me and for him. What do we do first? What do we say? So I thought we could do a little ceremony. I put into that ceremony all the things that I knew that worried him. In the book this is called "The Coming Home Ceremony."

The week he came to live with me was school vacation week. Every time we went out to do something and we came back to the house, he wanted to do the ceremony again. I decided I must have hit on something; this obviously meant a great deal to him. I decided to try the ceremony format for things like giving him my last name or when we finalized the adoption. Initially the ceremonies were used for happy things.

After Eric was adopted six months later, he had a visit with his birth parents. We have an open adoption. After that meeting Eric fell apart. He was suspended -- from school, from after-school, from everything. I felt helpless and Rhea said, "Why don't you try a ceremony?" So I created the ceremony that ended up turning his behavior around. I began to realize that this method could help me when I felt helpless. This gave me something to do that worked.

I believe these ceremonies can help to reframe short term issues, but they do not take care of long term problems. They do not save the world, but they might help a little corner of it.

How are these ceremonies helpful to adoptive families?

Rhea: Children cannot always put into words what they are feeling and often are not even aware of what is troubling them. Instead they act out their feelings in behavior that is difficult for their parents to cope with and may, in time, lead to disruption of the adoptive family. Ceremonies are a way to put into words the feelings that are causing the acting-out behaviors and keeping the newly formed family from bonding. In scripted ceremonies, such as Cheri has written and are the basis for the book, parents can give their child, the words to express what he/she is feeling. By bringing these feelings into the open, a child can feel validated and come to realize that his family is willing to listen and to help him resolve his problems.

Cheri: If the focus of the ceremony was on what my child needed, there was a high level of success. If the emphasis was on what I needed, then they usually didn't work. When you do them with your children, they have to be geared to the children themselves - what kinds of issues are coming up for them or issues you believe they have but aren't talking about.

I went to a training session and a little boy was talking about divided loyalty between his birth mother and adoptive mother. As soon as he started to love the adoptive mother, he felt disloyal to the birth mother. So he started to act up at home because he was loving the adoptive mom so much he was afraid he was disloyal to his birth mother. He was close in age to one of my kids so that I thought this was probably an issue for them too, even though they couldn't articulate it that clearly. I designed a ceremony called "There is Plenty of Room in a Heart." The key part of it was we all had to draw a heart and put in it the names of people that we loved. We had to remember that a heart is multidimensional and a piece of paper is one dimensional. They had to put both mothers in their heart and I had to put both of them and their birth parents in my heart. I knew they would run out of people before they ran out of room. I said, "Now lets look at these hearts. What do you see? So if mother can love more than one child, a child can love more than one mother."

My younger son Chris is almost 18 now and about six months ago we were discussing some unresolved issue with Rhea and as he was talking out loud trying to make sense of it he said, "You know there is plenty of room in a heart." I thought, "Wow, look at how that stayed with him."

How might ceremonies serve children who are older at the time of their adoption?

Rhea: Actually, ceremonies can help children adopted at any age. Cheri has included ways of adapting ceremonies for children who cannot read. Basically the ceremonies are geared to children who can actively participate by reading their parts. Children, who are older at the time of their adoption, have generally suffered many losses and do not trust that any relationship will meet their needs. Ceremonies that name the feelings associated with loss and acknowledges what the child has been through can be very healing. In addition to loss, children adopted when they are older also have difficulty with transitions, fears of rejection and abandonment and self-esteem all of which can be addressed with ceremonies.

What suggestions do you have for easing the transition for older adopted children into your home?

Cheri: We take for granted that if you say, "this is your home," that the children believe it and know what it means. We need to understand that some of these kids have never had a home. So even if you say, "This is now your home," they may not know what it means.

Do not assume that your child feels comfortable coming in to your home. For example, Eric had asked if the living room would be his living room when he came to live with me. So after we did the "Coming Home Ceremony", we walked through the whole house and I said, "This is your living room." He said, "It is our living room!" (Which I loved.). We did this for the whole house.

How can parents assist their older child with self esteem and security issues?

Rhea: The best way that parents can deal with most any difficult issue is to confront it head on and not let it go unattended where it can affect their child's behavior or even physical well-being. Older adopted children who fear for their security need to know that their parents understand their worries and can be reassuring to them. As an adoptive parent to an older child, one has to assume that regardless of whether or not their child voices these concerns, their child has them and needs assurances of safety and security. Since this is such a universal issue for adopted children, Cheri has written many ceremonies that can help.

Issues of self-esteem are closely tied to adoption. Children tend to see themselves as the cause of each separation from biological, foster or adoptive family. As they internalize this negative view of themselves, they collect evidence to support it with difficult behavior and the punishment that follows. Parents need to step aside from their intense feelings, objectively consider what is really going on with their child and deal with these underlying issues so as not to perpetuate their child's negative self image. Ceremonies are an excellent way to do this.

Cheri: I think they are both big issues; we have a number of ceremonies in the book focusing on both of these issues. Self esteem is huge for these kids. They haven't been in consistent, loving families who have told them that they matter. Finding ways to address self esteem in a way that kids will believe it is so important

The best ceremony I ever did was the one called "Making Room for Good Messages." This was the ceremony I did after my son had been suspended from school and after-school programs. I needed something positive. So I came up with the new ceremony. The impact it had is hard to convey. At first my son's attitude was "I don't care and nothing will make me change. Then in the middle of the ceremony he started to smile and his whole body posture shifted from crossed arms to opening them up wide to his side, taking a deep breath and looking up and saying "I am getting so filled up with good messages." It was wonderful to see!

One of the outcomes of this ceremony is a decorated folder with all of his good messages. He walked around with it for weeks. We read it every morning and every night. His whole behavior shifted for the better, not forever, but for a long period of time.

There are a number of ceremonies in the book that deal with the issue of security. For example, sexual abuse, abandonment, nightmares, and monsters. You have to find out what the issues are or make a guess. I'm one who addresses things head on, for example a ceremony for sexual abuse is very explicit. Someone might say, "Do you want to say this
in front of a child?" But if they have been sexually abused these words are nothing compared to what they have lived through.

Who would benefit from reading "Creating Ceremonies"?

Rhea: Our feedback tells us that all kinds of families have found the book useful even though it has been written primarily to help adoptive families of older children. As a participant in some of Cheri's ceremonies with her children, I can personally attest to the book's usefulness to adoption professionals as well. Also, any therapist working with adoptive children and their families would find the book helpful.

All parents encounter difficult times with their children and would welcome a way to deal with these times that would not polarize the situation and push their children away. A ceremony in anticipation of a problematic event that names the possible feelings that will surface can be very useful in clearing the air and preventing an eruption of emotion that can ruin the day.

Cheri: Adoptive parents, foster parents, birth parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and parents-to-be. It has been purchased by a number of people who have children by birth and found it useful. Anyone who cares about an adopted child and their family, will find something useful. Professionals, such as teachers, therapists, physicians, child-activity specialists, who work with children would find something helpful here.

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