My practicum this year is at a child grief center for children who have lost a significant person due to death. Oftentimes this person is a parent, grandparent, or they could be a teacher or classmate. There are several services offered to the families, including family support groups, school support groups, retreats, camps, anticipatory grief family visits, a grief library, and other grief referrals.
One of the activities we use in multiple settings with bereaving children is a grief Jenga game. Written on each Jenga tile is a question or prompt for the child to answer related to the loss of their loved one. Instead of writing the questions on the Jenga blocks, you can also print out the questions on a sheet of paper and make a color key to correspond with the Jenga blocks. If you don’t have access to a Jenga game, you can simply write the prompts on popsicle sticks and have the child pick sticks at random.
Many of the questions ask children to recall their favorite memory with their person or ask how things have changed since the death of their loved one. Young adoptees are oftentimes also grieving the loss of their first parents, culture, and country, but may not have the memories or information available to answer these types of questions. Young children who may not remember the death of a parent can often turn to their remaining parent or family friends to receive pseudo-memories or fun stories about the missing person in their life, but this is a gap that adoptive families most times cannot fill for their children.
In middle childhood, it is common for adoptees to think about their birth parents and wonder why they were adopted. As children’s cognitive development progresses, ambivalent feelings of balancing gains and losses may emerge. Children may experience sadness, anxiety, and anger about not being with biological family and being different from most of their peers. The most important element to managing the myriad of emotions around adoption is being able to integrate the past, present, and future, which is an especially difficult challenge when the early part of most adoptees’ lives remains a mystery. Adoptive parents who respond empathically to their children, encourage conversations about feelings around adoption, display empathy towards birth parents, and can express and articulate their own emotions are better equipped to help children manage adoption related feelings (Neil, 2011). Adoptive parent communicative openness is an important factor that has been associated with better emotional and behavioral development, higher self-esteem, and more integrated identity development for adoptees (Neil, 2011).
Adoptive parents often mistake silence for a lack of curiosity or questions about adoption, but this is not necessarily true. The adoptee may be waiting for the parent to bring up the topic or may be unsure if they are allowed to ask questions around the circumstances of their adoption. I have adapted the grief Jenga game for adoptees in the hopes that this can increase communication around adoption in your families if this is not something that you currently do.
Activity: Adoption Jenga
Goal: To facilitate discussion around adoption
Ages: All ages
Supplies: Jenga game OR popsicle sticks, adoption and general questions
Directions: Write the question prompts on the jenga tiles or create a color key to denote which tile corresponds to which question. Play Jenga like normal, but have the child answer the question/prompt written on the Jenga tile during each turn. If you are using the popsicle stick method, alternate between the adoption Jenga questions and the general Jenga questions. Parents can play along and answer the questions as well, but instead, respond about your child’s birth parents or your child’s birth country.
Adoption Jenga Questions:
If I could talk to my first parents right now, I would ask . . .
If I could change things, I would . . . (Is this something you can change?)
I miss . . .
When I’m all alone . . .
Something that makes me feel really happy is . . .
Something that makes me feel really angry is . . .
One question I have about adoption is . . .
The hardest question kids ask me about adoption is . . .
The person who understand me the most is . . . because . . .
Three people I can share my feelings about adoption with are . . .
I wish people knew this about adoption . . .
Because I’m adopted, I sometimes worry about . . .
What are some feeling word you have about being adopted?
Something that makes me feel safe is . . .
Someone who I look up to who is adopted like me is . . .
Something someone said that hurt me is . . .
Transracial Adoption Jenga Questions:
The hardest part about not looking like my family is . . .
The funniest part about not looking like my family is . . .
A person in my life who looks like me is . . ., and I like them because . . .
Transnational Adoption Jenga Questions:
My favorite thing about my birth culture is . . .
Something I would like to know about my birth country is . . .
A person in my life from the same country I was born in is . . ., and I like them because . . .
Would you like to go visit your birth country? Why or why not?
What is something cool about being from another country?
Something I would like to try from my birth country is . . .
Something I’m proud about from my heritage is . . .
My favorite candy is . . .
My dream job would be . . .
Would you rather live by the beach or by the mountains?
My favorite vacation ever was . . .
My favorite subject in school is . . .
If I became president of the country, the first thing I would do is . . .
What animal best describes you?
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
What is the scariest thing you’ve ever done?
What is the best present you have ever received?
What is something you want to get better at?
If you could have any pet, what would you choose?
What is your favorite joke?
Neil, E. (2012). Making sense of adoption: Integration and differentiation from the perspective of adopted children in middle childhood. Children and Youth Services Review, 34(2), 409-416. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2011.11.011
Separation & Loss Jenga for Kids (free printables included)
I agree with everything in this post . . except the idea of making such feelings “fun.” They can be mde easier to talk about and encouraged but they are not and cannot be made to be “fun.”
Adoptive parents often feel that they ‘told’ the chid he or she is adopted and that is enough. It is far from enough!
There is great truth in the statement: “Adoptive parents often mistake silence for a lack of curiosity or questions about adoption, but this is not necessarily true. The adoptee may be waiting for the parent to bring up the topic or may be unsure if they are allowed to ask questions around the circumstances of their adoption.”
Adoptees often report trying to open a disalog only to be met by tears or other indications that the subject is taboo or hurtful to their aadopters. Sometimes just the silence and ignoring is enough to send those messages. But there are many ways to open the doors, if adopters can put their fears aside.
One self-assured adoptive mother told me that she walked past her sons room one day and saw him gazing in th mirror. She took that simple oppostunity to say: “I bet you wonder who you look like. I do!”
Adoptees need to be give “permission” to talk about their lives before they joined your family, about their feelings of loss.
Thanks for your critique of the title of my blog post, which I’ve changed. Turning a conversation about feelings into a game can make the discussion more fun and provide a little guidance, but as you’ve stated can never make the feelings themselves “fun.” In my working with families anticipating a death of a loved one or after a recent death, I’ve seen a similar dynamic of children wanting to protect their parent or not bring up the topic of death if they perceive it will make their parent too sad. Being with a grieving child is really difficult, but we have to allow children to grieve.
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