Talking Honestly About Adoption
How come my eyes aren't like yours? Where did I come from? Didn't my mommy love me? These are some of the questions that adoptive parents confront when they open up to their children about the adoption.
How does a parent know when the time is right? What are the best answers? In the past it was believed to be in the best interest of everyone if all secrets remained secrets, leaving many adopted children in the dark about their adoptions. Today that has changed.
"The normal time for questioning is when a child is 6 or 7 years old," says Professor Rita Simon at American University in Washington, D.C. "They hear about it elsewhere and then they go to their parents. It's important that parents be the initiators. In cases of transracial adoption, the children obviously know they are different, but it's just as important to emphasize how much they were wanted and loved."
The Right Time
So how does a parent begin discussing the issues of adoption? How does a parent know when their child is ready?
"That depends on the age of the child," says Arthur Becker-Weidman, director of the Center for Family Development in Williamsville, N.Y. "But generally, I'd say you begin at the beginning. So for children adopted as infants, you can begin weaving into your mono-dialogues with the infant words you want to use. You can begin talking about the story of how you came to adopt them. This helps you polish your story before the child really understands what you are saying. In addition, this ensures that the child does know from the beginning that he or she is adopted. It also ensures that the child's earliest experiences of hearing the story are ones of joy and pleasure on the parents' part."
"I started foster care in 2002," says Dia Johnson, a mother in Upper Marlboro, Md. "I recently entered my petition for adoption. This process was much harder than I thought. When I told Anthony [age 15] that the social worker wanted to change his goal to adoption, he was really, really excited."
"We have an open adoption," says Ken Peterson of Monterrey, Calif. "Of all the options we were given, this was the best one for us. We're in touch with the birth mom, and she comes to visit every couple of months. She and Gabriel have a good relationship, and Gabriel knows that he grew in her tummy."
Answering the Tough Questions
"As parents, you tell as much as you know," Simon says. "Emphasize always that you wanted the child, that you chose your child and that you fell in love with your child. That child wasn't an accident; he or she was made for your love. If they want to know about their birth parents, tell what you know. Sometimes it may be a lot, and sometimes it may be practically nothing. But tell them what you know and tell them that the choice for adoption was the best choice for the child."
"Start at day one," Becker-Weidman says. "The important thing for the child to hear are the words 'was adopted,' not is adopted. The event occurred and is now completed."
Johnson lived next door to her son, Anthony, and his family, so she was aware of all the things he went through as a young child. She even did some babysitting for Anthony's mother from time to time. Johnson became his foster parent years later when she found out he was in a group home.
"We talk about his mother quite a bit," Johnson says. "I always tell Anthony that nothing that has happened to him is his fault. I told him the things that happened are due to an illness his mother has, and she has very little control over it. He remembers some of the good and bad things that happened with his mother, and I encourage him to talk about all of it."
"When he is older, he will probably have questions," says Peterson of his son. "We are figuring out the way to answer those questions on a level he can comprehend and in a way to avoid confusion. It's important to us that he feel good about himself."
Issues with resentment can and do happen with adopted children, just as they do for birth children. Parents should handle those outbursts with the same love and honesty that they have handled the rest of the issues surrounding the adoption.
"This [resentment] happens in families, regardless of how a child joined the family," Becker-Weidman says. "All children will express anger and resentment about something. If the child isn't, you probably aren't doing a good job with limits. You accept the child's feelings with empathy, and you express interest in understanding the child's feelings. You use curiosity to explore what the child is angry about, what that feels like to be mad at you or the birth parent, what leads the child to feel that way, what the child would like different and what that would be like if different and so on."
Becker-Weidman suggests that parents accept the child's feelings, saying it is best to let the child explore his own feelings, and you can add new information to correct any distortions or misconceptions after they have vented their emotions.
"The most important thing for any adoptive or foster [parent] to do is let their child be who they are, not try to make them what they want the child to be," Johnson says.
Some key tips to remember:
- Discuss the adoption early.
- Use the phrase "was adopted" – as in a done deal and a past event.
- Be honest with your children. Tell them what you know.
- Support their need to know and their need to question.
- Understand when resentment comes, because it's a normal feeling all children experience at some point in their lives.
It is a good idea to begin discussing adoption from the beginning, using stories and always offering reassurances. It is important for your children to know that they were wanted, and this early sharing can lead to stronger emotional connections and a more solid foundation for confronting the problems that life offers.