Talking to Children About Adoption
Many parents who adopt eventually wonder when and how to tell their child the story of his or her adoption. Since every adopted child’s situation is different, there is no one right answer to this question. Consider the possibilities.
Some children are adopted at birth, others during infancy or toddlerhood, and others as late as their teen years. Some children are adopted by grandparents or other family members, or by families in their community. Others come from faraway places and foreign lands. Some adoptions close the door completely on previous relationships while others include some form of ongoing contact with the birth parent(s). So, some children are adopted before they develop a relationship with their birth parent(s), some bond with their birth parent(s) and some experience multiple relationships with relatives or foster families before settling with their forever family.
The specifics of any child’s circumstances also lead to deeper questions: Were there prior relationships that had or have meaning to the child? Have those relationships remained a part of the child’s life? Does the child have conscious memories of life before his adoption? Are there siblings in the family — older or younger — who were not adopted? Are there multiple adoptions in the family?
Clearly, there is no “out of the book” way to respond to adoption — only sensible and sensitive ways to respond to the particular situation. Here are some guidelines based on the emotional development of all children.
It may feel easier — and less painful — to romanticize the story of a child’s past and adoption, but being open and honest is essential when helping a child understand who she is and where she came from. That said, sometimes honesty must be timed so a child can bear painful realities. How does a parent explain to a child that her early life experiences occurred in a neglectful or abusive setting? Or that the birth parents may have loved the child but couldn’t — or decided not to keep him? These are questions to consider as you think about how the dialogue might unfold. This information needs to be given in small doses, over time, with increasing honesty as the child moves through grade school and adolescence. As you do this, take time to anticipate how your words may be interpreted by your child.
Ideally, the conversation about adoption should take place over the course of an adopted child’s childhood and young adulthood. Over time, as a child grows and matures, he will have different thoughts, feelings and questions about his adoption. Parents of adopted children will do them a great service by staying open and ready to listen and talk. Other considerations: does your child seem to have emotional difficulties related to her adoption? Does she seem avoidant or reactive when you talk about it? In some cases, guidance from mental health professionals can help children and parents as they learn how to communicate their feelings about the adoption.
Develop a Narrative
Parents who actively work to create an honest and meaningful life story will foster resiliency in their child. For an adopted child, this involves weaving together his individual story (e.g., learning about his birth country) with the adoptive family’s narrative.
Many families talk about their child’s adoption from the beginning. This allows for the development of a story that can be refined and added to over time in a natural way. Parents of adopted children can set the stage for open, honest and ongoing communication by conveying their willingness to talk as well as their comfort with all aspects of the discussion. Be careful not to assume that your child isn’t thinking about her past or the particulars of her adoption simply because she is not talking to you about. Keep the door to talking, thinking and feeling together open, and you will ultimately provide your child with a safe, comforting environment in which to learn and grow.
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families.