When Adoption is Part of a Family’s Story
There are sensible and sensitive ways to respond to each situation
For some couples, adopting a child is their path to parenthood. In our work with families, we are often asked when and how to tell a child the story of his or her adoption. Since every adopted child’s situation is different, there is no spot-on, correct answer to this question.
Some children are adopted at birth, others during infancy or toddlerhood, and others as late as their teenage years. Some children are adopted before they develop a relationship with their birthparent(s), while others have a little bonding time with them. There are many adopted children who experience multiple relationships with relatives or foster families before settling with their forever family.
There are children who are adopted by grandparents or other family members, as well as those who are are adopted by families in their community. Some children come from faraway places to live with their forever family. Frequently, adoption closes the door completely on previous relationships; however, there are adoptions that incorporate a form of ongoing contact with the birthparent(s). These are just some examples that convey the scope of possibilities when it comes to adoption.
The specifics of any child’s circumstances also lead to other, 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 the time before his or her adoption? Are there siblings in the family, either older or younger, who were not adopted? Are there multiple adoptions in the family?
Clearly, there is no “textbook” way to respond to these questions — there are only sensible and sensitive ways to respond to the particular and individual situation.
Be Honest, But Measured
It may feel easier — and less painful — to tone down 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. However, 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 took place in a neglectful or abusive setting? Or that her birthparents may have loved her but couldn’t — or decided not to — keep her?
These are questions to consider as you think about how the dialogue should unfold. This information should be given in small doses over time, with increasing honesty as the child moves through grade school and adolescence. As you do so, take some time to anticipate how your child may interpret and understand your words.
Have a Sense of What Your Child Can Handle
Ideally, the conversation about adoption should take place gradually. As a child grows and matures, he will have different thoughts, feelings and questions about his adoption. Parents of adopted children will do their child a great service by staying open and ready to listen and talk.
Other considerations: Does your child have emotional difficulties that may be related to the adoption? Does he or she become avoidant or reactive when you talk about the adoption? In some cases, guidance from mental health professionals can be helpful as children and parents learn how to communicate feelings about the adoption.
Help Your Child Develop a Narrative
Parents who actively work to create an honest and meaningful life story will foster resiliency in their adopted child. This may involve weaving the child’s individual story with the adoptive family’s narrative.
Keep the Discussion Open and Ongoing
Many families introduce discussion about their child’s adoption from the very beginning. This allows for the development of a story that can be refined and added to over time in a natural way.
Keep the door open to talking, thinking and feeling together, 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. Visit lucydanielscenter.org to learn more.