Start thinking now about talking to your children about adoption.
Adoption stories aren’t always fairy tales. Sometimes birth parents make adoption plans because of difficult circumstances – substance abuse, rape, neglect or criminal activity. Often adoptive parents feel helpless about how to positively convey a difficult story to their child.
We all want our children to have the best in this world and work very hard to make sure that their lives are free of difficulty and disappointment if we can help it. Parents naturally want to protect their children and think what they don’t know can’t hurt them? This can’t be further from the truth in so very many ways. Most secrets eventually come to light and when they do, the fact that they were secrets tells the child that he should feel ashamed. Some people don’t share difficult histories because they fear the story will harm the adoptees self-image. Some because they don’t want others to find out, or because they think it just doesn’t matter what happened in the past, or even because they don’t think the child needs to know. If your child’s adoption story has things that may be uncomfortable or difficult for you to discuss, don’t be shortsighted or over protective by keeping your child’s story to yourself. We all need to understand that children need the underlying information about their own adoption story, even if it is difficult to hear.
Why is it important for children to know the facts of their adoption, even if they are difficult? If they aren’t told the truth, children may develop unrealistic fantasies through their own magical thinking. They may have divided loyalties or identity confusion. Children can have fears over unanswered questions and may create their own answers if they aren’t told the truth. They may feel disconnected, abandoned, ashamed or develop a lack of trust when information is withheld.
By telling the truth to your child, you will build your trust relationship and validate the adoption plan. You can also ensure that your child’s history or background information won’t be discovered by accident, causing your child to have trouble trusting others or wonder whether you withheld other important information. Telling the truth curtails fantasy. People can deal more constructively with reality than with fantasy. Regardless of the truth, people can always imagine something worse. By withholding information, parents silently suggest that they see the situation as undesirable and that they can’t even talk about it. By talking about adoption and sharing your child’s story, you can also set a positive foundation in preparation for a future search if your child is interested in seeking out their birth parents.
Some parents make the mistake of thinking that they will tell their child “when he is old enough to hear the story,” or wait until he is a teenager. But adolescence is a difficult time for most young people and is the worst possible developmental time for children to learn about difficult family history. Start talking when your child is young, giving information at appropriate developmental levels, and adding details as they mature.
According to adoption expert, Jayne Schooler, the Ten Commandments of Telling the Truth to your Adopted Child are:
- Initiate conversation about adoption.
- Do not ever lie.
- Tell information in a developmentally appropriate way.
- Use positive adoption language.
- Remember the child knows more than you think.
- Allow the child to be angry without joining in.
- Share all information by the time the child is 12 (developmentally).
- If information is negative, you can consider using a third party to help.
- Don’t impose value judgments.
- The child should be in control of his story outside the family.
Discussing adoption with your child is an ongoing conversation that spans the years. Consider what information to share with a child at different ages. Aside from earning your child’s trust, telling the truth early on allows you to revisit the information as he matures and can understand things at a deeper level. Do not feel like a failure if your child grieves the lost set of birthparents. Allowing your children to have these feelings enables them to work through their feelings so that they can understand themselves better and move forward. You don’t need to make everything perfect – if everything was wonderful, why would the birth parents have chosen an adoption plan?
Make a lifebook to bring your child’s adoption story to life. Keep background information, write down any information you gain in the adoption process – don’t depend on your memory. Have empathy, stay calm, speak positively, share facts without making judgments, and focus on the good that resulted from the adoption.
Some parents believe that if a child knows about the “bad stuff” he will internalize it and develop an unhealthy self-image. But when a child knows the truth, and sees that you still love him, it gives him confidence in his place in your family and help developing a positive self identity. It is a parent’s job to help children make sense of the story of their adoption. Honest and frequent discussions about adoption will help your child sort out everything that was and is a part of his life, know his own history and allow him to build faith and trust in his forever family.
Telling the Truth to Your Adopted of Foster Child: Making Sense of the Past by Betsy Keefer and Jayne Schooler
Talking About Difficult Adoption Information, OURS Magazine
Raising Adopted Children by Lois Melina