While openness in adoption is a healthy foundation, your child needs to know that you will not reveal his adoptive status indiscriminately. We’ve already discussed the value of acknowledging and appreciating your child’s uniqueness as an individual, but you’ll want to be careful not to set him apart from the family or make him “different” in the eyes of others. All kids long to be just like the other kids. In their minds, being “weird” is the kiss of death.
I recently had an encounter with an adoptive mom, a casual acquaintance who I knew had adopted a son four years before. When I greeted the two of them in a store, she unabashedly announced, “We are really open with Josh about his adoption. I tell everyone I know that he’s adopted.”
My heart sank. I’m sure the mother never dreamed that she could be fostering negative feelings and beliefs in her little boy, and I don’t know for sure that she was. But to a child, such a public, almost cavalier announcement of his adoptive status can cause him to feel uncomfortable, exposed, and different in a weird sort of way. The parent’s disclosure can unintentionally translate to the child as, “You are different from the rest of the family members. Because you are different, you don’t really belong.” It can also put pressure on him to perform, be “special,” and live up to his “chosen child” status.
Beverly, an adult who was adopted as an infant, said: “I was never introduced as their adopted child, but if I would have been, I wouldn’t have liked that at all. I don’t like being special, different, or singled out.”
Just as you would not introduce a child of divorced parents as “a child of divorce,” or a child of a single mom as “a child of a single parent,” identifying the child who has joined your family through adoption as “the adopted child” can be damaging. It can reopen scars and slap a stigmatizing label on a heart that may already be fragile.
Mary Watkins and Susan Fisher explain in Talking with Young Children About Adoption: “When a preschooler shouts, ‘I don’t want to be adobeded!’ the parent must remember that she is not attacking the institution of adoption or criticizing her parents but is telling us one of the central facts of her preschool world: that she does not want to be different from her peers in any way (unless, of course, the difference enhances the way she is seen by her peers–for example, if she is the only child with a pony!)”
Reverend Richard Gilbert, adoptee and bereavement specialist, said in an article for Jewel Among Jewels Adoption News: “Whenever I am introduced to a family, and the parents single out one child as ‘the adopted one,’ I cringe, and wonder what scars are floating in the heart of that child.”
So what can you do to make sure your child’s differences are valued without “marking” him as adopted in a way that might cause damage? Secrecy for secrecy’s sake is not the answer; that just plays into the dysfunctional cycle played out in many adoptive families for generations. But privacy is definitely in order. Your child’s adoption is not something that should be announced without great sensitivity to his need to be a full-fledged member of your family and his right to confidentiality where his history is concerned.
Confidentiality implies privacy, intimacy, and trust. To say that confidentiality between an adopted child and parent is vitally important is not an exaggeration. Upon this foundation is built trust, honest communication, and freedom to express personal thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.
I believe the reason most adopted children feel discomfort when they are introduced as adoptees is that there has been an overt violation of their personal boundaries. Being adopted is a very private matter to most, and many share it with only a chosen few. It is my personal belief that the only people outside your extended family and circle of close friends who need to know about your child’s adoption are her physician, psychiatrist, or counselor. Her teacher need not know unless a special project about families, such as a family tree, is assigned at school.
Here are some specific ways you can communicate your respect for your child’s privacy regarding her history:
• “You have my word that I will not tell others that you are adopted without your permission.” In the case of transracial adoptions, you could say that you will not discuss the fact that she is adopted or the details of her adoption.
• “You call the shots about who you want this information to be revealed to.”
If your child’s adoptive status is obvious because of her appearance, you can still assure her that the details need not be. Your child is still in charge. Remind her often of this.
• “I will tell your doctor about your adoption. He/she needs to know so that you can talk to him openly about adoption. I would like your permission to share this with him/her ahead of time.”
• “I promise to never introduce you as my adopted child. We cherish the day you became our child, but we don’t want to make it sound like you are any less our child than a biological child would be.”
Making these promises to your child ahead of time will give him confidence about himself when you’re with others. He will be able to trust you, knowing that you have settled the issue of confidentiality where his history is concerned. After all, you are his journey mate and a tremendous source of comfort and encouragement to him each step along with way. He needs to be able to trust you on every level.
What Parents Can Do
Talk About Adoption in Safe Surroundings
Teach your child that there is a time and a place for everything. Help her learn the places that are most appropriate to bring up adoption. “It’s best that we talk about adoption when we can be alone together.” “Let me know ahead of time that you want to talk about it and I will make some special time just for us.” Teach your child the concept of privacy by modeling it for her.
Handling Inappropriate Questions
You may have already discovered that it is not uncommon for your family to be on the receiving end of insensitive or overtly cruel remarks about your child’s adoption. “Was she adopted?” “Is she the adopted one?” “Is he the one you got from Ecuador?” How you handle these remarks will model to your child how to set boundaries with other people in the future.
Below is a Q and A chart that will give you comeback ideas for inappropriate questions. Model them and teach them to your child.
Question: Your child accompanies you to grocery store and an acquaintance comes up and asks, “Is she the adopted one?”
Answer: Instead of acting offended and defensive, remember your promise to your child to keep confidentiality. Demonstrate to him graciousness in the midst of brashness, boundaries in the midst of pushiness. In a kind and gracious way, you may say, “Why Mrs. Purdee, why do you ask?” Then simply change the subject.
Question: A secretary from the church calls you about your baby’s upcoming dedication. After getting your child’s birth date, she asks whether or not you want it announced that your child was adopted.
Answer: Politely explain to her, “Thank you, Mrs. Smith. We appreciate your sensitivity, but we would like our child’s announcement to be just like the others.” Use such conversations as opportunities to teach others about adoption through your attitude and response.
Question: Twelve-year-old child comes up to your child in the school cafeteria and asks, “Were you adopted?”
Answer: “What an interesting question! Where did you come up with that?”
If your child does not want to let this particular child into his private life, then he can draw an emotional barrier and refuse to talk further about it. If the other child pursues the topic, then your child can remove himself geographically.
Question: A peer asks your child, “Who are your real parents?”
Answer: “The same as yours–the ones I live with every day with.”
This response would be appropriate for the adoptee to use with acquaintances/strangers, or others he doesn’t want to share his history with. The adopted child doesn’t need to shroud his experience in secrecy and innuendo unless he chooses to in certain situations that don’t feel safe or appropriate.
Question: Kindergarten children in the school yard have formed a circle and won’t let your child in. They taunt, “Jill is adopted! Jill is adopted!”
Answer: “What’s that to you?” Jill may respond as she simply opens the chain of hands and joins in the play.
Question: Your child’s second-grade teacher asks him during a class lesson in social studies if he would like to share his unique family tree with the class. (Your child has already told the teacher about his adoption.)
Answer: “I don’t feel like I want to talk about it today, Mrs. ____, but thank you for asking me.”
Honor Your Child
Adopted children feel different because they are different than you, biologically speaking. They are also different because of the way they became a part of your family. These are facts of life–facts you cannot change and facts you cannot fix. Your child is not the same as you, no matter how you slice it. But accepting, honoring, and appreciating her differences is a far cry from broadcasting them to the whole world.
Modeling healthy boundaries will be a treasured gift to your adopted child. You will be saying to her:
• “I respect your privacy.”
• “I am considerate of your boundaries.”
• “I will be there for you in the painful times when you feel like you don’t belong.”
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