photo of man looking on child

Cheat Sheet for Talking Adoption

Adoptive parents often ask me, “When should we tell our child she is adopted?” My answer is always–“From day one.” Day one if your child is a newborn, day one if your school aged child’s parents are killed in a wreck and you’re entering kinship adoption, and day one if your teen’s only parent is placed permanently in jail.

I remember being at an event one time and a social worker was “babysitting” a teen who had just been removed from her home. Instead of introducing the teen authentically to me, she chit-chatted in an irritating way. When I got time with the teen, I addressed what had just happened to her with the loss of permanency. This girl needed to know that someone wasn’t afraid to talk about the raw stuff and that she wasn’t alone in her pain. I’m not praising myself, but praising the need of every wounded child to hear truth.

Telling your child about adoption is the number-one fear of adoptive and foster parents…most anyway. “I don’t want to hurt my child any further than what she’s already experienced. Besides, if I talk about the raw realities, maybe I’ll do it wrong and come across as a bumbling idiot?”

Is it possible that this parental fear is stronger than speaking in public? No matter the strength of the fear, it needs to be validated and normalized. You are not alone parents and you are in good company. You can do this, and do it well.

The following is taken from TWENTY THINGS ADOPTED KIDS WISH THEIR ADOPTIVE PARENTS KNEW.  I am pleased to share that this classic is now available in audio.

Getting Ready to Talk

What comes to mind when you think about initiating a conversation with your child about his birth family? Do you feel defensive, like the birth family is the enemy to be avoided at all  costs? Do you feel sad, and does your lip begin to quiver at the thought of their possible presence in your child’s life? Do you fear your child will love them more than he loves you? If so, this section is especially for you. Kids are experts at reading body language. You can’t pull the wool over their eyes. If you are upset about something and trying to hide it, they will sense it.

In order to converse with your child productively about the issues closest to his heart, you must first develop a healthy attitude about the impact of adoption on the family system. Sociologist and author H. David Kirk, in Shared Fate,  suggests five common attitudes adoptive parents tend to hold about how adoption impacts the family:

1) Insistence: All problems are due to adoption. There is a great deal of emphasis between biological and adopted children: the “bad seed.”

2) Assumption: Parents have a romanticized view of adoption and expect the adoptee to have only positive feelings about adoption.

3) Acknowledgment: Adoption is seen as one of the factors in family problems. Family members have special sensitivities about adoption.

4) Rejection: Parents admit, “Yes, there’s a difference, but…” (want to forget it). They forget that the child feels the difference and needs permission to voice his feelings.

5) Denial: Parents have not told children about adoption. There is a big secret in the family.

Of course, acknowledgment is the most healthy attitude. We can’t blame all family problems on adoption, but it is important to help the adoptee see what part adoption plays in the fabric of his life.  

There are certain things you can do to prepare yourself for drawing your child into a productive conversation about his birth family.

Face Your Greatest Fear

The first thing you as an adoptive parent must do is face your greatest fear, which is being rejected by your child. You may envision your child reuniting with his birth parents someday and then wanting nothing more to do with you. If so, you would return to that lonely place of barrenness once again. 

The truth is, what is likely to happen at reunion is just the opposite of what you fear. Nevertheless, you may feel flooded with a torrent of emotions you never knew existed. Jealously and envy.  Anger…even rage.  A sense of betrayal by the one you held closest to your heart over the years. 

The empathetic ear of a friend, professional counselor, or an adoption support group can help you through these tough times. That person should be someone who has already faced and worked through her own pain and is not afraid of yours. When you have come through to the other side, you will be able to be truly in tune emotionally with your child.

Give Permission for Open Dialogue

Parents must remember that adoptees need permission repeatedly to talk about the birth family. It is like their “permission button” is broken; your words can go in one ear and out the other.

Adoptive mom Kathy Giles believes that this continual permission-giving is a signal to the adoptee that her myriad questions and feelings are okay. She says, “I find adoptees sense the ‘okay-ness’ of wanting to know about their birth parents from their adoptive parents. The parents must signal that they understand, empathize, and will, in fact, help make it possible for their children to connect with their first set of parents. To adoptive parents, I say, don’t kid yourself, saying ‘I wouldn’t want to know.’ Ask instead, ‘What would/will my child want and need?'”

Here are some suggestions–a cheat sheet– for signaling “okay ness”:

  • toddler: use play situations and talk about a baby bear that couldn’t find his mama and papa bear
  • school age: make a cardboard house, as shown on this post, and play knock-knock. At one point, say you’re the birth mommy coming for the child’s birthday party.
  • teenage: use physical changes as springboards for conversations: “I wonder if your birth dad had pimples like you when he was in high school>’
  • adult: use a fresh copy of TWENTY THINGS ADOPTED KIDS WISH THEIR ADOPTIVE PARENTS KNEW. You read first and put all your reactions around the margins. Then, share with your child. This has been a proven ice-breaker, even in residential care.

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