Talking To Adopted Children about Their History

Adoptive parents often have the challenging responsibility of talking to their children about their origins, which can include a complex past. Difficulties children may have experienced can include abuse, abandonment, and birth parents with substance abuse, mental health issues or incarceration. These are hard subjects to tackle, especially when you are trying to explain them in the context of your child’s history.

As parents, it is uncomfortable to see our children in pain and of course, we want to do everything in our power we can to take that pain away. It’s the natural inclination of adults to want to protect children. For that reason, your first thought may be to withhold information or not discuss certain topics, because you don’t want to bring up something painful and risk upsetting your child. But is that wise?

Separating Fact from Fantasy

There are many reasons for discussing your children’s history with them. First off, it clarifies all the fantasies your child might have about their earlier lives. Children tend to make things much worse than they actually are. If your child does not have clarity about their own, personal truth, you as a parent have no way of knowing what they might be thinking and feeling, which can make it difficult to offer support and comfort.

Children often believe the world revolves around them. Based upon their age, this may be an actual developmental stage or, simply a case of “American Teenitus.” Either way, it leaves kids often feeling they were placed for adoption because they did something wrong, that it was their fault, or that they weren’t wanted. For example, “If I didn’t cry as much as a baby, my parents would have loved me more.” Or, “If I didn’t keep saying I was hungry, my mother wouldn’t have stolen food and ended up in jail.” It is so important for children to know they were not placed for adoption because of something they did.

When and How to Have “The Talk”

There is no “right” age to talk to your children. Many parents automatically think the teenage years are a good time to share information, but it may actually be one of the worst times developmentally. Although adolescents can understand the information you are sharing, they are more likely to internalize it and think they are more like their birth parents than they really are. That type of thinking could lead to self-destructive behaviors. Talking to your children when they are younger is best.

Experts in the field believe there are age-appropriate ways for talking to your children about why they have been placed for adoption. The author, Lee Tobin McClain, Ph.D., says there are two strategies for sharing adoption with preschoolers and young children. The first is to communicate the information as a story, not a list of facts. The second is to not lie or embellish. At this age, omitting information may be necessary. Just as you wouldn’t explain substance abuse to a four year old, you wouldn’t talk about it in relationship to your child’s life.

When children are about eight to ten years old they start making noticeable cognitive leaps and begin to understand abstract concepts. They may start asking more questions about what they already know about their adoption. This is a good time to share more information because your children are still talking to you and listening to what you have to say. They have time to integrate the information before incorporating it into their new, teenage identity. When children reach adolescence it’s the time to start filling in the missing pieces of information. If parents have been open throughout their children’s earlier years then the conversations will most likely continue. Your children will already know it’s okay to ask questions and share thoughts and feelings about their history and adoption.

When adopting an older child, such as a young teenager, open communication is crucial. However, based on this developmental stage the last thing they want to do is talk to you. Asking direct questions of your child is not going to give you much information. Watching for non-verbal clues opens up the space for you to comment and acknowledge a feeling your child might be experiencing. For example, if your child looks sad you can say something like “I imagine you might be missing…” They may not be ready to talk about it at that time, but it lets them know you are comfortable talking about their history and leaves the door open for them to come to you. When you do have a discussion with your child at this age it’s important to be honest with the details. You may have to clarify some information, depending on what your child was told in the past.

Letting Your Kids Feel What They Feel

Jayne E. Schooler, co-author of Telling the Truth to Your Adopted or Foster Child: Making Sense of the Past, talks about the importance of allowing your children to have negative feelings about their history. It’s not necessary to try and explain why their birth parents acted the way they did. Sometimes children want to be acknowledged for how they are feeling and they don’t want you to try and make it better. Often, sitting with them and acknowledging their pain may be all that is needed. As time passes, discussions and sharing feelings can help your children develop compassion for people, like their birth parents, who have experienced difficult situations and life circumstances.

Robyn Harrod, MSW, LCSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Adoption Service Provider (ASP). She helps her clients create loving families through foster care, adoption, surrogacy, or other alternative methods.

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