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How to Talk to Your Kids about Adoption

The adoption of a child is the process through which a family forms or grows. As you begin discussing adoption with your child, keep the adoption as a one-time event. Statements like "this is how we became a family," including whatever details you feel your child is ready to hear and deal with, are most helpful in keeping this message clear. Explaining that the way you live day-to-day "is just like any family" is also helpful in keeping the adoption as one part of the family's experiences. The way you and others react to the adoption, the child and the family as a whole is what the child will most remember.

During your child's infancy and pre-verbal days, you can actually practice using the word adoption and expressing some of your feelings about the process. You can say, "I am so happy I was able to adopt you." This exposes your child to the vocabulary, lets you rehearse and revise your words, and actually lays the groundwork for future conversations.

Once children learn to talk they can easily repeat what you have told them about adoption, but they don't yet comprehend what they are repeating. They also don't understand the fine line between sharing information honestly and disclosing the adoption to everyone they meet. They often begin to notice pregnant women and babies. This is a great time to share with a child that "all babies come from a woman's uterus. You did, too, only it wasn't mine. The lady who gave birth to you was not able to raise a baby at that time, and I was looking for a baby to love and take care of."

Do not say "you were given up or placed." Instead, say "Your parent (or guardian) made an adoption plan." Making a photo album of your child's adoption story and then showing it to your young child is a great way to share your family's process of coming together. Include pictures of yourself prior to the adoption, photos from the trip to meet your child, scenic pictures and, of course, all the family and friends meeting your child for the first time. This is a great way to show the child how excited everyone was about his becoming part of the family. Unless your child expresses interest, more detail is confusing at this time.

Between the ages of five and seven children grasp the concept of family formation through school assignments and comparisons to others they meet. It is helpful for the parent to discuss the adoption with the child's teachers to ensure that adoption is part of discussions about family formation and so that teachers can alert you if your child raises questions. You can tell the teacher, "I adopted my daughter when she was two days old (or whatever is true for you)." No more information is necessary, unless you feel it is pertinent. The child should be the one to decide whether or not to share the adoption with the whole class.

Parents may want to help their adopted child understand how being adopted may raise questions with peers. "Some of your friends may not understand adoption too well. If you want, I can help you explain it to them." Some children will ask about your child's "real parents." Explain to your child that you prefer to call the woman who gave birth to them their "birth mother," "the lady who gave birth to you" or "the lady who gave you life." Don't negate her importance in helping you become a family, but you can add, "I feel I am your real mother. A real mother takes care of a child from day to day; sits with her when she is sick, gives her breakfast, lunch and dinner; buys her toys and books; takes her to the park and to see family and friends."

From age seven to eleven, children are gaining a fuller understanding of adoption. They begin to have thoughts about the loss of their birth parents, what life might have been like with them, and their inability to control the past. They begin to notice adoption on TV, in movies and hear it mentioned in the news. These exposures are not always the most positive. Help your child understand your family's adoption story and the permanency of the adoption. You can say, "That's why we went to court to make sure we would be a family forever," or "Your life would have been different, and so would mine. I can't imagine life without you, and I am thrilled you are here."

As children talk and ask questions about the adoption, many adoptive parents become more anxious. Open communication at any age is the cornerstone to continued conversations. A parent's ability to discuss issues and keep in check worries fueled by insecurities is critical. Recent movies such as Stuart Little, Tarzan and Prince of Egypt, or old ones like Annie, Matilde, and Superman are actually good springboards to discuss adoption with your child. Ask your child if she "feels adoption was realistically portrayed in the movie" and add "that isn't how things happened for us as a family." Discuss what is realistic and what isn't. It may be helpful to ask family members and friends to refer your child back to you when questions and explanations regarding adoption occur. Talking to other adopted children from similar cultural or racial backgrounds can also be helpful to children age six and up.

When they reach adolescence, children are capable of understanding both the emotional and legal aspects of adoption. All adolescents, whether adopted or not, struggle with identity. For a teen who is still asking questions, this is the time to share what you know. Ask your child, "What else is it you want to know?" Sometimes, filling in the blanks is what your child really needs. Sometimes, you will need to help your child gather more information, which may require revisiting attorneys and agencies. Tell your child that you understand his need "to gain an understanding of his origins." Don't say you understand he needs "to search" or "have a reunion," even if that is the goal or outcome, as locating his birth parents may not lead to the reunion your child so desires.

Adopted adolescents have the additional task of grappling with separating from adoptive parents while feeling the pains of separation from birth parents. Your child's friends can help her discuss how she feels about the adoption or whether she wants to know more about her birth family. On the other hand, while peers can lend support, they may also raise troubling questions about birth parents and about searching for or reuniting with them. An adolescent who understands and accepts adoption, has received support from family and friends, and has learned how to react to society and the media's influence, weathers this time the best.

Several other issues that may need to be discussed with your child are "Where is my birth father?" or "Why didn't the government in my birth country help my birth parents so they could raise me?" Harder issues, such as those of legitimacy and politics, can be shared with your child when YOU feel he is ready to hear, understand, and deal with their implications. You can say, "I did ask, but your birth mother didn't give us information on your birth father." Or, referring to China, "At the time you were born, a family could only have one child." Younger children can be told pieces of the story with additional details held until they are older. "Your birth parents couldn't care for you at the time, so they asked the orphanage to help them find a good home for you."

Examine your biases prior to and during the adoption experience. Be very careful not to belittle your child's birth parents. Explain that being Jewish is part of being in your family without criticizing a non-Jewish birth parent. Criticizing others because of their religious, social or economic differences can raise your child's awareness in later years that you rejected their birth parents and/or him or her in turn. It is important for your child to know that you can respect people who are different--people like their birth parents--who may not have had the same opportunities that you have had. Talk about how the birth parents "were unable to care for a child at that time" and add details if you think they are appropriate. Do not say that the birth parents were bad people. Show that you have empathy for the birth parents and their situation. The truth about your child's history may be revealed to him by birth parents later, if a reunion occurs, so be sure to be honest in all discussions. If you are not honest, your relationship with your child may be in jeopardy.

The reality is that you must be comfortable with how you became a parent. While there is no guarantee that your being comfortable with the adoption will ensure that your child will also be comfortable, children do pick up messages from parents. Use positive adoption language. When referring to your child, say "my child," not "my adopted child." Say, "I made a decision to build my family through adoption." Keep the responsibility for and focus of the adoption on you, the adult, as much as possible. This way, most people will ask you the questions about your experiences and not direct questions and comments to or about your child.

Nevertheless, many questions and comments will be made in front of your child. If someone says, "Where did he get his curly hair?" you can reply, "Isn't it great." If someone says, "She looks just like you," you can say, "Yeah, she does," or, "Thanks for saying so, but she really doesn't." You owe no more of an explanation unless you decide to give one. You can talk to your child later about the comment and, depending upon the child's age, come up with future answers for you and your child to give. If your child asks, you can say, "You actually get your curly hair from (birth parent's name)." If you feel comfortable, you can add, "You know, your hair is also like (family member), (friend of yours or your child's). Lots of people have hair like you." And, if it's true, you can say, "God, I wish I had your hair".

Comparing your child's hair (or eyes, or smile, or height, or build) to people in your family or to family friends helps build similarities between your child and the family rather than stress differences. Another way to do this is to talk about what you share: beliefs, interests, food preferences, etc.

The emotional needs of adoptive parents are often ignored in discussions of sharing adoption with children. You need to be able to talk out your concerns and learn more ways to communicate with your child. Find other parents in a similar situation with whom you can share ideas, practice conversations, and get support when you feel at a loss for words.

As you and your child grow, you need to maintain an open dialogue in all areas, not just the adoption. But having a free-flowing dialogue about the adoption will cause fewer surprises, less misinformation, and less anxiety for you all.

Kathy Ann Brodsky

Kathy Ann Brodsky is the Director of the Ametz Adoption Program and Infertility to Adoption Program at the Jewish Child Care Association of New York. For over fifteen years, she has helped thousands of families navigate the adoption process and learn to deal with day-to-day issues as adoptive families. She is the adoptive mother of 12- and eight-year-old girls. To reach Kathy, email her at brodskyk@jewishchildcare.org or call 212-558-9949.

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