In my practice (and in my personal life), I’ve found that tween adoptees tend to be thinking about adoption and about their birth families more than their adoptive parents may realize. They’re not always talking about it but they’re thinking about it. The Adoption Institute linked to a study that looked at this in last month’s newsletter, here’s the abstract:
The adopted children, between the ages of 8 and 12 years, and their parents answered questions about the children’s thoughts and feelings about adoption. Descriptive data and scores on four scales – family, adoption, birth culture identity and discrimination – were obtained. Compared with same-race adoptees, transracial adoptees scored significantly higher on birth culture identity and perceived discrimination. High levels of convergence between the children’s and parents’ viewpoints on the experiences of adoption and related issues were found. Nevertheless, the adopted children scored higher than their parents on birth culture identity, suggesting that at this age adoptive parents may underestimate their children’s connection to their cultural origins
I think there are several reasons why adoptive parents may underestimate their children’s interest. For one thing, just because kids are thinking something doesn’t mean they’re talking about it; they may not even have the words to share what they’re thinking and feeling. But absence of discussion on their part doesn’t mean it’s not on their minds.
The other thing is that many adoptees worry excessively about hurting their adoptive parents’ feelings. They pick up on any jealousy or insecurity on the part of their parents real or perceived and they act accordingly.
They may also fear being different than the rest of the family and expressing their interest in their birth origins can exacerbate this worry.
So what is a concerned adoptive parent to do?
- Talk about adoption early and often. Don’t wait until “they’re old enough to understand.” Don’t wait for them to bring it up. Make adoption part of your everyday lives and discussion. Practice, if you need to, with a friend so that you can talk about adoption without blanching. Your child should know everything you do (expressed age appropriately) by the time they hit their teens, which means if there are some tough things to talk about, you need to get ready to talk about them. (If you need help, talk to a counselor or a teacher or a spiritual adviser or someone else who knows how to discuss difficult things with kids.)
- Assume your child’s interest even if they don’t express it. Remember that every adoption outside of family adoption (and sometimes even then) is a transcultural adoption so even if your child looks like you and everyone else in the family, she or he has a birth culture that is worth exploring. And that birth culture is part of your family culture now so welcome it the same way you welcome your own culture of origin.
- This doesn’t mean forcing them to assume an identity of your making, mind you. Your daughter from China may not particularly want to identify as Chinese and that’s OK. What you’re doing is creating opportunity so that she has room to decide for herself. Just like families connected by biology may drag their kids to Irish step shows because they want to remind them of dear old Granny Murphy, adoptive families should celebrate connection as a family. And just like bio kids may grow up to loathe Michael Flatley, so your son adopted from Ethiopia may grow up to loathe injera. But what they’ll remember is that it mattered to the family and trust me, that part of it will matter to them no matter what.
- Don’t spend so much time on culture that you forget biology. Your child likely wants to know about his or her birth family, too. If you have information, share it. If you don’t, share what you do have. If you have nothing, talk openly about that. Be willing to say, “I don’t know.” Be willing to do research. And it’s best that you do this exploration before your child hits those tween years so that you’re prepared for their questions.
- If you do have access to birth family, help your child have access, too. How this should look will depend a great deal on the reasons behind your child’s adoption but you can get help by talking to other adoptive parents, birth parents and adoptees or by talking to a knowledgeable therapist.
- Find someone for your child to talk to. As I said before, sometimes we parents are not the best people for our kids to confide in so find a trusted adult adviser whether that be a therapist, another relative or friend of the family, or an adoptee mentor.