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Safe Discussion for Adopted Kids

growth-insideIn 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?

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

 

5 Comments

  1. Thank you for another thoughtful comment, Dawn. I’d like to say that all adoptees think about being adopted; it is foremost on their minds even though they may not be aware of it. When the teen years begin the issue becomes more difficult because, in addition to everything else, they wonder what their parent’s sexual behavior was and whether they will ultimately end up like them – unmarried and pregnant, and/or irresponsible adults. Teens need a confidante, typically not the adoptive family.

    Reply
  2. A great post Dawn. I have been very up front about talking with all my kids and with helping them with re-connecting with first families when we could. Sometimes I have thought that maybe I was bringing the topic up too often as there would seem to be disinterest–but I have always found that later, they came back, peppering me with questions or sharing deeper thoughts that they had been mulling over. It has also I think helped them to see that I genuinely believe (and show through my actions) that their first families are good people. Good people don’t always make good choices, but our choices don’t define all that we are.

    Reply
    • Lee, you and Catana inspired my follow up!! Thank you!

      Reply
  3. Thanks, Dawn. This is wise counsel. Because what I know of my child’s background is potentially upsetting, I’ve had a tendency to hang back and wait for her to ask. This is a good reminder to keep presenting opportunities to share, even if she isn’t ready to take them.

    Reply
    • Shari, it’s good to see you on the blogosphere again! It’s been a long time! Are you still in PDX? (I have that right, don’t I? Maybe not.) Because there are oh so many resources to support you out there should you need it!

      Reply

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  1. There Is A Tween Living In My House | by Stephanie Rosic - […] says that adopted tweens are thinking about adoption more than we as adoptive parents realize. She offers six points …

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