Saturday, February 7, 2009

What should I tell my child about why s/he was adopted?

First of all, good news to share: my dossier is in Washington, D.C! Which means it was approved by my state and is almost on it's way to Ethiopia. Hurry D.C!

Secondly, in preparing for this adoption, I have done HUGE amounts of reading about the process and effects on the child. Through this reading, I've come to believe that telling the child (in an age appropriate way) at a young age is the "right" thing to do. In reading my agency's binder this morning, some of the phraseology I was planning on using ("You are special because you were chosen", "Your birth mother didn't have enough food because there was a famine and everyone was really poor, but she loved you so much she gave you to someone who could take care of you and feed you." etc) I'm going to have to re-think.

Here is some of what I read, with apologies to not being able to give credit as none is cited except for within the text itself:

* It is important for you to sort out your feelings about the birth parents...the child will pick up on your feelings. If the birth parents are perceived as bad (or "less than"), the child will conclude that maybe she is bad too.

* "Your Birth Mother loved you but..." Experts disagree on whether to tell the child this. Dr. Denis Donovan argues it sends a confusing message to young minds that love comes to be equated with abandonment early in the child's life. Another problem with this explanation is that you love the child too. Will you also put him up for adoption?

* "Your birth parents were poor..." It is best not to emphasize the socioeconomic status of the birth parents because that may cause all sorts of negative feelings in the child. Why didn't someone help them? The child is likely to feel sorry for the birth parents, and feel survivor guilt hearing about other children left behind in orphanages. Another problem with the "birth parents were poor" explanation is what if you lose your job or even unthinkingly complain about finances? Your child might conclude he may be placed for adoption again.

* Telling your child she is "special" or "chosen" can also be problematic. (I really didn't know this one!) In most cases the child was not really chosen. Being "special" could be burdensome for the child, who may worry about living up to this label.

* Don't talk about adoption too often, it may annoy your child. Pay attention to her body language, you will be able to tell if she wants to talk. "If a happy medium can be achieved, with the child knowing about the adoption, understanding that it is an important part of her life, and knowing she can ask questions about it, but not believing it to be a primary family topic that underlies everything, that is best."

* Don't talk about adoption during times of family crisis (financial, health, relationship). For example, bringing up adoption right after a bad report card might make her believe you think she is not as bright as her adoptive family. Otherwise, why would you bring it up at this time?

* So what TO say then? We've heard about what NOT to say. Here are some things that are suggested:

- Explain that the birth parents were not able to parent. Keep it simple. For whatever reason (poverty, abuse, neglect, young age, cultural shame over single mothers, etc) the simple fact is they were not able to parent their child. At an older age, you can give more details if she asks for them and if you think she is ready to handle them.

- Explain that it was not your child's fault they were given up for adoption. It had nothing to do with how they looked, acted, or any other circumstances. Children often have magical thinking and believe they are the cause of deaths, divorces, and abandonment.

- If others heap accolades on you for adopting (for "saving a life"), especially in front of the child, make sure you explain that everyone in the family has gained from the adoption.

- Explain to the child that your family was "formed by adoption" which conveys the specialness idea. If you are religious, you may want to say that God sent the child to you, and that God sends some children biologically and some through adoption.

- Do not assume the child will bring up the subject of adoption. Some kids will act as though everything is wonderful, but have deep seated fears they are not talking about. Bring up the general topic and ask your child what she thinks. Birthdays are a day when thoughts of birth parents frequently come up. Find natural moments for discussion, like after an adoption special on T.V. It's always easier to start conversation with an pen-ended question than a yes/no question. So "Are you thinking about your birth mother?" might result in a short answer, while "I'm proud of you and I bet your birth mom is too. What are your thoughts on that?" might lead to a fuller conversation.

So I learned a LOT from this article and wanted to share it with my readers. Some of the things I learned go directly against things I've read elsewhere (like the "you're special because you were chosen" idea). And some things SEEM like common sense, but it's good to be reminded (like the report card paragraph) because there might not be a link in a non-adopted person's head where there would be one in the adopted child's head.


Jenny and Matt said...

We talk about adoption every day. Part of that is because our oldest came to us at 6 years old, so still has significant memories of the life she left behind. Even when not talking about adoption intentionally, a lot of questions kids ask might lead to talking about it. There are a lot of questions in our house right now about where babies come from... that of course leads to who grew in whose belly, use of the words 'first mom,' and reassurance that we're so glad to have our kids in our family (which sometimes leads to a discussion about how we are sad with them that they had early life circumstances that lead to them being available for adoption). It seems crazy, maybe, but since we talk about it so often the concepts are familiar for our kids (even our 2 year old) and we can build on what they understand now at age appropriate levels.

Anonymous said...

Instead can you not give the families of the country some money and support through charities like Plan, Oxfam, Christian Aid etc etc so they don't have to give up their special children????

Adopting1Soon said...


Wouldn't it be great if donations to UNICEF would take care of the problem completely? Unfortunatley, AIDS has left MILLIONS of orphans and donations will not take care of the problem, especially when the country's own government doesn't distribute the aid.

Adoption is just a drop in the bucket of aid that is needed. See this article;,5143,645194628,00.html

Things have only gotten worse in the last two years since that was written.

Why don't you sign your name next time? No shame in having an opinion other than mine. Please feel free to come back and debate.