One of the hardest things for many parents is talking to their children about adoption. It is a story we long to "get right" so our kids will feel good about themselves.
Often the story is a happy one, filled with adoptive parents who can't wait to bring their beautiful baby or child home. But it is also a sad one, with birth parents who believe they can't care for their child and so they choose to place him or her for adoption. It is difficult to know how to explain this to a child of any age.
Social workers and psychologists who specialize in adoption say it's best for parents to be honest with children about their adoption from as early an age as possible, using simple language and age-appropriate details with young kids. It is a great idea to "practice" telling a baby his or her adoption story because it doesn't matter if you don't get the story just right with an infant, and you have lots of time to become comfortable with it.
Start the story early "I have heard from adult adoptees, ‘If you can remember when you were told you were adopted, you were told too late,' " says Judy Stigger, a social worker specializing in adoption who has offices in Oak Park, Oak Brook Terrace and also works for The Cradle, a nonprofit child welfare adoption agency in Evanston.
"It should be something you are looking to encourage from a very early age, casually, as opposed to having ‘the talk' at a specific age," says Stigger, an adoptive mom of two children who are now in their 20s. "You are always adding pieces to the story as children get older, and it is part of a lifelong conversation."
Some adoptive parents find that keeping a book for their children helps in these conversations. The book can include their adoption story, photos of their birth parents if possible, their baby pictures and photos of them with their adoptive parents.
Tess DeBlander, an adoptive mom of two who lives in Buffalo Grove, pulls out her kids' copies of All About Me: Adopted and Special, an Interactive Tool for Parents and Children by Lynn Burwash and Cie McMullin. The book, which allows you to write stories about your family, is something that DeBlander uses when her family celebrates their "gotcha days," the days they adopted their son and daughter from Guatemala.
"We found the All About Me books help when we're talking about their stories with them," DeBlander says. "We also will talk about adoption with them if we're reading a story at night that deals with adoption, or watching a movie that mentions adoption, such as ‘Tarzan' or ‘Lilo & Stitch.' "
Her son, Anthony, now 3½, was adopted at 5 months from Guatemala, while Anthony's big sister, 7-year-old Ashly, was adopted from Guatemala when she was 4. The DeBlanders have talked to Anthony about his adoption since he was a baby, while at 4 years old their daughter knew she was adopted.
"Ashly has always known she was adopted, so our conversations with her are a little different than those with Anthony," DeBlander says. "We have always told Ashly that she has a tummy mommy and that she grew in my heart."
DeBlander and her husband, Darin, have written a digital book about their adoption experience called Parents By Choice, available at most large bookstores through the service desk.
Create a family tree Parents might also consider working on a "family tree" project with their kids-one that includes the birth parents-as a way to talk about adoption. DeBlander worked on a family tree project with Ashly.
"When I asked her where she wanted to put her birth mother on the tree, she said, ‘She helped me to grow, so lets put her at the roots of the tree.' '
DeBlander says, "I thought that was great."
Children younger than 3 typically do not have a lot of questions about adoption, according to child psychologists and adoption experts.
Parents should stick to simple language when talking to young children about adoption, relating the story with warmth and love, according to the book Flight of the Stork: What Children Think (and When) about Sex and Family Building.
"Parents need to be mindful that it is the feelings that underlie the story that their children will retain," says Anne Bernstein, a family psychologist and author of Flight of the Stork.
Adoptive parents sometimes find that well-meaning questions and comments from family, friends and strangers provide a good opportunity to talk about adoption with their children.
A stranger in the grocery store might say to an adopted child, "Aren't you a lucky little boy?" or might say to a parent, "Do you know anything about his real mother?"
Adoptive parents must always be mindful their child is not only hearing the question being asked, but also the parent's answer, says Stigger. The parent's answer may be one the child can use when these awkward questions come at him or her and no parent is around.
The parent might choose to reply with, "We are all lucky to have each other," "I am his real mother" or "Why do you ask?" Parents can educate family and friends to use respectful language about birth parents and adoption, even in front of very young children, who are always listening to what adults are saying.
Researching birth parents As children get older, they may go through many stages as they think about being adoptees. They may grieve for and long to be part of their biological families. They may wonder "Who do I look like?" if they have not met their birth parents. They may be angry or wonder why their birth parents placed them for adoption. They may fear that their adoptive parents will someday decide to also place them for adoption.
Some adoptive parents may want to seek answers to their children's questions about their birth parents as the children get older.
Stigger decided to open the papers on her children's closed adoptions when they started asking more questions about their biological parents.
"It wasn't until we found my son's birth father that he said, ‘Now I feel whole,' " Stigger says. "All the pieces finally fit together for him. He was a teenager at the time."
Most domestic adoptions today are open or semi-open, where adoptive parents and birth parents may keep in touch after the adoption is finalized. But some adoptions are still closed, where no identifying information is exchanged.
Adoptive parents or adoptees can go through adoption agencies or search adoption registries to get more information about birth parents.
In international adoption, often little information is available about birth parents. Adoptive families can get in touch with the orphanage where their child once lived, or the foster family that cared for the child before the adoption, to get more information about birth parents.
Above all, no matter where their children's questions lead, adoptive parents need to reassure their children that they are a "forever family" who will always be together and love one another, DeBlander says.
"You want to reassure them that there is a lot of love and trust," DeBlander says.
Susan Dodge is a writer and an adoptive mother living in northwest Indiana.
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