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Talking Matters

If you look like your child, you may be spared inquisitive glances or nosy questions about adoption from strangers. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to discuss the topic. by Lois Melina



Fifty years ago, adoptive parents often kept up the pretense that their children had been born to them. Some adoptive moms even wore padded maternity clothes for months prior to the arrival of the baby.

Obviously, these families were not adopting 10-year-olds.

The adoption process of that time enabled this pretense. There was an “over-supply” of white babies and the practice was controlled by social workers. Thus, adopting parents could feel confident of both an arrival date and a child whose hair and skin tones would match their own. And for some parents, this deception continued even as their children grew.

Talking isn’t optional
Today, there’s a wealth of information on talking to children about adoption. Conflicting advice on how and when to begin, what to say, and how to say it, can leave parents confused as to what is right for them. And if parents look similar to their child, they may wonder how much of this advice applies to their families. Some parents rationalize by saying, “I forget to talk about it because I forget he was adopted” or “People never ask us about the adoption.”

Adult adoptees who grew up with secrecy talk about feeling that something wasn’t “right” about them, about feeling both betrayed and relieved when they learned the truth. Others interpreted their parents’ reluctance to talk to mean that adoption was taboo. Meanwhile, their lack of questions was mistaken by their parents for healthy disinterest.

We cannot build healthy relationships with our children on secrecy and lies—and this includes lies of omission. Rather, we must help them discover who they are in an atmosphere of unconditional love. Consequently, it’s important to know how children process information about themselves at different developmental stages, and to take natural opportunities to give them this information.

When to talk
When you are evaluating advice on talking about adoption, consider what’s driving the advice and measure it against an honest appraisal of your own motives. For example, some people say, “Don’t call the woman who gave birth to your child a ‘birthmother.’ It confuses a child to think she has two mothers.” If you find yourself eager to accept this advice, consider whether, at some deep level, you fear that the attachment between a child and the woman who gave birth to her is stronger than it can be with an adoptive mother.

If you try to force opportunities to talk before you are ready, you might go too far to the other extreme: talking excessively. There’s no numerical value to indicate that you’ve crossed this line; it’s too much whenever it is inappropriate. For example, if your child selects a video that has an adoption storyline, that can be an opportunity to compare that story to your child’s. However, if you rent several videos featuring adoption scenarios solely to “make” your child ask about adoption, think twice before screening them. Such overexposure can leave a child feeling that there is something wrong with being adopted, or that adoption is the most important part of his identity.

Once you are comfortable with the topic, you will see natural, appropriate opportunities to talk. This doesn’t necessarily mean intimate chats over cocoa. Instead, the topic will more likely come up while you’re driving the car pool, watching TV, or grocery shopping. In such settings the “talk” will probably be brief and to the point. You can always return to it later.

As your child gains in understanding, you can add details to her story. You should think of adoption talk as an ongoing family conversation. You’ll probably find that you are talking about it a lot for a while, and then not much at all. That’s not uncommon, and there’s no monthly “quota” you have to meet. One rule of thumb: If a comment, event, or TV show causes you to think about adoption, say so—your child may have had the same reaction.

Starting the conversation

Keep these guidelines in mind as you prepare to talk to your child about adoption:

  • Explore your own discomfort with any parts of the story. Children are uncanny about sensing their parents’ discomfort. If they detect your unease in discussing their adoption, they may conclude that something is wrong with them.

    People work through feelings in different ways—some by journaling, some through an adoption support group, and some with counseling. Just remember that discomfort needs to be addressed so that discussions aren’t awkward or avoided.

  • Decide what you will tell, and how you will tell it, before you begin. With young children, start with the “bare bones” that will allow you to add age-appropriate details without having to contradict anything you said before. If you know the child’s birthparents were unmarried, for example, don’t imply that they were. Or, if you know your child was conceived by rape, don’t tell him that his parents loved each other very much.

    For a very young child, you may just introduce the idea that he was born to a birthmother and a birthfather, without indicating anything about their relationship. The reason they chose adoption can also be simply stated: “They couldn’t take care of any child born to them at that time in their lives.”

  • Don’t let yourself delay. No matter how much you prepare, no matter the setting for the talk, you can expect your child to feel some confusion, anger, or sadness. If you are waiting for the magic words or the perfect time that will deflect these honest, human responses, you’re going to have a long wait. Instead of waiting, seize the natural opportunities to talk with your child about who she is.

Revisiting the topic
There will be times when we stumble. If someone in the park asks you where your child got her beautiful red hair, and you blurt out, “She’s adopted,” find a time later to revisit the exchange with your child. Explain that, when children are born into their families, they often have the same hair color as their parents. Continue by asking your child if she ever wonders what her birthparents look like. If you have any photos of her birthparents, show them to her.

You might also tell your child that the person at the park was probably only remarking on how beautiful her hair is. “Next time, I’ll just say that I think your hair is lovely, too. Then, you can decide if you want to tell her that you were adopted.”

Sometimes, you may think your response was appropriate, but your child will have an emotional reaction. She might become rambunctious or irritable. It is natural to think you’ve handled the topic incorrectly if your child becomes sad or angry. But sadness and anger are authentic responses. The best approach may be simply to provide comfort in whatever way seems right for as long as it takes. Think about the kind of support that you need when you’ve received unsettling information.

Above all, remember that what matters most is not the smoothness with which we talk about adoption, but the sincerity; not the words, but the heartfelt commitment to help our children to know and love themselves.

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