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Need to Know

Six- to eight-year-olds have real questions about their birthparents. Here are seven tips to help answer them.

"I must have been pretty ugly, because they didn’t keep me,” says six-year-old Sara. “If I get pretty, will my birthmom come back for me?”

“I think I cried too much. I wasn’t a good baby,” whispers eight-year-old Nina to her adoption counselor. “I cried all night.”

“Why did she send me away?” asks Jason, seven. “Didn’t she love me?”

No matter how often or how comfortably you’ve shared your child’s adoption story with him, no matter how wisely you’ve chosen your words, most six- to eight-year-olds will wrestle with this question: “Why didn’t they want me?”

Painful as it may be for parents, adoption questions at this age are right on target developmentally. It’s not until a child begins to think abstractly at age six or seven that she can understand biological relationships. And though she’s listened to her joyous adoption story from the time she was very small, now she begins to grasp what it means: “I have a birthmother and a birthfather who could not raise me. Why?”

Work It Out
Simple ways to help your child explore adoption

Find an adoption workshop or support group.
“No matter how rarely children talk about adoption, they’re curious,” says Ronny Diamond. “Even sitting silently at meetings, they hear and think.”

Role Play. Some children can express their emotions better through playing with puppets, dolls, or other characters. Fantasize with him that his birthmom is in the room. What would he like to tell her? Act it out.

Play Detective. Is there any possibility that more information about your child’s birth family or the circumstances surrounding his adoption is out there? This is the time to gather it. Even small tidbits of information can be very significant to a child.

Book it. A lifebook is a wonderful way to connect kids to their birth history. Photos of foster parents, orphanages, birth cities, crib mates, notes from the adoption agency—even the thoughts and emotions you recorded along the way—all help your child to understand more about his birth and his journey to join your family.

Create a memory box. Kids can save pictures, art projects, or other objects they wish they could share with their birth families in a special box.

“‘Why?’ is ‘the big question,’” says Ronny Diamond, director of the Adoption Counseling Team at Spence-Chapin, a private agency in New York City. Some kids ask directly; others are more indirect: What does my birthmother look like? Where does my birthfather live? Does my birthmother think about me?

It makes sense that kids at this age would try to understand what it means to have been placed for adoption and why it happened to them. This is the age when children consider life and death, when school exposes them to all kinds of families, and when they become acutely aware of their own family make-up and how it is the same as—or different from—that of their friends. Whether a child talks about adoption a lot—or not at all—he’s likely to be wondering about his birth family. Here are seven tips to help you talk through the issues.

1. Empathize with your child.
Many parents are caught off-guard when their six- to eight-year-old begins to ask about his birth family. That’s because children and parents are on opposite paths in adoption, according to Lillian Thogersen, of the World Association of Children and Parents (WACAP) in Seattle, Washington. “Over the years, most parents think less and less about the fact that their child joined the family via adoption,” says Thogersen. “So from a parent’s perspective, a first-grader’s adoption questions may seem to come out of the blue. But questions at this age are really quite normal and quite predictable.”

What’s key for parents is to put aside any sadness that their child’s questions may prompt. “Bear in mind that, first and foremost, our job as parents is to let our child know that he’s loved and understood,” says Lois Melina, author of Raising Adopted Children: Practical, Reassuring Advice for Every Adoptive Parent (Collins).

2. Listen carefully.
When questions start coming, listen. First, ask yourself what your child is really asking. She may be wondering, “Are my schobirthparents going to come back for me?” or “Does my birthmother have curly hair like I do?” Elementary ol children typically want to know who their birth families are, what they look like, where they live. In the case of an eight-year-old who asks to see her birthmother, Melina says, “She may really be asking, ‘Do I look like my birthmother?’” To clarify, respond with a question of your own: “What are you trying to understand?” or “What do you believe?”

“When a child says, ‘Can I call my birthmother?’ that’s not a literal request,” says Diamond. “She may mean, ‘I want to know more about this person.’” That’s an opening. Ask, “What do you think she’d be like? What would you say to her? What do you think she might say to you?” There are many places you can go when a child asks a question like that.

3. Explain that adoption is an adult decision.
Children this age are self-centered and, despite parental assurances to the contrary, may decide that they were placed for adoption because of something they did. It’s usually not enough to assure your child that adoption is a choice made by adults, and was not prompted by anything she did. Convey to your child that her birthparents chose adoption because they were unable to care for any baby and they wanted a family to raise her. Avoid telling a child that she was placed for adoption because her birthmother loved her. Instead, stress that you will be her parent, always and forever.

4. Share specific information if you have it.
It’s important to share any birth family information you have, including as many specific details as possible, with your child by this age, says Melina. “A child needs to understand that his birthparents are real people, not fantasy figures.” If you have a photograph of them, show it to him, and put it in context. Say something like, “Here you are with your birthmother, Susan, on the day you were born.” Telling your child who attended his birth, what people said, and what he looked like can go a long way toward helping him understand that his birth was normal and had nothing to do with his adoption.

There are ways to explain, in concrete terms, why birthparents made the adoption decision. Instead of saying, “Your birthmother was too poor to keep you,” you could say, “Your birthmother already had two children to take care of. She could barely afford to buy food and pay for heat. She was afraid that she would not be able to feed all of you.” Sharing a birthmother’s letter describing her difficulties, for example, will help a child understand why she was placed for adoption. Providing an answer to the question “why” is often all that’s necessary to satisfy a child’s curiosity at this age. 

5. If not, describe the general conditions.
If you have no information about the circumstances of your child’s birth, don’t assume that there’s nothing to talk about. “Help a child understand the circumstances or government policies that might have led a birthparent to place him for adoption,” says Ellen Singer, of the Center for Adoption Support and Education in Silver Spring, Maryland. “It is important to acknowledge that it may feel unfair.”

Books like When You Were Born in China and When You Were Born in Korea (both Yeong & Yeong) do a wonderful job of explaining why children are placed for adoption in those countries. Read “Before We Became a Family,” for words to use about a variety of adoption situations. Whether it was desperate rural poverty in Latin America, the economic chaos of post-Soviet Eastern Europe, the stigma against unwed mothers in Korea, or the economic difficulties of single mothers in the U.S., explain the context to your child as specifically as possible.

“Dear Birthmom”
Sample Letters

I wish I could see you and give you a big hug. Then I would like to show you our house so you can meet all of us. I have blue eyes and my hair is long and brown. My mom says maybe you have pretty blue eyes, too? I am wondering what you are doing now. Are you sleeping? I think it is night there right now.
—Jessica, 7

I have black hair and it is long. My eyes are brown. Do you remember that? How tall are you? I hope you are tall, because that is what I want to be. I want to know lots of things, like why you couldn’t keep me. Well, I like my life very much, but I wonder if you are OK or sad? I hope you are not sad.
—Olivia, 8

Actual letters courtesy Marybeth Lambe.

6. Write to birthparents.
For those children for whom there are no answers, sending a letter to their birthmother via their adoption agency or orphanage may help them explore feelings. For examples of letters written by children to unknown birthmothers, see “Dear Birthmom” (right). If you’re parenting in a semi-open or open adoption and your child still doesn’t have the answers to all of her questions about her adoption story, consider suggesting that she write a letter to her birthmother to ask her for more information about the circumstances of her adoption.

7. Don’t wait for your child to bring up the topic.
If your child never brings up adoption, prompt the discussion. “You don’t have to wait for your child to ask,” says Diamond. Start with something general, like, “I was thinking about your birthmom today.” Let him know how important his birthparents are—they created him, gave him traits and talents, and made sure he’s in a family where he’ll be loved and cared for.

Remember that if your child is going to be at ease with adoption, she needs to know her adoption history. “In middle childhood, reflection begins on the adoption process itself,” says Dr. David Brodzinsky, co-author of Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self (Anchor) and research director at the New York City–based Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. “This is a normal part of coping with adoption. Questions like ‘Why was I given up?’ are healthy. Working through these feelings,” he adds, “produces growth.” 

Your willingness to talk openly with your child about his birthparents will help him unpack his private bundle of questions and concerns. By doing this, you give your child exactly what he needs—a safe place to grow. 

Adoptive mom Marybeth Lambe, M.D., lives with her family near Seattle, Washington.

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