The Big Questions
Between the ages of six and eight, children begin to understand adoption in a more sophisticated way--and will pose some questions you may have a hard time answering. AF takes a look at what's going on in the school-age child's mind, and offers advice for talking. By JoAnne Solchany, Ph.D., ARNP
You've probably told your child his story from a very young age. As a toddler, he picked up on your cheerful tone when you talked about adoption. In early childhood, children generally accept adoption as a happy, positive family narrative. By the preschool years, your child may have learned his story verbatim, and loved to chime in when you recited the tale. Even so, he probably understood few of the words or concepts being used.
Between the ages of six and eight, children make substantial cognitive gains. This is the age when children begin to understand the difference between reality and fantasy, gain a greater capacity for logical thought, and start to see things from others' perspectives. These developmental advances allow children to understand adoption in a new way. What does this lead to? For many of our kids, lots of questions. Other children may never voice the questions, but tantrums, testing of our limits, periods of regression, or other behaviors indicate that they're mulling something big beneath the surface.
As parents, we may be overwhelmed by this new round of questions and surprising behaviors. Some will seem to indicate that our child is sad or grieving. We worry about saying the wrong thing or giving him information that will cause him to worry. Often, we're at a loss because we simply don't know the answers.
Here are four developmental tasks--and the resulting questions and behaviors--that are typical of this age.
Awareness of the "other" family
During the preschool years, children tend to think of family as the people who live together in a house. But they soon begin to understand the concept of cousins, grandmothers, and extended family. When they start school, and their world broadens further, they realize that families are formed in different ways, and that most children live with their birth families. This awareness leads to a more profound understanding of adoption.
Six- to eight-year-olds realize that, in order to have joined their present families, they lost their first families. And that their birth families are living somewhere else in the country or the world. Children may ask a lot of questions as they seek to solidify this fact. Tracy Wachtman, of Defiance, Ohio, reports that her daughter "has started to process the fact that she has birth siblings in Belarus. She asks a lot of ‘what are they doing right now?' questions."
The understanding that they have separate adoptive and birthparents often leads children to "compare" the two--even if they never knew their birthparents. Cindy, of Madison, Wisconsin, is very familiar with the kind of comments that result from what she calls the "Disneyland birthmom phase": "My birthmother would let me stay up later" or "My birthmother would let me have whatever I wanted." She's learned to "ride them out" and to bring up adoption when her daughter isn't upset.
Needing to know "why"
At a younger age, children can't conceive of others' points of view. During the school years, this "egocentrism" begins to fade and children move beyond their immediate thoughts and impressions. At the same time, they're able to connect actions with thoughts and feelings in their minds. Thus, they begin to consider not just the process of adoption, but why their birthparents did what they did, what they were thinking, and how they might have felt.
"My daughter, adopted at 16 months, didn't talk about adoption until age six, but it was clear that she'd been processing it," says Jenna Rugile, of East Northport, New York. "All of a sudden, she began asking questions like, ‘Why did my mommy give me up? Was I bad?' She also began throwing tantrums and testing our limits."
Rugile's experience is hardly unusual; wanting to know "why" a birthparent made an adoption plan is the biggest question for many children during this stage. Rugile and her husband eventually decided to seek help from an adoption therapist. She describes a recent "breakthrough" moment: "After a tantrum, and many tears and sobs, my daughter said, ‘Maybe I get so angry because I have a boo-boo inside from when I was left.' I responded, ‘Yes, I think that's true,' and reassured her that we are here for her and can talk about anything whenever she needs to talk."
School-age children are capable of logical thought, and want to "problem-solve" and come up with answers. If you explain poverty, youth, or other circumstances that can lead to adoption plans, your child may ask, "Why couldn't someone give her some money, so she could take care of me?" or "Why couldn't someone teach her how to be a better mommy?" Encourage your child's thoughts, while explaining that you don't know all of the circumstances surrounding her birthparents' adoption plan: "That's a good suggestion, but we didn't know your birthmother. We do know that she made this decision because she felt it would give you a better life."
Separating fantasy from reality
Until the years of middle childhood, fantasy plays a huge role in a child's life. Fantasy is gradually replaced by rules and routines. This change can be seen in a child's play, as pretend-play gives way to games with rules and structure.
And because six- to eight-year-olds can now tell fantasy from reality, they have a strong desire to know "what is real." When it comes to adoption, they want more information on how they came to be, what happened to their birthparents, and, especially, why their birthparents could not take care of them.
The adoption story you've told so far is probably a simple framework. Now's the time to add in all the details you know. "When our son was about six, he asked a lot of questions about his first mom. What was her name? Did he have brothers or sisters? What are their names? Why didn't he live with her? What was his name before he was adopted?" says Michelle Oxman, of Evanston, Illinois. "We were still in touch with his birthmom at the time, and I think that helped. I'd talk with him about the letters we sent her. Once she sent a picture of herself, and he hugged it to his heart."
As Oxman found, children this age respond to concrete information. Share any photos or letters that you have, or pull out the passport your child used when you traveled home to the U.S., or the decree that made his adoption final in your state's court.
Parents may worry if they lack specific information, but you can explain what probably happened: "We don't know why your birthmother couldn't raise you, but babies need lots of things to grow up to be strong and healthy. She may have realized that she couldn't provide everything you needed, and decided to find a family who could."
Fears about permanence
Children in this age group are moving on to bigger classrooms, to real academic work, and to more complex peer interaction on the playground. And they must function independently for longer periods on school days.
These transitions can cause anxiety that surfaces in questions such as, "If my birthmom gave me away, will you give me away, too?" or "What happened to my birthparents?" Children may relate such fears to circumstances within your family: "If Daddy loses his job, will you give me away?" "If I am bad, will you have to send me back?"
It's important to explain to your child that adoption is always an adult decision, and it never has anything to do with the child or her behavior. Stress that her birthparents could not care for any baby at the time. End every discussion by reassuring your child that adoption is forever--and that you're open to talking about the subject any time she wants to. Just as these weren't the first adoption conversations you had with your child, they'll be far from the last.
Words you can use
Kids ask tough questions at this age. Here are some typical queries, sample language you can adapt, and messages you want to send during the exchange.
Q: Why didn't my mother want me?
A: Your birthmother wanted you to have the best home and family. She knew she would not be able to give that to you, so we adopted you!
Objective: Reinforce the desire to give your child a good life.
Q: How come they didn't like me?
A: I believe your birthparents loved you very much, which is why they wanted you to be adopted. They were not ready to be a mom or dad yet, and they wanted the best family for you!
Objective: Explain how hard decisions can be made out of love.
Q: What's my birthmother's name? What does she look like?
A: Her name is __. I have a photo of her. Would you like to see it?
Objective: Parents who adopt domestically often have a letter, a photo, or met the birthmother at the time of the adoption, but may wait for--and worry about--the "right time" to share. Often, knowing what a birthparent looks like is enough to satisfy a curious seven-year-old. If your child asks, and you are comfortable, share some of this concrete information.
Q: If you were my birthmother, would you have kept me?
A: Wow, that is a big question…. Your birthmom had to make a very difficult decision that I will never have to make. You are my son and we are a family, and nothing will ever change that.
Objective: Although you probably feel the urge to "support" the birthmom, what's most important at this age is to cement the current relationship as lasting "forever."
Q: Did I have a father, too?
A: Yes, you do have a birthfather. Have you been thinking about him?
Objective: Even if you included the birthfather in your earlier adoption talks (and you should have!), children may not think or ask about him until this stage. Open up the discussion.
Q: Why couldn't she go to school to learn to be a mommy?
A: Some women are not ready to be mommies, and they want their child to be with another mommy who is ready. Your birthmommy was wise enough to know that she was not ready to be a mom, so she made the decision to have someone else raise you.
Objective: Encourage thinking and processing. "What ifs" are a good way to help your child explore his thoughts.
Q: Is my birthmother dead?
A: What makes you think that?
Objective: It is OK to say you don't know, but it is more important to explore your child's feelings and the fantasies. These are normal issues that need to be addressed.
JoAnne Solchany, Ph.D., ARNP, is the mother of two adopted children. She practices in the greater Seattle area.
There is no "best way" to deal with your child's desire for information. However, it's helpful to keep these guidelines in mind.
- Follow your child's lead. Take it one question at a time and allow your discussions to unfold naturally.
- If you don't know an answer, admit it. If you're giving your child your best guess, make this clear by using a phrase like "Probably" or "I think." Then, ask your child what he thinks.
- Support your child's emotions--she may be mad, sad, or indifferent. All of which are normal and OK.
- Take advantage of "parallel conversation" situations, like riding in the car, walking the dog, or cuddling on the couch--any time when direct eye contact can be avoided and discussion can flow.
- Encourage your child to put his feelings about his birthmother to paper. Give him a journal in which to record his thoughts, or suggest that he write a hypothetical letter. Offer to hold the letter in a special place for now. For many children, simply putting the words to paper is therapeutic.
- Wonder with her. Ask what she imagines her birthmother is like.
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