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A Growing Awareness

Between the ages of nine and 12, children register the meaning of adoption--and this can bring harder questions and more complex emotions. AF takes a look at what's going on in the minds of preteens, and offers advice for talking with them.

by Joni S. Mantell, LCSW

By the time your child reaches his preteen years, you will have probably laid the foundation and tried to create a safe family environment for talking about adoption. When your child was very young, he likely enjoyed hearing his adoption story and happily parroted it to anyone who would listen--even before he understood it all. Around ages six to eight, children begin to differentiate fantasy and reality, and to realize that adoption means they have two sets of parents.

And sometime between ages nine and 12, you notice that your tween rolls her eyes when adoption is mentioned, refuses to engage in discussion, stops coming to you with questions, and expresses feelings that surprise you. Children who once accepted the facts of their adoption may exhibit sad or ambivalent feelings. They may withdraw from adoption-related events, or clam up when the talk turns to adoption.

Kids at this stage are developing coping skills and are learning to rely on themselves more. This is the beginning of their independence, and they use this opportunity to experiment with problem-solving, test the limits of their independence, and take responsibility for their feelings. 

Communicating with your growing child becomes more complicated. You know that feelings about adoption are beneath the surface, but how do you keep the conversation going, or at least send the signal that you're open to talking? Parents may need to change their role from commander-in-chief to that of a guide. Be understanding, approach conversation with a caring attitude, and recognize that, while you know this is a passing phase, it is a here-and-now reality for your child.

Here are the four developmental tasks for this stage, and ways to help your tween:

Exploring feelings about birthparents
Cognitive development at the tween stage is uneven, because tweens still see situations as either all good or all bad. A tween will imagine that something was either wrong with him or with his birthmother that led to placement. Tweens wonder, "Why didn't my birthparents keep me?" even if they seemed to understand your earlier explanations. James R., 10, from Yardley, Pennsylvania, was told he was placed because his birthmother could not raise him as a single parent. When he began to notice that many single parents keep their babies, new questions arose.

On her tenth birthday, Madison*, from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, shared her profound awareness that "I could have had a whole different life." Madison realized that adoption meant that she might have been raised by different parents, and she became more curious than ever before. She tried to imagine what her life would have been like if she had been raised by her birthparents. Although it was an open adoption, Madison had not seen her birthmother in four years. The family arranged a visit, and Madison developed a more concrete picture of her birthmother's life. Afterward, Madison and her mother discussed her new awareness of the difficulties her birth family had.

Parents can help their child temper his black-and-white thinking with a more empathic view of both themselves and their birthparents. Let your child lead the conversation--you may be surprised to learn that your child associates his adoption with his misbehavior. Be honest, and keep the conversation positive and nonjudgmental, because your child will identify with his birthparents at some point. This is a good time to explain that there is usually more than one reason for a person to make a decision. James's parents explained that his birthmother was unable to parent him because she was single, without family support, in debt, and in need of time to learn skills to get a job. 

Given their new awareness about feelings, tweens may be concerned that talking about adoption is disloyal and will hurt their parents' feelings. Let your child know you are open to talking and are interested in what he is feeling. He will be relieved when you open the door. Look for ways to bring up birthparents in conversation. You might say, "You are such an amazing singer. I wonder if you inherited that talent from one of your birthparents?" Make available books, articles, movies, or television shows that deal with adoption, as these might spark conversation. Or make the topic more approachable with humor--share a funny story from the early days of the adoption.

Questioning permanence 
As children connect emotionally with the reality that their birthparents placed them, some experience separation anxiety. Although the politically correct term is "placed for adoption," many children hear "given up." The underlying fear is, "If my birthparents could give me away, would my adoptive parents ever do the same?"

Children typically exhibit this anxiety in one of two ways: by testing their parents' attachment or, at the other end of the spectrum, by acting with extreme compliance. Alexis, 11, from Arlington, Virginia, would test her parents by saying, "My real parents would let me stay up until midnight." Children need to know that you can tolerate their anger, and want to see how much you believe in the stability of the family.

Watch for behaviors that are not compatible with the family rules and norms. Tweens who imagine their birthparents were "bad" may try to test whether they are also bad--and, if so, are they still lovable? Discuss your tween's perceptions about her birthparents, as she begins to sort out "what is really me, and what did I inherit?"

The opposite side of the insecurity coin is extreme compliance. Some adoptees are so fearful of rejection that they are afraid to be themselves. Isabelle, 11, from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, found every opportunity to be good, in the hope that she could guarantee love and security. She offered to help her friend's mother carry groceries rather than join the other kids on the playground. Parents with compulsively compliant kids can reassure them directly: "I will love you, even if you go play!"

This is a good time to talk about love and commitment, and how forever relationships work. Counter tweens' black-and-white thinking with examples of how you accept both the good and the bad in people you love.  

Coping with emotions of adoption
Tweens have quick access to their emotions, and some may grieve as they come to understand fully that their birthparents are real people who  made the decision to place them. Even those adopted as babies may feel sad about their first families. 

Allie*, 11, from Brooklyn, New York, says, "Adoption is bittersweet--sometimes I'm happy because I get to have a better life, and sometimes I'm sad because it is hard to leave my mom. I miss her." Although Allie was adopted as a newborn, her parents validate her feelings, "even when it is hurtful to us or when we are tempted to minimize or deny her feelings," says her mother. "We don't tell her that she can't possibly miss her birthmother, because she only saw her for one day, and we don't say she shouldn't miss her because she has us. We want her to feel free to talk to us, without worrying about our feelings." This lets Allie know that her parents understand how she feels. 

Not all children are as direct as Allie. Some show their emotions by exhibiting intense grief at other kinds of losses, exclusions, and rejections, or by withdrawing from social activities. Birthdays or Mother's Day may be difficult.

These emotions are perfectly normal for some children in processing what it means to have been adopted. Children report that being able to share these feelings with their parents makes a world of difference to them. They appreciate knowing that their parents do not take their feelings as personal rejection. Parents can help a lot just by naming the feeling--labeling the adoption-related sadness for your child--and letting her know that she is having normal feelings.

Coming to terms with adoption and race
Tweens want to fit in with their peers, so they may not want to tell them that they were adopted or that they are of a particular heritage or race. Stephanie Case, from Stillwater, Oklahoma, says, "Our 10-year-old daughter would rather people not know she was adopted. This can be hard, as she is multiracial, and her father and I are not. We have a very open adoption, but she has become reluctant to continue having her birthparents visit. I have tried to reassure her that it is OK to have these feelings, and I let her decide whether to include her birth family in events."

Tweens look beyond their parents for role models, frequently to peers or to movie or TV characters. You can support and guide them by introducing them to good role models, such as teens or adults who were adopted or those who share their race or heritage. If your child withdraws from people of her own culture or race, try to find out why. She may have heard a negative stereotype or prejudice, and, if so, you will want to find ways to negate it.

Adoption peer groups are popular among kids this age. Peer groups offer an outside-the-family chance to discuss adoption, race, birthparents, and adoptive parents, and to learn how to handle the questions and comments they get from their non-adopted peers. Sarah, age 11, who was adopted from Nepal, shared her feelings with her group. "I hate it when people ask me if I am Hawaiian or if I speak Spanish," she said. It helped to hear a validating response from Jackie, age 11: "I know. People always ask me if I speak Chinese."

While some tweens start paying attention to their physical appearance in a positive way, others become insecure. Read magazines together to open a dialogue about appearance, and learn why your child is feeling insecure. She may be wondering what she will look like as an adult, or she may be disconcerted by not knowing anyone who looks like her. Spending time with adult or teen role models, or peers of the same race--shopping together or simply hanging out--can make your tween more comfortable with her appearance.

Communicating with tweens is not easy. You have to shift from being the problem-solver to being a supportive guide for your child, as he experiences and processes deeper feelings. And you will be letting your child take the lead more often. 

As Heidi Wheeler, a mom of six, in Asheboro, North Carolina, says, "I believe, once children start to process adoption, it's better to leave the ball in their court and let them talk about it when they need to. It's something they have to process for the rest of their life. It is their personal journey, and we love and support them."

This difficult phase can bring your family closer together, and it gives your child a chance to grow by leaps and bounds. 

Joni S. Mantell, LCSW, is director of the Infertility and Adoption Counseling Center, in New Jersey and New York.

*Names have been changed to preserve privacy.

Words You Can Use
Here are some typical tween comments, sample language you can adapt for your response, and messages you want to send during the exchange.

Comment: "I hate it when people stare at us in restaurants."
Answer: "Sometimes people stare at us because they are not used to seeing a mixed-race family, and they are curious."
Objective: When you say, "They are staring because you are so beautiful," children think you are uncomfortable discussing adoption and how your family is different. It shuts off discussion. They would rather have their differences acknowledged--see this as an opening.

Comment: "I wish I could see my birthmother."
Answer: "Why do you want to see her?"
Objective: Learn whether your tween really wants to see her, wants to know more about her, or wants to express his feelings about not knowing her. If he wants to see her, ask what he hopes to gain from it.

Comment: "My real parents would let me stay up till midnight."
Answer: "If you want to talk about your birthparents another time, we can do that. Right now we are discussing your bedtime."
Objective: Remain centered when a child is testing you. This shows your child that you believe in the strength of your bond, and that you can tolerate his feelings and questions because you love him.

Comment: "None of my friends go to Chinese class. I'd rather play soccer."
Answer: "That is really a personal decision. Are you sure that you do not want to keep going?"
Objective: While you will ultimately let your child make this decision at this stage, give her a chance to think about what is right for her. She may opt to stop attending, to minimize her difference, or she may choose to continue if she really enjoys the class. 

Comment: You overhear your child talking to a classmate and denying the fact that she was adopted.
Answer: "I overheard you talking to your friend.  It's OK that you did not want to say that you were adopted. I want you to know that I am open to talking with you about this anytime."
Objective: Respect your child's need for privacy, but let her know you are comfortable talking about any feelings she has about adoption.

Comment: Your child stops asking questions about adoption altogether, and is dismissive when you bring up the subject.
Answer: Take your child's lead. Not all kids need to talk about adoption. Listen for openings, and try bringing it up once in a while, perhaps in reference to a news story or movie.
Objective: Unless you think there is a problem (your child is hanging out with troublesome peers, or shunning those who share her race), you don't need to press the topic right now. When your child is ready, she will bring it up again. Just listen and wait.

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