In Their Own Words
Adolescent adoptees offer first-person wisdom to fellow adoptees.by the editors of Adoptive Families
Parents know that the best advice comes from those who have "been there, done that." Their advice is built on real-life experience, and it lets us know that we're not alone. But how often do our children, who are integrating multiple aspects of an identity, coming to terms with looking different from their parents, learning about their birth family or culture -- all while negotiating school, family, and friendships -- get to hear from other adoptees? The answer is, probably, not often enough.
As part of his ongoing longitudinal study on children adopted from China, Tony Tan, a Chinese-born psychologist trained in Human Development and Psychology at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, decided he'd like to hear from the adoptees themselves. Tan, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Social Foundations at the University of South Florida, says, "Adoption, ultimately, is about the adopted." He sent the adoptee survey to all the families that had children ages 11 or older and heard back from 232 of them. At the end of the survey, Tan provided an open-ended prompt, asking adoptees to respond in their own words:
"As you know, there are many adopted kids who are younger than you. If you could give them any advice, what advice would you give?"
"I found their responses fascinating," says Tan. "Adoptees have unique insights about their lives, and their advice will likely resonate with other adoptees." Here is a selection of their words of wisdom to share with your child.
"Be PROUD that you're adopted! Every kid is different." —11 years old, adopted at 1 year
"Being adopted can make you feel different or strange, but everyone feels that as a kid. If you want to talk, a friend, a family member, or a counselor can help you. When my mom went to a hospital, I got counseling and I talked about being in school and being adopted. My counselor told me that adoption and my other qualities equal so many circles, and I should feel proud about who I was. She could relate because she had a background similar to mine." —11 years old, adopted at 9 months
"Being adopted is OK. Yeah, you may be different, but not in a bad way. And a family is a group of people who love and take care of each other." —13 years old, adopted at 8 months
"Being adopted doesn't change who you are. It doesn't make you special, it doesn't make you stupid." —13 years old, age at adoption unknown
"Being adopted is special, and it's a part of who you are. Take pride when you say you are adopted, because many people will be interested and find it pretty cool that you are." —16 years old, adopted at 10 months
"Always remember that you are very lucky to have amazing parents who love you! Just know that you are special and you are meant to be with the family you are with. Your adopted parents are just as loving as your birthparents." —11 years old, adopted at 16 months
"Your adoptive parents wanted you because they love you. I don't remember, but I'm sure I was scared that I was going to be part of a family full of strangers, but I have come to love my family very much." —13 years old, adopted at 4 years
"Your parents are your parents. They are not your fake parents or your temporary parents, so you just have to live with them. Another good thing to do is tell your parents your feelings about adoption. For example, my mom used to get me adoption books when I was little. It always bothered me. Like I was 'different.' I finally talked to my mom about how I didn't like talking about adoption." —15 years old, adopted at 2 years
"Do not let kids tell you that your parents are not your real parents because they did not give birth to you. Parents are people who feed, shelter, and nurture you. The grownups who had to give you up are your birthparents. There is a difference." —17 years old, adopted at 33 months
"You are with your family because they are meant to be your family. Family is not based upon biological makeup alone. There are plenty of blood relatives who don’t get along. In fact, I probably get along better with my family than some of my friends (who are not adopted) do. Family is about love, and adopted children should be confident that their adoptive mother is their 'real' mother and their adoptive father is their 'real' father. The same goes for siblings." —17 years old, adopted at 12 months
"If you are curious about your birthparents or adoption, just ask your mom and dad. They won't be offended." —11 years old, adopted at 18 months
"I would sometimes think I wasn't wanted, but my parents put me someplace where I could be found and taken care of and held in a warm parent's arms. They gave me the gift of life and the hope to move on to a bright future, and no one else could give me that gift." —11 years old, adopted at 9 months
"It's hard to understand, since it feels like your birthparents didn't love you, but, as you grow up, you start to realize that maybe they wanted us to have a better life. Things get better. It's hard not knowing that part of yourself, even while you are trying to become your own person, but it's not the end of the world. You will be OK. It just takes a lot of time and understanding to realize that, maybe, they honestly did love you, you were their child, after all." —15 years old, adopted at 2 years
"Don't be afraid to be mad at your birthparents. You've always been told that they are good people who loved you very much, but couldn't keep you. I thought that, since they did something good for me, I couldn't be mad at them. Realizing that I could lifted a big weight off my shoulders." —15 years old, adopted at 7 months
ON RACE AND BIRTH CULTURE
"What's inside really counts, not what's outside. Just because you look different doesn't mean you are worse than anyone else. Differences are what make life exciting. If everyone were the same, life would be really boring." —11 years old, adopted at 1 year
Don't be afraid if you look different from your mom and dad. There are many people like you." —12 years old, adopted at 2 years
"Don't be afraid to ask about your birth country, about your birthparents, or any other questions. When you go to your birth country, have fun. Don't be afraid that you will be 'returned'—your parents love you." —12 years old, adopted at 10 months
I live in a city where not many people are African-American or Asian, so I have always felt sort of weird. I always thought that I was weirder than everybody else, or different, but I'm not. Now, I have a bunch of friends who don't care what ethnicity I am. You just have to understand that it's OK to have parents that don’t look like you, or skin that doesn't look like your peers'—it's all only skin deep." —13 years old, adopted at 13 months
Try to keep in touch with your culture, because it may be all you know about where you are from. A lot of my adoptive friends don't care about adoption, but I feel it's such a huge part of my life, how could I not care? I would regret it if I did not try to keep connected to my culture." —14 years old, adopted at 17 months
Don't try to be the same as your friends who weren't adopted. I know my friends like having an adopted friend, because they often ask me questions. Even though they are usually the same questions, I don't mind answering them." —11 years old, adopted at 10 months
"In my experience, as you get older, you get more comfortable with knowing you were adopted. My classmates and friends treat me like I'm normal, like I'm no more 'different' than they are. If your friends are really friends, they will support you at all times. Just be yourself, and true friends will accept you for who you are." —12 years old, adopted at 9 months
Finding Face-to-Face Friendships
As children progress through elementary and middle school, "fitting in" becomes increasingly important. But kids who joined their families through adoption may feel inherently different. That's why connecting children with other adoptees is powerful. The same aspects that seem to set them apart from classmates -- their adoption stories, the fact that they don't look like their parents, discussions and thoughts about birthparents -- suddenly promote a sense of belonging. How do you help your child find such friendships?
+ Follow up with your adoption agency. Meetings, family events, and children's groups sponsored by adoption agencies are great venues for connecting your child with adopted peers.
+ Stay close with your support group. Many families join adoption support groups when their kids are young, then drift away as school, soccer, and other activities take over. See if you can reconnect with other support group families and start a playgroup or a preteen group, or get together informally.
+ Hang out with other adoptive families. A buddy-family setting allows contact and friendships between children to build through common experiences. Shared holidays, weekend family time, dinners, and outings can foster friendships and bonding, enhancing the "normality" of adopted-peer relationships.
+ Look for peers everywhere. Your child may come in contact with another adoptee at school, in an after-school activity, on a sports team, or within your religious community. Ask friends or family members whether they know any adoptive families with children around the age of your child.
by FRAN EISENMAN
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