Around ages six to seven, children are capable of more complex thinking and begin to grasp what adoption means. This gives rise to new, sometimes alarming fantasies and fears. While many children daydream about another set of parents — who may be rich, or who don’t make their kids go to bed at 9 P.M. or restrict television shows — the difference for adopted kids is that they actually do have another set of parents.
Between the ages of eight and 10, children have enough biological facts to understand that their birth parents are real people, out there somewhere, even if they don’t know who they are. With this increased awareness, they often begin to wonder who their birth parents are and why they were relinquished for adoption. One savvy nine-year-old, Susanna, even realized that, “Oh, my, I could be living a completely different life.”
This awareness stirs emotions, from incredulity to sadness, disappointment, anger, confusion, and guilt. Kids at this stage may not always express their feelings, so parents should watch for fantasies, and help their child work through his story.
+ “I could have had a different life.”A child may develop an elaborate, detailed account about who her birth parents are, based on fantasy or on her embellishment of bits and pieces that she knows about. One seven-year-old thought a teacher who looked like her was her birth mother. Your child may say, “My birth mother is a princess or a famous actress or rock star,” even after hearing your explanations. Michelle, age nine, fantasized that Jennifer Lopez was her mother. She identified with Lopez’s heritage, beauty, and singing talent.
Imagining better parents may be a haven from distressing realities, or a way to repair the child’s self-esteem. Jason, a bookish 10-year-old, felt like a disappointment to his athletic parents, and imagined his birth parents as “very smart professors.”
Some fantasies fluctuate between positive and negative images (rich and beautiful birth parents can morph into a couple who is mean to children). Children need to know that they can share these feelings with their parents. You can help, just by conveying to your child that his curiosity about his birth parents is normal.
+ “Why didn’t they keep me?” While the politically correct terminology is “made an adoption plan,” and we prefer to use this language to educate young children and the social world, deep inside, adopted children may feel they were “given up for adoption” or rejected. Kids at this age are black-and-white thinkers. So in trying to figure out what happened to them, they typically make someone the bad guy, blaming themselves, their birth parents, or their adoptive parents for the adoption.
Alison, age six, would retreat to her bedroom rather than join in family board games. One day, she told her mother, “You like my brother better than me, just like my birth mother, who kept my brother, because she likes boys better than girls.” David, age seven, has ADHD and has frequently gotten into trouble at school. He said his birth parents “gave me away because I was bad.” Other children fantasize that their adoptive parents kidnapped them from birth parents who really wanted to keep them.
Kristina, age eight, expressed a lot of anger toward her adoptive mother, especially during times of transition. She often missed her school bus, requiring her mother to drive her and be late for work. Kristina said her adoptive parents could have helped her birth mother “with an operation because she was in the hospital,” rather than kidnapping her. This fantasy needed clarification because it was causing Kristina and the family distress. Her parents explained that the birth mother was not ill, but in the hospital because she had given birth to Kristina there. With this knowledge, Kristina was able to begin processing her loss.
Emerson, age seven, knows that her birth mother “looked at a big pile of books,” and picked her parents” because they were kind people.” Emphasizing that your child’s birth mother cared about him may temper his feelings about having been “given up and rejected.”
+ “My birth parents gave me away. Could my parents do the same?” A child who was previously confident about the permanence of his family may suddenly fear that family relationships could be tenuous. Realizing that they were once given up, some children fear it might happen again. Some fear that their birth parents will come back to reclaim or even kidnap them; others fear their adoptive parents will give them back because they are bad.
Seven-year-old Grace frequently chose to do chores rather than play with other children. Her parents came to realize that Grace feared being abandoned if she was not super-good.
When Robert turned eight, he began to play hide-and-seek incessantly, and he delighted in being found (and feeling wanted) by his mother. His well-intended parents had told him a lot about his “middle” family in Korea. Exploration revealed that he expected to have a series of families, “like cars of a train.” He wanted to know that he was in the last car of the train, and that he was very much wanted by his parents.
Ashley, age six, panicked whenever her mother left the house, even to take out the trash. She would exclaim, “Mom, you know how I feel. You have to tell me when you are going out.” Ashley feared another loss, and was unable to understand that her birth mom and her adoptive mom are two different people — and that not all mothers make adoption plans. With parental support and reassurance, Ashley, like most kids, regained her belief in permanence.
The elementary-school years may be a tough stage, yet in offering the opportunities for open and honest discussions, this stage will bring your family closer together, and ensure that it stays that way.