When 4-year-old Sasha was asked at an adoption workshop to build a nest for a teddy bear and fill it with symbols representing the most important things the little bear would need, he had a knee-jerk reaction to the subtle yet evocative exercise. “He loudly announced that he didn’t like the project,” says Sasha’s mom, Adoptive Families reader Susan Tombrello, of Huntington Beach, California. Sasha sat for a while, but eventually decided to return to the group. He finished his nest, showing it proudly to his parents—and then the floodgates opened.
“He wanted to sleep in our bed every night for a week,” Tombrello explains, “demanding assurances that we weren’t going to leave him. And he asked about his adoption story, wanting to know everything about his birth parents in Russia.” While the session stirred things up for Sasha in ways his parents had not anticipated, they were glad that he was able to work through these fears at an early age. “In the long run, it was a positive and helpful experience that I would encourage other families to be open to,” she says.
The Work of Workshops
Adoption classes, workshops, support groups, and camps geared toward adoptees are proliferating across the country. While some are designed to introduce younger children, such as Sasha, to their feelings about adoption, most are focused on children aged 7 through 12, with an emphasis on self-esteem, identity, and birth family. “Younger children often think of adoption as fun and exciting,” says social worker and adoption educator Jane Brown, who holds her acclaimed Adoption Playshops throughout the United States. “But for kids in middle childhood, there’s not the same ease.”
Why this behavioral shift? As their reasoning skills develop, children begin to conceptualize what it means to be adopted—to understand both the loss and the discovery associated with the experience. As Rutgers University adoption researcher and clinical psychologist D.M. Brodzinsky, Ph.D., has written, there is now “a flip side to [a child’s] beloved adoption story—that in order to be chosen, he first had to be given away.”
Experts agree that preteen adoptees are especially vulnerable to issues surrounding identity, because they’re entering a heightened social sphere, a world often dominated by peer pressure. Make no mistake, says Brown, “they are well aware that adoption and race carry a stigma.” Resulting feelings can seriously shake self-esteem.
Yet many parents of older adoptees hit a wall when it comes to talking with their children about—much less helping them with—these issues. That’s where the workshops come in. One of the most beneficial aspects of these programs, parents say, is that they offer increasingly peer-conscious kids the opportunity to be with other children who are also adoptees. “It’s about support and the fact that other kids are very similar to them,” says LaDonna Weber, whose two children participate in Team Time, a three-times-yearly workshop for 8- to 12-year-old adoptees offered by Bethany Christian Services in Indianapolis.
Weber enrolled her kids, both adopted from Korea, in the program after finding out that her daughter was nervous about attending a new school. “My daughter said to me, ‘This school is another place where kids will ask me about my eyes.’” But after only the first day at Team Time, Weber’s daughter said, “All the kids look like me. All the families look like us.”
What’s In It for the Kids?
Whether in a two-hour session or a quarterly support group, the common goal is to provide children with tools to handle adoption feelings, build self-worth, and help improve social skills, like cultivating friendships and participating in groups.
What Kids Learn:
Lesson 1: There’s comfort in familiarity.
A recurring theme among older adopted kids is that they feel different from other children. The commonality they experience at adoption workshops is an obvious comfort zone. But the programs offer additional ways to help their participants feel secure. Many agencies and organizations incorporate a mentorship model, in which older adoptees mentor younger children, or they hire counselors and facilitators who themselves are adoptees and/or adoptive parents. “Having facilitators who are adoptees helps create an atmosphere of openness,” says clinical psychologist Rebecca Nelson, Ph.D., who was adopted from Korea. For Adoptive Families Today (AFT) in Arlington Heights, Illinois, Dr. Nelson developed the curriculum and facilitated an eight-week workshop for 8- to 10-year-olds last winter.
Lesson 2: It’s good to talk about birth families.
Whether they want to talk about their birth parents or not, most adopted kids have strong feelings about them—feelings they’re often not willing to share with parents. A primary goal of adoption workshops is to help children come to terms with these feelings. In an AFT workshop session, for example, Dr. Nelson had each child bring an item from around the time of their adoption to share with the group. She did this to encourage continuity of identity, the connections between their pre-adoption life and their life with their parents. Most of the children in the group were adopted as infants and so brought blankets or bottles. One child brought a flag from his birth country. “It was a powerful session,” says Dr. Nelson. “As the children gained comfort with one another and the facilitators, who were also adoptees, they wrapped themselves in their blanket or snuggled with their chosen item while others shared feelings about being adopted, their birth parents, and so on.”
Dr. Nelson also helped the kids create an adoption story describing where they were born and what they knew about their birth parents. “For most of them,” she says, “it was the first structured way they ever told their story, including both positives and negatives.”
Lesson 3: There are many ways to express themselves.
To get kids to open up, workshops often employ tested children’s-therapy techniques. For example, kids may participate in multi-sensory activities incorporating art or music to tell their story or work through an idea or feeling.
When Sasha made his teddy-bear nest, he began to understand, albeit reluctantly at first, that a loving home for a child is about getting what he needs to feel secure.
In another workshop, children created human “family sculptures,” in which they shaped pictures of their families using the other children in the room. Each child identified which family members the others represented and were directed to “sculpt” the kids together to show family members’ closeness. Then the sculptor was given the opportunity to rearrange the picture. Some children included birth parents they had never met as part of their sculpture. This was a dramatic way to visualize family relationships and empower the children to change the emotional dynamics of their families.
Lesson 4: They can talk back—if they want.
Another common focus of workshops is helping kids learn to handle intrusive questions and comments. A number of middle-childhood programs use an approach called the WISE Up curriculum, created by the Center for Adoption Support and Education (C.A.S.E.) in Silver Springs, Maryland. The acronym WISE teaches children to Walk away, say “It’s private,” Share something, or Educate someone. Through role-play and other activities, WISE Up helps children determine which of these responses fits best in which situation.
Other agencies use proprietary materials that mirror the WISE Up method of interaction. At a day camp sponsored by the Adoptions Together agency in Baltimore, for example, kids learn a technique called TIP: Tell. Ignore. Keep Private.
Lesson 5: Their parents are there for them.
Agencies that run adoption support groups and workshops usually provide concurrent sessions for parents, where adults can discuss their concerns as well as keep abreast of tasks children are being asked to perform in their own groups. The adult sessions often give parents tips on engaging in meaningful dialogue with their children. Parents learn how developmental stages influence children’s knowledge and perceptions of themselves as adoptees.
Simultaneous support groups clarify perceptions both parents and children hold. Ronny Diamond, director of Spence-Chapin agency’s Adoption Resource Center in New York City, describes a revealing workshop incident: “One child said, ‘I don’t like to talk about my birth mother because I get sad. And when I get sad, my mom gets sad.’” Many parents don’t realize what their kids think—a compelling reason for agencies to include parents.
Lesson 6: They can confront racial issues.
The gap between parent and child is especially pronounced when it involves race-based concerns. According to Jane Brown, the majority of transracially adopted children will have experienced some kind of race-based encounter by age 8. Yet only about 40 percent of their parents are aware of these incidents. Support groups give children a safe place to discuss these experiences and parents the awareness of what their children are facing. The groups also provide tools to help kids and parents respond to some of the difficult questions people ask, such as: “Are those your real parents?” and “Why do you have slanted eyes?”
LaDonna Weber’s Korean-born children have found a harbor of support in Bethany’s Team Time program. To reinforce the idea that adoption, along with often-accompanying racial-identity concerns, are lifelong experiences, Team Time brings in teen-adoptee mentors and a Korean-born facilitator, Lanna, who adopted five children from her country of birth. Because she came to the United States when she was 7, Lanna faced many of the same situations as Team Time’s young participants, many of whom are Korean. Lanna can often say, “Yeah, I remember when that happened to me. This is what I felt.”
When a Team Time member turns 13, he doesn’t have to leave the group. Rather, he gets to advance to a new role—that of mentor. “He serves as a role model, which is vital for the younger children,” says Melitta Payne, Bethany’s director of international services. “And that position enhances the mentor’s own self image, providing positive feelings about his identity.”
Lesson 7: Their special needs get special attention.
Of course, different children and families have different needs. Rebecca Caldwell of Roswell, Georgia, adopted three children between the ages of 6 and 10 through the state foster care system. Every Saturday, her children attend a support group offered through the Giving Tree, an Atlanta agency. “Going every week gives them stability,” says Caldwell. “They hang out with kids in the same situation and do skits and projects that help with social interaction. Their social development is not quite where it should be, so this is very helpful.”
While some children begin workshop experiences early, as did Sasha Tombrello, others resist. But it’s never too late, attests adoptive mother Janice White. Her 12-year-old daughter, Kim, didn’t like discussing adoption in general—and her birth parents in particular—and she flatly refused to attend groups or camps for adoptees. But last summer her mom persuaded her to enroll in a weeklong self-esteem and social-skills day camp offered by Adoptions Together in Baltimore. What changed Kim’s mind was the program’s focus on horseback riding.
Horses notwithstanding, the camp’s adoption sessions had a remarkable effect on her, says White, recalling one incident in particular. Kim had come home upset after a discussion about the kids’ anger toward their birth parents, which was initiated through art and music activities. But that night she wanted to hear about her birth mother and to see the records from her adoption—for the first time. As she said to her mom, “I’m ready.”
At-Home Workshop Activities
Whether or not your child has attended an adoption workshop, you can use similar activities at home to foster dialogue about adoption, family, and race.
Here are some activities to try:
- Make a home together.
Cut poster board into two house shapes, one for your child and one for you. Then each of you draws who lives in your house. Afterward, talk about whom you put in your house. Next, suggest that you both draw in people who are important to you, but do not live with you—people who are not in your lives but are in your hearts. Give examples, such as grandparents, birth family members (parents, siblings), a caregiver, and so on. Again, talk about whom you added and why—and about what a family is.
- Write to your child’s birth mother.
Ask your child, “If you could tell your birth mother anything now, what would it be?” And share what you would tell his birth mother. Together, write down the things you’ve shared, put the note in an envelope, and keep it in a chosen spot. Revisit the note at a future time; add new thoughts, or write a new note.
- Draw a birth parent.
If your child doesn’t know her birth parents, ask her to imagine one. Suggest that she look in the mirror and pick out features that one of her birth parent might have, then incorporate them into a picture. Ask her to talk about her drawing. This gives you both an oppportunity to talk about birth family and your child a chance to explore thoughts and fantasies about her birth and adoption.
Is Your Child Ready?
Psychologist Rebecca Nelson suggests these ways to assess whether your child would benefit from a workshop:
- Introduce the idea to her and provide information about the workshop, then see how she responds. Let your child know that you want her input, and be sure to respond in a non-defensive, open-ended fashion, so she feels comfortable communicating.
- If your child is asking questions related to adoption, he’s probably ready to explore adoption in an age-appropriate group. Questions include: “Why was I adopted?” “What happened that my birth parents could not keep me?” “What did my birth parents look like?”
- If your child never inquires about adoption matters, she may still benefit from an adoption workshop. In fact, some children may feel more comfortable talking about themselves with peers who were adopted. If you’re still uncertain after talking with your child, discuss the idea with an adoption professional.
- If your child strongly resists the idea of an adoption workshop, try to understand where he’s coming from and help him to process mixed or negative feelings. This in itself can present a good opportunity for family discussion about adoption. Your child may still benefit from a workshop, but in some cases, individual or family counseling with an adoption professional may be more appropriate.
- There may be other, more pressing concerns that need to be addressed before adoption-related issues. Socio-emotional or behavioral issues, familial relationships, or even academics may need attention before your child is ready for an adoption workshop.
- Finally, to find out about the workshop you’re considering, and to make sure your feelings are in line with the workshop’s philosophy, ask these questions:
- What are the facilitator’s training and experience?
- How old are the kids?
- Will it be one gender or mixed?
- Is it geared toward domestic, international, or a mix of adoptees?
- What’s the main focus of the workshop— birth parents, self-esteem, race?
- What happens when my child doesn’t want to participate? How do you respond?
- If we have questions afterward, is there someone to follow up with?