"Don't Tell Anyone I Was Adopted"

The school year brings the realization that not every child has two sets of parents. Here's how to help your child cope.

How to deal with adoption embarrassment

Merrilee was six when she began to act embarrassed when her mother mentioned that Merrilee had been adopted. She would squirm, pull at her mother’s hand, and loudly announce that she was not adopted. “She used to be so proud of her adoption, and suddenly she’s denying it,” said Merrilee’s mother.

It’s not uncommon for children at this age to become embarrassed by talk of adoption. Why the sudden change of heart?

Understanding Her Story

By age six or seven, children begin to realize that adoption has its downsides, as well as its benefits. At this stage, many children realize, for the first time, how it feels to be different, and adoption makes a child feel different–even a child adopted domestically into a family that racially matches the child.

The child now understands that, although she gained a wonderful forever family, a birth family was lost in the process. This is also the age when your child begins to question whether her parents are so wonderful–she may decide that her birth mother would have given her an extra cookie, for instance. This is when you may hear for the first time, “You’re not my real mother.”

The self-awareness that a six- to eight-year-old is developing includes an expanded awareness about family. For example, a five-year-old knows that she has cousins; a six-year-old realizes that Mom and Dad have cousins, too. As a child’s mental capacity grows, his mind revisits the meaning of adoption. His birth parents are not just characters in a story any more, but real people who made choices, including the choice not to parent him.

As a six- to eight-year-old child begins to explore what this means emotionally, the topic of adoption becomes touchy. Some children, like Merrilee, deny their own adoption. At this developmental stage, mourning often begins for that first, lost family, even if that family is not known.

“Laying Low”

Denial is a sign that adoption talk needs to be kept private for a while, giving the child time to process her new thoughts and feelings. If it is not necessary to mention adoption to anyone at school, let the topic go.

However, knowing that the subject might arise, talk with your child about how she wants to deal with it. Does she want you to quickly change the subject, or would she prefer to answer herself? This is the time to coach your child to say, if she is willing, “I was adopted, but the subject is private. I prefer not to talk about it.” And move on.

Even though you’re laying low about adoption in public, keep the conversation alive at home, where she feels safe. I suggested that Merrilee’s parents encourage her to share her ideas and feelings about why her first family made an adoption plan, or anything else about adoption that is on her mind.

The long-term goal is for your child to regain her comfort with her adoption status; your patience will hasten the arrival of that day.

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