Telling children difficult details in their personal histories (e.g., conception from rape or incest, a parent in prison) is something parents hesitate to do. Parents naturally want to protect their children, and what children don’t know can’t hurt them, right? Wrong! Most secrets eventually come to light. And when they do, the fact that they remained secrets tells the child that he or she should feel ashamed. Adopted children need to know their entire life stories, not just the good parts. But when should you share difficult information?
The Right Age
Most parents’ first inclination is to put it off until the child is a teenager. But adolescence, hard enough for most young people, is probably one of the worst possible developmental stages for children to learn about difficult family history. Although teens can understand the information, they’re inclined to think, “If my birth parents were…, then that means I must be….” Such internalizing can lead to self-destructive thoughts and behaviors, especially if the young person decides he or she must be more like the birth parents than like you. A better time to first share difficult information is around the age of 8. This allows a few years for the child to work through the “hard stuff” and for you to emphasize that poor choices made by one generation are not genetically predestined for repetition in the next.
How to Tell
Telling will not be easy, and you may want to consult a psychologist or social worker for guidance. You might also turn to this professional for family and individual counseling as your child deals with the information. Consider the following whenever sharing difficult personal information with a child:
•Check the facts. Before telling your child potentially disturbing information, make sure it’s true. Sometimes vital information included in adoption records is actually supposition, innuendo, or interpretation.
•Check out the source. Did he or she seem to be making value judgements? Was there proof? Even if you believe the recorded information was false or skewed, you still need to share it because your child may eventually find out about it through adoption records. If you doubt the information, present it saying something like: “The social worker believed your birth mother was a prostitute because…It may or may not be true.”
•Be aware of your own feelings and judgments. Explore your values by completing open-ended sentences like: “A person who commits rape is…,” “A victim of rape is…,” or “A person in prison is…” Even if you never say a word, your child will pick up your feelings through body language or facial expressions. It’s better to admit to yourself and your child how you feel and then, as a family, practice separating feelings about the birth parent’s actions from the birth parent as a person.
•Evaluate your child’s current functioning. Some times are better than others for sharing difficult information. If your child is already struggling with a negative self-image, anger, grief, or attachment issues, you need to help your child work through these difficulties before loading on another. Again, professional counseling may be necessary. Waiting until your child is feeling great can also be a mistake. Your child may conclude that no matter what he or she accomplishes, there will always be something bad about himself or herself waiting to reveal itself. Choose a neutral time.
•Plan what you will say. The goal is to be open, honest, and caring. Convey the information with as few biases as possible. Write down your thoughts and the words you want to use. Your child may need time and support to work through the information. Validate your child’s feelings. Allow your child access to adults — family, friends, clergy, or other professionals — he or she trusts to talk with about feelings. Seek similar support for yourself if you feel overwhelmed. Working through the difficult information together can be an experience that, in the end, brings you and your child closer.