Ask AF: Sharing Negative Information

A reader asks our expert for advice on how to share difficult information about birth parents with her nine-year-old daughter.

Q: My nine-year-old daughter was adopted as an infant. She’s been asking me about her birth parents, so I searched. I was devastated by the information I found, and have no idea when and how to reveal the details. Her birth mother died from complications due to alcoholism; her birth father has done time in prison and is now AWOL.

A: Parents want to protect their children and maintain their innocence, but unsettling information about their birth families is less distressing to children than parents fear it will be. Without facts, children fantasize and consider “what ifs,” but knowledge is grounding and allows them to move forward. If your daughter requested the search, she is likely to ask about it sooner rather than later. Give her honest answers. You might also bring it up before she asks. Withholding information damages trust in any relationship. Nine may seem young, but it is essential to share all you know before puberty, when hormones can interfere with how children accept information. She is likely to take it in stride. For more information, you may want to read Telling the Truth to Your Adopted or Foster Child.

I find conversations in the car are less intimidating for a child (and more focused) than those at home, especially those held across a table. You can remind her that she asked you to search and say that you have some information, but maybe not everything she wants. The conversation will likely flow easily. When you let her know that her birth mother has died, she will probably ask how, and she will likely experience some grief. Make sure that you also share what you know about her birth father. Remember that these people are a part of your daughter, so you should speak about them with respect and without judgment.

You can continue the search for extended birth family who might provide positives about birth parents to ease the pain of what you discovered. Ask your daughter how much further she would like to search and when.

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