Ask AF: How to Explain to My Child That His Birth Mother Was Addicted to Drugs?

My child's birth mother has a drug addiction. How should I explain this to him? How can I do so without sounding judgmental about his birth mother?

Q: How do you share the incredibly difficult information that your child's birth mother has a drug addiction? My child is six and asking more questions about his birth mother. We talk about adoption, and I've told him that his birth mother was “ill” and unable to care for any baby when he was born, but I feel like I need to start filling in the details. He does have ADHD, but we can’t know whether that’s in any way connected to the prenatal exposures or not. How can we talk about this without sounding judgmental about his birth mother?

A: I agree that you need to fill in details for your child. Otherwise, your child could worry that you won't be able to take care of him the next time you are ill. Just try to be matter of fact.

If your child is six, he has probably heard about drug problems at school or in the news. You could say, "We've talked about the fact that your birth mother had an illness. She couldn't take care of you because she used illegal drugs and was unable to stop. Doctors give us drugs sometimes to make us better, but illegal drugs means she was taking them without the doctor's order. Some people who do this can stop and some people cannot. She was unable to take care of a baby when she was using drugs. We hope she is better now, but do not know. But, even if she gets better, you are staying with us."

Answer any questions your child asks as best you can. If you do not know an answer, simply say that you do not know. I wouldn't speculate about a link to his ADHD; if you did, it might give him the attitude that he "can't," when he does need to try. When you talk about that diagnosis, just help him understand that we all have limitations (i.e., I can't sing and am not good at languages, etc.).

From your question, it sounds like the adoption is closed. If that's not the case and it's open, be sure the birth family knows what you told the child/how you explained drug addiction.

—REGINA M. KUPECKY, LSW
is a co-author of Parenting the Hurt Child: Helping Adoptive Families Heal and Grow, Adopting the Hurt Child: Hope for Families with Special-Needs Kids - A Guide for Parents and Professionals, and therapeutic workbook series The Adoption Club. Kupecky also co-authored The Mystery of the Multiple Mothers: A Cub County Caper, a mystery novel with an adoption theme, with her brother. She has been working with adoptive families and children for more than 35 years, and recently retired as a therapist at Adoption & Attachment Therapy Partners, in Broadview Heights, Ohio.
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