When Relatives Hold Dated Views About Adoption

"I need help dealing with unsupportive relatives who seem to think 'adoption' is a dirty word. How can I talk with them about adoption?"

Q: I am adopting a toddler from foster care, and am wondering how to deal with relatives who seem to think “adoption” is a dirty word. My mother even said, “I don’t want to hear you say the words ‘foster’ or ‘adopt’ any more. He is going to start to understand those terms soon, and he shouldn’t know that he was adopted.” This really upset me. I do watch adoption videos, read books, and talk about it a fair amount, but I feel it’s part of who he is and our family’s story. Won’t he deserve to know his background? What can I say to my unsupportive relatives?

A: Sounds like you have a bit of a “generation gap” with your mother. In an effort to be protective, she is espousing dated views about adoption. In preparing to adopt, it sounds like you have spent a good amount of time learning, so you will need to find some ways to help her to get up to speed.

Fortunately, the view of adoption has changed a lot over the years. As a result it is not uncommon for new adoptive parents to need to educate their families, especially those of an older generation or who are unfamiliar with adoption, about how talking with children about adoption is currently viewed. We have learned a lot—from adult adoptees and from developmental research about what children can understand about adoption at different ages. Now we know that kids do best when their parents help them learn about their histories in age-appropriate ways.

There are several ways to help your mother and other relatives learn about adoption. If she is willing to read a book, In On It: What Adoptive Parents Would Like You To Know About Adoption. A Guide for Relatives and Friends, by Elisabeth O’Toole does a nice job of emphasizing both their importance in your child’s life and giving them practical advice and anecdotes from already established adoptive families. Other options include your modeling how you want adoption handled with your child, and, if all else fails, setting boundaries to protect your child’s feelings. Let them know you’d like adoption to be discussed in front of your child, and that you expect them to respect that. And that, if they cannot follow suit, you will do what you need to to protect your child, whether that means correcting misstatements or choosing not to associate with hurtful family members.

Hopefully, over time your family will come to see that your openness about adoption works well for your child, and, in that way, you will be able to change dated views about adoption one child at a time.

is a psychotherapist specializing in adoption. Mantell is the director of the Infertility and Adoption Counseling Center in New York City and Pennington, New Jersey, and is an adoptive mother.

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