Revealing Painful Adoption Details

Children need to know their full stories before the teen years, when they can understand and still be open to receiving emotional support from parents. Here's why, and how, to explain troubling information.

Tips for revealing painful adoption details to your child.

Alice knew that adoption experts advise sharing any difficult information related to the reasons for a child’s relinquishment before adolescence. Her son, Charlie, was the result of an extramarital affair. Alice had shared the outlines of the story when her son was younger, so Charlie knew that his birth parents weren’t married and had broken up by the time of his birth. But as Charlie approached the age of 12, Alice dreaded having to fill in the details. She began to wonder why Charlie ever needed to know.

Experts encourage revealing painful adoption details in pre-adolescence because preteens can cognitively comprehend the information, and remain emotionally open to parental support as they absorb it.

Our children will certainly process this information in new ways at different stages, but, as Holly van Gulden and Lisa M. Bartels-Rabb explain in Real Parents, Real Children, it is best if they are “revisiting” the information during adolescence, rather than learning it for the first time. On the other hand, if parents wait until the teen years to tell, they risk that the initial reaction will be anger that the information wasn’t shared sooner, followed by mistrust.

Why You Need to Tell

It is understandable for parents to be anxious about sharing difficult information, and to feel an urge to be protective. Some parents may feel preteens are too young to learn about life circumstances they can’t truly comprehend — mental illness, criminal behavior, incarceration, sexual abuse, rape, violence. Other parents worry about distressing their child, or damaging her self-esteem: Will my daughter think she’s “bad” or flawed if she learns that her birth mother did something bad? I have encountered many parents who adamantly state that they will wait until their child is 18, or never tell him “the whole truth.” These parents are doing their children a huge disservice for a number of reasons.

The truth is freeing. As opposed to being hurt by the truth, children who are trying to make sense of why they were placed for adoption find the difficult information enlightening. A teenager who knows that his birth mother was suffering from mental health or substance abuse problems may have an easier time accepting that she could not care for him. It can help a child to feel he has “proof” that his birth mother’s decision not to parent was not due to anything he did.

Information may surface in other ways. If your teen eventually learns from someone else the details you’ve been withholding, it can irreparably damage your relationship. When she was 19, Sarah found her birth mother. During their first meeting, she learned from her birth mother that she was the product of rape. Sarah’s well-meaning parents had never disclosed this, fearing that the revelation could cause her trauma. She felt betrayed and was furious with her parents. She would not allow them to help or support her through her pain.

It’s your child’s story. Every adoptee has a fundamental right to her complete history. Adult adoptees tell us over and over that instead of being “protected,” they want to be told the truth — and to be offered parental guidance to help them cope with their feelings. Being able to integrate full knowledge of their past fills in pieces of their identity puzzle, especially when reunion with birth family members may not be possible.

How to Tell

When you are ready to have a conversation with your preteen, find a time when you don’t have pressing commitments and both of you can spend as long as you need together.

  • Preface your talk. Tell your child that you would like to talk with her about something important. Suggest you sit together somewhere that’s private (away from younger siblings) and comfortable.
  • Review what she already knows about her adoption story and tell her that you feel she is ready to learn more grown-up details. You can say, “Some of the new information may be hard to hear and could upset you. Ask as many questions as you need to, and please know that we can stop the discussion at any time and talk more about it when you’re ready.”
  • Separate people from the choices they have made. When you share information, be careful not to disparage the birth parents. Instead, as Betsy Keefer and Jayne E. Schooler advise in Telling the Truth to Your Adopted or Foster Child, try to help your child develop empathy for the birth parents’ circumstances that may have led to their decisions. This may take a few talks, as your teen may initially feel confused and angry, rather than empathetic.
  • Be open to outside help. Parents must always remember that they do not have to be the sole source of support for their teen. A teen who is processing difficult information can benefit from professional individual counseling or participation in a teen group. (Ask your adoption agency or members of your parent support group for references.)

No matter how difficult or scary the information may seem to you, your child knows, on some level, that adoption did not happen because of good things. He knows that there is a “story” that has to be told. What he wants is to be told the truth by the parents he loves and trusts.

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