Ask AF: Sharing Difficult Details with a Seven-Year-Old

A mother seeks advice on sharing difficult birth family details with her daughter, and how this might affect their open adoption relationship.

Q: My seven-year-old is starting to ask some pointed questions about why she was adopted, and she’s so smart I’m having a harder and harder time answering them. I’m a firm believer in telling the “whole truth,” but I’m struggling with the level of detail I should give to a child this age. Her story includes substance abuse, jail, and other challenges. We have a good open relationship with her birth family, primarily through her grandmother (who is raising her older birth siblings)—so I’m also wondering if talking about her past will lead to her asking her birth father and birth grandmother uncomfortable questions.


Members of respond:

“There is a book that might help with this: Telling the Truth to Your Adopted or Foster Child: Making Sense of the Past, by Betsy Keefer Smalley and Jayne E. Schooler. Your daughter might be wondering why her birth family ‘kept’ her older sibs but not her. I don’t know the answer, but her grandmother may not have had resources, or been older by the time she was born, etc. You could say something like, ‘Your birth mother couldn’t take care of any of her children. Some went to your birth grandmother, but she couldn’t take you because ____. Your birth mom was unable to do what she needed to do in order to be a parent. (If it was a voluntary placement: She chose us because ____.) I hope she gets better one day, but we adopted you and you are staying with us. Your birth parents do love you, but couldn’t take care of you or your siblings.”

“We have been telling our seven-year-old that the reason he was placed was because his birth mother was/is sick. Addiction is definitely an illness. I haven’t answered many questions about his birth father, as we have visits with him and I feel it is his job to say. My husband and I are very careful about what we say about our son’s birth family around him, but something happened just last week that reinforced that children may obtain information from different sources. My son and I were talking about his birth family, and he said that his birth mom was in jail. I was very surprised by this, and responded that, to the best of my knowledge, she currently isn’t in jail, but I don’t know for sure. I believe his brother may have told him this. I always feel is better to honestly answer questions in the most age appropriate way, and think it’s possible to talk about these things without it being adult and ‘heavy.’ Bounce ideas off of others and see how it sounds.”

“Personally, I feel that seven is too young to to be told this much detail. As you consider this, you might ask yourself: What would she do with this information? Would she know what all of this means? Would she treat (or think about) her birth parents differently, and how would that change her? A child at this age might not understand all of the details, would probably not know how to process it, and could potentially share sensitive information with a classmate who may or may not keep it private, and may not understand all of those details. Don’t tell your daughter anything untruthful, but I think you should keep the information simple for now. Remind her how much she is loved by everyone (you and the birth parents).”

“I second the recommendation of Telling the Truth. One thing I found very helpful were the examples of conversations that begin with the young child, and with age-appropriate details ‘grafted on’ as the child grows. In our family, we use the phrase ‘grown-up problems.’ I have told my kids that, whenever a child does not live with birth parents, it is always because of grown-up problems, and that grown-up problems are more complicated than they seem. I have used the example of a few of their friends whose parents are divorced; they live with Mom full-time, although Dad is around. I think it was helpful for my oldest, because it is not just about adoption. We also talk about poor choices. Yes, addiction is a disease, but it is a disease that people have to choose to address, or they die from it. Similarly, a diabetic has to choose to modify his/her diet, take insulin, and change his/her lifestyle in other ways. Otherwise, I think the disease model can be confusing to kids, because they think ‘why can’t the doctor fix it?’ We all know the reality is more complex, but kids are concrete thinkers. More importantly, your kids may start to think, ‘my birth parents had this problem and couldn’t get better. The same thing is going to happen to me.’ We recently had to have a difficult conversation with our oldest, age eight, and he asked a lot of tough questions. I answered what I could, told him I didn’t know when I didn’t have an answer, and asked him what he thought. I will say that it is important to be as truthful as possible, because in the absence of truth, your kids will make something up.”



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