Ask AF: Sharing Painful Birth Parent News with My Child

"I just discovered that my daughter's birth mother died. My daughter is a preteen and rarely asks about her birth parents. Should I tell her this now, or wait? And, if so, how do I bring it up?"

Q: Our preteen daughter has been living with us since she was 10 months old, and we adopted her when she was two. She hasn’t had contact with either of her birth parents since her first birthday. I just discovered that her birth mother died a week ago in a car crash. Should I tell my daughter this now, or wait? And, if so, how do I bring it up? She has rarely asked about them, but I don’t like hiding things from her. At the same time, I don’t want to cause her any pain.

A: I can only imagine the pain you must be feeling to have to share something so upsetting with your daughter.

Let me first address what you said about your daughter not asking about her birth parents. It is not unusual for children and teens to rarely talk about or ask questions about their birth parents. Sometimes it is because the kids aren’t sure how to put their questions or feelings into words. They may feel that it is disloyal to their adoptive parents to bring the subject up. Consequently, parents are encouraged to take the lead in bringing up the topic of birth parents, especially at times when it can feel natural to do so—birthdays, Mother’s/Father’s Days, holidays, and so on. This sends the message that thoughts, feelings, and questions about birth parents are important and that the child can and should freely express them.

Parents may be reluctant to take this lead for fear of causing their children pain. In our clinical experience at C.A.S.E., it’s the silence and discomfort children perceive from their adoptive parents that can cause angst. Talking about feelings may be painful, but bottling up feelings is much worse. Having someone to listen and provide support can provide both healing and great comfort. Teens and adults tell us all the time that they don’t want to be protected—they want the information that belongs to them and they want their parents to help them through the challenge of handling and coping with that information.

As a preteen, your daughter is old enough to be told the truth. I recommend first mentioning the fact that she doesn’t seem to ask questions or talk much about her birth parents. Then you can say something like, “I have something extremely sad but important to share about your birth mother. Would you like me to share that with you now?” Giving her control is both sensitive and respectful. She will likely say yes, but we have encountered teens who have indicated that they are not ready when offered information.

Your concern about not wanting to hide information from your daughter makes good sense. If you decide to wait, and tell her later, you risk her being upset that you didn’t tell her at the time when you found out what had happened. Trusting you is important. We rarely find that teens are angry that their parents shared difficult information with them. More often, we find teens feeling betrayed when parents withhold information.

Since this may certainly be upsetting information to process, I would recommend that you have the professional assistance of an adoption-competent therapist available for your daughter and your family to help guide you if needed. I wish you the best.

is a senior adoption competent therapist and training coordinator at the Center for Adoption Support and Education (C.A.S.E.), in Burtonsville, Maryland, with more than 30 years of experience providing individual, couple/marital and family therapy to prospective parents, adoptive parents, adult adopted persons, and expectant/birth parents. She is a mother by adoption and by birth.

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