When children enter their middle years, the family’s talk about adoption often peters out. Kids don’t ask, so parents don’t offer. They figure their kids have adjusted.
Not so fast, says Dr. Debbie Fravel, an adoption researcher from Indiana University. Adoptive parents must accept that the biological family, known or unknown, is always present in their family. How well a family deals with this reality, Dr. Fravel explains, will directly affect the quality and quantity of communication about adoption in the home.
This is especially true for children ages nine to 12. Though often quiet about their adoptive past, they are really just beginning to understand their adoption story and the losses they have experienced. What can parents do?
If children are not talking about adoption, don’t assume they aren’t thinking about it. While a child should not be forced to discuss adoption-related issues, he should be aware that his parents are open to the subject. Periodically remark about the child’s skills, looks, or interests, indicating that some of these attributes might have come from his birth family.
Learn to be alert for anniversary reactions. A child may experience grief around the time of his birthday or adoption. Instead of allowing him to suffer in silence, parents should anticipate such feelings and help him express them. (“I always think about your birth mother when it’s time for your birthday. Do you think about her too?”) Parents should look for opportunities to let a child know they are not threatened or angry about questions.
Let children know they can love two sets of parents. Children at this stage are concerned about loyalty. They are likely to believe they are disloyal to the adoptive family if they have feelings, or even questions, about their birth family. Children need to know their parents understand that the birth family is psychologically present.
It is okay to have thoughts and feelings about them, and to love both sets of parents. Explain to your child that adults are allowed to love more than one child in a family. Similarly, children can love two sets of parents.
Share difficult information prior to adolescence. Parents may appropriately withhold some more troubling details of a child’s history when the child is too young to comprehend the information. However, as the child approaches adolescence, you should provide details that will help him make sense of his story.
Because adolescents rarely believe what they are told by adults, parents should share whatever information they have prior to adolescence. If more information is needed, parents should re-contact the placing agent and take the child to that agency to get all of the non-identifying information in the case record.
Some adoptive parents are tempted to omit information until a child reaches adulthood. But the child must learn about his history in order to navigate the identity-formation tasks of adolescence. This work cannot be accomplished in a vacuum.
Adapted from Telling the Truth to Your Adopted or Foster Child.