Q: My daughter is 13. She came to live with us as a foster placement at age six, and we adopted her at age eight. After years of seeming OK about being adopted, she has become sad and angry about it recently. The sister she shares a room with tells us that she cries at night. We have also noticed her slightly bullying the younger kids in our house. A few weeks ago, two of our long-term foster children left our house to go live with an aunt. This has been hard on all of us. My teen made some comments, saying she wondered if “my family would’ve come back for me if you hadn’t adopted me.” How can I help her deal with her new emotions?
A: As children develop, their understandings of adoption, loss, permanency, loyalty, and rejection change. What your daughter comprehended as an elementary school-aged child and what she understands as a teenager are different. Adoption is a lifelong issue and needs to be revisited often. As you suspect, your family’s current situation may have triggered these new feelings about her past and her future.
You definitely need to talk about her sadness and share in it with her, but instead of outing her sister, say something like: “I miss ____ and ____ so much. When they left, I started to think about you. When you were our foster daughter, the plan was for you to go back to your birth parents. That didn’t happen because __________. Once the judge said that wasn’t going to happen, we were able to adopt you. If we hadn’t adopted you, someone else would have. You were not going back to your birth parents because that is what was decided—not by us, but by the judge [or ‘by your birth mother’ or whatever is the truth]. It wasn’t your fault. You can miss her and love her and love us too. You do not have to choose.”
You might continue and say, “I bet sometimes you are sad that you didn’t get to go back to your birth parents. Some children turn their sadness into anger, and I noticed you are not being very nice to the other children. I was wondering if that is because you are sad. When we don’t talk about our sadness, sometimes it gets bigger. When I am feeling sad, I talk to _____. When you are sad, I want you to tell me and I will help you. Adoption is permanent; we can’t change it. If you decide you want to meet your birth family [if you don’t currently have contact], we can help you.”
You daughter is probably feeling conflicted in terms of her loyalty, and having two feelings at the same time—sad about her birth parents but happy with you. You must be careful, however, not to make statements like, “We are glad this happened so that we could have you” or “We feel like this was meant to happen and we are happy to have you.” You would never say to a widow who is remarrying, “I am so glad husband one died so you could have husband two.”
You might want to read “The Seven Core Issues of Adoption” with her. One way to open the conversation is to write the feelings on separate index cards and ask her to put them in order from highest, or strongest, feeling to lowest.
If your daughter doesn’t have a lifebook, which tells her story from birth and the years before she joined your family, writing one might be a good project at this time. I also wrote a series of workbooks/coloring books/journals for adoptees. The one called Let’s Learn about Adoption may help to share feelings.
If your daughter seems reluctant to open up or her feelings seem to escalate, counseling with someone who understands adoption can help. Local adoption agencies may be able to give you a good referral.