Gearing Talks to Your Child’s Development

Children interpret their adoption stories in different ways at different ages. Here's how you can help them understand it.

Adoption expert Lois Melina on talking with adopted children about unknown birth family information

Children are able to grasp different aspects of their adoption stories at different ages. Through the years, let your child’s ability to understand guide your ongoing discussion of how your family came to be.

Years ago, parents communicated with their children less directly than we do. A carefully chosen book about adoption (or reproduction) would be left on the child’s bed. The parent might say, “If you have any questions after you read this book, ask me.” The child who didn’t ask was assumed to be content with the information he got from the reference. Parents today are more proactive about communicating with their children, and more interactive. While this tends to promote deeper understanding, it’s also possible to go overboard. Parents can achieve balance by recognizing what children can understand about adoption at different ages as well as the limits to their understanding.

Knowing Our Stories

Most of us believe that we each have a right to our own story — to the truth about who we are and what has happened to us on this journey of life. That belief sometimes conflicts with our instinct to protect our children.

In telling our children that they were born to one set of parents who then decided to turn their care and family membership over to another set of parents, we know we are exposing them to the reality of loss. By telling our children the truth about the circumstances of their birth and entry into our families, we may open them up to feeling abandoned or rejected by their birth families.

Most of us have heard adoptees talk about the sense of loss they have experienced as a result of separation from their birth families.

But we have also heard them say how their adoptive parents have made them feel. Many have felt — quite accurately — that their lives were saved by adoption. How our children interpret their own adoption stories is, to a great extent, beyond our control as parents. Most adoptive parents have heard that it is inadvisable to tell an adoptee that they “chose” him over all the other babies.

Although the rationale is to emphasize that the child was wanted (to counter any feeling that he was unwanted), many adoptees have said this story left them feeling burdened by expectations. How could they live up to the hopes and beliefs that went into their selection? If they didn’t measure up, could they be un-chosen? Some tell us what a comfort it was to hear that they’d been chosen: “It made me feel special.” Is it unusual to want to feel that we are special to our parents?

Two children in a family can interpret the same circumstances differently. The story of a mother’s carrying a high-risk pregnancy to term can make one child feel wanted, while it makes another child feel guilty that her conception placed her mother at risk. Yet another might believe that a “higher-risk” child has to accomplish something extraordinary to make the risk worthwhile. It would be nice if our children saw their stories as we see them. But we don’t know why some adoptees see being chosen as a burden, while others take comfort from it. We don’t know why some look at relinquishment as rejection and carry the belief that they are inherently unworthy of love.

Examine your feelings for hidden attitudes and expectations that might creep into nonverbal communication. Then communicate openly, and with unconditional love, the experience of adopting children. Acknowledge your array of emotions in dealing with infertility (if that was a factor) and adoption, recognizing that children also experience a variety of emotions. In doing so, we show them that a single event can evoke a variety of responses, and that we can choose how to react.

Developmental Stages

When children are young, they don’t need a lot of information about their origins. We needn’t go out of our way to construct opportunities to talk about adoption. Toddlers want details, but preschoolers really can’t understand the concept of a child moving from one set of parents to another without changing their biological origins. They may be able to tell their story, but that doesn’t mean they understand it. That will have to wait until they’re old enough to understand reproduction.

During these early years, the adoption stories that parents tell their child should be accurate but basic, allowing for more details to be added as the child grows and can understand more complexity. For example, parents can simply say that the child was born in Los Angeles, but that her birth mother and birth father couldn’t take care of “any child born to them at that time.” Parents can add that they wanted to have a child join their family and talked to a woman who told them about a child who could become their daughter. They can say that it was sad when the child had to leave her birth parents, but that they are happy to be a family. And, of course, children love to hear, “And that little girl was you!”

Around the age of four, children begin to understand that events happen outside the present moment. Their parents were once babies. Grandma and Grandpa live in another place. This leads to curiosity about the time when they were babies — or not even born! The door is open to discuss the conception and birth of a child. Because the four-year-old has limited experience beyond her own family, she is likely to be accepting of whatever process allowed her to find her way into her family.

It isn’t until the middle childhood years — ages seven to 11 — that children begin to compare their own lives and experiences to those of others, and to react to those differences.

During these years many children become curious about details — were their birth parents married? What did they look like? Do they have any other children? Parents may see that their children are experiencing adoption as a loss, feeling insecure, or feeling unworthy.

In the middle childhood years, children are soaking up information, and unless the information is so disturbing that it needs to wait until the child is more mature, this is a good time to share it. If there is a letter the birth mother wrote to the child at the time of relinquishment, or even a photograph of the birth mother, introduce it now.

Children at this age are also honing their problem-solving skills, trying to solve puzzles and figure out riddles. This is a time to engage them in exploring some of the mysteries about their origins, again being open to natural opportunities rather than constructing artificial occasions. Parents can say, “How old do you think your birth parents were? Why do you think birth parents make an adoption plan for a child? What would it be like to be raised by someone who was 17?”

It is not just our job to provide information to our children, but also to attend to how they are interpreting the information and how they are reacting emotionally to it. We can encourage our children to tell us their story, to draw it, to write letters to their birth family (even if they are “imaginary” letters because we don’t know where to find the birth parents). In these ways, our children can put the pieces of their lives together, and we can get a window through which to see how that picture looks to them. Ultimately, we can validate the feelings of our children, and help them understand that they can choose how they want to feel about their own stories.


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