Children can be precocious, curious, cute, candid, thoughtful, and inquisitive. Their minds are working a million miles a minute. Rest assured, they are thinking about things that you are not even aware of. They are great observers. They think. They feel. They imagine. They fantasize. Adoptive children are no different. However, with adopted children, there is the added element of wanting to know where they came from. It is their “origin story” that they wish to know, similar to every superhero. It is the missing piece of the puzzle they have been trying to complete for so many years. As an adoptive parent, YOU hold their story in your hands! You have that missing piece. How you present it to them can make all the difference in their perspective on adoption, their perspective on their birth parents, and their perspective on life in general.
If you present their story as you as the superhero rescuing the child from the evil birth parents that will do little to enhance their self-concept or self-image. What if their birth parents had mental illness? Something far beyond their control? Many mental illnesses do not present themselves until puberty. Mental illness is sometimes hereditary. Does that mean that your child is now evil because they inherited their birth parents traits? What if they meet their birth parents one day and find out that they weren’t the monsters they were made out to be? Rather than presenting their story as an us versus them scenario or a good vs evil scenario, it should be presented in as positive a light as possible. Remember, their birth parents story is also their story, not yours! Your adopted child is the superhero in this story!
Consider Chronological Age
When having conversations about birth parents to adopted children you need to take their chronological age into account. The conversation with your young child is going to be a very different conversation with your teen.
– Young children. First of all, early on, children need to know about their adoption if there is no open adoption in place. Long gone are the days when we keep adoption a secret. Adoption is a good thing, not a curse! Second, you need to establish what you going to call the birth parents. Whether it is “Uncle Johnnie” and “Aunt Jane” or “Daddy Tim” and “Mama Nancy” or simply “your birth mom and birth dad,” you need to distinguish the birth mom from yourself as the adoptive mom. Next, never speak ill of the birth parents within earshot of your child. That is a dagger to your child’s heart, whether they have a good relationship with the birth parents or not. Also, with young children, please keep in mind that they think concretely and may have a difficult time with concepts of pregnancy, labor, and delivery. Bottom line is this: keep the information limited, child-centered, and positive.
– Older children. With the popularity of transracial and international adoptions, it is obvious to older children that they look different than their adoptive family. Once they enter school, other children may not only be curious but may be downright mean. Your child may not have any questions about their birth parents until their peers start asking questions. You need to be prepared and nip it in the bud to give your child the tools they will need with interacting with their classmates and the community at large. Below is an imaginary conversation you can prepare your child for:
Classmate: What happened to your “real” parents?
Adopted child: My adopted parents are my real parents. They feed me, clothe me, educate me, provide for me, love me, and gave me their name.
Classmate: No, I meant, your “real,” real parents.
Adopted child: My birth parents were unable to care for me, so my adopted parents came along and made a part of their family.
Classmate: So, you were abandoned?
Adopted child: I was chosen.
It will take some intestinal fortitude and great confidence for your kiddo to be sure about himself. But perhaps a role-play or practice will increase their confidence.
– Adolescence. Teens. Scary. The teenage years are filled with change, self-identification, and exploration. Not only is their body changing, but so are their emotions, their way of thinking, their social circle, and their interests. For the first time in their lives, teens are wondering about spiritual things, like God; abstract things, like love; metaphysical things, like their purpose and place in the world; and for adopted kids, they are wondering about things like, “Where did I come from?” Your teen adopted child will either want to know everything about their birth family or nothing at all. Be prepared, either way.
Consider Developmental Age
The fact of the matter is that adopted children are usually behind their peers, physically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially. They may be 10 years old but behave like a 6-year-old. This is not uncommon. So, when preparing to tell them about their origin story, you may want to delay it until they are mature enough to handle such things. Or you may want to give bits and pieces along the way. Bottom line, if they are not ready to hear the truth about their parents, you should postpone it or frame it in a way that minimizes the emotional trauma of learning the not-so-nice parts of their origin story. Following are some conversations you can have with your kiddo.
“Your mom had an unplanned pregnancy.” As stated above, discussions about sex and pregnancy to a child will be delicate ones. Chronological and developmental age must be taken into consideration. One way or another, conversations with your child about how their mom’s pregnancy was unwanted or untimely, not the child should be carefully thought out.
“Your parents wanted you.” Adopted children sometimes feel an overwhelming feeling of being unwanted. They somehow connect the fact that since their birth parents “did not want” them, that somehow, they are of little worth, as a person. That maybe they were right in not wanting them. But nothing could be further from the truth! Whatever their story was, you, as an adoptive parent, must transmit to your child that first, their birth parents were unable to care for them. Whatever the circumstances, they found themselves in a position where they were unable to care for their child properly. Emphasize that their parents probably still think about them. Secondly, reiterate to your child, they were wanted, and that’s why you adopted them! Have this conversation with them, “You are not unwanted. Your parents were unable to care for you. You are loved. You were chosen. You were adopted.”
“Your parents loved you.” Adopted children sometimes have great feelings of being unloved, or they have an incorrect understanding of what love is. Perhaps they think that placing their child for adoption is an unloving thing. These feelings of being unloved can lead adopted youth to make poor choices by looking for love from unloving people.
On a few levels, their parents did a selfless act. First tell them, “Your parents gave you life. Your birth mom cared for you and carried you in her tummy for nine months and made sure you were born.” As an adult we know full well the options other moms have made, including not carrying a baby to term and aborting the baby. Their birth mom chose not to do that and made a painful, yet loving decision. This should not go unnoticed.
“Your parents weren’t able to raise you.” Think about how much your child needs to know. Tactfulness is called for in these matters. There may be reasons that their parents weren’t able to raise them including mental illness, homelessness, addiction, or poverty. It may be easier to explain that they were “unable to care for a child properly and saw to it that you didn’t have to go through the same thing that they did. They wanted a better life for you.”
“Your parents made a life plan for you.” For many women, private domestic adoption is the opportunity to take a breath and think about the future of their child. Perhaps this is the path their mom chose. Perhaps they went to a pregnancy resource center, which is an excellent place that provides free resources to women facing unplanned pregnancies. They help women to prepare for the future. Perhaps they viewed adoption websites which can help young women who want to place their child in a loving home. They can view prospective adoptive parents’ profiles and match their child to the right home. They can choose the family according to a multitude of categories and feel at peace that the adoptive family can give the child the type of life they cannot. If this was the case for your child’s birth mom, your child needs to know, this type of planning and preparation is an incredibly loving and thoughtful thing to do.
Addiction issues. This is a difficult topic. How do you explain drug addiction to a 5-year-old child? Perhaps, “Mommy is sick,” or “Mommy has made some poor choices,” may suffice. But keeping the conversation to a minimum, saying, “Mommy wasn’t able to care for you,” may be enough. As your adopted child gets older, the realities of drug addiction become clearer and clearer. Whether through TV or movies, your child will know what drug addiction is and will make the connection that it may be what their birth mom struggled with. Through adolescence, it is imperative to stress the dangers of addiction, whether it is through alcohol, drugs, or pornography. Not simply so they don’t “turn into their mom” but for their own general well-being.
Abandonment. This is particularly true in international adoptions but can be true of many domestic adoptions as well. When this is the case, the hard truth is that your kiddo may never be able to reunite with his birth family.
Child raising a child. The truth may be that their mom was a teen when they got pregnant. Your conversation should go something like this: “Wouldn’t it be hard for a child to raise a child? That is what happened to your mom. So she decided to give you life and let a more mature couple take care of you instead.”
Orphan issues. Though rare in domestic adoption cases, this is more of a reality in international adoptions. Your conversation should start like this, “Your mommy is in heaven and there was no other family to look after you. Thank goodness someone found you and placed you at the orphanage. Even though you were not born in our tummy, you were born in our hearts. You are just as much our child as our biological ones.”
Unfortunate Events. The toughest conversations revolve around issues of rape and incest. They deserve to know the truth! That is a tender topic that should probably not be touched until adulthood. Whenever you choose to reveal the truth, you need to reiterate to your child that they are no less valuable than other children who were conceived in the “natural” way.
Here is the bottom line when responding to your child who asks for the whole story about their birth parents: you need to comfort your adopted child or youth and let them know that their adoption was one of the greatest events of your life and that they have been an absolute blessing! Feelings of doubt and sadness about their birth family are natural, and you should encourage them to ask as many questions as possible. Their birth parents are not a threat to your love for them. Even if your relationship has been strained, for whatever reason, that doesn’t change the fact that if, given a choice, you would adopt them all over again! They need to know they were adopted, they were wanted, they were chosen, and they are loved!
Derek Williams is an adoption social worker and has been in the field of child welfare and behavioral health since 2006, where he has assisted families in their adoption journey. He and his wife started their adoption journey in 1993 and have eight children, six of whom are adopted. His adopted children are all different ethnicities including East Indian, Jamaican and Native American. He loves traveling with his family, especially to the East Coast and to the West Coast and is an avid NY Mets fan! Foster care and adoption are his passions and callings for Derek, and he is pleased to share his experiences with others who are like-minded.