If you are reading this, you probably fall into one of these categories. Either you are considering or beginning the international adoption process or you have already adopted internationally. Whichever situation you are in, I’m sure you want to help your international adoptee feel comfortable. This is a hefty subject. However, that does not mean it has to be impossible. There is a lot that goes into it, but overall, it is fairly easy to do your part in this process.
I certainly cannot provide every perspective on the matter, but I have taken some tips from both my personal experience as an international adoptee and other people’s experiences in hopes of giving you some direction and perspective. I will start with some practical steps you can take, then I will discuss some of the heavier, more emotional aspects you may want to prepare for. Here are some practical things you can do right now:
Help by Giving Them Books
Get them age-appropriate books that feature either adoption stories or their culture. This is not limited to children’s books! There are plenty of stories out there for all ages, races, and forms of adoption. All it takes is a quick Google search or you can ask your local librarian. You can start with smaller books to read to them when they are young, then offer more mature novels as they continue growing up to keep that connection. When I was younger, I loved when my mom would read books like I Love You Like Crazy Cakes by Rose Lewis and A Mother For Choco by Keiko Kasza. Now, I can appreciate novels such as The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.
Find other forms of media with good portrayals of adoption or your child’s birth culture. Particularly when we are young, we want to see ourselves in the media because in a way that makes us feel good. This might explain my childhood obsessions with Mulan and the musical Annie. They were sources of entertainment that told me I could be strong and positive, and I believed them even more so than other films because I could relate to the main characters. Go see what you can find to inspire your child!
Take Part in Holidays and Celebrations
Celebrate a cultural holiday with them. Whichever holidays and special occasions their culture may participate in, look into them a bit and see if you can join in. For me, this was Chinese New Year. We would go to parties each year that were held by the adoption agency or the community group and be surrounded by the culture. I grew up with at least one day per year where I would wear silks and parasols, attempt to eat dumplings with chopsticks, and learn about whichever Chinese Zodiac animal was focused on that year. Although we do not have large parties anymore, we still make an effort to mention and celebrate in some way. Look up holidays related to your adoptee’s culture, and see if there are any public groups you could join, or maybe try making a traditional recipe together.
Visiting the International Adoptee’s Birth Country Can Help Them Feel Comfortable
Plan a trip to their birth country. I should emphasize, this is not some kind of mandatory step you must take to ensure their security or anything. Nothing bad will happen if you cannot afford it or do not want to go. It is just something that some adoptive parents do for their adoptees that can add some perspective for both parties. If it is in your power, it may be a lovely experience and might help your international adoptee feel comfortable.
Use Positive Adoption Language
Use positive and open language when discussing their adoption. Your child and many others will have questions about their birth parents and adoption. It is important that you mind your words when answering them because children pick up on small nuances. When you frame their birth parents as giving them up, they notice. When someone asks who their real parents are, they notice. Instead, try saying, “your birth parents may not have had the means to care for you, but they still loved you”. You can subtly combat the real parents comment by asking for clarification saying, “Do you mean their birth parents?” Paying attention to and changing the way we speak about adoption can truly help a child’s self-esteem.
Responding to Insensitive Questions
Teach your adoptee how to respond to insensitive questions. This is a bit related to the previous points. Unfortunately, there are plenty of misconceptions about adoption out there, and no one is exempt from the classic “So who’s your real family?” question or “How much did you cost?” (yes, that is a real question I and other adoptees have been asked). If you are unsure of how to answer them yourself, it is okay. It is definitely a tricky subject that we could spend a whole other article on. Instead, I will direct you to this one, which has some awesome tips for these situations. Remember that the way you answer these questions may help your international adoptee feel comfortable.
Do research on their culture. Learn about what makes their birth country unique and how they live their lives. Make connections with people willing to be racial mirrors so that your child can see themselves in other people. In case you were unfamiliar, a racial mirror is a term for someone, usually an adult, who is of the same race as an adopted child and takes them under their wing. They can be family, friends, or even coworkers and other acquaintances. Having an in-depth knowledge of your adoptee’s background can be the beginning of new conversations with them, and it shows respect in that you went out of your way to learn about their heritage.
Try Learning a Bit of Their Language
In most cases, you do not have to be fluent or even proficient, but even a few words can make a difference. Especially if they are an older child who is already talking, and if you will be spending a fair amount of time in their home country for the adoption. They will learn your first language with time, but you can help bridge the gap a little. Some families will even go as far as to teach their child the language alongside their own, so they may know both.
Keep in Touch With the Adoption Group
This may differ from person to person but if you have a particular adoption group, make an effort to keep up with them via social media, phone, email, or some other form of communication. Community is a great resource to use when you need guidance, reassurance, and friends who share similar life events, not to mention this could be where your child meets their first friend. Then they will also have a community to bond with.
Things To Look Out For
As much as I have talked about how you can help your child feel comfortable, remember that it is still their identity and emotions. In other words, you can do as much as you can to ease them into their adoption story and help keep them connected with their roots, but ultimately it is up to them to decide how they feel. Different stages of life lead to different trains of thought, and sometimes they even contradict each other. It is possible for adoptees to go from “I want to know everything about my adoption” to “I want to pretend I’m not adopted at all” within a matter of months. Throughout their lives, they will probably switch between the two mindsets multiple times. Stay steady for them during all this. I know it sounds negative, like they may not want to get to know themselves or may reject you somehow. But breathe because that’s not it at all. They are trying to figure themselves out, and they will, but remember that it is all a process. Just like anything else in life, there will be ups and downs as they figure out how they feel most comfortable.
Do Not Force Them
I know, I just listed many ways you can do research and share it with them, however, I also just mentioned how an adoptee may go through periods of not wanting to know about those things you researched. It can be a fine line to walk, but I have always seen it as a sign not to info dump unless they ask. When an adoptee is going through those times where they do not want to talk about it, sometimes the best thing to do is respect that boundary. If they want to know more, great! Now you can bond over it. If they do not want to know more, that is okay too You will be there for them when they decide to inquire.
Prepare for Awkward Circumstances
This one feels more geared towards people who are planning birth country trips, but it can also apply in other ways. One of the most awkward parts of being an international adoptee is the odd feeling of not belonging to your own race. I remember going to Chinatown, Philadelphia, and feeling more out of place than my Caucasian mother. Remember that just because you go to a place where your child looks like the majority it does not mean they will automatically feel at home there. Think about it: for the past few years, their home has likely been with you, with people who use completely different mannerisms and participate in completely different cultural practices. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it is less of an instant connection to their roots and more of a “who are all these strangers who look like me?” feeling. These emotions do not necessarily take away from the good of the experience, but it is something to keep in mind.
Help Your Adoptee by Talking About Adoption
Try to help your international adoptee feel comfortable by being open to talking about the harder aspects of the adoption. If your child starts asking about their birth parents, talk to them about them. These situations differ per family but even if it was a difficult circumstance, they have a right to know. Do your best to be patient and find a balance between sugar coating and understating. Especially if there is a circumstance where they may be able and wanting to find their birth parents. I cannot speak for everyone, since everyone’s circumstance is not the same, but if your adoptee is asking about whether they can contact their birth parents or not, give them what information you have. It may feel hard, but it is still important to be honest with them. I would also like to add that there is no age limit to these conversations. The vocabulary you use to describe it may change, but usually, you do not have to dumb anything down. Even really young kids can understand adoption, and if they want to know they can. This might be where those books about adoption come in handy too if you struggle to find a way to explain it.
Adoption is Only a Part of an International Adoptee’s Identity
Being adopted is only a part of a person. It is good to do all these things, to keep some kind of connection to the root of your family’s story, but I think it is also good to remember that being adopted is just a part of someone. Maybe your child could even benefit from hearing that at some point. Celebrate them, educate them, but then remind your child to not forget about the rest of who they are.
Whether you are just starting the process of internationally adopting or you are already done and over with it, these topics are likely on your mind. Being an international adoptee can be awkward so making your child feel comfortable is a high priority. It can be a lot to handle sometimes, from researching and teaching to communicating and empathizing, but that does not make it impossible. Just focus on doing what you can to learn, supporting your child in whatever chapters of life they go through, and being as open and loving as possible. This will be how you help your international adoptee feel more comfortable.