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What should we NOT do while dealing with an adopted child? Here are 13 pointers on how to talk to kids about adoption.
I will start with a caveat: I am only an adoptive parent. I am not adopted and what I write is on the basis of what I have read of adoptee and first mother/father voices.
Adoptive parents are privileged in being able to speak up and get support and I will try to use that privilege to represent those who need to be heard, nuances and all, without judgment. What I say here is backed by evidence from researchers in the field, links are provided.
Adoption is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It is the most widely used trope in literature – an ‘orphan’ is easy to place in situations that no parent would have permitted. What happens in the absence of support is often that the situation explored stays only on the plot level, be it a Harry Potter or Spiderman. The character’s feelings are touched upon cursorily, just enough to advance the plot.
We also hear of adoption needing to be ‘normalized’. I have struggled with what this means – do we mean ‘destigmatize’ adoption or act like it is normal, nothing major, not significant?
Destigmatizing adoption is required – stigma of all kinds doesn’t help. Adoption isn’t a crime in the first place, just like being gay or making a non-mainstream choice aren’t crimes. Adoption requires some balance and emotional security to understand and adoption parenting requires for us to separate ourselves in practice. Like all parenting but at a level deeper than elsewhere.
Should you tell a child the facts of their adoption is a question that has been amply answered. Yes, everyone has a right to their story, their origin and what happened to them in their early years, to the extent one can actually know. We wouldn’t even ask if we should talk to a biological child about childhood stories, would we? When it comes to adoption, where is the issue? It is usually in the adults’ minds. For some parents, it is about how a child will make sense of a difficult life event. For others, it is about how the child will relate to them as parents.
Any relationship in our lives is best served with honesty. Trust gets built when children know that answers to their questions will be honestly given, even the tough ones. Children respect adults who tell them what they know and admit to what they don’t. From this standpoint, it is best to tell a child as they grow up, without them remembering the day when ‘adoption’ burst upon them. Keeping it natural, simple and age appropriate, with children always knowing that they are loved and wanted, is a good rule of thumb.
This peer reviewed research study talks of the experience of ‘late discovery adoptees’, with late discovery being finding out they were adopted after the age of 3 years. This advocates for starting to tell kids as toddlers and making it a natural way of life.
For many parents, starting early gives them the space to practise. However much one prepares, the first few times they tell their child are likely to be emotionally hard. All said and done, that a child wasn’t parented in their home of birth IS a difficult circumstance. It helps a parent tremendously to have these kinks ironed out by starting to tell the child early.
There is a lot written about how and what to tell a child about their facts of adoption. What about how not to tell their child? We attempt to handle that part here – of course, parents will and should reserve their discretion on what works best for their family.
How to talk to kids about adoption? What do you NOT do?
Many times, children want answers to simple questions. A child at 5 is usually more interested in where babies come from and doesn’t usually need a complicated answer. On the other hand is my child, who at four and a half asked me “she could have tooken care of me, no? Was she bad?”
Every question needs to be handled age appropriately, even when unexpected. It can and does throw you but that is par for the course in parenting, right?
Words and terms like ‘given away’, ‘abandoned’, ‘own child’, ‘real child’, etc. are best avoided. It is very easy to be honest and positive. The use of Positive Adoptive Language is recommended.
There is also the movement to be respectful of the birth family, calling them the first mother/ father instead of birth mother/ father.
Those of us privileged to parent the children we gave birth to/ adopted might be able to empathise with someone who could not parent their child. It is a hard decision – I won’t say choice because when poverty or other hard states of living impact this, it isn’t even a clear choice for many. Like much else in India, it is about choosing the least harmful option.
Phrases like ‘you are special’, ‘we chose you’, etc. are to be avoided.
There is evidence that states that children feel the need to maintain their ‘specialness’ by being the ‘model adoptee’ who follows their parents’ wishes at the cost of their own desires. Many model adoptees have taken on counseling in later years to help them overcome these internal obstacles.
‘If you chose me, could you also ‘unchoose’ me and leave?’ is a thought that many children might internalize.
Adoption comes with certain core issues that we need to inform ourselves on. One of these is the fear of rejection. Many children test their parents to see if what they are saying is true, pushing them to see if they will also leave like their first mother/ father. While the explanation that someone made a decision to not parent is a logical one, it may not address the emotional component for the child. We parent the entire child, it would be good to keep all factors in mind when we tell the child about their adoption.
To be completely truthful, we chose to adopt – we didn’t choose this specific child. Some of us were matched with a child by our agency; in recent times, others get to see a child or two and make a choice. It is a choice based on who was shown to us and doesn’t address the child’s question of ‘was I loved for being me?’
“It was fate.” Or ‘you were so lucky!’
The latter is more likely stuff that adoptive families hear: ‘such a lucky child to come to you’ or ‘so noble of you to adopt.’ Pshaw! As if parenting is noble. It is a lot of hard work and wondering but noble, nope!
It was ‘fated’ for a child to lose their first family?! Imagine that we lose someone we really care about and are told, ‘It is fate for this to happen.”
We are told this many times, right? Adults don’t get ‘fate’, we don’t accept this so-called fate very well, a word that usually shows up when things go badly. It is the consolation prize and one that isn’t comforting at the time when one is hurting. Much easier to be the philosopher in another’s life, huh? Does fate even exist? What if the child were to say, ‘that’s it – I am fated to flip burgers’? That fate would be hard to swallow but this ‘fate’ of birth needs to go down smoothly?
It should not need to be said that we won’t expect children to be grateful for being adopted. Saying it anyway that we chose to parent, brought this child home. Any gratitude is ours to feel and hold. This child deserves to shout at us and talk back like all kids do, gratitude not even being a factor in parenting.
A significant percentage of children in India are found. Very few are relinquished by their first family with information on why and/or any medical history of the family. To tell a child that they were loved so much that such a hard choice was made unselfishly may not be the best idea.
Honestly, I struggle with this. On one hand, I don’t know what happened and why my son was placed in adoption. On the other hand, telling someone that they left someone because they loved them too much lays the foundation for some ambivalent relationships in the future.
The truth is that we don’t know. We might surmise something and that is pretty much a sentimental choice. We would all like to think that it was a scenario where the child was loved and he or she probably was, even if only from the biological bond.
But imagine this from a child’s very literal perspective: Who was my first mother? I don’t know. Where is she? I don’t know. Why did she not parent me? I honestly don’t know. But she must have loved you a lot and made this decision in your best interests.
How are we so sure that we are in the child’s best interests? Parenting is still parenting and there are better parents out there for my son everyday. I am the one he got and will have forever, but I won’t ever be pompous enough to say that I am the best choice.
Plus when I don’t know so much, how can I know anything so profound? It is a guess at best and needs to be told in words that tell the child that we surmise that she must have loved you a lot, given how we feel about kids as parents. A nuance? Maybe to us as adults but not to some children.
The child comes from this family. Whatever might have happened, disrespectful language about them is not on.
First, on a general human level: say nothing unkind.
Next, from my child’s level: If my first family was ‘bad stock’, so am I?
I don’t understand much, know next to nothing about why this decision was made and would be best advised to give the benefit of the doubt to the first family in question. I mean, just see your kid and the loveliness we get to see…more good that not, most days than not…teenage notwithstanding?
“After all, this was the best option, the child is home and that’s that. All will be great from now on.” That might well be what we want to think. For the child, it matters to have adoption be addressed more than this. Therefore, it matters to us, whatever be the filter we put on it for ourselves as adults.
Adoption is complex because it starts in loss, with grief. A mother and father had to lose their rights to parent for me to stand in their place. A child lost his biological bond.
For those of us who played music to our kids in our wombs, denying the biological bond isn’t an option. For others who didn’t play music or do specific things beyond nutrition in their pregnancy, science talks about the effects.
Denial might be the more convenient option for adults, but it isn’t for children. There is enough out there on adoptee blogs that speak to this, and it would be a good idea for us to read those to see where the immense anger comes from. Learning from these resources would be in our kids’ interests.
Since this child isn’t special because they are adopted, they need to be parented like any other. No red carpets required, no special attention required, same boundaries to be placed as with all kids.
All kids and especially ones with adoption in their background do well with routine, structure and limits that are lovingly enforced. Adoption parenting has a few nuances on how we enforce limits and how we understand behavior, but I wouldn’t let a child get away with bad behavior because they are adopted – that wouldn’t be in their best interests at any age.
Don’t use parts of stories or single characters to ‘explain’ adoption
We were told to use Krishna in our adoption story. We did. A question on who Kamsa was in this situation swiftly derailed this route and we rushed to find a more suitable one. Thankfully, I don’t have a brother to be cast in this role, much as I have always wanted one!
Karna? “They let a small baby float in a basket? He survived? What? How dangerous is this, do you know?” Oops.
There is never going to be a perfect story, even though there are many story books one can use. The best version of the story is likely the child’s personal story, in photo form, with them in the starring role… ceding space to siblings in album form much like in everyday life.
In our family, Kung Fu Panda was a good movie to talk about adoption, positive and nuanced at the same time. I personally like stories that show all perspectives, not making it about the child alone or the adoptive family alone. A recent one I found called Adoption is a Lifelong Journey is a picture book for parents written from a child’s perspective and is highly recommended because it is by licensed mental health professionals.
This was addressed in the beginning but bears repetition because parents think that telling a child about their adoption is a one-time thing.
Adoptees have said that they knew something was different, that they felt different in the family even when not told. Many times, except for the adoptee, most others know that the child was adopted.
I have not committed a crime by adopting, and living life waiting for the axe to fall and have my child know of his adoption from another is no way to live. The resulting damage control and lack of trust (one of the core issues is that children find it hard to trust, given their early experiences) isn’t quite worth any assumed comprehension.
I don’t believe anyone ever completely understands what it means to be adopted or place a child in adoption or to adopt. So, waiting for a child to get there, even to a small degree: to me, the cons outweigh the pros.
Every Raksha Bandhan, and I wish I were kidding about the ‘every’: there is an ad about a sibling being found in the gutter and being adopted. Yep. Like clockwork.
It isn’t funny to be unkind. To rephrase, it is only funny when there isn’t any truth in it.
We use humour many times to get our child over bullying about his complexion, his adoption even. That works when others are being unkind and we need to find some any way to make it better. Making a joke of adoption while talking about how your child joined your family is not a good idea in my book.
Privacy versus secrecy is key.
My child’s privacy is important and this article and what I share of our story are with his consent. He even contributed to the article with points. At 15 years of age, he knows more about the adoptee experience than I do.
Secrecy on the other hand is about hiding something. Even a surprise party has an expiration date, with sharing being the fun part. Making it secretive by lowering our voice, seeing who is around and other verbal/ non-verbal language asks the child to feel bad about something they had no control over, often at an age when even bladder control wasn’t expected!
An emotional mom or dad when an adoption related question is asked, however they answer it, is a sign to the child that he/she hurt you. Since this isn’t about you, and their asking a question doesn’t mean they want different parents (much as we all fantasize about fairy godmothers in the absence of winning the lottery…), our reaction matters. If I need to fall apart, I do so in private with my husband/friend. It is not my child’s responsibility to keep me happy.
Say you tell your child about their adoption – you have followed as many do’s as possible, have avoided (or in my case, thought you avoided) as many of the don’ts from articles. Then your child comes to you with a question on adoption when you are entertaining a friend.
It is perfectly okay to acknowledge the question openly and ask your child if you can take some time to answer it later. Then say your friend makes an inappropriate comment: you are so lucky or this is so noble, et al or worse.
Not addressing that in your child’s hearing (since the comment was made in your child’s presence) isn’t an option.
I have some sentences I have thought about that I could use, trying to the level possible to not embarrass the person who makes the comment. Repeat offenders who are trying to get a rise out of me (yep, that happens!) will need a private conversation along with another private one with my child on what he heard.
Kids sniff out hypocrisy. Telling them one thing and then staying quiet around others who say different signals to them that there’s something more here than what meets the ear.
Telling your child is their right. Initially with little children, some repetition is in order – once a week as a bedtime story for a month or two. After that, if the book or album is within reach, it is best to leave the child to ask for the story.
The message being I am here to talk about it when you want, you can ask me any question and I will do the most honest job I can, but you are more than your adoption story, that is only one part of who you are and will be. Ripple conversations where we talk about movies or books we have read could also be signals we put out on our willingness to answer questions – so long as they are genuine and not made up.
That signal is key – I am here, I have your back forever and I will answer anything truthfully.
I would love to hear from you on whatever you would like to share. If you disagree, please do comment – it does help tremendously to hear from as many sources as we can. It informs us all.
Image source: a still from the film Lion
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Sangitha Krishnamurthi is a special educator, blogger and mother of three. Her interests include living
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