Over two million kids in the United States are adopted; these kids come to that status from a variety of origins (e.g., foster care, over seas adoption). This entry is designed to offer some general guidance for communicating with your child, and other family members, about his or her adoptive status.
It’s generally a good idea to let your child know that s/he is adopted as young as possible.
Keeping the adoptive status a secret suggests that it is something wrong, harmful or shameful. Moreover, knowing the birth families medical and psychiatric history can be helpful (e.g., there is a family risk for breast cancer). The younger your child is when you discuss this, the less dramatic it will likely be. Kids’ language and cognitive skills can vary across the same age group, as can their vulnerabilities. But, generally speaking, a healthy 4-5 year old is probably ready to start this discussion.
As you affirm your love and commitment, don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”
Many adoptive kids fear that they are not with their birth parents because there is something wrong with them; kids often think in egocentric terms like this. So, it’s common to hear things like, “why didn’t they want me?” If you know the reason, you can offer an age-appropriate answer (e.g., “she wasn’t an adult yet and didn’t feel ready to be a mommy. It had nothing to do with how beautiful you are.”). But, if you don’t, it’s okay to say “I don’t know” perhaps followed up with something like, “sometimes adults feel sick and don’t feel well enough to take care of someone as beautiful as you.”
You may have birth children in the family. Or, you may have birth nieces and nephews. Or, there may be other circumstances when someone is disposed to demote your child as a function of his or her adoptive status. It’s important that all such efforts be resisted. For example, it should be made clear to birth children that no such language will be tolerated, not because it regards a sensitive truth (e.g., like mocking someone who is missing a limb) but because it is not accurate (that being an adoptive child means that someone is less important or less loved).
Accept your child’s curiosity about his or her birth family.
Whether or not to be in touch with the birth family is a complicated question that depends upon a myriad of factors (e.g., how easy it is to identify them, how well they are, how well your child is, how open they are to it, whether there are potential legal consequences), so there is no easy answer to that concern. However, it is important to let your child know that you are not threatened by curiosity about his or her birth family. The best way to communicate this is to openly and calmly discuss his or her questions. A good script for those discussions is to endorse your child’s curiosity, give empathy for whatever s/he is thinking or feeling and acknowledge what you know and what you don’t know.
Integrate relevant cultural experiences into your family.
Let me suggest that all families, whether there are adoptive children or not, whether they are multicultural or not, do well to imbue a quest for multicultural exposure and dialogue into the family’s culture (enter the term “diversity” in the search engine above for a related discussion). That said, if your adoptive child comes from a different culture, and especially if that difference is visible to others, seek out opportunities to learn and to experience that culture as a family. Moreover, seek out mentors for your child from that same cultural background. As parents we often want to believe that we can offer everything our child needs. However, it really does take a village. And, a multicultural village.
Consider getting expert help if this seems very complicated or is interfering with the quality of anyone’s life
Blogs can only cover the most basic of generalities. When things become difficult or complicated, it’s best to seek out the services of a qualified child psychologist. For a referral, click here.
(Thanks to my student Rachel Kester for her help with developing this blog topic and article.)