In my practice (and in my personal life), I’ve found that tween adoptees tend to be thinking about adoption and about their birth families more than their adoptive parents may realize. They’re not always talking about it but they’re thinking about it. The Adoption Institute linked to a study that looked at this in last month’s newsletter, here’s the abstract:
The adopted children, between the ages of 8 and 12 years, and their parents answered questions about the children’s thoughts and feelings about adoption. Descriptive data and scores on four scales – family, adoption, birth culture identity and discrimination – were obtained. Compared with same-race adoptees, transracial adoptees scored significantly higher on birth culture identity and perceived discrimination. High levels of convergence between the children’s and parents’ viewpoints on the experiences of adoption and related issues were found. Nevertheless, the adopted children scored higher than their parents on birth culture identity, suggesting that at this age adoptive parents may underestimate their children’s connection to their cultural origins
I think there are several reasons why adoptive parents may underestimate their children’s interest. For one thing, just because kids are thinking something doesn’t mean they’re talking about it; they may not even have the words to share what they’re thinking and feeling. But absence of discussion on their part doesn’t mean it’s not on their minds.
The other thing is that many adoptees worry excessively about hurting their adoptive parents’ feelings. They pick up on any jealousy or insecurity on the part of their parents real or perceived and they act accordingly.
They may also fear being different than the rest of the family and expressing their interest in their birth origins can exacerbate this worry.
So what is a concerned adoptive parent to do?
- Talk about adoption early and often. Don’t wait until “they’re old enough to understand.” Don’t wait for them to bring it up. Make adoption part of your everyday lives and discussion. Practice, if you need to, with a friend so that you can talk about adoption without blanching. Your child should know everything you do (expressed age appropriately) by the time they hit their teens, which means if there are some tough things to talk about, you need to get ready to talk about them. (If you need help, talk to a counselor or a teacher or a spiritual adviser or someone else who knows how to discuss difficult things with kids.)
- Assume your child’s interest even if they don’t express it. Remember that every adoption outside of family adoption (and sometimes even then) is a transcultural adoption so even if your child looks like you and everyone else in the family, she or he has a birth culture that is worth exploring. And that birth culture is part of your family culture now so welcome it the same way you welcome your own culture of origin.
- This doesn’t mean forcing them to assume an identity of your making, mind you. Your daughter from China may not particularly want to identify as Chinese and that’s OK. What you’re doing is creating opportunity so that she has room to decide for herself. Just like families connected by biology may drag their kids to Irish step shows because they want to remind them of dear old Granny Murphy, adoptive families should celebrate connection as a family. And just like bio kids may grow up to loathe Michael Flatley, so your son adopted from Ethiopia may grow up to loathe injera. But what they’ll remember is that it mattered to the family and trust me, that part of it will matter to them no matter what.
- Don’t spend so much time on culture that you forget biology. Your child likely wants to know about his or her birth family, too. If you have information, share it. If you don’t, share what you do have. If you have nothing, talk openly about that. Be willing to say, “I don’t know.” Be willing to do research. And it’s best that you do this exploration before your child hits those tween years so that you’re prepared for their questions.
- If you do have access to birth family, help your child have access, too. How this should look will depend a great deal on the reasons behind your child’s adoption but you can get help by talking to other adoptive parents, birth parents and adoptees or by talking to a knowledgeable therapist.
- Find someone for your child to talk to. As I said before, sometimes we parents are not the best people for our kids to confide in so find a trusted adult adviser whether that be a therapist, another relative or friend of the family, or an adoptee mentor.
To me, openness in adoption is an attitude. It’s a belief that our kids are best served with honesty, respect for their origins, and the understanding that caring about, connecting to and loving one family does not preclude caring about, connecting to and loving another. Openness is making decisions with this attitude that open adoption advocate Jim Gritter calls “hospitiousness” towards our children’s birth families.
Adoption researcher, author and therapist David Brodzinsky, PhD, makes a distinction between two kinds of openness. There is structural openness, which might include cards, letters, phone calls or visits. And there is communication (or communicative) openness, which is when adoption topics are respectfully and honestly dealt with by the parents.
For adoptive parents, structural openness may be out of our control. Our children may come to our families via closed adoption because the birth family members cannot be found, such as in many international adoptions. Or our children’s family of origins may not be safe for them, as in some foster-to-adopt situations. But communicative openness is always in our control. No matter how much or how little information we have, we can create openness in our attitudes towards our children’s stories.
Many families have communicative openness without structural openness and some families have structural openness without communicative openness. I have heard many stories of adoptive parents who have open adoption in name only; those who have regular communication with birth parents but keep a lid on any adoption discussion in their homes. Maybe they’re hoping that structural openness is enough. Unfortunately, it isn’t.
According to Brodzinsky’s study, “Family Structural Openness and Communication Openness as Predictors in the Adjustment of Adopted Children,” it’s clear that those of us who are living structural openness have more prompts for communicative openness. For children who have the presence of birth family members in their lives, there tend to be more opportunities for questions, answers and discussion. But most adoptive parents aren’t really given any instruction about how to respond to those prompts and many are flailing.
Lots of studies show that openness benefits children (research says they have better self esteem and fewer behavior problems than children adopted in closed adoptions) but this study in particular ties this to communicative openness. In other words, how the family processes adoption is a stronger predictor of positive benefit than how the family structures adoption. Says the study, “… communication openness appears to be a stronger and more consistent predictor of children’s adjustment than the extent of structural openness that exists between the adoptive and birth families.”
This is good news for those adoptive families who are unable to have structural openness; your child can still reap the benefits of openness in adoption provided you are able to foster a sensitivity and respect for your child’s birth origins and are able to convey that to your child. And it’s a reminder to those families who do not have communicative openness; you need to learn how to talk to your kids.
I will write more about how you can do that, too, in future blog entries.
This is my entry for the Open Adoption Bloggers Roundtable #44: What openness means to me. Check out the other entries here!
My article on adoption disruption and dissolution is up at Brain Child (and of course on newsstands now):
When we adopted our daughter, Madison, six years ago, the judge was clear. Legally, adoption bound our daughter to our family as if she had been born to us. She would have the same rights as our biological son. We owed her the same level of commitment. A few weeks later, Madison’s amended birth certificate would arrive, with my name as her birth mother and my husband’s name as her birth father. All of her original birth records would be locked up, sealed away, inaccessible. At the end of the brief ceremony, the judge banged his gavel and officially pronounced us—in the language of the mainstream adoption community—“a forever family.”
That ceremony lawfully inducted us into the myth that adoptive families are expected to live by. Our families are supposed to be “just like” biological families. That’s why we adoptive parents roll our eyes when celebrity magazines talk about Angelina Jolie’s “adopted children” instead of just calling them her kids and we swear up and down that we are the “real parents.” Some hopeful adoptive parents even wear T-shirts that announce that they are “Paper Pregnant,” as if they feel the need to validate their way of building a family by equating adoption with a fundamental physical experience.
In many ways these adoption myths serve us and our kids well. Children should not face discrimination for how they arrive to a family. They should have inheritance rights. Adoptive parents should never question their obligation to the children they commit to parenting.
But in other ways, adoption myths betray our children by giving lie to their origins. They are not born to us. We do not create them. They arrive to our families with histories that precede their lives with us. Embracing our children means embracing their stories even when they are difficult to hear.
The hard truth is that adoption is not just like giving birth. It is rarely as straightforward. And as much as we would like to think otherwise, not all forever families are forever.
via Brain, Child :: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers.
There was A LOT of great discussion that could not make it into the article, which I am very sorry about. I also talked to families who ended up not feeling comfortable being quoted for the piece but whose experiences informed my process. You can discuss the article here (at the Brain Child discussion blog) and I’ll be checking in there. I’ve also invited the people I interviewed to weigh in but they are busy people so we’ll just have to see.
This was a hard but rewarding piece to write and I just hope that I did justice to the topic.
One more thing — whenever I write about my daughter’s sealed-away birth certificate and the new fake one that she has, the editors stop me and ask me if I’m SURE about that. The editors at Salon even said, “Is that legal?” So many people outside of adoption get that it’s insane, which makes it more bizarre that it’s controversial to people inside adoption.