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Safe Discussion for Adopted Kids

growth-insideIn 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?

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

 

OA Book Club: Megan’s Birthday Tree

Open Adoption Book Club @ OpenAdoptionBloggers.comHeather and Kat sent a whole slew of questions along for the first segment of the Open Adoption Book Club. We’re talking about Megan’s Birthday Tree: A Story About Open Adoption.

This is the one I chose to write about:

In the story, Megan struggles with the fear that her birthmother will forget her if she no longer has the Birthday Tree to remind her. What fears have you struggled with in your adoption journey? What helped you overcome those fears?

One of the things we were told repeatedly by some of the workers at our agency and the world at large is that our child-to-be’s birthmother would “move on” and become less of a presence in our open adoptions. This was often stated as a selling point. Even the agency expectation that we send cards and letters once a month for the first year and then annually thereafter was a nod to the myth that open adoptions naturally become less open as time goes on. The philosophy behind those annual cards and letters is that once the raw first year was over, everyone could get back to “normal.” Normal, apparently, meant not necessarily forgetting but at least less need.

That has most decidedly not been our experience and in talking to many adoptive parents, birth parents and adoptees, that is not most people’s experience. Although it’s true that some families lose touch with each other, I have yet to meet anyone who forgets and blithely moves on.

Still that cultural idea is very present in adoption and Megan’s concern is common to adopted kids whether or not the adoption is open. And certainly one thing is very true about life post-adoption; nobody stands still. People don’t move on but they do move and big changes (new babies, new homes, new jobs, etc.) require what can sometimes be hard adjustment.

Not every child feels safe to voice the fear that their birth families have forgotten or will forget them. Some are afraid of saying out loud something that feels so true because it might confirm it’s truth. Others are afraid that birth or adoptive parents won’t understand or will be dismissive. Or maybe it’s both those fears all wrapped up and tied together.

Many  parents are afraid to ask their children if they worry about this for similar reasons. What if their child isn’t worried about it until their parent asks? This is why Megan’s Birthday Tree can be a valuable book to open a discussion. Birth and adoptive parents who read this book with their children may feel more comfortable observing Megan’s feelings and then asking their child, “What do you think about Megan’s being afraid that her birth mom will forget her? Is this something you think about?” Having some distance (speaking about imaginary Megan instead of themselves) can also give kids space to address their worries in the guise of helping Megan address hers. What advice would they give her during different points of the book? What do they think about how the story ended?

Very often parents tell me that their children won’t talk about their feelings around adoption but our goal isn’t necessarily to get them talk; it’s to let them know that it’s safe to talk. Safe means bringing hard subjects up without pressure and respecting their boundaries so don’t fret if your child rejects your overtures. Knowing that you will give them room to talk and room to not talk will go a long way. Meanwhile make sure books Megan’s Birthday Tree is out and easy to access so that children can revisit the story without making a fuss about it.

 

American Adoption Congress

American Adoption CongressThe American Adoption Congress is an advocacy organization promoting legislation and ethical professional practice that encourages connection between adopted people and their birth families.

Their mission statement reads:

The American Adoption Congress is comprised of individuals, families and organizations committed to adoption reform. We represent those whose lives are touched by adoption or other loss of family continuity.

We promote honesty, openness and respect for family connections in adoption, foster care and assisted reproduction. We provide education for our members and professional communities about the lifelong process of adoption. We advocate legislation that will grant every individual access to information about his or her family and heritage.

The AAC is often critical of current adoption practice and works hard to educate the public about these issues in part through their national conferences. In 2013, this conference will take place in Cleveland Ohio so this is your chance to take part in this terrific educational opportunity. You can learn more about the upcoming event here.

In honor of National Adoption Month, you can join the AAC at a discounted rate:

Membership Type

One Year
Original Rate

Join in November for

Two Year Original Rate

Join in November for

Individual

$50.00

$40.00

$90.00

$72.00

Student/Senior

$40.00

$32.00

$70.00

$56.00

Household/Support Group

$60.00

$48.00

$110.00

$88.00

Organization/Agency

$160.00

$128.00

$275.00

$220.00

Membership includes these benefits: Subscription to the Decree, the AAC’s quarterly publication with news, book reviews, and the latest adoption research; discounts to national and regional conferences; access to members-only website content; and the terrific feeling knowing that you are supporting legislative reform to provide adult adopted persons access to their original birth certificates. Please consider joining the ACA today!

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