Friday, December 8, 2017
What we tell a child and how they interpret and restate what they are told may differ.
While you should have been having this conversation from the time you gained custody of your child, it is not until the age of 2 or 3, as their language and cognitive abilities develop, that a child begins to restate what they have been told. Children in this age range will repeat what they have heard. "You were adopted" may be restated as "I am a doctor", since they only understand and know the word "doctor". Some parents smile and leave this alone. Others, correct the child by saying something calmly and supportively, "It's not doctor, it's
“adopted”. It means you were born in another woman's tummy and then came to live with me." By repeating what your child has been told before, you are reinforcing the fact and helping them learn the words and the concept. By practicing this from the time your child is placed with you, your voice tone and body language will become relaxed and you will feel comfortable speaking about it with your child.
If you are adopting again, you can use the new process to help explain to your child how they joined your family. You should talk about the process, but not the details of the new child's background or birth family, even if your child meets the birth family. All details should be given to the specific child, when the time is right. Again, be aware of your use of language and responses throughout the process, as they will be sensed by the child that is currently living with you. And as your child gains more of an understanding, you can answer any additional questions your child may have.
In the elementary school years, your child begins to understand that for them to be part of your family, they had to lose their first family. And, while their conceptual framework for adoption will improve as they mature, their emotional understanding may take many more years to develop. Regardless of what you say, your child will develop his or her own adoption narrative. It may include what you have told them, as well as what they think or wish happened. It is important to let your child process the information in their own time and in their own language.
While you may want to protect your child from sad feelings, they have the right and need to feel them. No parent wants their child to be uncomfortable. Physical discomfort is easier to resolve. Emotional discomfort, such as sadness, anger or anxiety are more difficult to sooth. Do not erase your child's feelings or reactions. Do not tell them not to feel an emotion. Do not provide words for them. Do try to elicit more about how they are feeling. Do try to help them express their reactions in their own words. If they are having trouble expressing themselves, try drawing a picture or acting it out.
While you may feel bad that you don't have all the answers, maintaining a relationship with birth parents or creating a way for birth and adoptive families to reach one another may make obtaining information possible. However, even with these in place, there still may be unanswerable questions.
It is important to know what you are feeling as your child grapples with the reasons for their adoption. It is important to not let your feelings get in the way. If your child is talking more about adoption, you may need to alert family members, teachers and even the parents of your child's closest friends. You do not have to give any information. Just state that your child may talk about the adoption and if they do, to alert you and send them back to you if they have any questions. Again, remember that any specific information belongs to your child and should be presented to them prior to any family members, etc. Also think through why you are giving out the information. If you need someone to process things with, you should seek out another adoptive parent or counselor (perhaps the social worker who did your homestudy or post placement) or a local adoption specialist.
Over the years, I have counseled thousands of adoptive parents. Talking about adoption is the primary reason they call me after placement. It may be immediately or in the years to come. It may be as their child first begins to understand the words, when a school assignment arises, when peers start asking questions or at the commencement of a second adoption process. It may be an issue for the child or the parents, or both. I am happy to catch up on the weeks, months or years gone by since I have seen a family or to get to know new parents and children grappling with the day-to-day complexities of being an adoptive family and to help a child or family process the information they have, to provide avenues to them to seek or obtain more details or to develop better language for their experiences.
What and how a child understands their adoption is not a one-time event, but takes place over a lifetime. It is a slow discovery and processing, of learning about biological nature, history and heritage and merging it with the family who provided daily care and nurtured them. It is always a unique and individual process. The best a parent can do is to provide information, answer questions, allow a child to feel and process details at their own pace and keep the conversation going.
Kathy Ann Brodsky, LCSW is a New York and New Jersey licensed social worker, adoptive mom and advocate for ethical adoption practice. Through her private practice and agency affiliations, she has prepared thousands of adoption homestudies, counseled expectant, birth, pre/post adoptive parents and adopted persons, as well as trained professionals to work with adoptive families. She was Director of the Ametz Adoption Program of JCCA and a member of the Advisory Board for POV’s Adoption Series and is currently a member of the Adoption Advisory Board of Path2Parenthood and active in the Adoptive Parents Committee in New York. Her blogs and written contributions can be seen throughout the Internet, including her BLOG and as Head Writer for ADOPTION.NET She was named an “Angel in Adoption” by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption in 2001. You can reach her directly at EMAIL