Whether you have adopted your child through an open or closed adoption, your child will have some questions on their mind as they grow older. You may have asked yourself, “When should I start talking to him/her,” “Should I bring it up or wait for him/her,” or “How do I even bring it up?” Below are some common tips to help bring up the conversation, when to bring it up, techniques to get your kid talking, and some tips during your conversations.
Talk early and often. By talking to your child starting in infancy, your child will be able to learn adoption language and begin to grasp their adoption story. Revisiting the story helps your child process the emotional information you may be discussing. We are asking our children to understand complexities about their adoption stories that sometimes adults can’t understand, so talking early, in an age appropriate language, and often can help your child tremendously. Books are a great resource for getting the talk started.
Help your child learn to express their feelings. From a young age, help your child develop a feeling-word vocabulary so they can identify feelings that get jumbled up. Some children would rather draw pictures or keep a journal – Any of these work, as long as their feelings are being expressed.
Teach your child positive and negative adoption language. Talking with your child about the ways to respond to negative adoption comments can help them to handle awkward or hurtful situations as well as educate others. By teaching your child positive adoption language to replace the negative adoption language they may hear, your child will feel proud of their adoption expertise.
Keep your conversations developmentally appropriate. These conversations require you to think carefully about how to discuss your child’s story without lying. Most back and forth conversations start at around age 3 or 4 with the common question, “Was I in your tummy?” Keep in mind that as your child ages you will need to change the storytelling technique and the language that can be grasped by your child.
Be Honest. This one is simple – don’t lie or keep things out of the story. If you know your child was conceived by rape, you don’t want to tell the story as saying that their birth mommy and birth daddy loved each other very much. Instead, you may imply that your child’s birthparents didn’t know each other well. Remember, your child deserves the truth. Children are remarkable able to cope with implications when told the truth straight forward.
Develop a Lifebook. A lifestory book is your child’s adoption story told in words and pictures. It helps you and your child talk about adoption and keep the facts straight forward. One book that is very helpful for parents is Lifebooks: Creating a Treasure for the Adopted Child, by Beth O’Malley. Some agencies and support groups also have workshops to help adoptive parents get started on their lifebooks.
Be aware of possible triggers. School projects involving family, birthdays, and Mother’s or Father’s day are occasions that might be difficult for adopted children. Watch for how your child is behaving or feeling to make sure they are okay with it. Not all events will trigger questions or concerns for every child. Don’t be surprised if they breeze through without a problem.
Don’t push a conversation. Asking general questions like, “How do you feel about being adopted,” could cause your child to shoulder shrug or continue to be silent. Strive for open-ended questions, and some closed-ended questions, as a way to plant seeds for further conversation in the future. Good questions to ask are “What are your feelings about your birthmother or birthfather,” “Do you have any friends that are adopted,” or “Do you have any questions about your birthmother or birthfather?” Just remember to not push and to listen and speak with compassion. Your child will open up when they are ready and you have already planted the seed for discussion.
Listen through the silence. Remember that your child is processing extremely sensitive information. Silence is not always a bad thing. As your parents always say, “Actions speak louder than words.” Your child could be more afraid of talking to you about their adoption for fear of hurting your feelings. So bringing it up occasionally could spark some conversation.
Consider using techniques to spark conversation. Great examples are discussing with your partner or a family member when knowing that the child is nearby about the child’s adoption such as “I always think of Megan on Mother’s Day since she’s Tommy’s birthmother. Should we buy flowers for her or send her a card?” Another idea is to make a small comment about a topic and see if the child responds.
Don’t wait until they ask. If your child has come to you with a tough question, they probably thought about it for a long time before working up the nerve to ask it. If you provide your child with the answers before they ask, it may be easier for them to approach you with additional questions.
Include the birthparents. If possible, you should work as a team with your child’s birthparents to decide together how to answer your child’s questions, that way your child isn’t hearing different details. Some answers might be more appropriate coming directly from the birthparents. You can also get the correct answers from the birthparents and keep your child involved.
Talk in a comfortable setting. Talking about adoption can be uncomfortable in an awkward setting, so find a place your child feels comfortable to get the conversation started. Starting the conversation at the kitchen table with siblings or when asking about how their day went might be awkward for the child. Meet your child in their zone; whether it is the ice cream parlor, out shopping, at their favorite restaurant, or at the basketball court, by going to where your child feels comfortable they might be willing to discuss some uncomfortable topics.
Involve mentors. Most adoptive parents don’t have the personal experience to draw upon when it comes to adoption. It’s important for your child to have other people in their lives with whom they are comfortable talking about adoption. Any older individual who has been adopted could become a mentor for your child to turn to when they feel as though you might not understand.
Final words: Remember that every child is different. You could have 4 adopted children who will all discuss or react differently when on the topic of adoption. Some might enjoy these conversations while others dread it. You know your child best, so don’t push them too much to the point that they feel uncomfortable. Talk about adoption early, and plant the seed for later discussions when your child is ready.
Finally, below are some great books to read on the topic of discussing your child’s adoption story:
- Raising Adoption Children: Practical Reassuring Advice for Every Adoptive Parent, by Lois Ruskai Melina
- Making Sense of Adoption: A Parent’s Guide, by Lois Ruskai Melina
- Real Parents, Real Children: Parenting the Adopted Child, by Holly van Gulden and Lisa M. Bartels-Rabb
- Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self, by David M. Brodzinsky, Marshall D. Schecter and Robin Marantz Hendig
- The Family of Adoption, by Joyce Maguire Pavao
- Talking With Young Children About Adoption, by Mary Watkins and Susan Fisher
- Dialogues About Adoption: Conversations Between Parents and Their Children, by Linda Bothun
- Talking To Your Child About Adoption, by Patricia Martinez Doner
- 20 Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew, by Sherrie Eldridge