How and When to Tell a Child They're Adopted
by Beverly Belcher
Have you ever wondered who you were or where you came from? Thousands of individuals have felt this way after finding out they were adopted. They rack their brains trying to figure out why they were "given up," "why they weren't loved," did they do something wrong? And it's those feelings that make those who wish to adopt think strongly about when to tell the adoptee they were adopted...or if the adoptee should even be told at all. Many believe that a person who has been adopted should be told at a young age; some are more inclined to wait until the adoptee is an adult. And yet, still others believe it is best to leave well enough alone and never tell.
So, I set out and asked several people who had not been adopted, "If you had been adopted, would you prefer to be told? If so, when?"
I received many interesting answers. Some felt strongly that a child needed to know they were adopted; others, however, believed it wasn't necessary to be told at all. And still others felt there are no set of rules, because every situation is different. Those who felt a child should be told disagreed on when to tell: while it may be best for one child to be told when young, another child may best be told when older. It is interesting to note that even experts differ markedly on when a child should be told about adoption: although most agree that it should be prior to adolescence, some experts recommend waiting until the child is between eight and 11 years old and can understand such a complex subject. Others believe that children should be told as young as age 3 or 4.
Many experts believe that it is unfair to the child not to tell him or her about such an important issue. Not telling also forces loving parents to lie to their children, which could backfire on them later on in life. In general, the news is best shared by the parent with whom the child feels closest, as the history of trust, concern and involvement that parent has with the child will be important. On the other hand, if a child discovers the information on his own, or is accidentally or intentionally told by someone else, he or she could be quite upset about this and may wonder what else the parents have lied about.
When talking to a child about adoption, a parent must be completely honest and answer the child's questions accurately. This means saying, "l don't know" if you truly don't have an answer. Just letting your child know that it is okay to talk about adoption will also help a great deal, because the more willing the parent is to answer adoption related questions, the better the environment is for the child.
When a child is young, questions can be answered very simply. Sometimes adoptive parents rush in with too much information, instead of providing easy answers. The thinking abilities of children develop as they get older, and likewise the questions and request for more information will increase as they get older. Therefore telling children they were adopted should be a gradual process as their capacity to understand develops. This means that the adoptive parents will have to explain many times how and why adoption happens as the child becomes better able to understand.
Children also need to understand that all children are born, but not all children are adopted. They need to know that sometimes children need to be adopted, and what the reasons may be behind an adoption. They also need to know that adoption is a good way to form families.
"What if my child gets upset?" A common response when finding out one was adopted is a driving need to make sense of what has happened, and to understand the hows and whys that led to being relinquished for adoption. Many children may feel deeply, "I was so bad [in some particular way]" or "I was so unlovable that even my own parents did not want me."
The realization that biological parents chose adoption is not an easy concept to accept. For an older child, this information may cause a grief reaction that can hit at the very core of a child's self-worth. Therefore, it is important for parents to convey to the child that the circumstances leading to the adoption were not the child's fault. If the child was adopted as an older child, the emphasis is more likely to be on the fact that the biological parent was unable to parent because of various problems in their life at that time. Stress the fact that these problems were unrelated to the child, but made the parent incapable of being a good parent to any child at that time.
As loving parents, always remember to make yourself approachable and available to answer your child's questions about adoption. Keep in mind that some negative feelings are normal and can usually be worked out through open, honest communication.
Both pamphlets are available through the MARE office.
Help Your Children to Become Better Adults
Excerpted from the National Adoption Center
What Advice Would You Give Your Mom and Dad?
by Dayle Allen Shockley
Not long ago a distraught father discussed his teenage son's behavior with me. "He defies everything I tell him," he said. "He gets right in my face and screams at me. Am I supposed to just take it?"
The next morning I related the father's predicament to my high school students and asked for opinions. I received varied responses, ranging from "Give him a kick you know where" to "Pray for him." But the most revealing answer came from one of my poorly behaved students: "It's not the kid's fault," he said. "He has lousy parents."
Our society has gone overboard with the "blame-someone-else" syndrome; nobody wants to accept responsibility for his or her behavior anymore. But I had to admit my student's comment made a valid point: Parents sometimes fail in how they relate to their children. Then I thought, what advice would teenagers give parents? What do they believe it takes to produce respectful and respectable teens?
With the generous help of two school districts, I surveyed more than 300 teenagers. It was like opening a floodgate. Those who responded represent a healthy cross-section of ethnic groups, ages, academic achievements and home-life environments. Some of their answers made me laugh; some made me cry. But they all held nuggets of truth that parents can learn from. Here they are:
Talking to Children About Their Strengths and Weaknesses
by Dr. Mel Levine
"I must be stupid"
"I was born to lose"
"I don't have the brains to right rite"
"No matter what I do, I disappoint my parents"
These statements accompany the pathetic sighs of children who misunderstand themselves. They are students with differences in learning that are causing them to underachieve and lose motivation. They have little or no understanding of why and how they are having to contend with the humiliation of failure in school. The thoughts such students harbor about their own minds are more pessimistic than they need to be. They may not admit to "feeling dumb", but they frequently conceal within themselves such beliefs. These gloomy sentiments commonly lead to a deteriorating attitude toward school, defiant behavior, depression, and plummeting self-esteem. They cycle must be broken. Demystification is a process that can be used to prevent or treat children's dangerous self-misunderstandings.
Demystification educates children about their own strengths and weaknesses. It helps them to see the relationship between their areas of weak function and problems they are having in school. Demystification sessions are conducted by a clinician or an educator. It is helpful if the parents are present, so that they can continue to reinforce the same terminology and point of view with the child at home. The following are some salient points about the crucial process of Demystification, which can help children to help themselves overcome school problems:
With a clear understanding of weaknesses and strengths, it is truly remarkable to observe how well students can help themselves. It is equally gratifying to observe the restoration of motivation and aspiration that occurs when a young person is helped to see possibilities for authentic success in live.
Reprinted from the Parent Journal, the Parents' Educational Resource Center. Autumn 1996.