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Five Tips for Creating Honest Conversations about Adoption

Posted on March 13, 2016 by Dawn Friedman

Five Tips for Creating Honest Conversations about Adoption

Earlier this month I introduced the topic of talking about adoption with your child. We discussed values in that first entry and I said we would spend the next few weeks going over the essential ideals of Honesty, Acceptance and Trust.

The blog post is about the first and most important value to guide you in talking to your child about his or her adoption: Honesty.

Being honest sounds easy in theory but staying honest takes careful consideration and planning. It’s easy to resort to adoption soundbites, “Your birth mother loved you so much that she made an adoption plan” sounds good but it doesn’t cover the tremendous complexity of an expectant mother’s decision, the circumstances surrounding the decision, the often ambivalent feelings that come after or the grief a child may feel when he recognizes his loss. And this is when the adoption is fairly straightforward and not further complicated by other issues like when the birth mom is a relative or if the child was conceived in rape or any of the other myriad of stories that often accompany a child’s adoption story.

The following tips can help you keep to the value of Honesty in having adoption conversations with your child.

Start early

Every child needs to start hearing an age-appropriate version of her adoption story as soon as she arrives home. Don’t worry about having a perfect story right from the start; just begin the conversation. Even if your child as an infant keep talking. The practice will make it easier for you to answer her questions later down the line. Fortunately most of us have time to figure things out as we go and beginning right away will help us do that figuring.

Have discussions with your partner, too, to make sure you’re both using the same language and are on the same page. Practice with each other and keep communication open as your child grows and you begin to share more and more of the story.

Talk often

Research shows that parents tend to underestimate how often their children think about their adoptions, which is why adoptive parents need to work to make adoption an everyday conversation in the household. In other words, don’t turn adoption talk into a special event that you bring up only at designated, segregated times. This will help you respond quickly and honestly to your child’s questions since you will stay in practice and you will have a better sense of what he’s thinking and feeling.

Parents can support open communication by offering lots of opportunity for discussion.
backpack grin

– Keep picture books about adoption readily available on your bookshelves and in easy reach of little hands. The Children’s Home Society of Minnesota has a nice list with detailed reviews to help you start your collection.

– If you have items from your child’s birth family, sending country or life before his arrival to your home, keep them where he can see them (unless or until he asks you to put them away). This sends a message that you not only welcome his questions and thoughts but also that you are proud of his origins.

– If you are thinking about your child’s adoption or are prompted to think about it because of a movie you are watching together or a story you’ve heard, acknowledge your thoughts. This will invite him to share, too. Chances are that if that Disney movie has you thinking about his birth mom, he’s thinking about her, too. And if he’s not, at least he will know that you are always willing to listen.

Please note that if your child remains quiet and private about his feelings, that’s ok. Every child is going to do their thinking differently and some of us are more internal and some of us say more out loud. What you’re doing is keeping a conversational door open; it’s up to your child whether or not to walk through it.

Know what’s developmentally appropriate for your child before she gets there

Sometimes your child will lead the way in your conversations with her questions. For example, most 2-year olds will start wondering about babies in tummies and this is an opportune time to explain that she grew in her birth mother’s belly even if she doesn’t explicitly ask. If you know that this is a likely development you will be better prepared.

The Child Welfare Information Gateway has a terrific page on adoptive parenting, which includes downloadable pdfs about what to expect at each stage of your child’s development. Use the guide to help you make decisions about what to share and how to share it.

No secrets, no lies

When adoptive parents keep secrets its invariably because they are trying to protect their children from feeling pain about their adoption. Unfortunately, there is no way we can completely shield our children from the hard work that comes with processing their adoption experiences. Our job as parents is to love our children through life’s challenges, to help them build resiliency and to give them room to make sense of their stories. That means telling the truth and helping our child with any fall out.

Besides secrets, particularly in the age of the internet where truths are uncovered with a click of a mouse, are nearly impossible to keep. If there is a social worker, a family member (birth or adoptive) or a record filed away anywhere then chances are that eventually that secret will come to light. When you are facing a painful piece of your child’s story and you are tempted to cover it up, ask yourself if you want to be the one to be there to support your child when he learns the truth. Do you want the opportunity to support him as he comes to terms with these difficult facts? Or do you want him to find out accidentally and resent you for hiding the truth from him?

Instead of putting energy into keeping secrets, put your energy into figuring out how to explain challenging realities. By the time your child is an adolescent, he will need to know that he can trust you to tell him the whole story.

Get help if you need it

Seek out support if you feel stuck. If you are having a hard time finding the right words or need help figuring out the right time to tell the whole story, find someone who understands adoption and can help you make sense of it. The social worker who supported you through your child’s adoption, adult adoptees who are willing to share, adoptive parents who have lived through this stage, a trusted counselor with adoption experience — these are all people you can turn to.

You are not in this alone

Those of you who are local are welcome to join me at the upcoming Talking to Kids About Adoption workshop happening in my central Ohio office at the end of February. You can learn more by visiting Talking to Kids About Adoption.

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