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The Questions that Come with Adoption


I was adopted, day 1 minute after being born - my Mother, not my biological Mother, was actually the first one to hold me. Many people have asked me about when I was told I was adopted. The truth is, I don't remember. There was no 'big reveal', it was something I always knew - I was told about it in a positive light for as long as I can remember. As a matter of fact, it was always told to me in such a positive light that the only 'big adoption moment' I remember is finding out that my Mom wasn't adopted herself.

(...and thinking - what?! Poor her - does she feel less special?!)

As a lifelong proud adoptee, and now as a woman going through fertility treatments, I'm always riveted to hear the stories of adoptive parents, current or prospective. How they reached the conclusion that adoption was for them, how they feel about it, the looming questions they have about the emotional sides of the process. It's impossible for me not to have feelings on the subject - those feelings and opinions have naturally always been from the prospective of the adoptee. Now that I'm contemplating my future and building my own family, I'm starting to look at it from the other side. What are the things that an adoptive parent should think about? What are some of the emotions that they have to deal with? I'm delighted to have known my story from the very beginning - is that the general consensus on how to go about telling a child their story?

To get a professional perspective on some of the things a prospective adoptive parent should think about, I spoke to Lisa Cobey, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist here in Los Angeles.

In regards to telling a child about their history, it IS a good idea to be prepared to tell them early and often.

"It is ideal for the child to be told they are adopted as early as they are able to understand which in general would be around age 2 years old unless the child has some cognitive or other learning delays," Lisa says. "This way being adopted is always part of their “story” growing up and presented as something matter of fact. The danger in waiting to tell the child is that it insinuates it’s a secret and something to be ashamed about… it models insecurity and can deeply effect the trust and attachment between the child and their adoptive parents."

As far as how to go about sharing their story with them, there are a variety of ways to communicate the message - but consistency in what the message IS and it's tone is key.

"There are many excellent books available to help parents with how to talk to their children about adoption and others that are age-appropriate for children to read with an adult. I would recommend having those children’s books as part of the family’s library and start reading and discussing the adoption from a very young age," Lisa suggests. "In terms of do’s and don’ts – the main tip would be for both parents and other caregivers to be consistent in how they answer questions about the adoption and in presenting the information in a non-dramatic and positive manner."

Though honesty from the very beginning is definitely the way to go, it's obviously not necessary to share every last specific detail before the child is old enough to comprehend them.

"As children develop, they will naturally be more curious and ask more details regarding their adoption," Lisa explains. "I would recommend “following the child’s lead” and match the amount of information with what they want to know. If a parent thinks a child is “holding back” regarding initiating questions, then by 7-8 years old, it would be appropriate to start gradually sharing more specifics unless the child is emotionally immature."

At some point, it will be natural for an adopted child to have specific questions regarding their biological parents and how they came to be put up for adoption. Honesty is an overall theme in sharing a child's history with them, however, to prepare themselves for more specific questions adoptive parents may want to think about how they will present the information beforehand.

"There is such a range regarding the reason children are put up for adoption… anything from teen pregnancy to parents that lose their legal rights because they are deemed unfit or unsafe," Lisa says. "Believe it or not, there are actually children’s books (some are even coloring books) that address many of these circumstances. I think it’s important for the adoptive parents to be honest regarding the biological parents’ reason if they are aware but to state it in language that is appropriate for the child such as “your biological mom and dad were not able to take good care of you because they were young or your mom was struggling with taking care of herself and knew that you would be happier with another family.” (and developmentally probably 10 years and older would be the best time to get into this type of conversation)."

There are a lot of opinions floating around online, in particular, about the level of rejection/abandonment issues an adopted child may experience. Looking at it from an adoptee's perspective, I've read some of the opinions and found them helpful, and others I've found to be less so. Looking at it as someone trying to build their own family I wonder - how does an adoptive parent prepare for those possible issues?

"Questions regarding rejection/abandonment from the biological parents will most likely come up and adoptive parents may or may not have all the answers," Lisa explains."Again I would say consistency is the key – to have all caregivers on the same page regarding the language and facts that are appropriate to share given the child’s age and validate any feelings of disappointment (especially when the family does not have all the answers – some adoptions are closed and many of the details are missing) and ending on a positive note of how much the adoptive parents wanted the child."

That answers the questions about how to deal with those types of issues and questions logistically... but how can an adoptive parent prepare themselves emotionally for when they come up?

"Therapy is critical before considering adoption and during adoption and in many cases is mandated by the adoption agency," Lisa says. "There are many amazing support groups and adoption programs with ongoing resources for families. It will be important to stay connected to the community and mental health professionals in the early stages. In addition, when the child matures and has questions or feelings around the adoption that are beyond what the adoptive parents can help with, then individual, group or family therapy are excellent options to consider to help normalize what the child is going through."

Be positive. Follow the child's lead on what details to share when. Above all things, be honest with your child about where they came from. Not only does it build trust but it presents the word 'adopted' how it should be presented - as a great word that means so very, very wanted.


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