Reader: I’m starting to get lots of questions from my son, just in our evening conversation. I want to answer everything right, not answer more than he asks, and make it feel natural—but it breaks my heart. Are there wrong or right answers, or things to stay away from?
Thank you for question and your honesty. You didn’t mention how old your son is or the circumstances of his adoption, but I can offer you some tips to help guide you.
First, I think keeping your child’s age, ability, maturity level, and personality in mind are very important as you respond to his questions and comments regarding adoption. There is no perfect way to respond, but since you know your child best, you can tailor your responses to his unique needs and level of understanding. Take for example, a child prone to anxiety. You would respond to that child carefully, using a confident tone and direct answers, but avoiding details that the child may obsessively worry about (when the details aren’t appropriate to share at that time or stage). So instead of saying, “We can’t see your birth mom right now because she isn’t living in a safe area and isn’t reliable about showing up to scheduled visits” (which may induce worry about safety and reliability), you might say, “We have tried to schedule visits, but she hasn’t responded to us. How does that make you feel?” (See point three about empathy.)
Second, honesty is key. You should not share information you aren’t certain of in an attempt to make his story more pleasant or to “fill in the gaps” in order to give a more comprehensive answer. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know” when you don’t know. Likewise, you shouldn’t omit information, unless inappropriate for the child. (Of course, full disclosure is important when the time is right.) For example, you won’t explain abortion to a four-year-old. Children need to know they can trust their parents to tell them the truth, even when the truth isn’t “pretty” or easy to hear. Hopefully, the trust is then reciprocated, meaning children feel they can honestly express their doubts, joys, fears, and confusion to their parents without facing judgment, dismissal, or avoidance.
Third, empathy is especially important when responding. My adoption support group has a wonderful, experienced, go-to attachment therapist who has shared with us that discussions between parents and children are much more healthy and productive when the parents express empathy. For example, if your child expresses that he misses his biological parents, instead of saying something like, “But you have us!” (dismissing and ignoring the child’s feelings while validating your own need for assurance and affirmation), try something like, “I bet you do miss them!” and offer the child a hug.
Fourth, be sure to give the child your full attention during these conversations. Eye contact, sitting or standing at your child’s eye-level, eye contact, a gentle tone, perhaps hand holding or a hand on the child’s arm or knee: all convey that you are engaged. You may also move to a calm, comfortable environment, whether that be the living room sofa, a bench at the park, the child’s bedroom, etc. It is perfectly fine, if something comes up in a public, crowded, or chaotic environment, to assure your child you will revisit the question when you get home or that evening. Then make sure you do it!
Finally, express (and follow up with) openness to future dialog. One of the adoptive moms who has mentored me shared, wisely, that adoptive parents should bring up adoption to their children occasionally (whatever “occasionally” means to the family and seems appropriate) instead of always waiting for children initiate conversations. Conversations may be prompted by something that you saw on the news, something that happened at the child’s school, or just because. Be prepared that the child may not be interested in discussing adoption at that time, or you may end up receiving many questions and having an in-depth discussion.
It’s important to mention that if you are parenting with a partner, both of you should be on-board with discussing adoption and communicating with one another when questions and comments arise. Each parent may respond to questions somewhat differently based on the parent’s personality and parenting style, but the general responses should be consistent no matter which parent is engaging with the child. There also may be other family members or close friends who answer questions for the child, and if this is so, it’s important to communicate with one another.
I also suggest being part of an adoption support group where you can discuss your concerns and triumphs with other adoptive parents. Additionally, there are many excellent resources available to adoptive parents on this issue. To name a few, I recommend: Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew; Before You Were Mine: Discovering Your Adopted Child’s Lifestory; Telling the Truth to Your Adopted or Foster Child: Making Sense of the Past. Likewise, it’s helpful to make your child a lifebook (a book presenting his or her adoption story) and utilize it during times of questions.
Finally, if questions arise that are beyond your capability of handling or if you feel your son’s feelings may need to be addressed by a professional, contact an experienced social worker, counselor, or attachment therapist.
Best wishes to you and your family.