Children this age are spending more and more time with peers and other adults, and away from your supervision. They are aware of their place in the family, develop a gender identity, and are becoming more and more independent. Relationships with peers are intensifying. Being included or excluded from a group a significant daily occurrence. Comparing oneself to peers and insecurities is common for all children at this age. This is also the age, when reading progresses and schoolwork intensifies that learning differences appear and are identified. It is a good time to prepare to answer you child’s questions about adoption.
No child wants to feel, or be labeled, different. For adopted children being different, bullied, or included or excluded in peer groups can have a long term effect on their confidence and identity. While your child may not directly tell you something has upset them, they may be moody or withdrawn, reluctant to go to school, have playdates, or for the first time or in an enhanced form may experience stranger or separation anxiety.
No parent wants their child to be hurt or sad. Figuring out when something is adoption related is not always easy. Maintaining an open dialogue with your child about life, including adoption allows them to come talk to you about difficult or upsetting situations or events. You can get an insight into what they know, think they know, how they are feeling, and how they are responding to the world around them. It is a learning moment for both of you. Together you can brainstorm and devise a plan, and/or talk to teachers, other children’s parents or the children themselves.
Your child is starting to understand that to be adopted means they were given “up” or “away” be someone else. They often feel a sense of loss, grief and sometimes even anger. It does not mean they love you any less. They need time to figure things out. They understand the connection between thought, feeling and behavior, and are better problem solvers. This is not a one time event, nor is there an easy answer. They will need your help to sort this through now and in the coming years.
They may ask if a woman they pass of the street is their birth mother, or if their birth parent could come back and get them. They may respond to an adoption themed movie or TV show. Use all opportunities to reassure them of their place in your family. Choose your words carefully. At this age, your child can distinguish between fact and fantasy. They know when someone is not being truthful.
Children this age often blame their mother for ANYTHING that goes wrong. An adopted child may stretch this into “If you were really me mother, you would let me.” or “You’re not my real mother!” Stay calm, be patient and do not overreact as you address the issue at hand. For example, “The reason I won’t let you stay up so late is that you need your sleep. I will record the show and you can watch in the morning.” or “As your mother, I am making what I think is the best decision I can. I know you don’t like it, but I think it is the right thing to do.” Do not say “What a terrible thing to say. I am your real mother.” or “Go to your room right now.” This is a time to control your immediate reaction and try to see where your child is coming from. Are they really trying to figure out what you vs. their birth mother might do? Are they manipulating you through guilt to get their way? This may be an opportunity to explain what a mother does and how you are filling that role. Never negate or pretend their birth parent doesn’t exist. You may want to explore that neither of you know what their birth mother would have done in the same situation. That mothers are there to teach and protect their children. That you did what you felt was best for them at the time and assume their birth mother would do the same. You may also find an opening to share why their birth mother was not in a position to care for a child at that time. That the decision had nothing to do with them (children sometimes feel they were bad or did something wrong).
At this age, children are very capable of asking questions about adoption and their birth family, but they don’t yet understand the legal concept of the adoption. Their fears of being “taken away” or “taken back” are real. Reassure them that the adoption was overseen by a judge. That papers were signed which made you the parent. That they are your forever child.
Encourage them to ask questions. If you do not know an answer or it is difficult information that you do not feel they are ready to hear, tell them you will try and find out. Many children think about adoption at the end of the day. Like adults, they often replay their day as they wind down at bedtime. If you need time to come up with an answer or think they are asking to avoid bedtime, tell them “That’s a great question, but it is bedtime. We can talk about it a breakfast.” Then prepare how you will handle it and ask them at breakfast if they want to discuss it. Sometimes, they will. Sometimes, they won’t. The point is you came back to the question and have demonstrated to your child you are ready to talk about it.
You have demonstrated your willingness for open dialogue. They will have learned they can ask you about adoption and other topics. Establishing this relationship will serve you well in the years to come.