Whether children are adopted as newborn infants or as older children who are well aware of the adoption, it is important for adoptive parents to explain adoption and clarify what adoption is and is not.
Many parents who adopt children presume that if a child is curious about adoption, he or she will ask a question. However, adoption experts and researchers have learned that children are often afraid to bring up the subject of adoption because they fear their parents will become angry, offended or hurt. Even adopted adults are often fearful of asking questions.
As a result, although adoptive parents should not continually talk about adoption, it is a subject that should be brought up occasionally to show the child that the parents are willing to discuss it and to offer information as needed. The child will then learn and remember that parents are comfortable with being asked questions and will retain this information for the future when he or she may have questions.
In the past, some parents were advised against sharing the fact of adoption with the child. They were urged to treat and raise the child in every way as if born to the family. The problem with this advice was that adopted persons usually found out they were adopted, often at a difficult time in life, such as adolescence or upon the death of their adoptive parents. When parents withhold true facts, the trust level in the ongoing parent-child relationships suffers seriously.
Also, this approach deprived adopted individuals of appropriate health and genetic information.
Until recently, many social workers encouraged parents to tell a version of the "CHOSEN CHILD" story, wherein it was maintained that the adopted child was "special" because he or she was chosen by the parents.
Most experts ultimately agreed that it is important for a child to know he or she was adopted, although they still disagree on when to explain and discuss adoption and how to handle the discussion.
Some researchers insist that the child should hear the word "adoption" from infancy onward, whereas most say a child cannot possibly begin to understand such a complex subject as adoption until at least age five or six.
A study of 200 adopted and nonadopted children by David Brodzinsky, Leslie Singer and Anne Braff revealed that children under age six did not have a very good understanding of adoption, and few of them "differentiated between adoption and birth as alternative paths to parenthood or understood anything about the adoption process, or the motives underlying adoption."
The researchers found that children from about age six to eight understand that there is a difference between adoption and birth but are apparently unaware of the reasons for adoption. Between the ages of eight and eleven, the children's understanding increases. Preadolescent and adolescent children had the best understanding of adoption.
Many adoption experts think that the child should know about the adoption prior to entering kindergarten or first grade. One very practical reason is that children constantly tease each other about a variety of real or imagined traits-wearing glasses, chubbiness and so forth. And if adoption has been disclosed or is obvious because of ethnic differences between the child and the parent, the child will have long since been "told."
A child's status as an adopted person could also be a subject used by another child as a taunting gesture, and the hurt would be compounded if the adopted child had no knowledge whatsoever about the adoption. As a result, adoptive parents can attempt to minimize the damage caused by teasing or cruelty by telling the child about adoption before entry into the school system.
Parents should also realize that adoption is not a subject that can be explained once and then forgotten. Instead, most experts believe explanations should be targeted to a child's developmental level of understanding. As a result, responses to an adolescent's questions will be more sophisticated than explanations given to an eight-year-old child. It should also be noted that of all the age groups, adolescence is likely to be the time when children question their identities; consequently, it is equally likely the child will have questions about his or her adoption during that period. (See also ADOLESCENT ADOPTED PERSONS.)
It is also advisable for adoptive parents to use positive adoption TERMINOLOGY when explaining any aspect of adoption. Even when said by the most loving parent, such phrases as "given away," "surrendered," "real parents" and other words and phrases almost invariably evoke a very negative image of both the birthparents and adoption itself. Far more preferable are such phrases as "made an adoption plan" or "chose adoption"-if the adoption was in fact a voluntary choice of the birthparent. "Transferred parental rights" could be used in the case of involuntary or voluntary termination of parental rights.
Parents should also realize the MEDIA often presents distorted and negative views of adoption, and stereotypical or unfair depictions should be challenged aloud by parents, whether the child asks a question or not.
In addition, parents should note that the word "adopt" is sometimes used in an unusual context; for example, pet shelters may solicit new pet owners by advertising that they want people to "adopt" a pet.
Sharing Information About Birthparents
In the past, many adoptive parents were counseled to tell their child he was placed for adoption because "his mother loved him so much."
One problem with this explanation, according to child psychiatrist and author Denis Donovan, is that true as it usually is, is that a child could logically conclude that if his adoptive parents also love him very much, then they may ultimately decide the child should be adopted by others, for example, if the adoptive family suffers from financial problems.
In addition, the adoptive family may not know how the birthparents felt about the child. They presume it was a difficult decision but can only guess about the birthparents' emotions about the adoption.
An intermediate approach is for the adoptive parents to explain to the child that while they don't know if the birthmother (or birthparents) loved the child, what they do know is that she (or they) cared about the child's happiness and made a request to find a mother and father who could care and love the child. This approach sidesteps the issue of whether the birthparent loved the child while, at the same time, is not a cold rejection of the child or the birthparent, and is the truth.
Explaining adoption to family members and friends
Often relatives, future grandparents and friends may have a very limited knowledge or no knowledge of adoption. (See also ATTITUDES ABOUT ADOPTION.) General information can be much appreciated by such individuals, but specific information about an individual child (whether or not the birthparents were married, why they chose adoption and so on) should be left to the discretion of the adoptive parents, who need not feel compelled to answer questions.
If the child is of another nationality or race from the adoptive parents, it is more likely the parents will be asked questions by family as well as total strangers. (See also ETIQUETTE). Families adopting internationally or transracially should be prepared to deal with the intense curiosity of the general public, which is generally positive, and negative comments should be politely deflected.
Sometimes children's understanding of adoption and their insights are more comprehensive and accepting than parents realize. For example, an adoptive mother who was open in discussing adoption with her child said her daughter was only six years old when she and her mother were discussing adoption and the child suddenly said (of her birthmother and mother), "She gave me starting life. You gave me growing life."
Ann Angel, Real for Sure Sister (Indianapolis, Ind.: Perspectives Press, 1988).
Linda Bothun, When Friends Ask About Adoption (Chevy Chase, Md.: Swan Publications, 1987).
Anne B. Brodzinsky, The Mulberry Bird: An Adoption Story (Indianapolis, Ind.: Perspectives Press, 1986).
David M. Brodzinsky, Leslie M. Singer and Anne M. Braff, "Children's Understanding of Adoption," Child Development 55 (1984): 869-878.
Denis M. Donovan and Deborah McIntyre Healing the Hurt Child (New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1990).
Jack Freudberg and Tony Geiss, Susan & Gordon Adopt a Baby (New York: Sesame Street Books, 1986).
Find more information on explaining adoption
©2000 by Christine Adamec and William Pierce, Ph.D. Reprinted from The Encyclopedia of Adoption, 2nd Edition (2nd Edition) with permission of Facts On File, Inc.
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