The culture of adoption is much different today than it was several years ago. Today there is more of an openness in adoption (especially in domestic adoptions) and more adopted children now have a connection or relationship with their birth family. However, the idea of telling the adopted child their story and having an open adoption didn’t used to be the norm and it is still not the case in all countries. I recently had a conversation with someone born in a different country, where it is still typical for parents not to disclose to their child that they were adopted. They asked why it was important to tell the child their story.
For me this issue hit home because I’ve seen how important my daughter’s story is to her. She occasionally asks me to tell her about her adoption story. She asks me to tell her about when we first met, when her Nana and Grandma saw her for the first time, and when she went to her brother’s soccer game and she cheered him on (loudly) from the sidelines. She hangs on every word of her story and there are special little pieces and memories she holds on to. One of her favorites, is when the adoption judge pronounced that we could “now kiss our child!” Some of these moments are written down in a lifebook and we have pictures reminding us of some of them. But this is NOT where her story begins. Her story started with her birth family in her birth country and this story is just as important to tell and to remember because it makes her who she is today. She sometimes tells me that she wishes she was “born from my belly,” and my answer is usually something along the lines of “but then you wouldn’t be as cool and special as you are now.” Both stories are equally important, and every child deserves to know their story, from the beginning.
It is important for my daughter to have a connection to her biological family and birth culture. She has many questions that I don’t have answers to. Fortunately, she has a few pictures, a letter, many memories and a biological brother she keeps in touch with regularly. We plan to visit her birth country someday and we may even meet her biological family, if and when she’s ready. As her parent, I think it is best to let her take the lead because it is her story, not mine.
Every adoptive family will decide how to tell their child their story differently. For some the topic is uncomfortable or scary and they may choose not to talk about it much or even at all. Others have very open and age appropriate communication with their child from the beginning. According to research by adoption professionals David Brodzinsky, et al (1986), and Jayne E. Schooler and Betsy E. Keefer (2000), discussions about adoption should begin early between the parent and child, be developmentally appropriate and continue to be an ongoing dialogue.
Here are a few of the reasons openness in adoption is important:
- Builds a relationship on trust – Being honest helps build trust and attachment. On the flipside, learning that your parents lied to you about your adoption story may create feelings of resentment, distrust and betrayal.
- Normalizes adoption – Adoption isn’t something to be ashamed of or kept secret. Talking about adoption in a positive way helps to normalize it. Normalize your child’s curiosity regarding their roots by encouraging questions and giving honest answers.
- Validates their feelings – Adoption is not created without loss and with loss comes many complex feelings. It is normal for a child to feel sadness or grief over the loss of a birth parent. Parents can validate these feelings and empathize with their child and encourage them to talk about or write about these feeling.
- Encourages positive identity formation –Teens who joined their families through adoption must process through their thoughts, feelings and adoption story to answer questions related to their identity. As they determine who they are in order to become more independent they may have feelings of rejection and abandonment associated with their first separation from their birth parents. Adopted teens who are not able to communicate and process these emotions in a healthy manner may develop emotional and behavioral problems including depression, substance abuse, delinquency, which will hinder their ability to become a successful independent adult. Talking with children about their adoption story at a young age will encourage them to be comfortable communicating their story and in turn be more apt to developing a positive self-identity and hopefully go on to be a successful adult.
- Biological connection – This is a unique connection that only exists within the birth family. Children may wonder who they look like or where they got their eyes or hair from. Or they may want answers to questions like why an adoption plan was made for them. They may have questions or concerns about their birth family’s medical history and conditions that they may be at a high risk for. By having a connection with their biological family, they can have access to people who can answer these questions.
- Promotes healing wounds – Children need to know their history and talk about it in order to heal from it. Hiding a child’s past from them won’t protect them from it, it will only create a bigger wound that will need healing later on. The earlier trauma is dealt with the more likely they are to grow up to be a well-adjusted adult.
- They’re likely going to find out sooner or later – Kids are more perceptive than you think, and they likely know they’re different whether they’ve been officially told they were adopted or not. Parents should be the ones to tell the child because they may find out when a relative accidentally lets it slip or when they’re learning about blood types or genes in biology class.
It may not be the easy or comfortable route to take but the benefits of open communication far outweigh the risks. For more information about talking to your child about their adoption story check out Jayne Schooler & Betsy Keefer’s book called, Telling the Truth to your Adopted or Foster Child: Making Sense of the Past.