How to talk to your child about their story
When a child is adopted, even as a newborn baby, their story begins long before your first embrace. It begins before the adoption degree or the “gotcha day”. It goes back to your child’s first parents and your child needs to know their whole story of how they came to be.
Sometimes, your child’s beginning may be dark… Maybe your child’s birth mother was an addict, maybe she abandoned your child at birth, maybe the birth father raped your child’s birthmother and that’s how he/she was conceived, maybe your child’s birth parents are incarcerated for a terrible crime or maybe they were abusive to your child before they were adopted.
Sometimes, your child’s beginning is considered to be the ideal situation in other people’s eyes… His birth mother was a high school student, or her first mom had an extramarital affair, or the birth parents were not ready for the responsibility or the father is unknown.
However, in the ‘ideal’ and ‘difficult’ situations, some parents struggle with sharing their child’s story with them. There is no judgment here. It’s understandable… You may hesitate because you worry that your child may love their birth family more… or you will be diminished you in your child’s eyes. Or you want to protect your child from pain. You don’t want your child to question their self-worth or lower their self-confidence.
BUT…. It’s your child’s story. They need to know and you need to tell it.
Everyone asks themselves, WHO AM I? Your 4-year-old is going to be 14 years old and what you do when the child is 4 will shape whether they turn to you or away from you. Adolescence is time to explore who you are and who you want to be. Knowing about their first family is important to your child as it is part of their identity formation. Not knowing is like starting a book from the middle… you will get a gist of the story but not a full understanding. So, what to do?
1. Check yourself
You may have some resentment towards your child’s birth parent because of drug use, lack of prenatal care, abandonment or anger towards a parent who abused your child. Seek therapy and/or trusted friends to work through your own issues. Children are extremely perceptive, you may be saying the right words but your body language and facial expression might be saying something else. You can have righteous indignation against someone who hurt your child but you don’t ever want to communicate that you hate the parent because your child is 50% of that person. You hate what they did, not the person.
2. Tell the truth
It is commonly said in the adoption world, that if your child remembers when they were told that they were adopted, they found out too late. What’s important here is that you are not hiding secrets from them. In a transracial adoption, it may be obvious but in situations when it’s not, not telling your child will backfire. Again, the teenage years is when your kids are figuring out who they are in the world and you want your children to trust you. Hiding something like this will affect the trust you’ve built over the years, and most adoptees already have a sense that they were adopted. Tell the truth! You don’t want to be the person who robs your child of knowing siblings or birth family. At the point that you know about your child’s family, the clock starts ticking… You need to tell your child what you know.
3. Be age-appropriate
This goes without saying but it still needs to be said. If a first mom has mental illness or struggles with addiction and it is not safe to continue visits with a child at this time, you can still tell the truth. You can tell a young child that “she is not well and she needs to take care of herself at this time”. You can still have a positive regard for that mom. If you are religious, you can pray for her, you can send her a card or draw/color a picture for her. With an older teenager, you can share more details. Review developmental and cognitive stages and share accordingly.
For more difficult truths, like being a child being conceived through assault or incest, you have to be more sensitive and mindful as you tell the truth age appropriately. For more guidance, we recommend “Telling the Truth To Your Adopted or Foster Child: Making Sense of the Past” by Betsy Keefer, and Jayne Schooler.
Let’s honor our children and their first families by telling the truth in love.