Every adoption journey is unique. Even within an adoption, the experiences of each member of the triad — adoptive parent, birth parent and child — will be distinct.
Oftentimes, when you’re an adoptive parent, it can take a long time to process your own experiences. You also carry the responsibility of helping your child understand his or her own story.
You’ve likely read about the importance of telling your child about their adoption from the beginning, which helps them form a true and positive identity. This typically includes explaining, in age-appropriate terms, how their birth parents loved them and how they chose adoption because of this love.
Naturally, your child may want to know more about their biological parents. In semi-open and open adoptions, this is easy enough. But, what if your situation is more challenging?
How much should you tell them about their biological family? What if their birth parents specifically wanted a closed adoption? You have an obligation to help your child understand where they came from but also to protect the wishes and privacy of the biological family. What should you do?
The list of potential questions about a situation like this is nearly endless. We can’t hope to answer them all. Instead, we have put together this short guide to discussing complex situations about biological family as your child begins to wonder about his or her adoption story. Our hope is that these points can give you a helpful framework to answering your child’s questions.
Speak to Your Adoption Professional
Your adoption professional should always be your first call. They have walked with other adoptive parents in similar situations. The expertise and experience of an adoption specialist with a licensed agency is more valuable than any educational materials you may find. Plus, they can offer much-needed encouragement.
If you’re at a loss for how to answer your child’s challenging questions while also respecting the wishes of their biological family in a closed adoption, call your specialist. They may offer the guidance you require, or point you in the direction of an adoption-competent therapist.
In the meantime, here are a few more things to consider.
Speak Generally and Positively
First and foremost, let your response be defined by respect and positivity. Children are more perceptive in early stages of development than many adults realize, and negative language is absorbed as a judgment on the child. If they can tell you don’t want to talk about something or don’t like the question, what they will hear you saying is, “You did something wrong.” This can establish a negative understanding of adoption.
Instead, focus just as much on your tone and choice of words as you do on which details to share. Being positive in response to your child and respectful in your language about their biological family will set the stage for healthier discussions down the road.
Be Age-Appropriate, but Don’t Fib
Reducing complex situations to age-appropriate language isn’t easy. One common pitfall is to confuse being age-appropriate with stretching the truth — maybe not a lie, but definitely a fib. Avoid doing this, as it can lead to confusion and anger down the line.
How can you tell the difference between being age-appropriate and changing the story? One of the most common signs that you’re changing the story is if it sounds a little too much like a fairy tale.
When considering age-appropriate language, remember that this is not the same thing as erasing the bad parts of a story. Life is hard, sometimes. That’s a lesson that is good for a child to understand. If you notice that your responses are all happy, that may be a sign you are changing the story instead of making it age-appropriate.
“I believe that children need their heritage — the good, the not-so-good, the fun, the painful, the easy, the difficult,” one adoption counselor writes. “My focus has always been how to share: when, how much, and with whom, if anybody besides the child.”
Be Supportive of Their Questions
Asking questions about their adoption story is a sign that your child is beginning to form a sense of self. Encourage that. It is a good thing, and it is an opportunity.
By investing in these conversations, you have a chance to actively participate in your child’s identity, to help them see their story in a positive and affirming light that will create the foundation they need to thrive. Even if you aren’t sure how to answer, a supportive response that affirms their desire to understand is a good thing.
If it comes down to it, something as simple as, “I’m not really sure, but that’s a great question,” is a wonderful response. It’s okay to admit you don’t have an answer to everything, and you can do it in a way that affirms curiosity and opens the door to more discussion.
This is always a better response than, “We’ll tell you when you’re older,” or, “It’s not important.” Condescension and invalidation can create negative feelings about adoption that last for years. Always lean toward honesty and encouragement.
You have an amazing and challenging responsibility to help your child grow into the person they are meant to be. This responsibility is also an opportunity — to not only create a bond of trust and love with your child, but also to engage in some of the most meaningful conversations you will ever have.
It may not always be easy, but keep these things in mind, because it will be worth it.