Will Other Kids Ask My Child About Adoption?

Oh, yes. Yes, they will. 

Sometimes, adoptive families avoid talking about adoption. In history, adoption was seen as a shameful thing or something that needed to be kept a secret. Thankfully, society has lifted the veil on adoption and this is becoming rarer. It can still be incredibly hard for families that have adopted to speak about their adoptions. Why? There are many reasons.

Sometimes, the facts about the adoption are tough. Perhaps the child underwent extreme trauma in their family of origin; perhaps years in foster care have taken their toll. Sometimes we tiptoe around hard issues because we don’t have the words. Trauma can steal voices and leave us speechless.

Or, perhaps the transition into adoption was not easy. Perhaps bonding has been a challenge, and it hurts to think about a previous family.

Sometimes, where fertility was an issue for the adoptive parents, there can be a protectiveness—maybe even feelings of your own relationship with your adoptive child being threatened by the birth parents. The truth is, a child can never be loved by too many people. Adoption often leaves many questions in the heart of a child. As hard as it is to accept, adoption always, always begins with pain (the loss of the primary connection between birth parent and child). We are discovering that information about a child’s past is so incredibly important to them and that purposely withholding information about their origin can be incredibly damaging; it can create a void they may spend a lifetime trying to fill.

Other times, as the years go by, we might get comfortable and just forget to make talking about adoption a priority. I am a big advocate of children of adoption having their whole story by the time they are an adult. In order for this to happen in an emotionally safe and kind way, we need to be speaking with our children often. There should be 1,000 tiny conversations—1,000 small and incremental building blocks of information that don’t overwhelm because of their gentle sizes, but together weave the tapestry of the entire story. Of course, for some kids, the information is much, much harder to convey. In cases of rape, murder, or neglect and horrific abuse, a counselor or other trained professional may be required to help guide the adoptive family, support the adoptive parents and the adoptive child, or otherwise help navigate the difficulty in sharing this information. There are also many books out there, for all ages, that will help your child understand their past (and books to help the adoptive parent navigate sharing about their past). One thing, though, is true: if we don’t talk about adoption, other people will. Will your child know what to say? Will they be caught off guard? Will it lift them up or totally unravel them?

It can be tempting to think, “WHY would another child ask my child about their adoption? It isn’t any of their business!” While this might be true, children are genuinely and intrinsically curious. Mix that with their ability to stumble across and notice differences, and there you have it—a conversation you might never have guessed would happen. Sometimes a school assignment might be the factor. A family tree assignment or project on ancestry can be anxiety-inducing for children of adoption as well as adoptive parents who feel ill-equipped to handle it. Other times, someone might say something that triggers an answer from your child—or a reluctance to answer— that hones in on the fact that their past is different. While most children aren’t being malicious, the unfortunate fact is that there will probably be someone, at some point, who is. Is your child firm in their foundations in order to withstand it?

I remember saying to a teenaged boy in the youth group my husband and I were helping with years ago, “You look just like your dad!” He gave me an odd look, and then told me that he was adopted. It was clear that others around him didn’t know this information either and there was a very heavy pause. I had no idea what to say, other than in my mind think, “He really does look like his dad, adoptive dad or not!” These types of scenarios are common for children of adoption. 

In our home, we have had a little friend or another small person (and even a  well-meaning adult) ask something about if our kids are visiting grandma or some cousin over the summer. The child might look confused, and say, “Which ones?” Usually, the person asking thinks they mean maternal or paternal, the cousins locally or further away. Usually, the child starts looking at me, like “Uh oh…what do I do?” I have heard one of our little ones say, while stamping her little foot, “I don’t know what you mean. Like Grammy or Grandma, or my birth mom’s mom?” And, of course, the other little person she was talking to now had eyes as big as saucers and replied, “……what?” In cases like this, it is usually most beneficial for the adults to come around the kids and help with the answers. Long, drawn-out replies usually make little eyes glaze over pretty quick. Keep your answers short and very simple. Actually, just one sentence, if you can help it, and at most, three:

“Suzie is adopted.”

“Suzie is adopted, and has more grandparents than most kids.”

“Suzie is adopted, which means she has grandparents from her adoptive family, and birth family.”

As you can see there is a different response for each situation based on the age of the child, the setting you are in (do you have the time to talk about this, or are things rushed?), and the comfort level of your adoptee. Always, always let the child of adoption lead the way. While you as the adult do need to step in to help untangle a confusing conversation, you also need to check in with your child. If they look sad, mad, or scared, keep it simple, and move on. It will also be very important to revisit what happened later on, when you can talk privately. Use questions like, “How did that feel for you today?” “What did you think about the questions you were asked?” “Do you have any questions for me about your adoption?” “What was your body telling you when you were being asked about your adoption?” How did you feel when other people were confused about your story?” I find it helpful to follow that up with “and then” statements, which you might have to model and encourage. “I felt sad,” can be expanded by asking, “and then?” If the child can’t answer, you can ask, “Did you feel sad after, or worried? Did you feel alone, or uncomfortable about being asked so many things?” If the conversation doesn’t flow, assure your child you are available to talk any time, and that you are there for them. “And then” statements can help adults and children process what happened and how they really feel about it.

As an adoptive family, we have been asked weird questions and downright bizarre questions. I feel like people are naturally curious about adoption, which is actually great! We want to advocate for adoption. What isn’t great is when people who don’t really have any right to ask start poking for information. 

For example, at a grocery checkout once, the teller overheard us talking, and interrupted: “Oh! Which ones are adopted! I can’t tell” She proceeded to guess, and guessed incorrectly that our birth daughter was “the adopted one” because she has dark brown hair, which was different from the rest of the kids at the time. All of the kids just stood there looking at her, until the child that had been singled tried to start explaining. Once I shook out of my surprise, I placed my hand on the child’s shoulder, told her it was ok, and sort of gently diverted the conversation. I don’t feel that this person was being malicious in any way and she did look embarrassed after the fact. 

I don’t feel it is helpful to shame someone, even if they ask something silly, and particularly if you can tell they have realized their blunder. There are others, though, who don’t care if they are being pushy or rude. One of our children suffers from excoriation disorder, which is a skin picking disorder. She often has open sores on her face and hands which she finds embarrassing. People often ask if she has crashed her bike or gotten in a fight. A campground attendant who thought he was particularly funny once asked her if her dad had hit her for disobeying. He laughed so hard, thinking it was a great joke, while I was quite horrified. Even worse, at a big museum, a staff member working a till at the gift shop asked our daughter if she had fallen off her bike or skateboard. She got nervous and clammed up. The more she stood there, wide-eyed, the more he badgered her: “Well, what happened? Huh? Get in a fight? Fell down? What’s with the bandaids?”

I was making my way over in the very cramped, crowded area when he turned to my son, who was next in line: “What’s the matter with her? What’s on her face? Is it contagious? Is it a disease?” By this time, my daughter was in tears. She threw down the toy she wanted to buy and started walking away. It was heartbreaking. This thick-headed man then started to ask me if she was contagious. People all around were staring. I informed him it was excoriation disorder and if he didn’t know what that was, he could go home and look it up. We left. After that, we gave all of our kids permission to use that line and it has worked really well to stop nosy people. It helps immensely to give your children of adoption one-liners to use if there are common problems with people asking things about their appearance, ethnicity, or anything else. It gives the child a sense of power and a plan to deal with people that are over the top.

Kids are going to ask your child about their adoption. It will eventually happen. Give your child a firm foundation in who they are so that they can stand up under an unexpected question. Let them know that no matter what, they can talk to you. If someone is asking too much, bullying, or making fun; they need to know you are in their corner! They need to know you will fight for them and defend them—always. Children of adoption have more to deal with than their peers. They have to navigate a complex web of memories, emotions, triggers, and even people from their past and present to come up with who they are today. Sometimes questions about their adoption might hit heavy and cause pain and grief. Other times, they might feel annoyed or angry that people can’t forget or see past their adoption. Some kids don’t want their adoption to define them and feel like people always asking about their past makes them invisible today. Other kids might thrive on talking about their pasts and might genuinely feel seen and heard when people ask them about their journey. 

The important thing to remember is that there is no wrong way for your child to feel on their own unique path. There should be no shame in their responses or feelings about questions; rather, we can say, “Interesting! Why do you think you felt that way?”, and use it as an opportunity to learn. Questions about adoption will surely come, and from the friends of your children and their peers around them, but it doesn’t have to rock their boat or create stormy water. Be ready, and be aware of what is going on. Check in often, and give your child the words and tools they need to speak in love and boldness about who they are.