Dear Adoptive Parents,
If you have found your way to this article, you have some curiosity about what is meant by the question in the title: are you listening? Well, are you? During your journey as an adoptive parent, have you listened to your child in times both good and bad—even when their words were devastating to hear? While this may be a jarring question to start off with, it is a necessary one. Listening is a key part of being a parent in any case, but, with adoptees, listening is everything. Being listened to tells us our thoughts are validated, we are being heard, and someone in the world wants to hear what we have to say. Below we’ll go through some pieces of advice for adoptive parents to help guide you through your adoption journey with your child.
Piece of Advice #1: Adoptees all have different journeys; none of us are the same.
No two people are the same, so no two adoptees will react the same way to being adopted. The challenge is being able to understand how your adoptee feels. There are certain expectations and assumptions some people have of adoptees that may not be true for all of us. And some that, in fact, aren’t realistic to begin with. In addition, every adoptee’s journey in life is different. Some may have had what people call a happy childhood while others were subjected to abuse, neglect, and sadness. We are a diverse community of adoptees, being raised by a diverse community of adoptive parents.
Piece of Advice #2: Develop your own set of beliefs about how adoptees react to being adopted based on your experience with your child.
Many adoptive parents going through the adoption process are told things, by a number of sources—many of which are not adoptees. Not only does this leave adoptees out of the picture, but it also exposes adoptive parents to potentially harmful information. Perhaps the most harmful information is the kind that instills faulty expectations of how adoptees are supposed to react towards being adopted. These expectations and behaviors are ones adoptees are often expected to adhere to, and they do more harm than good regardless of our personal journey with adoption. When you think about it, such expectations really aren’t good for anyone.
One of the most prevalent expectations is that all adoptees should be grateful they were given a chance at life; that they weren’t aborted, and they have been awarded the opportunities they otherwise would never have had. The “gratefulness concept” is an unfair expectation to put on a person who did not choose how they were raised. However, please know that while the world may expect us to be grateful, and while we really don’t favor the concept of being told how to feel towards our family, most of us are very, very grateful.
Piece of Advice #3: Adoption is TRAUMA. But, not always in a bad way.
Specifically with adoptive parents of infants, they are usually given traditional advice by adoption agencies or the legal system. A frequent example of this is that the child is a “blank slate,” free from any similarities or characteristics to their biological family. I’m not sure about you, but this doesn’t really make sense, does it? An adopted child is brought into the world like any other child; the only difference is we don’t go home with the biological mother who gave birth to us. So, even if there is no difference in delivery, how can a child suddenly be void of all the characteristics they would have retained otherwise?
Because of this odd and outdated education that is given to adoptive parents, they are sometimes shocked when their child starts to exhibit unexpected behavior as they grow. Speaking from personal experience, behaviors can range from simply inquiring about our biological family and expressing interest in learning our history, to having trouble bonding (usually with our adoptive mother) and a struggle with identity.
Also, you have to realize the abnormality of adoption in a psychological and biological sense. Without diving too deep into the science of it, it’s clear to see that when a child is separated from its biological mother it is not a normal situation. Growing up, this child may never see anyone that looks like them or shares similar qualities with them. Most people take for granted that they can look back at family photo albums and notice the genetic characteristics they share with their ancestors. Adoptees don’t get to do this. By the time many of us are able to trace down our biological family (which can be hard for some) family members have passed away or photo albums have been lost. All of this, of course, is based on whether our biological families want to have anything to do with our journey. The lifelong psychological impact this has is profound; chances are, adoptees won’t realize this impact until they are much older. Hence, we are not able to verbalize the turmoil and confusion we are experiencing.
To clarify, it is not the adoptive parent’s fault (in most cases) that they believe their child is a “blank slate” because they were adopted. This parenting is a result from an archaic and an overly private adoption system that is almost a century old. Thankfully, more adoption agencies, adoption professionals, and parenting resources are updating their advice to adoptive parents. In addition, more adoptees are advocating for themselves and sharing their stories. Recent adoptions, therefore, are receiving much more relevant information.
There are many resources available for adoptive parents and adoptees, such as books or blogs that share what it’s like to be an adoptee. This website, Adoptee Reading, provides a comprehensive list of books about adoption for all ages. You could find books to read to your children who were adopted. Or you could find books meant to help adoptive parents learn more about what it’s like to be an adoptee. All books on this website are either written or recommended by adoptees.
My best piece of advice to adoptive parents is to read everything you get your hands on, and talk to as many adoptees as you can find willing to tell their story. The more first-hand accounts you can get about the other side of the equation, the better. In my opinion, it breaks down the barriers between the psychological turmoil many adoptees keep secret from their parents for fear of hurting them and the adoptive parent, who most likely has no clue their child is hurting.
Piece of Advice #4: Just listen and be honest. That’s all.
For most of us adoptees, having someone who is willing to listen to our story without criticizing, assuming, or judging us is rare. A lot of this stems from the aforementioned expectations of how an adoptee is supposed to react to being adopted. Adoptees who don’t fit these expectations—which is a good majority of us—really aren’t taken seriously. If an adoptive parent only retains one thing from this article, it should be to just listen. Listen to your child with an unbiased and a nonjudgmental ear, even if it’s about a sensitive topic.
Some things your child may bring up could be surprising to hear, such as a young child inquiring about their biological family or the details about their adoption. There are ways adoptive parents can explain adoption to their children without placing emphasis on negative or traumatizing pieces of their story. Perhaps the most important piece of advice in relation to this would be to never, ever keep your child’s adoption a secret from them. While in transracial or transnational adoptions this simply isn’t possible, I have heard on many occasions that a child will find out they were adopted as a teenager, or even as an adult; as expected, the effects are devastating. As the old saying goes, honesty is always the best policy.
Because some adoptees have difficulty bonding with their adoptive family, I cannot stress enough the importance of simply listening and providing honesty and love to your child. As you might expect, the more you listen to your child about things that are bothering them, the more your child will trust you with their deep emotions. Instead of responding with something like, “Why are you upset about this? You have a family,” listen to them without attempting to correct or question how they are feeling. The more you do this, the more your child can trust you, and the stronger bond you will have.
I started inquiring about my biological family in my early childhood (around 5-6 years old). Being a transracial adoptee in a White family, there was no hiding the fact I was adopted. My adoption story is quite cut-and-dry, nothing out of the ordinary. However, the story behind my biological family is nothing short of complicated. Many stories, of which probably should not be told to a young child, my parents couldn’t tell me because I was so young. Instead, they took the time to tell me everything they could in an appropriate way. I was shown my first picture of my biological mother at age 9 or 10. As I became a teenager and more curious about my family history, I was told the full story behind my adoption as my adoptive parents knew it. Looking back, words cannot express how much this influenced my experience as an adoptee. While I still experienced the psychological trauma that most adoptees do, I felt much more secure knowing I was always given the truth about my birth. In my adoptee journey, there were no secrets, no lies, and no conspiracies to keep me from the information that was rightfully mine to know.
My adoptive dad has always given me the best advice.However, his most important piece of advice was to live by the tenants of the Scout Law: be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, kind, courteous, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. He learned them from my grandparents, who were good, loving, Christian people who always served everyone else before themselves. My dad went over these principles every morning as he drove me to school, from kindergarten to my senior year of high school. This gave me an education I would not fully appreciate until I became an adult myself. They have had a significant impact on not only how I treat others, but also on how I view my adoption. I can see how each of these qualities were reflected in my adoption journey and my adoptive parents’ attitudes when handling all different types of situations relating to it. I recommend a life lived by the Scout Law to everyone, but adoptive parents should especially learn them well and use them. You have no idea how something as simple as a list of words can make a large impact on your child’s life.
Contrary to popular belief, adoption isn’t always pretty. It’s a hard, troubled journey. Nevertheless, with a combination of truth, love, and a listening ear, it can be one of the most beautiful things a family may ever experience. By just being a good parent and a good human being, you can set your child on a good path and let them find comfort in knowing they were given their truth—a privilege many adoptees never get to know.
One More Thing…
Finally, I want to say thank you. Thank you to all the adoptive parents who are supportive, cautious, gentle, understanding, patient, and loving. Thank you for standing by our sides despite all the tumultuous times we’ve experienced as adoptees. Thank you for educating yourselves on what it’s like to be an adoptee. You are learning more about what it’s like to be in the other corner of the triad, and that has a greater impact than you may notice right now. You’re making the triad stronger; we are becoming one in heart. So, most importantly, thank you for listening and hearing.
(This article is based on personal experience and continued exchanges of stories with other adoptees throughout my lifetime.)