The thought of sitting down and talking to tweens (aka pre-teens) about, well, any subject, can feel daunting to “tw-parents” (try and say that three times fast). I don’t think anyone would argue this point (especially with a 10 to 12-year-old because you would most certainly lose). From learning to navigate outside influences and social pressures to pushing back against in-home authority to making sense of changing hormones to weeding through the “Who am I?” phase that seems to spike up toward maturity and down toward single-digit silliness (sometimes all at once)—the struggle tweens face hanging onto and letting go of childhood is real and really awkward. That said, parents, you don’t get a free pass when it comes to talking to your tween about adoption, so prepare thyself and buckle up.
There’s no denying that talking to an adopted child about adoption at any age is an important, if not crucial, factor that plays into a healthy understanding of what being an adoptee actually means. As noted in the Adoption.com article “Talking To Your Child about Adoption From Day One,” “When it comes to telling your child his adoption story, there’s no such thing as too soon.”
Just as our children are always growing and changing, the way we speak to our children throughout their growth and development also must evolve.
While tweens may seem a little difficult to understand in the course of any given day, what comes next—the teen years—is often considered to be the Cadillac of hard ages to parent. It can prove especially difficult during these years to connect with your child if you haven’t laid a strong foundation. That said, it’s been recommended to me by professionals, friends, and fellow adoptive parents to jump on the chance to really delve into adoption during the tween years, while the channels of communication are still open and kids are more apt to listen and receive information before the, “You don’t know what you’re talking about” years fully kick in.
Why It’s Important
Talking about adoption with your tween is important for many reasons. The most obvious being that your child is adopted and it’s your job to be there for him if and when he has any questions about his adoption or about adoption in general.
Not talking about adoption sends a message that either you’re uncomfortable with the subject matter or it’s not important to you. You better believe that tweens (and children of all ages) will receive this unspoken message and respond accordingly by not talking about adoption either. At the same time, a common message relayed by adoption professionals to parents is to be open and ready to discuss adoption with your child only if and when he approaches you, sharing and offering only what he has inquired about and letting him take the lead in the conversation.
Talking about adoption or even just letting your tween know that you are there and ready whenever they want to talk about adoption a little bit or even a lotta bit should bring comfort as she’ll know she has someone to come to. Helping your tween come to terms with what adoption means for him, answering questions, serving as a listening board to his feelings of confusion, hurt, or even anger can result in your child feeling more secure and building a sense of self and self-confidence to carry him throughout his life.
As the adoption conversation is part of our family dynamic and has never been a taboo subject in our home (and my kids know it’s always a conversation I’m willing to have if and when they want to), I’ve found that advice to be solid over the years. However, I’ve also been known to sprinkle in opportunities for my kids to talk about adoption rather than waiting for them to make that first move, which can be tricky for kids at any age. I have been known to gently bring up the topic when the subject is timely or relevant to something else going on in our/their lives. And so, in that regard, I guess I don’t fully follow the rule.
What to Talk About
Some things that your tween may bring up may throw you for a loop if you’re unprepared to discuss them. (It’s okay, though, if you’re not prepared, but make an effort to learn what you don’t know.) Adoptive parents should research adoption early and often (ahead of the adoption, really) to ensure that they are armed with the knowledge you’ll need to support your adopted child from infancy to adulthood. Some common topics that come up may include:
Birth parents. It’s inevitable that at some point in your child’s life, she will think about her birth family. While every situation and every child is different, it’s understandable and normal that an adopted child would be curious about her roots and where she came from and from who she came.
What you are able to talk about may be dependent on how much you know. And sometimes the details may be too deep for a tween to understand or grasp. In closed adoptions, birth parent information can be even harder to come by. Be open and honest about this. Do not go out of your way to create a scenario for your child that you know nothing about. Presenting what you do have rather than guessing about what you don’t know will most certainly be more accepted and build trust between you and your tween in the long run.
Searching. Between ancestry registries, search engines, search angels, and social media—the truth is out there (X-Files reference, anyone?). Be prepared to speak to your tween about the search process—the pros and the cons. While some adoptees choose to search, some do not.
Anxiety of permanence. On any given day, your tween may experience friend makeups and breakups. The school cafeteria can be a terrifying place depending on who is sitting at the table and who decides to be whose friend (or not). Tweens may feel slightly unbalanced at this time in their lives when loyalties seem to change faster than a “that’s so yesterday” viral meme. You may find your child expressing anxiety as to the permanence of their place in your family. More so than bring this up to you over dinner, they may act out in not so nice ways to test your loyalty and love for them. Tweens tend to push their parents’ buttons as a sport. Try not to take the bait and instead, take the opportunity to talk to your child about love, commitment, and trust. Allow your tween to express her concerns, but assure her that no matter what happens outside of your home, she will always be a loved member of your family.
Fitting in. At home. At school. Don’t be surprised if your child indicates that they don’t feel like they fit in at home or at school. First of all, it’s pretty normal for kids—adopted or not—to feel this way at all stages of development. Tack on the issue of adoption and you may find that your child is not just searching for her place in general, but her place within her adopted family. By now, kids understand the family tree and relationships. They may have even been asked to create a family tree as a school project. There is one great big distinction between a non-adoptive family tree and an adoptive family tree and that is blood relations. By starting adoption conversations early and often, you can help to make sense of things by explaining that blood does not always a family make and that families come to be in all sorts of non-traditional ways, including through adoption. True story.
Race matters. Transracial adoptees often carry some extra weight when it comes to feeling different and rightfully so. Although it’s a well-meaning decision that many parents hold in choosing not to “see color,” these differences are real and there is strength in accepting what makes us different rather than pretending there are none. In fact, many adoptees would voice feelings of frustration at sweeping under the rug the very thing that makes them unique.
And while it goes against most tweens’ desire to stand out in any way at an age where fitting in is everything, nurturing a feeling of acceptance at home can go a long way in bolstering self-esteem. Children tend to notice their differences, be it hair color, skin color, or physical features very early on. You can help to make this conversation less awkward by reinforcing how and why their culture, ethnicity, and ancestry is something to be proud of. Take time to learn about your child’s heritage and culture. Do research on famous people and role models your child may be interested in knowing more about. Counteract the idea that looking different or being different is a bad thing by sharing with your child the things she should be proud of.
The future. By now, mom or dad, you should know better than anyone how quickly time passes. And while it’s fun to reminisce about days gone by, all of us, our tweens included, always have an eye toward the future. By cultivating and maintaining open communication with your child early on, you are offering to them a safe platform on which to turn with questions and concerns about their future as an adopted child.
While it can sometimes prove difficult to communicate with our children, especially with life’s deeper conversations, it’s a necessity and a privilege that you accepted the day you decided to become an adoptive parent. Be a resource, support system, and guide for your child and you won’t regret it.
Tips for Talking with Tweens
– You know your child better than anyone else—even if they tell you differently. By now, you are most likely familiar with their tells, their moods, their schedules, and their triggers. Take advantage of this parental intel before jumping into deep discussion. In other words, if your tween comes home from school angry at the world because of the unfairness of fifth grade, teary-eyed due to a lunch table blow up, or doe-eyed over the new kid on the block—they are probably well into tuning you out and it’s probably not the best time to engage in heavy conversation.
– When they are not otherwise immersed in the drama of it all, assure your tween that what you discuss is a two-way street rather than a one-sided parental lecture or tutorial. Honestly, if you’re not willing to hear what your tween thinks or has to say, there’s probably no point in bringing it up.
– Think about where you have your best heart-to-hearts. Does your daughter tend to open the communication floodgates when you drive her to dance or home from soccer? Does the calmness of bedtime offer the best time to reflect on how your child is doing and feeling? Does your best mutual sharing occur on the fly in between activities or when he’s raiding the fridge? Does your son tend to speak more after that third afternoon snack and just before dinner? However and wherever works best, do make this important discussion a one-on-one and do realize that it should be a continuous conversation rather than a one-time offer.
– There is nothing more distracting or a buzzkill to a tween conversation than sibling interference. Tweens tend to shut right down if they feel what they’re saying may be made fun of or misunderstood by a third party. Step outside together, close the door, put your phone away (and make sure she puts her devices away), and spend some quality time discussing an important topic together. Let your child know that you understand how important this is to him by letting him know how important it is to you, too.
– Be respectful and demand respect. While it’s impossible to be completely politically correct and edit yourself to ensure you don’t do or say something that may hit a nerve, parents need to lead by example. By respecting adoption and all of its potential hot buttons, you are conveying to your child that it’s okay to stumble through a conversation so long as your intentions are good. The way you talk about adoption and the way you react to others who talk about adoption will be reflected in the way your child talks about adoption and reacts to others who talk about adoption. The Adoption.com article “What You Need To Know About Talking About Adoption | Positive Adoption Language” provides a sampling of adoption language that has been updated to provide more accuracy and sensitivity.
– Remember, this is about your child, not you. Well, okay, it’s also about you, but it’s mainly about your child—the adoptee. It’s important to let your child not just hear, but be heard. To understand that her thoughts, feelings, and opinions do matter and that you do hear her and will apply what she has to say to your parenting and to your relationship in general.
Resources and Help
Chances are, if you make yourself available, keep an open line of communication, and prepare yourself to support your tween, talking about adoption should come naturally. That’s not to say that every conversation will be easy. Just know that nobody expects you to have all the answers, everybody is different, and every adoption story is different. Don’t get discouraged if things don’t go as planned.
Pactadopt.org offers links to helpful videos, articles, and books dealing with adolescence and adoption. The Adoption.com article “Resources To Help Support Adoptees” also provides a list of books geared toward tweens and teens as well as general resources for adoptive parents and adoptees.
If you sense your tween is struggling about adoption or anything else, it’s okay to reach out for help! Psychology Today’s “Let’s Talk Tween” blog helps you to find a therapist in your area simply by entering your City or Zip!
Visit Adoption.com’s photolisting page for children who are ready and waiting to find their forever families. For adoptive parents, please visit our Parent Profiles page where you can create an incredible adoption profile and connect directly with potential birth parents.