What to Say When You Honestly Don’t Know?

Answers to adoption questions are rarely black and white.

Susan Kuligowski February 11, 2019
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I find from talking with other adoptive families that parents oftentimes feel a special responsibility to know exactly what to say to everyone and anyone regarding all things related to adoption—even when you honestly don’t know. Sometimes, it’s a comment lobbed at you from an acquaintance or even a stranger on the street. Sometimes it’s a family member or friend who is interested in learning more. Other times it’s your daughter asking about something intimate regarding her adoption that you hadn’t anticipated having to respond to as rushing out the door to work first thing in the morning.

While it’s a normal reflex to want to have a response at the ready, the truth is, although we may be living it, we’re not adoption encyclopedias. And no matter how many books, blogs, and articles we may have read, answers to adoption questions are rarely that black and white.

Over the years, I’ve discovered three truths:

1. You aren’t responsible to respond to all of the comments all of the time.

2. You won’t always have the answers to many of the questions at a moment’s notice.

3. You don’t have to know just what to say; you just have to be honest.

So while it’s easy enough and perfectly acceptable to put off the acquaintance or outright ignore the stranger and to edit your responses to family and friends to that of a need-to-know basis, talking to your kids about adoption is a different story. There is an expectation and a different pressure to respond accordingly that can sometimes bottleneck an otherwise great opportunity for an open discussion. As a result, children may mistake a parent’s hesitation to say the wrong thing for an unwillingness to want to talk about adoption when really, the parent may simply be scrambling for the right words, or in some cases, any words.

Although we brought the adoption conversation into our family as soon as the girls came into our family, it’s no surprise that their questions have become more thoughtful and deeper as the years have passed, and knowing how to respond can prove tricky.

I’ve accepted the go-to tip of letting an adopted child “lead the discussion” and answering only what they’ve asked rather than diving into details that may not be age-appropriate. I’ve found, for the most part, it is good advice. And while it makes sense to allow your child to be comfortable in the driver’s seat, it can be difficult at times to know if the time is right to push the pedal or if it’s better to slow your roll when other topics and feelings come up as the result of a basic question like, “Why did you want to adopt me again?”

My girls have told me many times that they appreciate my honesty and willingness to talk about and make their adoption stories part of our family story, and I’ve never seen it any other way. In truth, adoptive parents have their own experiences, stories, worries and concerns, too, so why would we discount the experiences, stories, worries, and concerns of our children? Still, that doesn’t mean parents need to lay all the cards on the table, especially if your gut is telling you you’re stepping into potentially uncomfortable territory best treaded lightly. Not uncomfortable as in, Oh no, they’re not going to like what I say, but rather, I don’t want to hurt or scare them with something they may not be mature enough to understand or confuse them if I don’t have all the answers myself.

On the other hand, being overly guarded or waiting for the perfect time to talk about certain topics can lead to awkward and more complicated conversations later on. Instead of overthinking what could go wrong, consider keeping communication open, even if it leads to a few dead-end discussions or “to be continueds” in order to prevent awkward and more complex conversations down the road when your child’s life becomes more awkward and complicated all on its own due to school, puberty, and everything else that plays into growing up. Like any parent-child relationship, adopted or not, communication is essential if you’re at all interested in having a parent-child relationship past the time they no longer view you as Superwoman.

We’ve definitely had conversations and questions that have left me slightly bug-eyed, scratching my head to respond on the spot. Over time, I’ve gone from stammering to protecting the feelings of all involved to the following: “Honey, I honestly don’t know”; “I don’t know how to answer that question right now”; “Let me look into that”; “I’m not sure”; and “Maybe someday we can find out together.”

Because there are times that I honestly don’t know and or don’t feel comfortable speaking for a member of their birth family whom I’ve never met, or don’t know why someone made the decision that they did, or don’t know why sad things happen to some people and not others.

And because there has never been a topic I’ve shut down or haven’t responded to, we’ve been able to build a bond and a trust that goes both ways. My girls know that I would never lie to them, and being the super sleuths they are, they’d smell one a mile away even if I tried. They also understand that even not-so-Super mom might not have the answers to everything and that’s okay, too, so long as we address the fact that these are legitimate thoughts and concerns going on in their heads and that they are perfectly okay to think and feel them. And because they’re okay with me not knowing what to say when I honestly don’t know, our conversations don’t have to end, or worse yet, never begin. We work with what we’ve got. Being human, being family, and being part of the adoption triad is not always easy, but being honest and acknowledging what you don’t know is the best answer 100% of the time.

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Susan Kuligowski

Sue Kuligowski is a staff storyteller at Adoption.com. The mother of two girls through adoption, she is a proposal coordinator, freelance writer/editor, and an adoption advocate. When she's not writing or editing, she can be found supervising sometimes successful glow-in-the-dark experiments, chasing down snails in the backyard, and attempting to make sure her girls are eating more vegetables than candy.


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