Grade School: Communicating about Adoption

This was taken directly from Child Welfare Information Gateway

Parents who feel good about adoption, are comfortable talking about it, and can openly acknowledge their child’s feelings are best able to help their children do the same. Parents who tense up when the topic is raised or who keep it a secret may send the message that something is wrong with being adopted. This section presents tips for communicating about adoption and recognizing your child’s history in a positive way.

Choose Your Words Carefully

Talk openly and honestly with your school-age child about adoption. However, be aware of the words you use.

Consider the following word choices—

Instead Of: Say:
“Real” mother/father OR “Natural” mother/father Birth mother/father OR First mother/father
We could not have our own baby We could not have a baby born to us
Your birth parents were not able to take care of you. Your birth parents had grown-up problems, so they could not take care of a child.
They gave you up for adoption. They made a plan for you to be adopted.

In communicating with your child:

  • Think about how your words might be understood by your child. Many adoptive parents try to build their child’s self-esteem by saying thing that may seem positive but that can be misinterpreted. For example:
    • "Your birth mom gave you up for adoption because she loved you so much." A child may start to wonder if the adoptive parents also send him or her away because of their love.
    • "You are very lucky to be adopted." Adopted children should not be expected to be grateful to have a family or to be cared for. This can lead to a self-esteem issue (i.e., Why am I less deserving of having a family than other children?)
    • "We chose to adopt you—you are special." Adoptees may later realize the loss that is implied by being "chosen" (they first had to be "unchosen").
  • Do not sugarcoat the adoption experience. Doing so denies children the support they need as they grieve their unique adoption loses. For example, talking only about how wonderful it was for your child to be adopted ignores the fact that gaining your family also means losing the experience of being raised with the birth family. All adoption involves loss.
  • Practice talking about adoption in an adoptive parent support group or with others in your support network, and let them give you feedback.

There are many books, articles, and online resources available to help you and your child learn more about how to communicate sensitively about adoption.

Handle Difficult Information Sensitively

Adoptive parents often try to protect their children from the more painful aspects of their histories. You may wonder what to tell and what to hold back from your child.

Here are some guidelines that can help you handle difficult information:

  • Decide how and when to share difficult information, not if—not telling is not an option. Your child is likely to find out eventually and has a right to his or her own history. You are the best person to give your child the fats and to help him or her understand them.
  • State the truth simply. Do not tell your child details that might be too complex for him or her to understand at this time. Give more information as your child develops and is able to handle more, using age appropriate language. A professional can guide you in this process.
  • Present the facts about your child’s history or birth family without judgmental comments or criticism.
  • Help your child understand that the choices and mistakes birth family members made have no bearing on the child’s value. Explain that the actions of that adult do not mean that they didn’t care for the child.
  • Realize that all adoptive children “own” their birth parents. Criticism of a birth parent will at some point be reflected in how the child feels about him- or herself.

Use a Lifebook

A “lifebook” records your child’s personal history. It contains pictures, objects, news clippings, and other memorabilia that have a personal meaning. A lifebook is an excellent way to preserve information and help your child understand where he or she came from. Use the book to help your child understand more about his or her history and to continue to process losses at each developmental stage. Your child should be involved in helping to create his or her lifebook. Creating this book together is a good way for you to build attachment with your child and demonstrate that you value your child’s important relationships from his or her past.

Here are some tips to help you and your child create a lifebook:

  • Start at the beginning of your child’s story—with his or her birth, not with the adoption. (Some adopted children have thought they were never born.)
  • Gather and preserve as much information as you can about your child’s birth circumstances and birth family, origins, and history.
  • If you don’t have specific information about the birth family, you can still provide information about your child’s birth country, state, city, and/or neighborhood. Do not bake up details you do not have.
  • Present facts simply, in was that the child can understand.
  • Ask birth family members, former caregivers, orphanage staff, and previous caseworkers to gather photos and memorabilia for the book. You can ask the placing agency to help you make contacts.
  • If your child was adopted in another country, include visuals from his or her native country, such as postcards, woven fabrics, popular fold images, native cartoon characters.
  • Make copies of all pictures and protect the pages of the life story book.
  • Allow your child to be involved in creating the book and deciding when and with whom to share it.
  • Update the book together regularly.

Honor People in Your Child’s Past


Find ways to acknowledge and show respect for your child’s birth parents and birth family members:

  • Take the initiative by talking about birth families and prior caregivers: “I bet your birth mother is thinking about you today,” or “I wonder if you miss the people who took care of you before you came here.”
  • Speak kindly of people in your child’s past. Children identify with their birth parents even if they have no contact with them or memory of them. As your child matures, he or she can understand more about his or her birth parents’ weaknesses—the child will not need you to point these out.
  • Resist the temptation to make up information or put a better spin on your child’s history. Highlight the positive without denying reality.
  • Offer an alternate viewpoint if your child criticizes his or her birth parents (“Your mom was a victim herself” or “Your dad was too young to make good

judgments”). Your child’s attachment to you is strengthened by your show of respect for the family he or she came from.

In an open adoption, there is some level of contact with birth family members or with previous foster parents or caregivers. Contact can vary, from exchanging letters and photos through a third party (often an agency), to face-to-face visits. Contact with the birth family or others from the past helps the adopted child understand his or her history. It promotes identity development, self-esteem, and attachment to the adoptive family. As with any extended family relationship, there may be inconveniences and challenges. Handle these with sensitivity and respect. Seeing that you value his or her birth relatives or previous caretakers will help your child feel better about him- or herself and closer to you.

For children with no birth family contacts, you can:

  • Show your interest in finding as much information about your child’s past as you can.
  • For transracial or transcultural adoptions, help your child learn about his or her race or birth country—its culture, history, language, and current events. Attend adoption or culture camps, participate in events in your child’s community of origin, and/or build relationships with adults from your child’s racial or ethnic background.
  • For intercountry adoptions, learn with your child about the food, history, and traditional dress of his or her country of origin. Find activities you can do together, such as making a flag from that country. If possible, plan a future family trip to the child’s homeland. Many placing agencies and adoption organizations arrange homeland trips.

Incorporate Adoption Into Family Rituals

School-age children who have been adopted enjoy special family rituals to honor and remember their past and celebrate adoption. Creating your own adoption rituals can be a shared family activity. Here are some ideas:

  • Adoptive families can honor birth parents and grandparents on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day with special prayers, cards, or candle-lighting ceremonies.
  • Adoption anniversaries can be acknowledged with special meals or events.
  • Holidays or significant events of a child’s birthplace can be celebrated (for example, the date your child’s country of origin recognizes its own independence day, thanksgiving, or the new year).

Help Your Child Cope with Loss and Trauma

You may need to help your child cope with adoption-related grief and loss or past trauma. Here are some ways you can promote communication and acknowledge your child’s feelings.

  • Address the issue early. Do not wait for your child to bring up the subject of adoption, express sadness about his or her family history, or start missing birth family members. Even if your child never mentions his or her birth parents, most adopted 6- to 12-year-olds have frequent thoughts about them. If you are open and matter-of-fact about the subject, it will help your child feel more comfortable, too.
  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings. They are a normal part of coming to terms with adoption. Tell your child that it is natural for adopted children to think about their birth families and to feel sadness about the loss of family members or unknown family histories.
  • Resist the urge to rush in and cheer up a grieving child. You cannot take away the losses of adoption. Just as children need the chance to learn and develop in their own ways, they need to work through grief and loss issues. You can help your child be being supportive. (“You seem sad. I wonder if you are thinking about your birth [or other] family.”) Efforts to lessen their pain, on the other hand, can make children question the value of their feelings and reduce their confidence in their abilities to cope.
  • Interact with your child according to his or her emotional needs, not the child’s age. Help your child express sadness in the manner that best fits his or her stage of emotional development. A school-aged child may need to sob like a toddler and to be held and comforted like one.

It’s also important to remember that not all issues and emotions will be related to adoption. Some will arise from your child’s unique personality or developmental challenges.

Address Adoption-Related Fears and Fantasies

Children who have experienced the loss of at least one family or home may be fearful of losing another. Fears may take the form of sleeping or eating difficulties, nightmares, separation difficulties, nervousness, and even increased allergies and illnesses. To lessen fears:

  • Reassure your child that you intend to be his or her parent forever. Demonstrate this in both words and actions.
  • Engage the child in planning future family events (e.g., “Next Thanksgiving, would you like to…?”).
  • Purchase a photo album with spaces designated for school photos and memorabilia all the way through high school.

All children fantasize about an alternate family life—a “real” mother who never reprimands, a father who is a famous person. Sometimes adopted school-age children use fantasy to attempt to undo their losses. They may imagine their birth parent returning for them, or the adoption agency calling to report that they mistakenly placed the wrong child. To address fantasies:

  • Encourage your child to talk about fantasies and express his or her feelings about adoption.
  • Reassure your child that it is normal for adopted children to imagine what their lives might have been like had they not been adopted. Point out that everyone, adopted or not, does this occasionally. (“I wonder what would have happened if I had… [gone to a different college, taken another job, been born into another family].”)

Continue to Grade School: Improving Your Child's School Experience or Adoption Parenting


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