In her workshop "Answering Your Child’s Questions about Adoption," Lois Melina stressed that adoptive parents must commit to speaking openly with their children. Adoption is a significant event in the lives of families and connects them through shared memories and histories.
Melina also emphasized that adoptive children deserve to hear about their backgrounds in a loving way. This reduces feelings of abandonment or rejection. She cautioned that if parents try to hide the facts, their children are likely to hear them from someone else.
Knowing when to begin discussing adoption with our children is not always easy. Melina believes that creating an atmosphere where parents and children can speak openly is paramount. This allows children to experience a range of emotional reactions. Parents should begin discussing the child’s story, and family stories, as soon as possible and in age-appropriate ways.
To structure a story so that it is age appropriate, Melina advised using our intuition, what the child can understand, and what the child can handle, as guides. She also recommended that parents seize opportunities that present themselves. When tucking a child in at night a parent can say "I’m so glad we adopted you. I’m so glad you’re a part of our family."
As the child grows older, more information and detail can be added to their story, even if the facts are unsettling, as in the case of drug addiction or rape. Parents can talk about the emotions of the event and those of the birth parents (if this information is known). In this way the adoptive parent is setting a tone: the child learns that there was a problem with the birth parents’ situation, but not with the child.
Melina emphasized that birth fathers should also be mentioned because if left out of the story the child will fill in the blanks, and often incorrectly. She said some children mistakenly believe that the adoptive father is also the birth father.
For those adoptive parents who only have sketchy information, saying what one believes to be the case is helpful: "This is what we think happened," or "This is what happens in China." In this way, the child at least has a part of the story. Moreover, small pieces of information can be a clue to follow up on later.
In the child’s early years parents worry about how to tell certain information. Melina believes that the important thing is to begin so that everyone becomes comfortable. Age-appropriate discussions need to occur over the years, but parents should not try to shield their children from painful truths. Children need to know the facts in order to understand the circumstances of their relinquishment and to realize that they are different from their birth parents.
From adopted adults we have learned that they want to know everything about their backgrounds. When information is kept from them, adopted children tend to fill in the blanks and their fantasies are often much worse than the realities.
Around the age of four children begin to ask logical questions such as, "Where did I come from?" or "Did I grow in you?" Melina said that this is a natural opportunity to pass on information. A parent can respond by saying, "You grew inside your birth mother," (give her name if possible) "and then, like all babies, you were born," (information such as the name of the hospital, city, province, country can also be given).
By age seven, children begin to see that their family history is different. They want to know why they were relinquished and realize they have lost some significant people. Even if they do not have a memory of their loss, they start to mourn. Adopted children then work through the stages of grief.
Adoptive parents need to pay attention to and respect the grieving process. Some children will become very anxious if left while parents go out, and act out as a result. Melina counselled that parents may have to say very concretely, "I will be back!"
By ages nine or 10, the child may start to wonder about siblings and other relatives. This gives the parents a natural opening to discuss the child’s biological family. Children are now old enough to understand that good people can do bad things and that can explain why a birth parent is in jail, was abusive, and so forth.
Melina also suggested that there are effective means to communication with our children other than talking. She believes that family rituals such as adoption day parties and remembering birth parents on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, to name a few, are important. Children can be encouraged to write an autobiography on a timeline and parents can then select information to pass on. The autobiography can be used to stimulate thinking or emotional reactions. Keeping a journal is another good activity and parents should give the child guidelines from which to work.
By adolescence, children are thinking in abstract terms and begin to wonder what connects them to their adoptive family. They need to know that they will always be a part of that family even though they are becoming more independent. Finally, Melina stated that by the time they are the age of majority, adopted children should know all there is to know and "be in control of their story."