Helping children make sense of a painful birth history


P'nina Shames
Focus on Adoption magazine

1. Be proactive—use the "A" word from the moment your child comes home, even if he or she is pre-verbal. Seek opportunities to talk about adoption—movies, books, other families connected to adoption, and your child’s own adoption story at an age-appropriate level.

2. Connect the positive qualities in your child with their birth parents—even if you know nothing about them; for example, "I wonder if your birthmom/birthdad has your beautiful voice."

3. Get clear on your own feelings about the tough parts of your child’s pre-placement history. Do your own work first, and get to neutral, so that you don’t inject negative feelings as you talk with your child about his or her adoption story. Best advice: start working on this well before your child comes home!

4. Start simple and move to the more complex; start with the general and move to the specific:

  • Birth to three years old: it’s sufficient to refer to adoption and simply relate the fact that your child was adopted. Use positive adoption language. If adopted from somewhere else, use the name of that place. Share simple information about the culture, how people look, etc. Start building your child’s Lifebook.
  • From four years old to school age (about 10): children start becoming emotionally sensitive to differences, sometimes with pride and sometimes with shame. Share pieces of your child’s story, or lack of information, at times when emotions are neutral—not when they’re charged. Help your child talk about feelings: mad, sad, bad, glad and curious are simple feeling words that work.
  • Between 10 or 12 years old: your child should have all the facts, the whole story, before onset of adolescence. Fill in all the gaps before your child begins to form his or her identity. Hearing tough information at the same time as the onset of sexuality and puberty is poor timing.

5. Seek opportunities to converse and discuss. Be prepared for the occasional meltdown. Your child having the whole story is not necessarily the end of the conversation.

6. Never lie to your child about his or her past or a birth family member. The information is not yours to modify or withhold.

7. Consider using a skilled, adoption-sensitive third party to help you plan how you will relate particularly difficult information such as rape, incest, abandonment, or sexual abuse, to your child.

8. Allow your child to feel and express their feelings toward birth family members. Normalize these feelings, but don’t join in. Your neutrality will help your child know that you are able to keep him or her safe while being supportive and comforting. Know that behind anger is pain.

9. You can’t take your child’s pain away. You can support them through it, but not away from it. In this regard, your own value judgments and opinions are best left as your private information, rather than imposed on your child.

10. Your child may know more than you think. Waiting for the "right moment" to share information may result in your child getting that information from other sources without your knowledge, or your support. Pre-verbal experiences may be retained as unspoken memories, flashbacks, or somatic symptoms in need of clarification and elucidation.

11. Your child has the right to choose whether to share his or her story outside the immediate family. You can help your child develop a short, simple version of his or her story that feels comfortable and preserves privacy. Help your child understand that sometimes people who don’t have experience with adoption might ask questions that seem "weird." Help your child develop a comfortable response to these comments.

12. No matter how painful the pre-placement circumstance, your child has survived, and exhibited strengths, abilities, talents, character, assets and gifts. From pain and loss come depth, resilience and creativity. Rejoice in this together!

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