Question: For adoptive families who do not have contact with birth families due to a variety of situations — perhaps their child was adopted internationally or through a relinquished/closed domestic infant adoption, and they did not receive much if any info about the child’s birth family — what would you recommend for how to raise their child and talk about their adoption story, knowing that they do not know much about their child’s past and there is no contact with the birth family? What issues should parents and professional look out for, and how can we all best support these kids?
— Kim, adoption professional
Guest advising today is Gayle Swift, founding member of GIFT, Growing Intentional Families Together. Gayle is an author, coach, and adoptive mom to two grown children.
Counterbalance Fantasy with a Cohesive Narrative
Dear Kim: It’s so great that you’re looking out for your clients and their children. As we know, children yearn to hear their story. They hunger for details—large and small—and seek affirmation of their pre-adoption life experiences. We must honor and share their journey.
When information about a child’s history is absent or incomplete, through a combination of detective work and supposition parents must piece together a cohesive narrative of the child’s pre-adoption life. In the absence of facts, children will develop fantasies. Wild fantasies. All kids do this but it may lock them in a negative perception and prevent them from moving forward. We must counterbalance their fantasy with their truth. This can be done with compassion, respect, and validation for what our children have faced.
Release Shame with Light and Like
Talking about the people and events from their past helps children process early experiences and reduce shame. If not discussed, kids may assume it is too ugly, too shameful, or too much for the family to bear. Retelling their story helps them believe they didn’t deserve and aren’t defined by their past; that they are capable of becoming a loved member of their family; that they aren’t permanently tainted by this adversity; and that we can hear and know their truth and commit to nurturing them through it. We acknowledge and celebrate their capacity to survive. They are the heroes of their life story.
Beth O’Malley, MEd (adoptee/adoptive parent/adoption professional) wrote Lifebooks: Creating a Treasure for the Adopted Child, which is filled with practical suggestions, templates and sample pages for telling the child’s story. The lifebook differs from your child’s adoption story because it begins before the adoption. It is based on the facts—and/or the best suppositions of the circumstances—of your child’s life. (Clearly distinguish between facts and guesses. This avoids a breach in trust when the child discovers the fiction.) Create it as a family project. If documents and photographs aren’t available, illustrate the life book with pictures from magazines.
If you decide to place a positive spin on difficult circumstances and experiences, be careful not to invalidate the truth of the child’s losses. Treat birth parents, relatives, or caretakers with respect. Distinguish them from any bad choices or actions. Some international histories include abandonment. Mention how other countries have cultural practices and rules different from those in the US. Explain how difficult, unsafe circumstances, lack of resources, skills, family/friends to help their birth parents made it impossible to safely parent any child. Emphasize that it was not the child’s fault in any way. For more on life books read Beth’s post on difficult adoption topics.
Children’s books showcase others who face similar circumstances and thus make kids feel less alone. Books are a powerful resource that should reflect your child’s particular experiences—or as close as is possible. For international adoptees consider Kids like Me in China by Ying Ying Fry and Three Names of Me by Mary Cummings. Both explore the cultural/political/economic factors that can result in a child’s adoption. They address them with empathy and without judgment.
Keep adoption books accessible so your child can raise the subject simply by plucking the book of their shelf. This is easier for them than asking permission to discuss difficult stuff. They can also revisit the book privately whenever they want. Kids need frequent reassurance that it’s okay to discuss adoption (including both gains and losses.) Parents should routinely suggest adoption books but tune into a child’s mood; never force adoption conversations.
Story telling connects a child to his entire story — the happy, sad and the ugly. Connecting with Kids through Stories by Denise B. Lacher offers strategies for parents to become agents of healing their child through therapeutic narratives. Stories are told in the third person, through a character whose history mirrors the child’s actual life experiences. (This allows the child to listen and absorb the story without feeling threatened or judged.). Read more about this resource.
Finally, your relationship with your child is the most important thing. Even when the truth is painful either because of what is known or what remains unknown or unknowable, always be truthful.
Gayle is a co-founder of GIFT Family Services, an organization that provides coaching services to families before, during and after adoption. She writes two blogs: Growing Intentional Families Together,which discusses coaching strategies for adoptive parents, and Writing to Connect, which reviews books through an adoption-attuned lens. With her (adopted) daughter, Casey, Gayle co-authored the award-winning picture book, ABC, Adoption and Me: A Multicultural Picture Book. Look for Gayle on Twitter and Facebook.
My 2 cents
Share What you Do Know. As Gayle suggests, give your child his/her story in an age-appropriate way, even if you’re delivering a difficult piece of it. Be as matter-of-fact as you can so that your own alarming emotions don’t bleed through. This requires you to identify and resolve your own triggers, as I so often recommend. Emphasize that you will keep your child safe and secure from now on. Forever.
Support your child while she grieves her loss. Whether your child is aggrieved by finding out something or by not being able to find out something, you can’t protect her from all sadness and hurt, nor should you. Instead, you abide. You support. You listen. You empathize. You uphold the probability of resilience. You connect.
The time may come when you can fill in the blanks. The Internet and advances in DNA technologies have made once-impossible connections possible. Your language should be tempered with phrases like, “for now we just don’t know” or “we don’t know what may come, but right now this is what we have.” Leave doors open for discovery.
See also: Withholding Information From Adopted Kids (see especially the comments)
Dear Readers, what say you?
About this Open Adoption Advice Column
- I may occasionally call on others to help with answers, to tap into group wisdom.
- I am not trained as a therapist. Please do not rely on words in this space to make your own major or minor decisions.
- Readers are encouraged to weigh in thoughtfully and respectfully. I ask everyone to remember that this is a teaching endeavor rather than a shaming endeavor, and that we aim to bring light rather than heat. It’s my belief that people do the best they can with what they have to work with, and our goal is to give folks more to work with.
Send in your own open adoption question. I’ll either offer an answer or find someone who can address your issue.