Talking to Your Child about Adoption
An Interview with Astrid Dabbeni of Adoption Mosaic
At some point every parent will tackle a difficult subject with his or her toddler, the granddaddy of them all being, “Where did I come from?” But for parents of adopted children, the question bears a particular significance, and the answer can be complicated enough to make the boldest parent long for a simple discussion of the birds and bees. When and how should adoptive parents introduce the topic of adoption to their children? Astrid Dabbeni offers some of the fundamentals for navigating those early conversations along with some terrific additional resources. — Gabrielle Pascoe, TMC Web Content Producer
Let’s start with stats:
- How many adopted children are there in the US under 18? According to US census data in 2000, there are 1.6 million adopted children under age 18.
- How many of those are foreign adoptions and how many national? In 2011, there were 9,319 international adoptions according to the US Dept. of State.
- Is there an estimate of how many children are in the foster system and available for adoption in the US today? As of June 2011, there are approximately 408,000 children in foster care in the United States according to the US Dept. of Health and Human Services.
- Age breakdown? The median age of the children in foster care on September 30, 2010, was 9.2 years according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway.
What are the greatest challenges you hear from parents who adopt children? Challenges vary from family to family, but a few common themes we often encounter include:
- How to share difficult information with an adoptee regarding their birth parents such as the birth mother was a victim of rape or was addicted to drugs or alcohol.
- When and how to start talking to adoptees about adoption.
- Challenges related to race in transracial adoptions.
- How to establish and maintain a relationship with an adoptee’s birth family.
What is the best way to bring an adopted child into a new home with existing non-adopted siblings?
Again, every family is different, but open, honest, frequent communication is a must in all adoptive families. You can incorporate non-adopted siblings into your family’s adoption story by talking about what the adoption process was like for them. While waiting for the adoptee to come home, parents and non-adopted siblings can practice the story they are going to tell family and friends about their adoption experience. You can also practice with non-adopted siblings what they want to tell their friends or strangers when they are asked questions about their new family. Openness and practicing helps give non-adopted children guidance about how to include adoption into their own lives and how to talk about adoption to others.
When is the right time to begin talking to an adopted child about where he or she came from? And what do you suggest parents say?
Conversations about adoption and an adoptee’s adoption story should begin as soon as an adoptee is in the home, even if they he or she is just a baby. It is important to begin these conversations as early as possible for the following reasons:
- To normalize feelings – Adoptees can often feel isolated, even from the people who love them most, because of the unique set of emotions that accompanies the adoption experience; joy, but also loss and grief. It is easier for adoptees to recognize their feelings as normal if they participate in regular conversations about adoption. Adoptees may also be more inclined to share their feelings with others if they know they are not the only ones who have particular feelings about being adopted.
- To reduce fantasy – Adoptees who do not know their adoption story will often make up stories that they later can come to believe as fact, sometimes resulting in very disappointing outcomes for the adoptee. For example, a child fantasizes that his birth mother is a famous actress and later finds out she is a waitress.
- It helps to let children know that it is on your mind too – It may be easier for adoptees to talk about their wonderings about their adoption story if you wonder aloud, too. For example, you might see a father and child that resemble one another and ask your adopted child, “I wonder if you and your birth father have the same color eyes, too?”
- To grieve their losses with them – Regardless of the situation adoptees come from or are adopted into, adoptees experience feelings of grief and loss about their adoption. When families practice open, honest, frequent communication with adoptees, adoptees can grieve with people they feel safe with and who love them.
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What is the best way to address physical differences — including racial difference — between members of the family?
If only a “best way” existed! Unfortunately, there is no magic spell to easily address physical and racial differences in adoptive families. However, we recommend you try a few of the following:
- Educate yourself! If you are parenting a child of a different race, make sure you take the time to educate yourself about the history of race in your country, learn to recognize white privilege and how to become an ally to your child color, find out about relevant race-related issues in your community and make connections to communities of color in your area.
- Talk, talk, talk! Just like talking about an adoption story, it is important to have frequent, open communication about differences, especially race. These discussions will give your child the words to communicate his or her experiences and the security of knowing he or she can come to you for support when encountering racism.
- Seeks out others like yourself. Your children will need role models that look like them, but it can also be helpful to your family when they see other families that reflect yours. Many adoptive families have formed social and support groups to build community.
How often do adopted children seek their birth parents later in life? How do you recommend parents handle that?
There are no formally recorded statistics about birth search and reunion, but it is not uncommon for adoptees who are not in an open adoption to search for their birth family at one time or another. For parents, it is important to again exercise open, honest and frequent communication with your child. Talking about an adoptee’s motivations for searching for their birth family may help you address your own fears and insecurities. For example, it is easy for parents to feel that an adoptee is searching for the birth family because he or she does not love his or her adoptive family or wants a “new” family. However, adoptees often attribute their motivation to do a birth search as an individual pursuit to connect to their birth culture or heritage, rather than a reflection of their experience in their adoptive family. Often, adoptees rely on and deeply appreciate the support of their adoptive families when they are in the search or reunion process. Additionally, while it is easy to think of a birth search as an experience that divides an adoptee and his or her adoptive family, when communication is open and parents are supportive, adoptees have reported a feeling of even greater closeness with their adoptive families. Lastly, during their child’s search and/or reunion, parents should find external sources of support. This may include mental health professionals, other adoptive parents or adult adoptees or just a trusted friend. Your child is probably experiencing an emotional roller coaster as well and may not have the emotional strength to support and guide you through the experience, as well.
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What is your most frequent piece of advice to parents of adopted children who might be struggling? And how can parents in the greater community support adoptive families?
We often remind families who are struggling that they are not alone and that it is okay to ask for help. Adoptive parents spend a lot of time and energy during the adoption process convincing adoption agencies and governments that they will be perfect parents, so when parents struggle with common challenges, they may feel reluctant to reach out to their agency for help. If parents don’t feel comfortable going back to their agency, we suggest finding a mental health professional with experience working with adoptive families or a local adoptive family support group. If families are lucky, they might have a non-placement organization like Adoption Mosaic in their area to go to for education, resources, and support.
Parents in the greater community can support adoptive families by being aware that adoptive families often have an added layer of complexity to their life as a family. Asking thoughtful questions and respecting boundaries can help an adoptive family feel at ease. Of course, an open ear and a shoulder to occasionally cry on is a great resource, as well.
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Astrid Dabbeni, Executive Director of Adoption Mosaic, travels the country to lead youth groups and to present workshops on transracial parenting, talking with children about adoption and various others. Her life-long interest in adoption is rooted in her own adoption at the age of four with her older sister from Colombia. Adoption Mosaic is a Portland, OR-based non-profit organization providing educational resources and ongoing support to those whose lives are influenced by adoption.
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